The two signal political events of 2016, at least in the English-speaking world, were the often-paired British vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. With six years’ worth of hindsight, I think it’s pretty clear that both votes were disasters. Ever since, much ink has been spilled trying to understand why and how they happened.
I’ve read more books on Trump than I can count, and I think I can say I have a general understanding of the Trump phenomenon. A bunch of different factors, including some long-term and others more immediate, played into his election, and continue to keep his name in the news. America is in a bad place, with political polarization leading to a dangerous level of extremism, including violence and the more-or-less open disavowal of democracy and the rule of law by one of the country’s two main parties.
I haven’t read as much about what’s been going on in the U.K., which is probably why I’m having trouble understanding what’s happening over there. In many if not most ways Britain is in even worse shape than the U.S. Economically I think this is certainly the case, and it may be politically as well. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, “Britain’s Guilty Men and Women,” Tom McTague points a finger at the country’s leadership and its ruling party: “For the past 12 years, Britain has been led by a succession of Conservative prime ministers — each, like Russian dolls, somehow smaller than the last — who have contrived to leave the country in a worse state than it was when they took over.”
To this list has now been added one Rishi Sunak, a very rich guy who used to work for Goldman Sachs and who voters apparently trust to be able to manage the economy. Because that’s something rich people just understand.
Given how bad things have gone in the U.K. over the course of the last six years, what I can’t figure out is why the Tories haven’t sunk to basement-level polling numbers. On some level I “get” the Trump voter, but the Tory voter is a beast I know nothing about. In my review of The Lost Decade 2010-2020 by Polly Toynbee and David Walker (one of the few books I’ve read on the subject) what stood out for me was the level of voter apathy and the effect of a generational split. And I suppose the forces that are driving anger in America — social inequality and the rage machine of social media — are also at play. I’ve heard the British news ecosystem is bad, but as bad as it is in the U.S.? This I don’t know.
I just find it remarkable that after over a decade of misgovernance, incompetence, and outright failure the Conservative Party has any defenders left at all. The shock of 2016 was one thing, but at least in 2020 the U.S. tried to correct course (for how long we still don’t know). Why are the Brits still digging?