A car shaped like a giant hotdog has just crashed through the glass storefront of a menswear shop. As a crowd assembles to figure out what happened, a man dressed in a hotdog costume appears and begins a loud and concerted effort to identify the person who caused the damage. Bystanders point out to him that he is clearly the culprit, a charge he forcefully denies in ever more aggrieved and preposterous ways.
It is a scene from the US sketch comedy programme I Think You Should Leave. If you’ve been on social media this year, you may have seen the much-memed picture of Hotdog Guy saying, “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this.”
The absurdity of this scene may be familiar to anyone following the news these days. British politics is dominated by arguments about who is to blame for the state of British politics, conducted by the very people who made British politics this way. Hotdog Guy perfectly encapsulates our predicament. We’re standing in the middle of the wreckage, watching those who caused it zealously look for the guy who did this.
For all of the leading participants in our long national nightmare, everyone else is to blame. The rhetoric of the right is an upbeat blend of buck-passing for today’s crises – caused by Labour governments of the distant past, naturally – and cheerful fatalism about the disasters that await in the future, when we will simply have to suffer what we must. Those who used the language of treachery and putsch to describe anti-Brexiters are now appalled at the “divisiveness” of social justice protests.
Meanwhile the leading voices of the sensible liberal centre, infuriated by the antics of these shifty charlatans, are similarly preoccupied with pinning the blame on everyone else for their repeated failure to defeat these shifty charlatans. Notorious “spinner” of the truth Alastair Campbell blasts Boris Johnson for lack of a “moral compass”, as this era of hard-Brexiting Tory supremacy becomes the exclusive fault of Dominic Cummings and his liars. Others, such as Peter Mandelson – a man who was forced to resign from the cabinet twice – blame loss of voter confidence in Labour on Jeremy Corbyn and his Lexiters. These are the same people who brought us the Iraq war, and whose primary political project in recent years was the hopeless campaign for a second referendum, which barely laid a glove on the Conservatives while it pummelled Labour.
Their participation in this loud blame game serves only to highlight how little the losers from the Brexit years understand their role in the current crisis. There has been no honest reckoning with the consequences of decisions made in this pivotal period. No post-match analysis beyond slating the other players and damning the referee.
And so we cycle through an identity parade of suspects to find what or who let this happen. The guy who did this might be apathetic voters who don’t do their homework. The guy who did this is Brexit, which broke our politics. The guy who did this might also be the the two-party system and its structural limitations in an increasingly fragmented electoral marketplace. The longer the list of things the Tories are getting away with grows, the more you will hear this talk about the illness in the system. There is nothing that can be done, you see – the patient is too sick to accept the cure.
What cannot be admitted in these laments is that many of those wailing loudest regarded Johnson’s continuing rule as the lesser of two evils, and played their own part in the precipitous decline of our democratic standards. In the past year, in the face of the government’s colossal Covid failures, newspapers such as the Times are full of earnest opinion columns about Johnson’s disappointing record, with very little acknowledgment of their passionate backing for his election. “The fun has gone,” we are told by the likes of Matthew Parris, as “voters who trusted the PM have grown resentful” of him (with no reference to who told them to trust him).
The current political terrain may suit the right better than the left, but this is in part because the right has worked assiduously to shift that terrain in its own favour. As Stuart Hall wrote after Margaret Thatcher trounced Neil Kinnock’s Labour in 1987: “Politics does not reflect majorities, it constructs them. And there is no evidence that Labour’s commitment to traditionalism can construct such a majority.” The right has constructed its own majority by closing borders, “taking back control”, waging culture war and fastidiously avoiding solutions for the economic shifts that generate such profitable resentment.
The answer to this cannot be more lamentations on the unfairness of it all, or misguided pride in our refusal to fight on these terms. Almost no one has come out well from Britain’s unedifying years of Brexit politics – whose central drama still pits sore winners against sore losers. But it’s time to ask harder questions about how we got here. The unpalatable truth is that many actors across the political spectrum made this mess, not just Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings. And our unmeritocratic consequence-free public culture ensures that members of this self-reproducing elite, along with their failed ideas, remain at the centre of our politics.
In the years between the financial crisis and the Brexit referendum, many people who should have known better sheepishly adopted the right’s rhetoric on “uncontrolled immigration” and the “deficit crisis” – which merely served to keep tilting the ground in the wrong direction. These errors are still being repeated.
Keir Starmer’s Labour has mostly rehashed and reheated the same rhetoric about patriotism and borders that plays to Conservative strengths, topped with a dollop of “They go low, we go high” blather. Labour’s main strategy is waiting for the government to topple under the weight of its own failures and contradictions, as seen in Starmer’s many line-manager warnings for Johnson to “get a grip” on this whole Covid thing before he’s sent a formal warning, copied in to HR.
Instead of blaming and waiting, Labour needs to mount an independent offensive to build its own majority by providing solutions to the problems caused by slashed benefits and extractive overlords. It needs to make its case on its own terms, not just as the obviously nicer alternative to Johnson’s evil sheriff.
The Tories have no use for taking responsibility; what government does? But those who hope to vanquish them do, if they are ever to stop repeating the mistakes that freeze them out of power. Until that happens, we are just watching an argument among many men in hotdog suits. But only one is getting away with it.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist