December 24, 2017 by Harnessing Chaos
Theresa May: The Ghost of Cameron Past
Theresa May’s construction of Christmas is a little different this year. The usual praise is certainly present (e.g., emergency services, armed forces, aid workers etc.) and potential controversies alluded to, in this case a mention of the Grenfell Tower disaster just after she was strongly criticised for not appointing a diverse panel for the inquiry into the fire. And there is also the typical mention of Christmas as a time to construct a British Christian heritage (‘Let us take pride in our Christian heritage and the confidence it gives us to ensure that in Britain you can practice your faith free from question or fear’) and the usual vague values associated with Christmas in English political discourse (‘As we celebrate the birth of Christ, let us celebrate all those selfless acts…that epitomise the values we share: Christian values of love, service and compassion’).
But what is different about May’s speech this year is that she has not pushed the ethnonationalist line she did in previous understandings of Christianity, Christmas (and Easter), nor entertained right-wing conspiracies about Christmas being under threat. By this I mean her explicit association of Christianity and Christmas (and Easter) with ‘our’ tradition and contrasted with ‘other’ festivals (notably Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid) as ‘their’ traditions which if not dreaming of a white Christmas, was certainly not non-Christian Asian. This was in sharp contrast with Cameron’s soft paternalistic Christmas messages (as well as his other uses of the Bible, religion and Christianity) where he stressed the idea of Britain as a Christian country and various vague values (though with a neoliberal edge) while simultaneously epitomising the values of ‘all faiths and none’, a phrase he used relentlessly in such contexts. No doubt May’s shift in the use of such language was part of a right-wing reading of Brexit and part of an attempt to pick up such votes in the then impending General Election.
This Christmas and one not-very-successful Election later, May appears to have brought back Cameron’s rhetoric when she talks about such vague values being ‘lived out every day in our country by people all faiths and none’ and makes mention of coming together ‘this Christmas…confident and united in the values we share’, ‘whatever our faith’. There is now only the mildest hint of marking a strong religious difference, if at all (‘And let us reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to speak about and practice their beliefs in peace and safety’). Indeed, where she previously discussed persecution of Christians, now we have a striking addition: ‘the sickening persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.’ Whatever the reasons for May now taking a more inclusive line in her construction of Christmas, we should not underestimate the pull of the liberal soft Brexit or Remainers, who she partly isolated in the Election, and the power struggles between different types of Brexitting in her own party.
Jeremy Corbyn: The Ghost of a Different Future
Jeremy Corbyn’s Christmas messages, and his invocation of a socialist Christian tradition which he helped return to mainstream English political discourse, have afforded him some protection from the usual media attacks. His previous Christmas message was likewise marked by Brexit, even if it effectively went unmentioned. Last year, for instance, he promoted the charity Centrepoint for helping homeless people in London, Bradford and Sunderland which may have been part of his attempt to appeal to a pro-Brexit audience who have constantly raised the issue of homeless problems in the UK and yet might have voted UKIP, all the while not isolating a sizeable Remain vote for Labour. By way of contrast, we might note, the then Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, went to a refugee centre in Paris for his Christmas 2016 message, no doubt with a different type of audience partly in mind.
This year, Corbyn certainly continues his interests in problems in the UK, including those with no homes, those sleeping rough on the streets, those cut off from society, older citizens, carers, those with disabilities, and those with dementia. As has become typical, Corbyn’s stresses at Christmas have included the victims of neoliberalism, rather than the promotion of neoliberalism or avoidance of any of its consequences, or indeed the consequences of Conservative policy. This year there is again reference to foreign policy (another Corbyn favourite) and, though understated, they are places which have been the recipients of British foreign policy decisions: those who live in fear of ‘bombs and bullets’ in Libya, Syria, and Yemen (though British arming of Saudi Arabia). In the run up to the Election, Corbyn emphasised that part of the consequences of British foreign policy was attacks on UK cities, a highly unusual move for a mainstream politician. But such criticism of British foreign policy was not a vote loser as it was once perceived, and this marks a distinct shift in mainstream English political discourse.
But this is also part of another shift in English political discourse in the Labour Party. Previous leaders effectively assumed that the pervasive capitalist realism was all there was, i.e. the assumption that there was no alternative to the neoliberal settlement and a few tweaks might make Labour better managers of the system than the Conservatives. Now Corbyn constructs Christianity and Christmas in terms of people bringing about a new kind of ‘society, and world, we would like to love in’. The Overton Window, or the Manufacturing of Consent, has opened up a little more on the Left, as an alternative to capitalist realism has now taken hold in the mainstream.
A final point to note about Corbyn and Christmas is an address to the armed forces. The military has been a perceived weakness for Corbyn but here he manages to keep the stress away from praising bombing countries and onto humanitarian actions of a Corbynite variety, hence his example of ‘the valiant crew of HMS Enterprise, who bravely rescued more than 9,000 refugees and migrants, fleeing war and persecution for a better life’. But, as he navigates the issues involved with metropolitan Remainers and Leavers in the Midlands and the North, he again focuses on the consequences of neoliberalism with an implied critique of the Conservatives in an area which is perceived to be one of their strongpoints: ‘We all have a responsibility to stand up for our Armed Forces community, and to make sure you have real support, where you need, it, whether it’s in access to access to housing, healthcare or school places, for you, your children, and [in] proper care for the veterans in our community’.
Vince Cable: The Ghost of Corbyn Present
Last year, Farron, clearly made a post-Referendum pitch for Remain voters by delivering his Christmas message from a refugee centre in Paris. It probably had this coded message too: ‘please don’t ask me about gay sex and Christianity’. The Liberal Democrats did not do as well as they expected this time last year and there was no Remain swing to them in the Election. If anything, the perception that Farron had personally illiberal views on homosexuality and sex was thought to be damaging for the party and the Liberal Democrats were seen to be losing voters to Labour. The new leader, Vince Cable, immediately supported issues relating to homosexuality with reference to his Christianity and, with that controversy behind them, looked to claw back votes from Labour.
Indeed, Cable’s first Christmas message is strikingly similar to what Corbyn has done this Christmas and last Christmas. The focus is solely on homelessness, non-secure housing, and rough sleepers, a chronic problem since the Conservatives returned to power in 2010. The location is now central London and more specifically The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Field Church in Central London which provides charitable services to rough sleepers (compare Corbyn and Centrepoint last Christmas). He even stresses that ‘one of the saddest things’ is to see former members of the armed forces on the streets and that the state has a duty to support them. Liberalism, Cable argues, is about community and thus about supporting people struggling with housing by providing affordable housing and addressing mental health issues. But while Cable is addressing the sort of audience who might be attracted to Corbyn, there are limits and there is no stress on broader societal transformation that we get with Corbyn. The Liberal Democrats are, after all, a party for whom the notion of a functioning capitalism is ideologically integral.