Perhaps the Conservative Party Conference would better have been cancelled: after all, no one in the country, not least those on stage making pronouncements about the party’s future policies, has the slightest belief that any of those policies will ever be enacted. It was all a provincial pantomime, where the Conservatives pretended to be radical rightwing insurgents, and their adversaries, pretending to be aghast, enjoyed booing them.
But even if the Tories possessed a record of passing legislation in, rather than directly against their own interests, the party has a vanishingly small prospect of winning the next election. The Conservatives turned a blitzkrieg electoral victory into a grinding war of attrition through their own incompetence, so that the enemy, whose capture of vast swathes of the country now looks fated, has already won the war by default. There are no electoral wunderwaffen on the horizon, as the leadership moves phantom armies across the map: but we must all endure a final grim winter of this ill-fated campaign before Labour’s red flag is planted on our ruinous parliament building.
Wartime analogies are not inapt: it is an odd characteristic of the national temperament that the best British novels of Second World War, and the immediate postwar period looking back to it, concern unsatisfying jobs in Whitehall, and frustrated engagement with the dysfunctional engine of the British state. Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, the wartime sections of Powell’s Dance To the Music of Time sequence, the despondently cuckolded civil servants of both Greene’s End of the Affair and Nigel Balchin’s Darkness Falls From the Air, even the disenchanted civil servant of Nineteen-Eighty-Four: all convey a certain repulsion at British governance borne of sudden experience of how the sausage is actually made. For those outside the Westminster bubble, but away from the front, Europe’s great and bloody convulsion was experienced primarily as something akin to Houellebecq’s accurate prediction of the world after Covid: “the same, just a bit worse.”
There is something of our moment, also, in the writer Patrick Hamilton’s 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude, set in the grim midwar winter of 1943. For its spinster protagonist Miss Roach, the war is encountered “in its character of petty pilferer” first of all, making long accustomed goods increasingly unobtainable “while at the same time… gradually removing means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room from the trains.” For Miss Roach, “it was, actually, the gradualness and unobtrusiveness of this process which served to make it so hateful. The war, which had begun by making dramatic and drastic demands, which had held up the public in style like a highwayman, had now developed into a petty pilferer, incessantly pilfering. You never knew where you were with it, and you could not look round without finding something else gone or going.”
Miss Roach is condemned to live in the shabby-genteel oppressiveness of a provincial boarding house, the Rosamund Tea Rooms, “this dead-and-alive house, of this dead-and-alive street, of this dead-and-alive little town.” As the biographer Michael Holroyd observes, Hamilton’s “macabre imagination” and bitter lived experience converts the boarding house “into something between an asylum and a torture chamber”. Beset by petty rules, the arbitrary dictatorship of the elderly and its debilitating “orgy of ennui”, the Rosamund Tea Rooms could be a stand in for modern Britain, and the downwardly mobile Miss Roach a British millennial: “She was only thirty-nine, but she might have been taken for forty-five. She had given up ‘hope’ years ago. She had never actually had any ‘hope’. Like so many of her kind — the hopeless — she was too amiable and tried too hard in company and conversation, and so sometimes gave an air, untrue to her character, of being genteel.”
It is surprising in our era of housing crisis, that the boarding house has not yet returned. Perhaps it will, or perhaps the HMO, its successor for today’s era of pinched and straitened middle-class circumstances, has taken up its purgatorial role. The HMO has not yet made its literary mark, but if material conditions as well as ideological currents influence our culture, perhaps it already shapes our times. Like our plummeting birthrates, could the inquisitorial suspicion, the nosy backbiting that defines millennial culture (around which an entire culture war has developed) derive as much from the enforced proximity gifted by inadequate housing as from indoctrination by progressive teachers? But it would not be in Conservative interests to highlight another of their own failures if so. Yet our current oppressive cultural atmosphere, characterised by dissident rightists as the culture of the “longhouse,” could just as well be termed, in Britain, the politics of the boarding house. We are all trapped together, by circumstances beyond our control and among people from whom we are increasingly estranged, in a stifling ennui seemingly impossible to shift.
Our state, after all, looks increasingly like Hamilton’s penny-pinching landlady, Mrs. Payne, “who had put a stop to electricity on the landings simply by taking all the bulbs out – thus succouring her hard-pressed country, the spirit of the black-out generally, and her own pecuniary resources.” Our political discourse, increasingly repellant in almost every aspect, is stuck at the level of the elderly tyrants, the pub bores and tiresome pontificators who dominate the shared living quarters in Hamilton’s fiction like “the president in Hell”: like poor Miss Roach, we are doomed to listen to their vapid self-regarding pronouncements every single day. With the simple pleasures of life vanishing, and puritanical new restrictions enforced, our public realm increasingly reflects Hamilton’s “endless snubbing and nagging of war, its lecturing and admonitions.” But then Hamilton’s literary intentions, for all that he aimed to capture the lived experience of his class, were always directed towards a portrait of the British state and character, parodied in his little-read 1939 satire Moribundia as a “stagnant society, one that is lacking vitality and possibly nearing its end,” ruled by the static ideology of “Unchange,” with “a deathly fear and hatred of innovation, of an overturning of their system, behind all their nauseatingly idealistic postures and utterances.”
There is something depressingly current in Hamilton’s depiction of his era, when world historical events, the rise and fall of empires, were experienced first and foremost as sharply declining living standards, a gnawing atmosphere of privation and neglect, and of being increasingly nagged by petty, seemingly arbitrary rules. We areourselves doomed to live in history: the 2008 financial crash, Covid, the war in Ukraine were each epoch-defining global events that beset us in short order, each of which demanded a grand response by the British state which either never came, or instead came in the most self-defeating and immiserating way.
By choosing austerity over investment, the Cameron government weakened the British state ahead of the crises to come; when Covid came, Johnson promised the sacrifices demanded for the greater good necessitated a wartime response, which in the end came only in petty restrictions, growing debt and some expensive meal vouchers; the economic effects of the war in Ukraine, similarly, have sharply driven down living standards, without any meaningful government strategy or investment to alleviate them, let alone transmute crisis into opportunity. And there is more to come: both the international situation and Britain’s social and economic prospects are worsening. We are asked to endure ever more, without a path or plan to victory. New privations are announced like grand national projects, while grand national projects are cancelled, as unaffordable or simply beyond the nation’s capacity. The only laws the government can pass are for censorship; its only remaining talking points are to condemn the future rationing proposals, fictional or otherwise, of their successors. Promised a humming war economy, we got rationing and restrictions, with neither guns nor butter at the end.
How will this end? What was new about this year’s Conservative conference is the perception that none of it matters, at all. It was merely a ruling party unconvincingly going through the motions of governance, in a country going through the motions of democracy: all a provincial purgatory of sorts, the turbid backwash of world-historical events outside our control.
The Labour Party will enter government with a mandate for total change, and the future stability of the British political system will depend on its capacity to deliver it. On housing, Labour’s bold announced housebuilding commitments begin to address the scale of the problem, offering hope of major reform. Yet Starmer’s timid jettisoning of the grander prospects for reform risks settling for mere tinkering around the edges of dysfunction, and new petty rules with new state functionaries to enforce them. No longer the engine of grand national projects, much the same disenchantment could be applied to Parliament itself, whose restoration costs will apparently total £22bn: is it worth saving? Perhaps it would be better to let it crumble into the Thames, the breeding ground of crows, as a romantic monument to a lost civilisation. For any other purpose, without a bold commitment to reform, its time is running out. As polling for Onward shows, “six in ten Gen Z’ers support the idea of running the UK with a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament/elections’, compared to only 29 per cent of over-55s. Focus groups suggest this is borne out of apathy: ‘what has democracy done for us?’, they ask with a shrug.” It is difficult to see that the events in store for us, or the state’s response to them, will re-enchant British voters with their decrepit political system.
No wonder that for the young, the talk is no longer of reform but escape. For the fictional Miss Roach, release from her purgatory came through an unexpected inheritance, allowing her to return to Blitz-ravaged London, where for all the risk, “You had to square up to the war. The horror and despondence of the Rosamund Tea Rooms resided in just the fact that it was not squaring up to it [but was] in its petty boarding-house lassitude almost insensible of it.” The miserable conditions of ration Britain were likewise dispelled by the postwar economic boom, but without a concerted effort, without reformist ambition and grandeur, there will be no such unexpected prosperity in our future.
Today’s historic shift of global wealth and power will require a titanic effort to maintain our current lacklustre level of prosperity, let alone achieve the far greater wealth Britain should aspire to. As the rival parties’ regional pantomimes show, there is still no squaring up to reality in our grim national boarding house.