Letter from London

Shane Boyle

Reports from the rogue British state.

September 13, 2019

Parliament was prorogued in the wee hours of Tuesday — farewell for five weeks — but only after its members staged an insurrection as dismal as it was brief. Blockade, sit-down strike, occupation, even something that resembled an attempt at bossnapping: the tactics were as right as the target. Too bad the roles were so poorly cast.

The curtains went up late, Big Ben having long since struck midnight. Labour’s abstention on the session’s main question had again shot down Boris Johnson’s bid for a snap election, a fitting end to a miserable legislative week for the right honourable lad from Uxbridge. The stage was set for 10 Downing Street’s most amateur rogue to prorogue away, and he did not hesitate to weaponize parliamentary procedure into a partisan tactic. So much for the exposition. Now on with the show.

Prorogation’s storied history was on full display in the ritualistic pomp and circumstance used to effect it early on Tuesday morning: there was the doffing of silly caps, the reading of royal assents, the wearing of plush robes, the recitations in Norman French, and, my favorite, the sad spectacle involving Lady Usher of the Black Rod. An official post in the House of Lords, Black Rod delivers messages for said Lords on behalf of Her Majesty—like WhatsApp but for parliament. The costume includes: black breeches, black coat, buckled slippers, silk stockings, white tie, assorted pendants and medallions, and, yes, a black rod. The eponymous meter-long staff is made of ebony and topped with a golden lion. Its sole use, apparently, is for knocking on locked doors. Black Rod also carries a sword and the royally derived authority to arrest people on sight. Unlike the Lords, anyone can audition.

It was the entrance of Black Rod (currently played by a suitably cowed Sarah Clarke) into the House of Commons that triggered Tuesday morning’s hullaballoo. MPs like to hear themselves be heard, so Black Rod’s appearance, ceremonially marking the beginning of parliament’s end, was unceremoniously received. No sooner had Black Rod launched into her ritual address than a rebel vanguard went off script. The same opposition MPs who have appeared nonstop on television and radio the past week held up improvised signs of A4 paper bearing the word “SILENCED.” They heckled Black Rod, this is what politics has come to, and shouted down her summons commanding that they follow her to the House of Lords to make prorogation official. And then things got weird.

Rebel MPs surrounded Speaker John Berkow, blocking his egress. Their self-described ringleader Lloyd Russell-Moyle even moved to sit on Berkow toward his immobilization. All of a sudden, and without proper establishing narrative, we found ourselves watching a post-Jacobean history play set in 1629. Russell-Moyle had transported us to the reign of King Charles I, specifically the time that MPs prevented parliament’s closure by sitting on the Speaker and locking Black Rod out, thus affording them the chance to finish up their business. I fucking hate history plays not written by Shakespeare. Footnote: Charles did not take kindly to his legislature’s defiance. He made martyrs of nine MPs and kept parliament closed for more than a decade. One can dream.

We might feel tempted to call this historical re-enactment more farce than tragedy, but that would give parliament too much credit, both political and dramaturgical. Their performance was more insipid than inspired, less inspiring than cringe-inducing. It was like a bad piece of theatre, which is to say, it was like most of the theatre here. The cues were off, the blocking was poor, the lines got flubbed, and the moments were hardly earned. Before the audience watching at home even knew what was happening, a staffer had dragged Russell-Moyle off Berkow’s lap. While the Conservatives exited stage left, the opposition kept to their seats, booing and chanting “Shame on You.” The promise of a parliamentary occupation quickly dissolved into an off-key recital as the lingering rebel MPs cracked open the socialist songbook to deliver choral renditions of such standards as “The Red Flag,” “Jerusalem,” and “Bread and Roses.” No encores please.

As far as parliamentary theatrics go, I much prefer Russell-Moyle’s earlier work, like the time last December he swiped the ceremonial mace to protest Theresa May’s decision to postpone yet another “important” Brexit debate. That performance was cleaner, quirkier, and less histrionic than this drawn-out attempt at performative parliamentary pedagogy. If it takes a Twitter thread to explain your hammy 400-year-old analogy, you’ve already lost the plot. This critic gives parliament two stars, but only because I can recognize that they are working under intolerable conditions, though perhaps more so for the audience than for them.

As for its politics, I’ve seen far worse this past week than Labour MPs stalely singing heroic odes to the miners’ strikes of yore. The fascist disruption of London’s anti-Brexit demo this past Saturday comes immediately to mind. But as ambivalent as I am about Johnson’s prorogation, I’m delighted that the season finale of this parliamentary procedural is behind us. As we’ve tuned in each night to follow the twists and turns, parliament has become increasingly a diversion, both entertaining and draining, not least of our political energy and emotion. When it is parliament that ascends into insurrection, we need no further sign that something has gone terribly awry, not with parliament but with us. Hundreds of thousands of people have mobilized in the past week to defend parliament’s right to be parliament; at some point, probably from the start, our will to parliamentary power disempowered us all. Their LARPing of politics becomes, through the majesty of representation, everybody’s.

Without a doubt, prorogation is nothing if not an effective tactic for barring every member from parliamentary grounds. Just imagine if we had a secret weapon like that at our disposal? Alas, all that resides in our repertoire are tactics like strikes, riots, blockades, pickets, walkouts, milkshakes, sabotage, occupations, boycotts, etc. Parliament’s off the air for the next five weeks. What are we going to do with all that free time?

PS. Just as parliament closed on September 9, a major strike ballot opened. If you work at one of the 147 UK universities being balloted, make sure to vote YES to strike over pensions, pay, workload, casualization and equality. Voting ends the day before the UK is due to leave the EU. Let’s do as Boris has done and shut things down.

September 6, 2019

The October 31 deadline for the UK to finish negotiating and leave the European Union has never seemed more in doubt. Yet you would hardly know it from the billboards going up around the country telling us to “Get Ready for Brexit.” This slogan, part of the government’s £100 million Brexit publicity campaign, will soon flood media from TV to Facebook and brand everything from mailers to mugs. It is as much a warning as an attempt to conjure conviction that European departure is imminent, come hell or high water or some admixture. Get Ready For Brexit Or Else.

The mantra was first unveiled in East London this past Sunday on a giant advertising screen at the Westfield Stratford City, one of Europe’s largest shopping centres. It was here, at the September 2011 opening of this very mall, that Boris Johnson, then London’s Mayor, was nearly crushed by a massive glass ceiling tile. No sooner had he cut the ribbon than the inlay slipped loose, plummeting thirty feet to shatter right in front of him. For a white toff like Johnson to be smashed with a glass ceiling would be an ironic fatality indeed. God, or whatever force dislodged this tile, has some aim.

Eight years later the Stratford scene is playing out again in Westminister, albeit in the more tedious and technocratic form befitting parliamentary democracy. Johnson and his vanguard of so-called Tory Leninists are scrambling for cover as their version of a Brexiting UK is at risk of caving in on itself, and bringing down with it their newly minted government. The collapse, which (contra Left Twitter) is far from certain, was triggered last month, just weeks after Johnson was voted in by fewer people than voted for Amber Gill and Greg O’Shea to win Love Island. It started with a series of leaks from Whitehall.

The first leak revealed that Operation Yellowhammer—the vexing codename for the government’s No Deal contingency plans—was prepping for nothing short of economic, political, and social disaster in the event of a failed deal. Along with emptied grocery shelves and petrol stations, the government predicted drastic shortages in essential medical supplies, from insulin to flu vaccines, not to mention the radioisotopes needed for chemotherapy. A “three-month meltdown” should be expected at all ports, worsened only by unprecedented backups at all English Channel crossings. Thousands of jobs would disappear, and mass protests would require a concomitantly massive police crackdown. The government dismissed the revelation as just “the worst-case scenario,” though history might one day tell the truth.

Days later another leak sprung. No sooner had Taylor Swift’s album Lover dropped on Friday August 23, than The Observer learned that Johnson, prodded by his chief aide and Vote Leave architect Dominic Cummings, was planning to shut down parliament for five weeks upon its return from summer holiday in September. In official parliamentary parlance, this is called prorogation in preparation for a so-called “Queen’s Speech,” when a new government declares its intentions; but for many it was just an affront, a naked attempt to curtail the time and power of parliament to scrutinize the government’s plans for exit. Downing Street denied the report, saying that no such thing was under consideration. Their words were carefully chosen. Johnson et al weren’t considering this because they had already committed to it. Wednesday morning Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, hopped on a flight to Scotland to ask the holidaying Queen her permission to prorogue. As the Queen is wont to do, she gave her assent.

(A quick side note on the two-meter tall meme that has become Jacob Rees-Mogg. No doubt you’ll have seen by now the image of him lounging across the Tory front bench during Tuesday night’s crucial parliamentary debate, a billionaire odalisque. All you need to know about Rees-Mogg is that he was raised in a castle, has six children and gloats about never having changed a diaper. People say he looks like a muppet. I disagree. He’s more of a spectacled version of Sir Hiss, the slithering advisor to the usurping Prince John in Disney’s Robin Hood.)

When Johnson publicly confirmed the five-week prorogation later that day, London boiled over and wonks filed editorials debating whether we could technically call this a coup. Meanwhile, Cummings was furiously plugging the holes in the hull of Whitehall, most notably by ordering an armed guard to escort one of Chancellor Sajid Javid’s top aides off the premises. The weekend saw tens if not hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets across the country. Sure, the enormous demonstrations would have been more heartening had they been under the banner of abolishing the state rather than keeping parliament open, but in times like these beggars can’t be choosers.

On the eve of Parliament’s return to order, Johnson adopted a fifteen-week old puppy named Dilyn. He also appeared outside 10 Downing Street to deliver a stern warning to those who would defy him. To the growing group of Conservatives inching closer to joining the opposition parties in a so-called “Rebel Alliance” to block a No Deal scenario, he threatened expulsion from the party, technically called “removing the whip” because the jumped-up boarding school that is the British power elite is never far from BDSM. But did anyone in the blasted land know the safe word?

To the opposition, especially Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson issued a challenge in the form of a possible snap election, designing to provide himself the mandate that his party appointment did not offer. And to the country he resolved: “We are leaving on October 31, no ifs or buts.” At least that’s what we think he said. The crowds gathered at the gates had grown so large and loud that their chants of “Stop the Coup” nearly drowned him out. Up in Salford, Corbyn welcomed Johnson’s announcement of a possible election, before quickly backtracking to insist that stopping No Deal would have to come first.

Upon Parliament’s Tuesday opening, we did not have to wait for any whip shenanigans for the PM to lose his majority; it sauntered away before his very eyes in the virtue signalling form of Phillip Lee. As Johnson took the floor to tell Parliament about his time at the G7 in Biarritz, where Trotsky from his exile once met with wealthy donors to the cause of international communism, Lee performatively ended Johnson’s majority by standing up, walking across the aisle, and grabbing a seat with the Lib Dems. Things spiralled from there. Rees-Mogg reclined, Speaker John Bercow bellowed at Michael Gove to “be a good boy,” and parliament voted against the government, prompting Johnson to boot twenty-one MPs from his party, including Churchill’s grandson along with the former Chancellor Phillip Hammond.

Wednesday brought more of the same parliamentary procedural, punctuated by Johnson’s call for a snap election and Labour’s abstention. The party’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell insists they want to go to the polls “later rather than sooner”—this may prove wise but, then again, has democratic socialism ever wanted any other kind of timing? Parliament now stands poised to compel Johnson to petition the EU for more time, should an agreement not be found by October 31, ruling out a No Deal crashout at least for the autumn. Should this bill become law before ye olde prorogation early next week the Labour coalition would be out of reasons for stalling and a general election would finally be the order of the day. Yay?

The next few days should, more or less, give us the pattern we’ll be following the next two months. At the moment, given how much is in flux, I’ll stick to recounting palace intrigue rather than reading parliamentary tea leaves. There might be a general election in October, but there might not. There might be a no confidence vote in Johnson, though who would helm a caretaker government in such a case is unclear. It could be Corbyn, but probably not; he is scarcely favored by his own coalition beyond the faithful. Were a general election to happen, in October or shortly thereafter, it’s impossible to say who would prevail. Johnson is positioning himself as champion for the people against parliament, and will likely crawl into bed with the Brexit party. If Labour, led by Corbyn, is to head the next government, the probability that such a thing would hinge on agreements with the Lib Dems should be enough to give pause even to tear-it-up-and-vote-again zealots like Paul Mason. It’s a sobering prospect, and perhaps the furthest Labour could get from asteroid mining and Fully Automated Luxury Communism.

While many are gearing up for a general election, others are making essential preparations of another sort. Last Friday the first State of Emergency Assemblies were launched in London and Bristol. They’ll run every Friday from here on out; similar plans are afoot across the country (Colchester, Brighton, Manchester Leeds, and more are in the works). The aim is to plan and to act, specifically in support of those who would be most vulnerable in a No Deal scenario, and, more generally, to build for “a mass radical cycle of struggles against Johnson’s hard-right Tory vision for our society.”

Refreshingly the assemblies are refusing the familiar binary options of remain or leave, for Corbyn or against him. Instead the assemblies are calling for “a radical current that confronts the present,” a different momentum altogether.

To join up, go to:

London: https://www.facebook.com/events/1056212421248583/

Bristol: https://www.facebook.com/events/738316153255813/


September 3

It’s being called a coup. Some believe it will put the “GREAT!” back into Great Britain. Others drape themselves in EU flags to protest how it’s dividing their United Kingdom. No matter how it shakes out, this island is sinking. There never were enough lifeboats for all of us, and there’s no doubt that Brexit will burn most of them, making the coming catastrophe even more unevenly felt. The best we can do is teach each other to swim, care for those who can’t, and chart our way through this storm together to reach something better. Maybe, if we get it right, we’ll have some fun along the way.

Over the next two months I will be filing a series of letters from London. I’ll try to register events as they come, a mix of political commentary and daily life. My daily life is not, of course, the same as everyone else’s, and that unevenness is surely on everyone’s mind. For myself, I should say that I’m still getting used to this island. I moved to London from Oakland five years ago. Like all moves, it was kind of miserable. But now I’ve pretty much settled here. So much so that I’m studying for a test I have to pass sometime between today and the day my visa expires at the end of October. My visa can’t be renewed because I’ve been here long enough that the Queen won’t allow it.

Instead I’m applying for what’s called “Indefinite Leave to Remain.” The term seems spectacularly apt for our moment, but also elusive. It could be bureaucratese for Brexit, or a crappy slogan against it. It’s actually just British for permanent residency. The term is especially confusing if you are from California where “leave” never really means permission, but always depart, go, exit, etc. And “indefinite” doesn’t exactly add any clarity. But then we get to “remain.” We all agree what remain means, right? Apparently it’s supposed to be a good thing.

To be honest, having to apply to be left to remain indefinitely isn’t so bad. I’ll be allowed to stay here and, thus, not lose my job. Still, though, I am required to take this test. It’s called “The Life in the United Kingdom” test, and anyone who meets certain eligibility criteria and wants to remain here has to pass it. Once that’s over with, my employer will garnish my salary for two to three years until I’ve paid them £10,000. That’s how much it’s going to cost for me, my partner, and toddler to remain here indefinitely. The dog rides for free. The university I work for says I have to cover this sum myself (I can’t), but they are happy to float me a loan. It’s funny, I thought I would stop accruing debt to universities once I started working for one full time.

To take the “Life in the United Kingdom” test, you go to a test center and pay fifty pounds. I’ll have forty-five minutes to answer twenty-four multiple choice and true/false questions. If I answer at least eighteen of them correctly, the test supervisor will hand me a “Pass Notification Letter,” giving me leave to apply to remain indefinitely. I can retake the test, so failing isn’t a problem as long as I have another fifty pounds to spare and at least seven days left on my visa.

I’ve read that about a third of people fail the test. The questions aren’t hard, but they can be tricky. Here’s one:

What must police officers do?

A. Be rude and abusive.
B. Obey the law.
C. Make a false statement.
D. Be politically neutral.

Come on, there are at least two answers to this one.

Most of the questions aren’t meant to fool you. This being the UK, the pass rate is distributed in radically unequal ways. Close to 100 percent of test takers from Australia, the US, and Canada pass the first time, compared with under 50 percent from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Bangladesh. The “Life in the United Kingdom” test is basically the Home Office’s shitty version of a pub quiz while being at the same time an allegory for everything that has at this late date come to a head, for the shifting borders and labor regimes that decide who can come, who can stay, and under what terms. It’s a language proficiency exam disguised to “give you the practical knowledge you need to live in this country and to take part in society.” Supposedly everyone on the New Statesman masthead once took this test for kicks and failed. Go figure.

What, according to the test, do I need to know to “take part in society”? A friend of mine got a question about binge drinking, another one saw something about forced marriage. There might be questions about the plague, Habeas Corpus, television licenses, Mary Quant, the Welsh Rebellions, “rain stopped play” in cricket, the Bayeux Tapestry, the rule of law, golf, cops, Quakers, the shamrock, the Home Secretary, D-Day, the Good Friday Agreements, Bobby Moore, Brit Pop, daffodils, organ donation, the Ulster Fry, tobacco, Kate Winslet, pantomimes, and the “swinging” sixties. I know this because all this stuff came up on a sample test I recently took. I failed it. Who was Bobby Moore?

My sample test came as part of the Home Office’s “Official Study Guide,” which makes for an interesting read, especially the history section. Here are some of the highlights.

After a thousand years of royal weddings, we get to what’s called modernity. It’s at this point I learned that “the slave trade” has a place in the United Kingdom’s “long and illustrious history,” though Team GB’s complicity gets rendered in the passive voice, as in: “Slaves from West Africa were taken to America in horrible condition on British ships.”

On the bright side, “working conditions” for children in factories started to improve around the mid-nineteenth century.

As for “the Empire,” here’s what I now know:

In the early 20th century, people began to ask questions about the future of the Empire. Some thought it should continue to grow because it brought wealth to the UK and benefitted the world. Rudyard Kipling wrote books and poems reflecting the strengths of the Empire.

Others thought it was a drain on resources because of conflicts and countries’ growing desire for independence. By the second half of the 20th century the transition from Empire to Commonwealth was orderly for the most part, as countries were granted their independence.

“Rudyard Kipling.” “Drain on resources.” “Orderly for the most part.” Check. Check. Check.

LGBTQ+ people don’t exist in this history, and migrants from the West Indies and South Asia only arrived here after being “invited” following WWII to fill some job openings. When it comes to “problems in the economy in the 1970s,” I’ll need to remember that “some people thought the unions were too powerful.” There’s no Cable Street and no miner’s strike and history concludes in 2010. This means Mark Duggan is still alive but so is Maggie Thatcher. David Cameron leads a government with the Liberal Democrats. (One sample question asks whether “the Communists” were party to this coalition.)

Oh, and I almost forgot, fuck the Liberal Democrats. That’s not on the test.

The guide doesn’t mention how the European Union gallantly willed the UK into the inclusive, vibrant, and flourishing island we all love and know it to be. Russian trolls probably, if they were operating when the guide was released. It is dated 2013 and blissfully unaware of Brexit. It’ll be refreshing to have something in my life the next two months that doesn’t have an opinion. But then I turn to the first sample test, and the very first question asks: “What festival is celebrated on 31 October?” This is not a question we will easily escape, nor does it seem we will reach said festivities without a healthy portion of prorogue-ing, a Queen’s Speech and #GBBO. But let’s save that for the next letter.