As Boris Johnson rolled out gag after gag in his speech at the Conservative conference this week, it was instructive to watch the real-time response from the British Social Democratic intelligentsia.
Such is the repugnance of the Prime Minister and of all that he in a way defends that we do not make a quarter. On social media, each joke sparked a mixture of contempt and anger. How dare he smirk and josh as his government cuts welfare to those who need it most. Who did he think he was fooling, with his flippant interpretation of this despicable and isolated UK? Where were the policies, the details, the hold? He was incoherent, insubstantial, blind to reality, a frolicking and chattering purveyor of chimerical clowning.
It all manages to both be true and miss an important point. The center-left’s distaste for Johnson reached such a height, and such anger, that he lost all ability to recognize and reflect on his strengths. It reminds me of the Conservatives’ hatred of Tony Blair in the first wave of his leadership – he was a fake and an impostor and historically illiterate. Why couldn’t voters see it?
As with Blair at the time, Johnson has a large majority and stays comfortably ahead in the polls, and his personal connection to enough electorate seems unlikely to be severed by a slew of scathing columns and thin-lip tweets. . His unquenchable optimism, relentless good humor and rah-rahing booster of all things British strike a chord in the news bulletins – not despite the many difficulties we face, but because of them. In the most wintery conditions, a little sun is good.
People don’t just worry about the national debt and try to tackle the trans rights debate. I saw a quote from Goldmiths by Lucy Ellmann /New statesman Thursday evening conference (October 6) – “disconcerted by the facts, hungry for fantasy” – which captures my point perfectly. You might not like this aspect of the audience, but it’s downright dangerous not to recognize it. As Paul Goodman writes on ConservativeHome, “A lot of people want nothing more than to be comforted. What Johnson does with a shovel… his connection to the non-politicized… leaves the next election to him to lose.
It struck me too, as I was shaking before the delivery of the Prime Minister’s ready-to-fire gatling machine gun, how rare humor is in politics today. We are in the era of seriousness: performative awakening, moralizing intolerance, bad faith and bilious slander launched from one side to the other, and vice versa. There is something to be angry about, but there always has been. And by god, it’s a boring way to go about your business. It’s profane to smile, to laugh at an angry joke, to let your guard down. Politics is Jolyon Maugham in a kimono, bat-wielding, flea-faced, spit-speckled face, utterly oblivious to his own pomp and ridicule as he tracks down false words. The rest of us are the poor bloody fox.
Perhaps the most tragically humorless place on the internet is where it was funniest. Scottish Twitter has all but given up on the lighter side of life. Rather, my flow is filled with grueling screeds of anti-Conservative and anti-Labor rhetoric, with denunciations of the “Brits,” with a relentless and shrill moan over the continued lack of a second independence referendum. The term “doom scrolling” has never sounded so apt.
Like on Twitter, like at Bute House. One of Nicola Sturgeon’s most appealing qualities is her sense of humor – that dry, funny, skeptical West Scotland approach to the world that always has a twinkle in her eyes amid the dim light. . It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the fun side of the Prime Minister – an age since she was exchanging witty tweets with Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson. These days, she seems cut, beaten and wrung out.
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There may be a good reason for this. Two years of hitting the pan by dealing with the Covid and its terrible consequences, the trauma of the Alex Salmond affair, the march towards the end of her reign with no sign that she will deliver – let alone win – another referendum, and 14 years as a stressed minister, all of this must have taken its toll. And to be honest, it’s probably harder to joke with Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar than with Dugdale and Davidson. But stay …
Looking back to 2014, there was a lot to admire in the Yes campaign. Of course, as a voter of No, I took my share of abuse from the mad cybernates. But it was impossible not to be impressed and a little envious by the surge of optimism, arrogance and energy of the independence movement. His supporters were often very funny, endearing self-mockery and clearly having fun.
How things have changed. The tone today is bitter and anxious, and the movement has gone from skepticism to cynicism. There is no longer any lightness to the touch. The Scottish government appears to be spending much of his time in court, fighting battles he knows he will lose in an attempt to push the grievance machine down to 11.
No one wants a Scottish Boris Johnson – God forbid. But the jaded gloom hardly seems likely to appeal to the unconvinced, and the SNP needs support for independence to increase by at least another ten percentage points if it is to be sure of getting and winning a referendum. . I always thought that if Scotland decided to leave the UK it would do so from the crest of a wave, not from a trough of discouragement. Unless and until Sturgeon can make us smile again, and the Yes campaign can regain its sense of fun, it’s Johnson who will have that maddening smile on his face.
[See also: Why the opponents of Scottish independence are more divided than ever]