Monologues above a million solitudes

The 2019 Parliamentary Election will surely be a turning point in the UK’s history, but how much has the country itself changed? From the moment the exit poll predicted a Conservative majority, presenters, politicians and analysts scrambled to present a story of transformation, not just in the political landscape, but in people’s values. It’s true that many constituencies in northern England elected Conservative MPs for the first time, and that is a shock as well as a change of political reality. Within hours, a triumphant story was being shaped, in which Boris Johnson figures as the most brilliant and successful Tory politician since Margaret Thatcher. More importantly, more dangerously, a narrative is being spun about a turning point in the nation itself. But the data simply does not bear that out.

On 12 December 2019, 13,966,451 people voted for a Conservative candidate, more than for any other party. Those voters comprised 29% of the registered electors, and 43% of those voted. It is the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system that gave the Conservative party 47 seats and a parliamentary majority. Such anomalies are well known, and often complained of, but they are not my interest now. The data shows something else. Theresa May is widely regarded as a failed prime minister, not least by Conservatives. Johnson replaced her in July 2019 principally because he promised to achieve (‘deliver’, in the political jargon) what she had not. What he delivered, in this election, was 329,767 more votes than Mrs May won in 2017. Johnson benefited principally from a decline in the Labour vote. And yet a 2.36% increase in votes is hailed as a transformation of a party and a country.

Facts wither in the face of stories, like a candle in a headlight beam. The frenetic effort to construct the narrative of recent events is the new battle – whose interpretation will win? Will Britain come to believe it has changed? Probably, as the reality of the new government begins to make the weather. But societies are immensely complex: their members equally so. The 13.9 million must have had many different reasons for voting Conservative, given they were so many. That will not prevent those reasons being interpreted to suit different interests. Politicians and their acolytes will pontificate from their comfortable pulpits, telling us who we are and how we think, plucking mandates from thin air, and interpreting our fears and desires for their own ends. Seeing the new prime minister stand in front of a podium emblazoned with the words ‘The People’s Government’, as if all its predecessors were somehow illegitimate, was a sign of how determined they are to tell us what to think, and how low we have already been brought. In Cultural Amnesia, Clive James quotes a line by Albert Camus

‘Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.’

I can’t find the original, but, even if James misremembered it, the phrase is too good to lose. The speeches of politicians are usually monologues, but in recent years they have been conducted increasingly above our heads, oblivious to our realities and differences. We are told what we think, what we believe. And it is repeated so often and so simply – just three words! –that perhaps we start to believe what we’re told too. The elites do set the weather, and none more than those who pretend they are on the side of the people. So, not for the first time, I’ll turn off the radio and stop listening to the stories spun by politicians. Maybe I’ll spend some time with Cultural Amnesia instead.