December 24, 2016 by James Crossley
After years of repetitive and predictable Christmas political messages in English political discourse, 2016 appears to be different and marked by the year of Brexit and Trump. To reflect the rise of soft fascism and the return of some more radical opposition, I’ve widened the political pool this year. These are in no order of preference, obviously.
Theresa May (Conservative)
In a previous post, I noted that Theresa’s May’s Christmas rhetoric makes some distinctive shifts in English political discourse. David Cameron’s socially liberal Christianity/Bible/Christmas, following the Blairite emphasis on a socially (and economically) liberal Christianity, would typically involve statements about ‘all faiths and none’ holding the same values as everyone else, including Christians. Yet May’s Brexit rhetoric has the strong division between minorities (‘their traditions’) and the dog-whistling assumption of a normative British (‘our traditions’, including Christmas). Her 2016 Christmas message doesn’t seem easy to access (other than the message to the armed forces) but it can be reconstructed from fragments in the press. So far, it seems that, through continuing the child of the vicar narrative (‘Having grown up in a vicarage, I know how demanding it can be for those who have to work over the Christmas period’), she is happy to continue to the kind of idealised Daily Mail reader’s unflinching, no-nonsense Prime Minister which is tied into the representation of her upbringing as middle-class, disciplined, and ‘traditional’. From what we can make of her Christmas message, there is the standard stress on the importance of volunteers, armed services and continual implicit Tory plea to be trusted on health services (‘those in our health and care services’). But there’s also a Brexit message and the hope for ‘a bold new role for ourselves in the world and to unite our country as we move forward into the future’, as ‘we leave the European Union’. Interestingly, and perhaps not unexpectedly, the Daily Express, for instance, read this as ‘a message directed to bitter Remaoners’ (though on the side bar there is also this story: ‘SHOCK WARNING: Sex robots could KILL OFF the human race by “over exerting” their lovers’). However, with previously safe Tory seats in more affluent and pro-EU areas (see: Richmond) now under threat from the Lib Dems and their Remain message, May’s speech did have a subtle qualification that ‘with our international partners, we must work together to promote trade, increase prosperity…”
Jeremy Corbyn (Labour)
In relation to Christmas (and practically everything else), Corbyn is typically lied about in the press so we wait and see how this year’s message will be ignored and something else is invented. This year, in a video message, he focused on the ‘shocking rise in homelessness’ and how ‘Since 2010, rough sleep has doubled and increased by 30% in the last year alone’. Corbyn’s message is notably different in emphasis from his predecessors (and in line with his radical mentor Tony Benn) in that he emphasises specific instances of injustice and is critical of the scale of homelessness in ‘the sixth richest country in the world’. What is also different is that, aside from praising the NHS (no mainstream politician could currently dare say otherwise and this more likely to be perceived as a strong point for Corbyn), Corbyn is the only major political leader urging more state intervention in an era where cuts have been the dominant mantra in English political discourse (whether Tory, Lib Dem or pre-Corbyn Labour). Where Cameron effectively stressed that foodbanks were a positive example of charitable intervention aside from the state in such festive messages, Corbyn points out that now ‘Labour has pledged to put an end to rough sleeping in our first term of government. We’d do that by doubling the number of homes available for people who’ve been sleeping on the streets. We’d also supply support for homeless charities, and the people who work and volunteer for them.’ All this is grounded in the Bible, and not only the Christmas story. Corbyn cites what he usually cites (‘love for your neighbour’) to defend this leftist position and, as is typical for this Radical Bible, it is grounded in ‘our values’, i.e. British values, a view long made to keep British socialism uncontaminated from problematic variants.
Corbyn’s is not an obvious Brexit speech—’British values’ is extremely common in such rhetoric—but I don’t think it is going too far to detect the shadow of Brexit. Indeed, the absence of overt Brexit themes is striking, particularly when the other party messages do address such topics. Corbyn is in a particularly difficult position. The traditional Labour vote from the midlands and northwards is a Leave vote while metropolitan heartlands of Corbynism are Remain. Corbyn is a long-time, dedicated supporter of migrant and refugee rights and yet (though hardly exclusively and sometimes overblown) there is an anti-immigration discourse among the Leave vote. It may be significant that Corbyn focuses on one of his other long-term interests to try and work a way through, or around, this problem: homelessness in the UK. In this respect, note how he highlights his visit to Centrepoint, ‘a charity that does vital work in London, Bradford, Sunderland, and other places, given opportunities to homeless young people and helping them off the streets into a better life.’ (You can read more about Centrepoint here).
Tim Farron (Liberal Democrat)
Tim Farron is, for a post-Thatcher politician, is unusually forthright in his Christian beliefs and stressing a more supernatural intervention, if that’s the right phrasing (Farron is openly evangelical): ‘But do you know what, as a Christian, I think Christmas is about God who gave himself up for us and came to earth in order to do that, who urges us to follow him and to believe that we should do to others what we have done to ourselves.’ But, in move away from Nick Clegg’s twee version primary school religious studies/education, his main stress is a clear anti-Brexit theme: immigration. Whereas Corbyn was in a homeless shelter, Farron was in a holding centre for refugees, particularly children, many of whom want to come to the UK, a striking move after the recent images of children Aleppo. Indeed, Britain (‘a place of peace and of security and tranquillity’) is emotionally contrasted with the countries of the refugees (‘appalling circumstances, from war, from oppression, and torture’), with another emphasis on age (‘They’ve seen some terrible, terrible things, these young people’).
The rhetorical function of this is clear enough, as is his deprecating reference to the use of the Nativity. Yet this still grounds the authority of a message of support for refugees in the Bible by endorsing the obviousness of a popular liberal reading of the Gospel texts (which, incidentally, echoes political support for same-sex marriage): ‘I could try and crowbar in a kid of Nativity message. Yes, Mary, Joseph and Jesus became refugees. Yes, they were living under the oppression of a wicked regime.’ But it is at this point that Farron stresses his Christian credentials and then adds further biblical justification: ‘God [via Jesus]…urges us to follow him and to believe that we should do to others what we have done to ourselves’. And the application of this, of course, is to reverse the situation and imagine if the UK was ‘a war torn and terrible place to live’ and ‘we’ had to make decisions about ‘our children’. And to justify this, Farron, like all politicians, makes sure that his understanding of the Bible and God are ‘consistent with our heritage’. And if there was any doubt that this was part of a competing ideological battle for the soul of Britain in light of the divisive Referendum vote, then note Farron’s plea and implicit defence against the Right’s monopoly on nationalism: ‘And I guess I’m somebody who is not at all squeamish about my patriotism and very proud to be British’.
Paul Nuttall (UKIP)
And if you want fully caffeinated divisiveness in English political discourse, then look no further than the new UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, the Blackeye Friday of English political discourse. So, in his Christmas message we learn that the Brexit vote was won by ‘a narrow but decisive majority’ and ‘woe betide any politician who seeks to stand in the way of a decision’. The narrow Brexit victory is rhetorically widened by effectively ignoring 48% of those who voted (no one ever cares about the non-voters and the heroic spoilers of ballot papers). Despite Tories losing Richmond because of the Brexiteers, Nuttall claimed that ‘MPs who seek to thwart Brexit will find their prospects for re-election greatly diminished.’ In fact, Nuttall expands his rhetoric so far as to claim that UKIP views represent everyone as in 2017 ‘the British people expecting to finally see their oft-expressed wish for immigration to be brought back under control begin to take effect.’ All of them?
Then again, Nuttall and UKIP are not really speaking to Remain constituencies; they have their eyes firmly on Labour Leave seats. We might bear in mind that Nuttall and UKIP were once advocating privatisation of the NHS and hardcore neoliberalism. However, this does not go down well in Labour seats and so, in a classic far-right move, UKIP have shifted their rhetoric to meet these interests without sounding too left wing. There may be no rhetoric about the historic role of the working class or late capitalism, but we do get attacks on behalf of the ‘majority’ about ‘the whole era of globalisation’ which has ‘gone too far’ and ‘hollowing-out their democracy and leaving most of them worse off both financially and in terms of the cohesion of their communities’. This is not aimed at Richmond and there are numerous digs at e.g. ‘the political elite’. In terms of the NHS, this is now about ensuring that it is ‘not wide open to abuse by new arrivals who have never paid into the pot’. His comments on ‘social care for the elderly is in crisis and dependency on food banks is spreading through our most deprived communities’ is directly contrasted with ‘our annual £12bn foreign aid bill’. Class problems are emphatically racialized but Nuttall.
Like other politicians, Nuttall believes that ‘fair play, gender equality, freedom of expression, a commitment to democratic politics and equality before the law’ are ‘now far from universally acknowledged or applied in all our communities’, by which we know what he means. And ‘the political class’ are accused ‘of turning a blind eye to abuses of core British values in the name of multiculturalism.’ Again, in this racialized rhetoric he knows and we know who is assumed to be British and not British, and it is not far removed from Theresa May’s comments about Christmas and ‘minorities’. The issue of ‘gender equality’ might surprise some from a party that has made headlines for its supporters and members not liking women wearing trousers and calling women ‘sluts’ (helpfully explained as a light-hearted comment about women who don’t clean behind the fridge, despite Alan Partridge being on air for over 20 years) but this is a regular move on the far right (Britain First etc.) because it is regularly assumed in this Clash of Civilisations discourse that Islam and Muslims and immigrants do not respect women–we do and we can tolerate jokes about sluts! Given their relentless obsession with ‘political correctness’, do not expect the next wave of feminism to emerge from UKIP.
This divisive rhetoric is perhaps surprising for a political party vying for power. But it is a party vying for power in certain constituencies and such divisive politics has, of course, had its high-profile successes in 2017.
And after all that and more, Nuttall finally ends by wishing us a ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’.
Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas (Green Party)
The anti-Nuttall comes from the Green Party and their new leaders in a Facebook video message. It is likewise blunt and even opens with ‘Let’s be honest 2016 has been sh*t’ (asterisk and bleep original), listing the problems which, unusually for politicians though obviously not the Green Party, mention arguably the biggest threat to humanity, global warming:
- Refugees drowning.
- The far-right rising.
- The EU referendum campaign.
- And the hottest year on record.
Interestingly, there is a hint of the old radical ‘apocalyptic’ tradition, i.e. in the face of dramatic catastrophe there is hope for a new future. This has been a feature, in a variety of different ways, of environmental and CND traditions, as well as Labour. In this respect, it is perhaps no surprise that they reference the NHS because Labour in 1945 likewise utilised the ‘apocalyptic’ tradition in the aftermath of WW2. Indeed, it is also notable how easily they use the ‘f’ word: ‘when they act like fascists, we will call them fascists.’ This comes straight after a response to Theresa May’s attack on Brexit opponents with the implication, therefore, that fascism is alive and thriving in the UK (‘When they call us citizens of nowhere, we feel that we are citizens of the world’) and directly before an attack on the assumed leaders of this newly constructed fascism: Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and May. Also typical of this ‘apocalyptic’ tradition is the construction of a radical and egalitarian history (‘But as far back into history as you want to go you can find the seeds of the future…We’ll be building on decades – centuries even – of compassionate, progressive politics’) which are given a particularly Green spin (‘when nanas took on the fracking industry and won. When the first gay couple got married a few years ago. When the suffragettes demanded the vote’). And so just as the past brought hope and progression, and just as fascism was defeated before, the message ends strikingly less with a focus on Christmas but, as throughout, the new year. And the message is not unfamiliar to any reader of the Bible (like, as it happens, Bartley), or rather the history of radical biblical interpretation in English political discourse:
Bartley: Change won’t come overnight, not even on New Year’s Eve.
Lucas: But it will come.