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Britain on May Day


Angry and Directionless

It’s not often we get May Day off in the UK. It’s only when it happens to be the first Monday of the month that we get the bank holiday.

No party cares. London, September 2022.

“May Day is the only religious holiday without lies,” observed German philosopher Ernst Bloch.

There are no obligatory May Day celebrations. We’re not expected to dance around a maypole or collect spring flowers in a nearby field.

Maybe films like Midsommar and earlier The Wicker Man have ruined pagan festivals forever.

But the nationalism that dominates our politics is a folk horror story in its own right.

It’s not just a Stonehenge rave that marks the beginning of summer: 1 May is also International Workers’ Day.

Even though the two days have distinct histories, the British right has historically disliked May Day for its pre-Christian roots.

But the right is even more opposed to a day of working-class pride.

Conservatives have long wanted to abolish the May bank holiday altogether in favour of Trafalgar Day.

God forbid we ever acknowledge class in the United Kingdom.

For my part, I’m picking up some nice flowers from my local florist and heading to the Marx Memorial Library for an open day where communists and socialists will be gathering.

I’ll also take some time out today to visit the grave of William Blake.

It’s one week from the coronation, and few people – at least in the media – are allowed to question why we even have a monarchy in this day and age.

Consumer Royalism

Forget May Day. We’re supposed to be buying King Charlie masks from our local supermarket chain – along with Union flag bunting and plastic bowler hats.

This is Tesco’s patriotism. This is consumer royalism.

However, there isn’t much public enthusiasm despite the non-stop royal coverage in the tabloids.

Not only are we expected to celebrate, but we are also expected to pledge an oath of allegiance to the new monarch.

Many Britons are unenthused about the idea of having to pledge anything to the king since this is supposed to be a long weekend.

The Guardian is one of the only national newspapers to criticise the royal family at this time.

This includes a feature series called Cost of the Crown, highlighting the fantastic wealth and exorbitant costs of the House of Windsor.

It’s not the cost of heating Buckingham Palace that is so much the issue as the role of the crown in the organisation of the British state.

The monarchy is a fundamental element of parliamentary sovereignty and, effectively, bestows unitary powers on anyone who can wield a majority in the House of Commons. It underpins our political and national malaise.

A lot of people don’t think the public should be paying for the coronation, given that the king has vast wealth.

But this is a testament to the strange relationship of the public to the head of state. It’s more soap opera fandom than reverence.

No one really believes King Charles III was chosen by God to own our sea beds and open Parliament.

We all know it’s an accident of birth, but many of us are invested in the pageantry and the idea of a tradition that someone, somewhere believes in.

None of this will stop the wall-to-wall coverage of the main event, while a former colony, Sudan, is torn apart by squabbling generals.

But we all get a day off (for which we can all be thankful) whether we spend it eating coronation quiche or not.

State of Disunion

There are many reasons not to celebrate, but that’s why the coronation is a necessary spectacle. The UK is in a lamentable state with a moribund economy and politics to match.

We have a rotten political culture where the opposition has foreclosed itself, while big business pumps sewage into our rivers.

The rot has spread so far and wide even Tory Britain can’t ignore it anymore.

We’re a country of food banks where a small few live in unbelievable extravagance. Millions are living in poverty in the UK, including many children and old-age pensioners, while the super-rich pig out on the best things money can buy.

The Bank of England has the gall to tell working-class people they have to accept they’re going to get poorer. Meanwhile, there is a boom in luxury goods as the super-rich splurge the equity they’ve amassed during the pandemic.

Rather than taking a strong stance against this nightmare, Labour is shoring up its position as the party of the managerial centre-ground. Keir Starmer’s pitch is a return to normality and respectability, not radical change.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is hoping to re-establish a Tory lead over Labour by the next general election. The local elections this week will be a bloodbath for Conservative councils, but the national vote could still be winnable.

The Conservative Party just needs a swing of 3% to hold its majority, whereas Labour needs to secure a double-digit swing just to form a government.

It’s possible Labour will have to accept working with another party if it can’t maintain its poll lead.

A lot of Conservative voters are looking for alternatives and many working class Tories may stay home rather than vote.

Reform UK is soaking up disaffected Conservative voters from the right, whereas the Liberal Democrats are trying to win those same voters over through nimbyism.

The local elections will be a chance for voters to send a message to the government, and this message will be read as a referendum on Sunak.

But it will also show that politics doesn’t end at the gates of Parliament.

Anywhere But England

It’s not all about the House of Commons or even English politics.

The UK is a strange construct of three different countries and one highly contested region, Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Assembly is facing its own election on 18 May – two weeks after the UK local elections. However, it’s possible this vote will not solve the stand-off over the balance of power in Stormont.

As my colleague John Foster wrote in these pages, US President Joe Biden offered billions to Northern Ireland to try and persuade Ulster loyalist leaders to consider forming a government with Sinn Fein.

Biden has even dispatched Joe Kennedy III as special envoy to the province.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to see the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) playing ball with Sinn Fein any time soon. The party of ‘no’ may well fear it will be usurped by other right-wing parties if it concedes too much.

Sinn Fein looks likely to come out as the dominant republican party with a mandate to lead a coalition with the DUP. The problem is that the DUP is unlikely to join such a government.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland may have finally reached a position – via the Windsor agreement – where it can enjoy relatively open trade with the EU and the UK.

But this is too much for hard-line loyalists.

At the same time, voters in Scotland are watching the Scottish National Party (SNP) implode over allegations of misappropriated party funds (and an expensive camper van).

This means Scottish Labour may be about to make a comeback.

However, Labour is unlikely to return to its pre-2015 position and the SNP will remain the largest party at the next general election.

Scottish unionists may be rejoicing right now, but Scottish independence still draws a lot of support in the country.

Scottish Labour still has to distinguish itself from the national party’s brand to build on the SNP’s misfortunes. This is why previous Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard was trying to pivot towards independence.

The party’s new leader, Anas Sarwar, has no such imagination. Sarwar has reiterated the party’s unionist line and belongs to the New Labour school of triangulation, just like Starmer. So we can expect more of the same.

By contrast, Welsh Labour has partly been successful because it has been more independent of Labour in Westminster. First Minister Mark Drakeford has been able to combine civic nationalism with progressive rhetoric and policies.

Drakeford has cut a deal with Plaid Cymru on a long list of policy issues, including council tax and care services.

This is impossible to imagine in Scotland, where Labour is still in denial about the SNP’s dominance.

The SNP will still be the hegemonic force in Scottish politics – for better and for worse – even after this scandal.

While the Scottish Tories are the face of Westminster in Holyrood, Labour is in the difficult spot of defining itself against both the SNP and the Tories.

There is little sign of a great renewal this May Day, but there should be.

The discontent in the UK should be fertile ground for a new politics. But it’s not going to emerge on its own.

Photograph courtesy of Duncan Cumming. Published under a Creative Commons license.