March 08, 2024

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The problem with British history, said Salman Rushdie, is that so much of it happened abroad. By way of revision, we might say that the problem with British politics today is that all of it is happening abroad. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain could airily dismiss the gathering storm over Czechoslovakia as a “quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” In 2024, quarrels between peoples in faraway countries are unavoidably British quarrels, deciding elections, defining allegiances, dividing the streets. The public squares in towns and cities across the U.K. have become vicarious cockpits for an intractable inter-Semitic conflict raging 2,500 miles away. Centuries-old Parliamentary procedure has been mangled for fear of angering the partisans of one side of that conflict mustering with supposed menaces outside the Palace of Westminster. By-elections in desiccated postindustrial Lancashire ghost towns are won or lost on the issue of distant Gaza. And prodigal amounts of arms and money continue to belch out of the U.K. toward the east as the government assures and reassures the citizenry that the moral and military underwriting of a semipermanent meat-grinding war in Ukraine remains somehow vital to the British national interest.

The explanations for this weird outsourcing of Britain’s collective emotional life overseas are diverse but codependent: a Muslim population, swollen in the past 25 years by unprecedented high tides of immigration. A radicalized left still buzzing with the background radiation of the Jeremy Corbyn era. Generation Z with its Instagram-addled understanding of the world as slogan and spectacle. And a fortifying dose of what Walter Benjamin called bureaucratic romanticism: the tendency of the liberal middle classes to indulge a taste for revolutionary violence from afar, a rare excuse in these days of moral relativism for guilt-free ethical clarity, transposed to an agreeably abstract context where the boundaries between good and evil seem to be clearly delineated and a side can be picked and cheered on well out of sight or earshot of the actual fighting and, indeed, the actual issues.

“By-elections in desiccated postindustrial Lancashire ghost towns are won or lost on the issue of distant Gaza.”

In the case of Israel, Muslim sensibilities, Jewish anxieties, and left-liberal pieties have conspired to turn a distant Levantine ethnostate into something approaching a pathological fixation at the beating heart of British political life. As George Galloway’s recent victory in the Rochdale by-election demonstrates, Gaza is a landsliding issue that British politicians ignore in peril of electoral oblivion, and it may yet be the case that future historians pinpoint the Rochdale result as the first flex of a self-consciously political Islam as an unignorable factor in 21st-century British politics. The political clout of British Jewry by contrast is featherweight, of marginal significance in a handful of marginal seats. In the arms race between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that unhelpfully dominates the current national conversation, Britain’s Jewish community is less weaponized, less potent, less voluble, essentially through simple lack of manpower. Jews find themselves outnumbered and out-shouted in the debate, a disadvantage that can only wax larger as the passage of time and fast-changing demographics collude to create a U.K. chronologically and emotionally remote from memories of war and Holocaust, those sentimental umbilici that still shakily bind Israel to the West.

Henceforth and for the foreseeable future we can expect British politics to remain febrile with this malady, this pollution of domestic discourse by far-off sorrows in the more fissile places of the world. As in a political manifestation of quantum entanglement, the moment violence erupts in the Middle East we can be sure the tremors will be felt on British streets and in British ballot boxes. Then again, and in an odd way, this is not so much a refurbishing of the national character as a reversion to the old imperial angst over a global patrimony on which the sun never set. A.J.P. Taylor once called the stalwarts of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament the “last imperialists” for their gross overestimation of Britain’s relevance to Cold War realities. So too the British left continues to find moral satisfaction by basking in the negative afterglow of empire, as if this weary little Atlantic island and its opinions were still the epicenter of seismic events. The results are often unintentionally—and inevitably—hilarious. It’s doubtful, for example, that Chorley in Lancashire is of any great moment to Israeli military policy, yet the weighty deliberations of its borough council were recently thrown into turmoil by an impromptu motion to demand a ceasefire in Gaza. This is virtue signaling at its most earnest and simultaneously its most absurd, a Morse code of overwrought dots and maudlin dashes that identify the signaler unequivocally as One of the Good Ones, a card-carrying conscript of the Current Thing. We see the same naivete, tedious but touching, in the Ukrainian flags that enliven the heraldry of countless social media profiles: I might be irrelevant, I might be clueless, but I care.

We in Britain will be a long time seasick in this turbulent slipstream, a long time coming to terms with all the things that have changed in such a short time. British politics has hitherto taken pride in its gradualist, glacial approach to reform, feeling its way by inches and thus avoiding the revolutions that describe the histories of so many other European countries. The poet Philip Larkin put it this way:

The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same
Our children will not know it’s a different country

But Britons and their children are now very much aware of living in a different country, as unalike demographically and ideologically from the Britain of just 25 years ago as day is from night. For British governments of all stripes, there are unhappy analogies here with the storm-lit twilight of the Habsburg Empire in the years preceding World War I: an enfeebled central authority struggling and failing to buy off, bribe, and otherwise buttress a teetering Babel of competing nationalities, ethnicities, and interests, whose irreconcilable grievances and divagating ambitions point only to turmoil and tumult. Any politician seeking success in this new Britain will need to adapt quickly, and speed-read the George Galloway playbook, which for better or worse offers as good a template as any of the shape of things to come. Fate, moreover, has withdrawn the option of indifference. As another poet had it, the miseries of the world are misery and will not let us rest.


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