Life in Britain in 2017 is increasingly redolent of what Joan Didion said about her experience of America in the late 1960s and early ’70s, in her brilliant essay collection The White Album: “I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it…. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.” This is what it’s currently like being a political journalist in the United Kingdom, where there is no end of stuff to report, but also a febrile, almost hallucinatory atmosphere that often makes the telling of coherent stories all but impossible.
The country is in the midst of its most turbulent period in at least three decades. There have been three terrorist attacks since the early summer, one in Manchester and two in London. And on June 14, a terrible fire consumed Grenfell Tower, a housing project in West London, killing at least 80 people and highlighting years of neglect of public housing and the city’s ever-widening inequality. With good reason, some people have characterized the disaster and its aftermath as “the British Katrina.”
Meanwhile, the political landscape is shifting and buckling, with the ruling Conservative Party anxiously clinging to power while the opposition Labour Party, transformed by its new radical-left leadership, has just scored its highest vote share in 16 years. As a result, austerity—the watchword of British governments since 2010—may be in retreat.
Yet contradictions abound. The economic consequences of so-called Brexit—the biggest change in the UK’s affairs since 1945—are already starting to bite. There has been rising inflation due to the weak pound, and a looming threat of big financial interests leaving the country, which threatens one of the government’s few dependable sources of tax revenue. Every day seems to bring news of another complicated element of leaving the European Union that the people in power have seemingly failed to understand.
What all this signals is inevitably complex and, so far, uncertain. Above all, many of the summer’s developments highlight a new quicksilver reality—partly rooted in the failure of Western governments to find any convincing solutions to the deep problems exposed by the 2008 crash—that seems to careen from one unforeseen event to another. But somewhere in all the chaos, there may be a glimmer of hope. Thanks to Donald Trump’s jarring ascent, the UK’s vote for Brexit, and the rise of reactionary populism in Europe, many progressives had come to the fatalistic conclusion that the 21st century’s political entropy would only help the political right. Britain, by contrast, may just have taken an appreciable step to the left.
In retrospect, the UK’s increasing air of crisis was vastly intensified in April when Theresa May—the British prime minister and Conservative Party leader—decided to call a snap election. When she did so, her towering poll numbers suggested a landslide victory, but after a month of campaigning, her party’s lack of a coherent program and her own apparently terrified response to the demands of electioneering led to a sudden sea change. Labour began to gain ground, and May—whose stiff demeanor prompted a Guardian writer to mock her as “the Maybot,” a name that quickly caught on—increasingly became an object of ridicule. Having started the campaign with a lead of up to 25 percent in the polls, her party finished a mere two points ahead and lost its parliamentary majority. Among voters under 45, the Conservatives trailed Labour decisively, with 18- to 24-year-olds choosing Labour by a margin of 35 percent.