Flying into the United Kingdom after five months away was like arriving in a parallel universe. Syria, where I’d been covering a war in which the United States and Russia are playing chicken, seemed static in comparison. Tectonic plates are shifting. Strong winds are blowing. Lightning is exposing a beleaguered landscape while wary citizens await the thunder’s rumble. The Royal Ascot races have permitted men to remove their jackets in the heat. The speaker of the House of Commons declared that male members need not wear neckties. A crowd of thousands at a music festival cheered the Marxist leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, as if he were Mick Jagger. Was it only a year ago that an unbeatable Conservative government was on course to balance the budget and stay in the European Union?
A populist tide is rising, as it did in the United States during last year’s presidential race, but from the left this time. It’s engaging youngsters who are fed up with student debt, privatized trains that don’t work, backhanders for the backroom boys and the impossibility of buying the kinds of houses their parents had. There’s a generational divide between young people who want the United Kingdom to remain in Europe, giving them the right to live and work anywhere in the bloc, and a gerontocracy that imagines a post-Europe Britain recapturing the island’s imperial glory. It seems like 1964, when Bob Dylan wrote:
There’s a battle outside,
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls,
For the times they are a-changin’.
The Parliament and the Pendulum
On the night I arrived in London, I had dinner in a beautiful garden in gentrified Notting Hill. One of my oldest friends, a lifelong Tory whose father served in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, boasted that on June 8 he voted Labour for the first time in his life. His voice did not conceal a rebellious pride that his was one of a mere 20 votes that put the first Labour candidate from Kensington and Chelsea into Parliament. Another friend told me that his constituency in Kent, Canterbury, had also swung to Labour. The ancient cathedral city, he added, had voted Conservative in every previous election since 1841. Before polling day, the pundits had consigned Corbyn’s Labour Party to oblivion. Yet it picked up 30 seats, while Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tories lost 13 spots — and their majority. May is hanging on with a minority government. Her days, however, are numbered. The newspapers refer to her as a “zombie” and a “dead woman walking.” Corbyn’s sans-culottes, meanwhile, are beating at the gates to bring down the neo-liberal Bastille erected by Thatcher, sustained by Tony Blair and kept on life support by David Cameron and now May.
Some wealthier Britons sense the pendulum has swung too far in their direction. The escalation of poverty is too pronounced for them to defend the system as just. The discussion at my first dinner back in the United Kingdom dwelled on the probable triumph of Corbyn’s campaign to turn the tides away from the bankers, hedge fund managers and the rest of the slim minority who have profited from the Thatcher-Blair program. Most people I’ve listened to, including the prime minister’s fellow Conservatives, expect May to lose a vote of confidence as soon as her party’s rebels are put to the test. Then, the betting goes, she’ll have to call an election that she will lose. Of course, they could be wrong, as they were before the Brexit referendum and the election. The fact is that no one knows.
Fanning the Political Flames
On June 14, six days after the electorate’s flirtation with Labour, a fire consumed the Grenfell Tower, a public housing high-rise. A small blaze on the fourth floor spread to all 24 stories, killing at least 80 people and rendering more than 600 residents homeless. An Afghan friend, whose father died in the flames, told me his mother and sisters had to move to a “camp” under the motorway. He expected such things in Afghanistan, but not in Britain.
Every item of news since the inferno has underscored the contempt in which councils, Labour and Conservative alike, apparently held their charges. The fire coincided with the austerity May’s government imposed on local governments that forced them to skimp on safety and install the cheapest materials available in public housing — even though rents on the residences turn a profit for most London councils. Swift investigations by newspapers turned up thousands of breaches of fire safety codes in public housing. Of 2,295 publicly owned tower blocks in the country, only 18 had sprinkler systems to douse a fire. It also came out that the government was saving taxpayer money by withholding sprinklers from schools under construction. The state was gambling with the lives of the poor and with the children of all classes. Outrage is growing.
No one emerges from the Grenfell Tower catastrophe with honor, apart from citizens who gave shelter to their shocked neighbors and residents who risked their lives to bring people out of the building. The incident has left a scar on the British body politic. Corbyn, who was until recently portrayed as a crank for his defense of the poor, has promised to heal it. But a promise is a long way from an achievement.
Grenfell’s charred skeleton stands on the horizon as the legacy of the freewheeling coziness among politicians, property developers and private managers of public housing. Its political dimension recalls the Russian sailors’ mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in 1905 that presaged the revolutions of 1917 or the burning by a mob in Cairo of the British Shepheard’s Hotel in January 1952, which led to the revolution in July. May will likely have as much success resisting the political tide as King Canute had commanding the real one battering Britain’s shores 1,000 years ago.