Sun 1 Apr 2018 05.00 EDT Last modified on Sun 1 Apr 2018 09.57 EDT
When Peep Show, a Channel 4 sitcom I was in, was first broadcast in 2003, it was watched by a disappointingly small number of people. Over the many years we made the show, that disappointing number crept marginally downwards. However, the vertiginous decline in television viewing figures surrounding it meant that, by the time the programme finished in 2015, it was a mild ratings hit. Our initial failure, recontextualised in a worsening world, had become a success.
Which brings me to Theresa May. Maybe she’ll do now? What do you think? She used to seem so awful: unashamedly careerist, blandly cunning and not particularly bright. But now that doesn’t seem like the end of the world – instead, everything else does. Suddenly, recontextualised, she looks kind of OK.
I like it that she’s not a crazy-haired blundering incompetent who, while grasping for a soundbite, further imperils British citizens unjustly imprisoned abroad. And that she isn’t a flinty-eyed xenophobe posing as a harmlessly antiquarian PG Wodehouse character. Or one of the legion of suited men you’ve never heard of, who smilingly plod into No 10 whenever a suited man you have vaguely heard of has to resign due to decades of assiduous groping. And I’ll admit it, fusty old centrist that I am, I also quite like the fact that she genuinely shows no signs of antisemitism.
Don’t get me wrong: if there was an election tomorrow, I’d probably still vote for what most people reckon is the more antisemitic of the two main parties, in preference to the one most people reckon is the more racist in other ways. That feels like the public-spirited thing to do: to vote for the ones being racist to the fewest people. Though, of course, antisemites would be being racist to many more people if it weren’t for the success that that prejudice has enjoyed in recent history.
With such troubling choices ahead, Theresa May starts to appear comfortingly familiar. I know what you’re thinking: every day, she seems more floundering, ineffectual and pathetic. And I agree, I like that about her too. Now that the whole “strong and stable government” shtick has been revealed as just the elaborate set-up for a gag to which the current shambles is the punchline, I find her much more sympathetic, even verging on likable. I’m opposed to the government’s key policy, but then so, until recently, was she. There’s a job that doesn’t need doing and, increasingly, it feels like she’s just the person not to do it. (107) add
I’m not saying she’s deliberately screwing up Brexit, a Remainers’ fifth columnist in the heart of government. That doesn’t strike me as her style at all, notwithstanding her shameful history of running through fields of wheat without applying for permission. I think she’s doing her best, dutifully keeping going, possibly as penance for the political hubris that got her into this mess. Plodding on, like small “c” conservatives are supposed to. Resisting unnecessary change, specifically any change to the occupancy of 10 Downing Street.
So I felt sorry for her when I read last week that she’s been forced to give up her ageing BlackBerry and replace it with an iPhone. It appears that BlackBerries, which to someone of my luddite worldview seem to have gone from terrifying icons of modernity to pitiful relics of the past with no intervening period of being normal objects, no longer pass technical muster in Whitehall. The prime minister was the last to relinquish hers, of which she was apparently so fond that she has previously asked officials to get missing keys replaced.
That’s right, she got it mended. She got her smartphone mended. She liked it, she knew how it worked, so, when it broke, she simply had it repaired. Just like used to happen with everything. Now that’s what I call a conservative. Not a Thatcherite, or a monetarist, or a libertarian, or a Christian democrat, or a rightwinger, or even a Tory – but a conservative, an instinctive resister of change.
And now she’s been made to throw her mended BlackBerry away because, for reasons unconnected to the device itself except by invisible signals constantly passing through the ether, it has been found wanting. It’s hard to imagine a greater assault on her conservative vision than that enforced change happening in her handbag, in the palm of her hand, despite her clear wishes to the contrary – despite the fact that she’s a Conservative prime minister and supposed to be able to stop that sort of thing. Why not just send the Queen to open parliament on a quad bike, flanked by robot footmen? (101) add
So, amid baffling and irresistible change, I understand what ignited the blue passport furore. I liked the old passports too, though not primarily because of their colour, but because they were bigger and had a hole in the front through to some paper on which someone official had written the bearer’s name in pen. That was what was great about them and, to my mind, would have been a more appropriate aesthetic cause to fight over: “Let’s bring back writing the bearer’s name in pen!”
Tories are deeply conflicted about this sort of thing. Their inclination towards an unfettered market-led economy relentlessly clashes with the aesthetics of conservatism, with an instinct to keep Britain how it is, or restore it to how it was. Hence the paradox of passports changed back to blue for nationalistic reasons, then manufactured in France because that’s what the unflinching market demands. Hence Theresa May being forced, despite being prime minister, to have a phone she hates. Hence Brexit.
I feel sorry for May because I understand that conservative feeling. I instinctively don’t like change myself. Obviously, it is intellectually absurd to either be in favour of or against change – it all depends on the change. But, emotionally, we all know which camp we’re in. Everyone’s kneejerk reaction is either “Ooh, new!” or “Ugh, new!” Then you think about it properly. Or, at least, in the good old days you did.
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