I have to get on the road this morning, so this will be briefer than I would like. But my initial take on the British elections is that it is further proof that nobody knows what to do about the forces that are motivating the political ructions of the contemporary West.
Commentators have pointed to any number of precipitate factors for the Tories’ monumental failure, including public anger at Theresa May’s call for an early election in the first place, her poor skills on the stump and avoidance of debates, the fiasco of the “dementia tax,” Corbyn’s unexpectedly strong campaign skills, and so forth. But I am always inclined to look deeper.
It strikes me as wildly implausible that the British people were, as of a few weeks ago, solidly behind Red Toryism, and are now suddenly enamored of 1980s-vintage Socialism. These wild swings are evidence, rather, of how shallowly held any such beliefs are, and how restless the public is for someone who can speak to their anxieties in a language of confidence. In that sense, I suspect May’s original theme was pretty correct as an expression of what the British people want, and the problem is that confidence collapsed that she could deliver it. But a few slips and mistakes would not cause a collapse of confidence of this magnitude and rapidity if that confidence were not itself shallow in the first place.
That lack of confidence is pervasive, and it’s due to the fact that nobody, left, right or center, really has an answer for the deep forces ripping apart the fabric of Western societies. The rise of hundreds of millions of Asians into the middle class, the huge increase in migration from South to North, the severing of cultural and economic ties between city and countryside — these trends are stronger than individual states, and simply declaring yourself against them or their effects is not the same as having a response.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t useful meliorist responses on offer — and perhaps the left, or the right, or the center is right about what those responses ought to be in this or that case. Nor are the deeper philosophical differences between left and right irrelevant. But debates take place on the grounds of meliorism when confidence is generally high, and debates take place on the grounds of deep philosophical differences when society is divided on what direction to go, and neither case, it seems to me, describes our moment particularly well, when we are not so much divided in opinion as in allegiance, and when we have very little confidence that anybody really knows what course to set.
And so: a million mutinies now — and likely another election far too soon.