LONDON DIARY: The death of the less-bad option
The British were once the most sober of nations, even if not in the literal sense. But they’re on a run of wild behavior such as the world has rarely seen.
First came the 2016 self-immolation in which they voted by a whisker to leave the European Union on mostly false assumptions, in defiance of the youth, and at risk of blowing up the union with Scotland.
Then came opposition, even by many needlessly stoic “Remainers,” to a second referendum once the actual and predictably unattractive deal with the EU became clear. “Brexit means Brexit,” PM Theresa May insisted. That was pretty fanatical attachment to a word invented a few years ago as the caricature cousin of now-forgotten Grexit.
This sad Remainer acquiescence did not bring good graces with it. Rarely has half a country so loathed the other half (unless you consider Israel and the United States these days). I searched for common factors and settled on the theory that all three are democracies hoping voters zombified by social media will make an intelligent choice on a difficult matter.
With the Conservative Party apparently set to crown Boris Johnson this month as prime minister the country is lurching into an entirely new level of bizarre.
By this I do not refer merely to Johnson himself, although he is a cartoonish provocateur who says things like “my policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it” and once denounced Arnold Schwarzenegger as “a monosyllabic Austrian cyborg.” It is not even about the strange fact that the leadership of a diverse and relatively progressive population will be decided by postal ballot among 160,000 mostly white, male and elderly Tories, who appear set to elect Johnson over rival Jeremy Hunt regardless of his gaffes and scandals (police recently were summoned to his home after a row with his girlfriend).
No, the truly incredible thing is that Britain will thus eliminate the generally dependable fail-safe of democracy known as the “least-bad option” (or in a binary choice, the “less bad” option). It is something this country, along with the two others referenced above, has always enjoyed.
Sure, these countries’ voters have often been forced to choose between clowns and jokers, but generally one was worse. Not always did the less-bad win, but to the people paying attention (by no means always the majority) it was clear who the less-bad was.
There was only one plausible way for Johnson’s ascension to achieve this milestone, and that was the equally absurd domination of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn.
On the streets of London this month I have found nary a soul who can state with pride they will support one or the other, and many news-literate associates announced that for the first time in memory they could conceive of supporting neither. Many indeed said that in the next general election they would not vote.
There are options even in the two-party system, of course, and the perfectly balanced odiousness of the duopoly in this cycle will probably boost the performance of these alternative parties whenever a general election is actually held. In the last, in 2017, the two large parties split 82.4% of the vote; this time their combined tally may fall, but no one thinks the Lib Dems, the Greens or the “Brexit Party” will win. The question, in a first-past-the-post district system, is which large party will be hurt by defections more. But Boris or Corbyn it will be.
Normally in such situations I urge my associates to choose the less-bad option, arguing that mathematically a non-vote amounts to half a vote for the more-bad option (which could in theory be called “worse” in a way that the “less bad” — say, Stalin as compared to Hitler — cannot comfortably be called the “better”).
But this pair here might both be exactly equally bad! Let us examine how Britain arrived at this statistically improbable juncture.
Despite being highly educated at Eton and Oxford, Johnson made a career in pretending to be a bumbler of the stuttering upper-class type. He became a figure of consequence as a euro-skeptic journalist on the pages of the Times and especially the Telegraph, but sadly even his early work exhibited poor word choice (he actually called African children “pickaninies”) and a seeming preponderence of untruth (he was sacked from the Times over allegations of a made-up quote). He parlayed this reputation into a Tory seat in parliament about two decades ago, and his political career since then has left the matter in no doubt: Johnson’s Trump-level commitment to the truth requires no pretense.
As the leading Leaver in the 2016 campaign, Johnson is widely blamed by Remainers for delivering calamity on the wings of pithy turns of phrase. Worse, he is accused of reckless opportunism, having reportedly wavered about which side to support. After the referendum he “pulled a runner,” vanishing ungallantly from sight, but was made foreign secretary anyway. In that position, as when he had earlier been mayor of London, he reputedly honed great skills of delegation. Now he advocates sanguinity about crashing out of the EU without a deal in October (unless the EU improbably improves the terms of the agreement negotiated by May and rejected by parliament). “Experts” predict food and medicine shortages, and a customs gridlock; the Tory Leavers are unbowed.
If that occurs, Scottish nationalists are set to push for secession from the United Kingdom so as to rejoin the EU on their own. That won’t be easy, but it may happen by force of will. Every district in Scotland, which is a tenth the population of England, voted Remain in 2016. And Johnson, who is an English as a Yorkshire pudding, makes Scottish blood boil.
So with polls showing growing support for overturning the 2016 referendum, and Johnson committed to marching proudly off the cliff, you’d think it would be the opposition Labour Party’s time to shine. Indeed, polls over the years have always shown strong support for staying in the EU (see below); the 2016 referendum was an anomaly and a general protest vote. Most Labour voters hate it.
But becoming the “Party of Remain” would be hard because a minority of Labour’s supporters actually did vote to Leave, though in a smaller proportion than Tory voters. Oddly, in the 1970s it was Labour that opposed even joining the union, of which the Tories were then in favor. Corbyn is a throwback to the party’s leaders then, who detest the EU as a “capitalist construct.” And like many people on the hard left he is a poor liar and unskilled compromiser. Righteous mania for their mission won’t allow it.
Corbyn also is, unlike America’s Bernie Sanders, a genuine socialist who would love to renationalize infrastructure and massively raise taxes on “the rich,” which in reality means the slightly-upper middle class who actually spend every penny and stimulate the economy. As such Corbyn manages to be more revolting to the UK finance industry (which drives the whole economy and for the moment dominates Europe) than even Brexit. And that is very revolting indeed.
Corbyn may not be a liar, but you sometimes wish he were. His infantile rebelliousness compels him to profess deep friendships along a odious swath from Hugo Chavez to Hezbollah. And the party’s grandees can do nothing because their rules allowed a half million Corbynites — angry children of the 2008 financial meltdown and ensuing austerity — to join the party and render him untouchable.
At a dinner table with financial types in London I found them struggling with their distasteful choice. Then one of them finally decided, based on an issue that may interest Israelis.
“I’ll make a f*****g choice: Corbyn is worse because Corbyn is a f*****g anti-Semite,” said the man, a dear friend who is no stranger to poor choices.
I considered this while my friend berated his associates in charmingly loutish ways meant to throw them off-balance. Anti-Semitism is a serious charge, but I am not one to automatically believe the accuser. Corbyn has a tin ear and tolerates an odd degree of anti-Semites in his party, to its electoral detriment, but I am not convinced he is one himself. He may dislike Israel, yes; but with the world’s number-five economy about to shoot itself in the knee, it would be absurd for this to be the issue.
Another member of the group, a commodities man of cerebral inclination, engineered a better idea. The situation, he opined, is a “total clusterf**k of a democratic meltdown.” But unlike in Israel’s similar predicament, there is a solution: vote for the Liberal Democrats, a small party that wants a second referendum to cancel the first, in the hopes that they attain the balance of power and extort this from one of the large parties in exchange for a majority.
It is not a bad idea. But this is a man whose ego needs no amplification. I have personally witnessed him lecturing the prime minister of Romania about Romania. So out of concern for his best interests I shall withhold official backing and continue to reflect.