Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Johnson/Corbyn: A catastrophe awaits

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — I postponed my trip to London this year, sanguinely believing that I will walk more easily and cope with longer distances by next spring. I feel an intense need to take the trip. The political climate aside, my nostalgia for and loving embrace of London still endures. And at 80 I doubt that there will be many more chances for me to travel to London in the future without great difficulty.

However, I also avidly follow the painful and troubling British political news that I read in The Guardian and hear on BBC with diminished hopes that all will be soon righted.

For the Dickensian, witty, bumbling, hypocritical Boris Johnson's ascent to the premiership portends only more difficult times ahead. He's a man without convictions (shifting on Brexit from opposition to no-deal proponent) who fabricates all the time and often escapes condemnation because it all seems like an insouciant and charming theatrical performance. This product of an Oxford and Eton education talks in glitteringly nebulous details about policy without ever spelling out specifics.

He is never quite earnest — a touch of the ironic and satiric underlying most of his public presentations. His lying was trenchantly eviscerated by the journalist Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times: "There is ordinary political lying — evasions, circumlocutions, omissions, half-truths. And then there is Johnsonian lying — barefaced, full-throated, unabashed. I wonder is this the real mark of how far British political life has fallen: people are so sick of the first kind of dishonesty that they actually find Johnson's upfront mendacity refreshing."


In some ways Johnson — though a classically trained, Latin-speaking elitist who has written a biography of Churchill — is a Trump double. Like Trump he was born into privilege and has reincarnated himself as a larger than life populist who has made the controlling of immigration and the restoration of Great Britain's global power and glory his key issues. Johnson, like Trump, has also had his extramarital affairs, and has emphasized his unease with the changing character of Britain, indulging in racist humor that plays well with much of his white base. In his column in The Daily Telegraph, Johnson wrote that women in burkas look like mailboxes. In another repellent attempt at a joke he said: "the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving picaninnies."

Taking office, Johnson ruthlessly sacked as many as 17 ministers in the outgoing Theresa May cabinet, rewarding loyalty, pro-Brexit, and right wing market commitments, rather than competence. In addition, 64 percent of the ministers he appointed are products of public (private in the UK) schools. And of the 33 cabinet ministers, 45 percent went to Oxford or Cambridge. Summing it up, Labor's shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said Johnson was running a government "of the few, by the few, for the few."

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But if Johnson decides to hold an election soon, the opposition Labor Party is not in a good place. Recent polls have shown Labor slumping behind the centrist and internationalist Liberal Democrats who are unified behind opposition to Brexit. Labor's leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been a reflexively left-wing backbencher since 1983, but given that a large portion of Labor's membership felt unease with Blair's legacy (e.g., his support of George W Bush and the Iraq War), Corbyn was elected leader in 2015. Corbyn, the polar opposite of the centrist Blair politically ("Blairite vermin" is his cohort's term of choice for all party dissenters), did well in the 2017 election, increasing the Party's share of the vote to 40 percent.

He has stumbled since, dealing obtusely with accusations of anti-Semitism by MPs and party members and of supposed anti-Semitic associations before becoming leader. After a too lengthy delay, Corbyn has stated that during "the coming months, the party will produce educational materials on a number of specific forms of racism and bigotry. Our first materials are on anti-Semitism, recognizing that anti-Jewish bigotry has reared its head in our movement."

And his fudging on Brexit — trying to hold the allegiance of Northern working class voters, who support it — has only aroused anger from other sectors of the party. Seeing that he was losing support from a majority of Labor voters, he finally has come out for a second referendum. Given the divisions in the Tory Party, this seems the right moment for Labor, but somehow I have little faith that the unimaginative, dogmatic Corbyn can win a national election.


I wrote to a number of British friends who were long time Labor Party activists for their takes on Johnson and Corbyn. One of them, a retired historian, sees Johnson's victory as a "catastrophe." He views him as "a liar and narcissist, and his advocacy of a no-deal Brexit as "inherently stupid, for if carried out would do far more harm to the English economy than to the EU." His view of Corbyn is equally calamitous: "For whatever the rights and wrongs of the allegations of anti-Semitism, they have been atrociously handled."

Another, a retired professor of literature, feels that there has been "a lot written about Johnson's personal weaknesses, but he is a shrewd politician, who has clearly decided to take a hard-line stand, assuming that he will have support for a no-deal Brexit, counting on the ineptness of the opposition, especially from Corbyn and his followers." My friend also states "that the fact Corbyn's advisers regard any criticism of their leader as a departure from ideological purity has done damage to Labor that might be irrecoverable."

The British political future looks bleak, and one can only hope that a Labor defeat in the next election leads to Corbyn being replaced by a more politically and ideologically supple figure.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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