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Finally, Britain’s anger threatens to boil over but it’s not the government who will be scalded

Unless we can channel the nation’s rage in politically positive movements, once more minorities look set to bear the brunt.

08 Dec

Diyora Shadijanova

The British public are pissed off. While simmering displeasure is often the national mood – especially in England, a nation of haters – revelations about a secret Downing Street Christmas party, held just days before Boris Johnson “cancelled” festivities for millions, has led to an explosion of outrage. 

Approval ratings of the current government were already in the toilet; YouGov recorded earlier this week that 55% of respondents to the question “Do you approve or disapprove of the Government’s record to date?” said they “disapprove”. But “disapprove” seems too mild; people are frothing. 

“An absolute joke…literally!!!,” one Facebook commenter wrote under a video purporting to be of Commons leader Jacob Rees Mogg telling jokes at the secret 2020 Downing Street party (it was actually of Commons leader Jacob Rees Mogg telling jokes about the secret 2020 Downing Street party at a bash this year). “I am ashamed that they are in such a position of power when they take so little disregard to what the ‘normal’ person has had to sacrifice based on their rules”.

Their comment reflected the mood of a nation; broadcasters led their coverage with interviews featuring individuals bereaved by Covid-19 who spoke of their heartache and anger that the government appeared to have partied while their loved ones lay dying in forcible isolation. 

Even Tory-supporting media are on the warpath; LBC and the Daily Mail alike are putting the story front and centre. Only down-to-the-mattresses loyalists like The Telegraph, Boris’ alma mater, and The Sun (which boasts James Slack as deputy editor – Slack happened to be serving as the Downing Street director of communications at the time the party is alleged to have occurred) have avoided putting the splash at the top of the news agenda. 

The Christmas party scandal is the cherry on top of almost two years of deadly Tory incompetence, corruption and negligence. The list feels endless; towering Covid-19 death tolls, backdoor wheeler dealing with lucrative Covid-19 contracts, a crumbling NHS, cuts to Universal Credit, cuts to just about anything promised as part of the 2020 ‘Build Back Better’ plan. Every day, there is something new: bans on protest, an attempt to criminalise all asylum seekers for good, lies, deceit and a general disdain for the public the Tories were elected to represent and govern. It is pumped into us like steroids, via neverending social media feeds, with news aggregator platforms like ‘Politics for All’ framing each development in the most enraging way possible. 

All this has, naturally, heightened the festering state of anger Britain now finds itself perpetually mired in. It’s not gone unnoticed; journalist Clive Martin recently penned a lengthy analysis of the nation’s “age of aggravation” for The Face, assembling a dossier of evidence ranging from attacks on Insulate Britain protesters to bust ups on petrol forecourts amid the October fuel shortage.

Martin depicts an “adversarial age” where a tinderbox of rage builds by the day, provoked on every level. He rightly points to different strands of anger and violence, from hate crimes to disgruntled neighbours sniping on NextDoor, but finds a common “red thread” that seems to link these “epidemics” occurring at the same time. The rage of a nation, writes Martin, is partly thanks to successive governments who “grind people up against each other in an increasingly competitive society” and a societal culture that encourages a “perpetual cycle of repression, rage, repression, rage, explosion”. 

But it is not the Tories who are really facing the brunt of the rage they have sparked. It’s minorities, represented in rising hate crime figures, and campaigners trying to change things for the better”

The problem is, the shrapnel from the ‘explosion’ part of the British rage cycle seems ever more to fall on those with the least power. The complete lack of consequences – or shame – for those in government has led to an overwhelming feeling of helplessness among the public. Comments on the latest Christmas party debacle reflect this; amid the outpouring of anger there is a potent sense of ‘but what can we do?’, with fury directed instead to other (sometimes hypothetical) members of the public.  

“They’ll still somehow get voted for,” read one Facebook comment about the incident, proceeding to then mimic an imaginary Tory voter espousing sympathy for the prime minister. “FUCKKKK OFFFF,” the post concluded.

Another poster registered utter helplessness, writing: “Until one or ideally many of them get actually put in jail, nothing will change. I used to believe in democracy but at this point we’re as corrupt as a dictatorship and there is literally nothing that anyone can do.” 

This level of alienation is worrying; anger doesn’t dissipate simply because it can’t be expressed against its intended subject. It finds a new channel instead. And as we’ve seen in the past, anger without action curdles all too easily into violence against the least powerful. Boris Johnson rode to victories in the 2016 Brexit referendum and 2019 general election by harnessing the resentments of the general public and directing them against “an immediate, intimate enemy, easily purged: the immigrant,” writes Nesrine Malik. 

Not just any immigrant either, not the white, wealthy Rupert Murdoch-type of immigrant, but the disempowered and poorest, the seasonal farm worker or Deliveroo rider. These were the individuals who had to weather the brunt of the xenophobic storm because they were the closest in both proximity and lifestyle to the type of people Boris was selling a scarcity narrative to, and neither could live while the other survived. 

Since then, Tory culture wars have further pitted the public against each other, while the failure to improve the lives of the general population have led to a new winter of discontent.

But it is not the Tories who are really facing the brunt of the rage they have sparked. It’s minorities, represented in rising hate crime figures, and campaigners trying to change things for the better. It’s protesters being attacked, labour unions monstered and footballers booed for taking the knee. The sentiment feels akin to shooting the messenger; if those who caused the mess can’t be held to account, Britain’s broiling anger is instead directed against those who shout loudest for change or represent the need for it, like the class bully who always duffs up kids he perceives as smarter than him. 

This level of alienation is worrying; anger doesn’t dissipate simply because it can’t be expressed against its intended subject. It finds a new channel instead”

The marginalised will always suffer most from the mistakes of the powerful, whether through direct government policy or a toxic atmosphere ready to blow. Unless this anger is channelled into a positive mass political movement – like Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed children –  I fear the worst. 

The past two years alone have been a stark lesson in how quickly disillusioned members of the public, with no other outlets, can be swept up in right wing movements. Tens of thousands of people who started the pandemic as pro-vaccination and are now, at best, ‘vaccine hesitant’ or, at worst, full-blown conspiracy theorists, demonstrate just how misdirected anger and political energy can be harnessed by bad faith actors. 

If Boris Johnson resigns, as SNP leader Ian Blackford called for him to do in today’s PMQs, perhaps the beast will be satiated for a while. But with Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak as forerunners in any subsequent leadership contest, Tory misery looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. The anger will continue to boil. And until we organise in a way that directs it at the powerful, it is minoritised communities who will be bearing the brunt. Merry Christmas one and all.