It feels a bit like today is the end of the world; or, at least, the end of Britain. The general election being held in my home country today feels like the last shot we have at becoming a compassionate, sane country. This is an arrogant fallacy, of course: Everyone who worked to defeat the Tories will still be around tomorrow. But after four years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, which wrestled the party away from the moral absence of Blairism, after a general election and a leadership challenge, it feels like Boris Johnson is the final boss in his whole project. Except, unlike playing Super Mario, you can’t just pick it up and start again, and also you might actually die.
Following American coverage of British news might lead you to think that Brexit is the only problem we have, but this is utterly wrong. Use of food banks is higher than ever. Poverty among children and the elderly has risen. The National Health Service is underfunded, leading to long wait times for emergency and routine care. Local councils have seen their funds gutted, leading to shuttered public programs and facilities, thanks to the politics of austerity—a deliberate, vicious decision to punish and harm those who depend on public services, i.e., the poor. We shouldn’t expect anything else: This is what a Tory is born to do. He is birthed in a country house onto a silk pillow, fed only on pheasant pâté and port, and bundled off to Eton and Oxford in preparation for running the country. He then arrives in Westminster to attack the poor, who have had it so easy.
Jeremy Corbyn has focused on the dark realities of poverty and austerity in this campaign. The party has its Brexit promises—a new referendum with a “credible Leave option” actually spelled out this time—but the campaign has focused on restoring cut social services and, particularly, saving the NHS. Corbyn has warned voters that Johnson would put the NHS “up for sale” to American companies, privatizing and selling off bits of its core functions as part of a trade deal with Trump. The specter of private, American-style health care is enough to turn most Britons’ blood cold. Meanwhile, in a move that has absolutely no horrifying historical precedents, the Tories promise to “tackle” Gypsy camps.
British elections always seem to serve up a few Armando Iannucci-esque moments of absurd and excruciating content, and this one has been no different. Prime Minister Boris Johnson driving a digger labeled “Get Brexit Done” through a brick wall labeled “Gridlock,” followed by a baffled silence. A Tory candidate getting caught on a hot mic trying to set up a known supporter to act like a random member of the public for an interview with a journalist, telling him over the phone, “Don’t make out you know who I am, that you know I’m the candidate but not a friend, all right?” (The supporter ruined the plot to ensure a good interview when he told the journalist that problematic public housing tenants should be given the “cat o’ nine tails” and put in a “pink tutu.”) Just the day before the election, Boris hid in a walk-in freezer to avoid a journalist.
And then there was the disgraceful saga of the boy sleeping on a pile of coats in a hospital, and the Punch That Never Was. The photo of four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr, who was at Leeds General Infirmary with suspected pneumonia, went viral this week. It was a terrible image and an indictment of the dire state of the NHS after years of Tory underfunding—his little arm shielding one eye from the light and an oxygen mask on the ground next to him. On Monday, four days before the election, Boris Johnson demonstrated his characteristic political acumen by refusing to look at a photo of the boy as an ITV journalist tried to show it to him during an interview, eventually putting the journalist’s phone in his own pocket. Nicking a mobile to own the libs.
By way of damage control, the Tories sent Health Secretary Matt Hancock to visit the Leeds hospital. As aides hurried him to his car past the shouting protesters, one of the aides walked into a protester’s outstretched hand. A bit of an embarrassing mistake, the sort of thing you might frown and mutter “watch it, mate” about but forget after 30 seconds of listening to a podcast. Not this time. The story of Bloke Clonks Into Other Bloke’s Hand was reported by some of Britain’s most prominent journalists, including senior political editors and correspondents at the BBC, as a Labour-supporting protester punching a Tory aide in the face. By the time video emerged showing how completely mundane and accidental the incident was—nevertheless described by BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg as a “pretty grim encounter”—several outlets had already run stories describing it as an assault.
What else did the BBC get wrong this time? Oh, only bloody everything, mate. There was the BBC’s write-up of a study on how many election ads were misleading or inaccurate, which presented the report as finding a problem “across the party spectrum,” when the study actually found that 88 percent of Tory ads had contested claims and zero Labour ones did. But, you know, both sides do it. There was the time a BBC journalist interrupted Labour’s shadow education secretary to ask her if she would nationalize sausages, which sounds like a Twitter joke but is real and happened. And there was the disgrace of multiple BBC journalists scoffing at Labour’s promise to plant two billion trees by 2040, a number that is by actual expert estimations ambitious but far from impossible—because, Ooh, isn’t two billion loads? Isn’t that loads and loads of trees? This was the world’s bright shining beacon of independent reporting, rendered incapable and silly by a large number.
It is hard not to be livid at the BBC for this conduct against a backdrop of rising child poverty and a failing NHS. And it is hard not to conclude that there is a certain animating centrism at work in the British media, just as leftists observe in the U.S. media; that they would prefer small-c conservatism—which, in this case, happens to mean capital-t Tories—to the large-scale upheaval of a radical Corbyn government.
I dread a heartbreaking Friday morning, knowing what we could have had and who we could have helped. The children who go hungry. The elderly who need long-term care. That it is even a possibility, let alone incredibly likely, that we might reelect this vile government is an indictment of my awful little country. That at least a third of likely voters are fine with the Tories and everything they stand for makes me want to mail my passport to the bottom of the ocean. (Sound familiar, America?)
We could wake up on Friday to a new future, under the first government that has been committed to helping poor people in decades. Or we could wake up to the same sour, vicious England of Tory rule, where benefits are slashed and immigrants are under threat and the NHS slowly crumbles. There will always be an England, but what kind of England do we want to be?