I just arrived in London on my way back to the States, picked up the Times of London and could not put it down.
For those who are curious, here’s some of what’s being talked about in the DisUnited Kingdom, as filtered through the eyes of one very interested passerby.
Not only has David Cameron resigned effective in a few months, but Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is resigning en masse. One member of parliament quit yesterday “early enough to make the Vicar’s sermon,” wrote brilliant columnist Patrick Kidd, “and by the time we’d reached the Eucharist” another had followed.
It’s hard to believe Corbyn will make it through the day. The major reason for the mass walk out right now, at a moment which would seem a prime occasion to capitalize on the Conservative-led crisis, is that Corbyn was strangely silent on Remain, which many believe was a major factor in Leave’s success.
Many articles express frustration that Prime Minister Cameron does not seem to have had a plan in mind for the eventuality that he has been facing for months. And even more bizarrely, Boris Johnson, a main voice for the Leave movement, appears to be in much the same predicament. There is a sense that no one is really in charge just now and might not be for a while. Also, there’s that very British (and very wise) call to stay calm and carry on.
Some M.P.s have pointed out that the referendum is not binding and are suggesting the Parliament ignore the result. One such M.P., David Lammy—who is apparently also known in the United Kingdom for answering a TV quiz show question “Who succeeded Henry VIII?” with “Henry VII”—is now the subject of a recall petition led by a columnist at another paper.
“He should be removed as M.P. for Tottenham,” the petition reads, “and replaced by a set of plaster garden ornaments—an otter with a fish in its mouth, a heron and a gnome with a fishing rod.” No matter how down things might seem, the British sense of humor prevails.
There is concern that the European Union is moving too fast in insisting that the United Kingdom begin the exit process immediately, that a rush to the exit is both likely to create deeper long-term problems and may also be missing some important movement going on in the U.K. Already circulating among some in the Leave camp (including Daniel Hannan, one of the Leave movements strongest spokespersons) is the idea that based on the fact 48 percent voted to remain, perhaps the United Kingdom should compromise and adopt the sort of associate status given to Switzerland. Which is to say, the U.K. is good with immigration that gives them skilled workers, but no thanks to the rest.
How nice that will be for them, especially since migrants headed to England are already stopped by treaty in France. They’re piling up now in camps in Calais—a practice that France is now clamoring in some quarters to end. (Of course, the issue of what any of this would mean for the 4,500 refugees and migrants themselves, many of them escaping certain threat in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, goes unexplored.)
The strongest “pro-punish” country in the aftermath of the U.K. Leave vote, France, is also proposing with Germany to use this moment to create a stronger, more politically unified Europe. “It is the responsibility of France and Germany to take the initiative,” French president François Hollande stated over the weekend, “because we have shown that from misery, horror and war we were able to build a strong friendship.”
However you feel about that idea, the European Union faces significant internal challenges outside the United Kingdom, with strong voices proposing to leave as well in some countries (including France) and others demanding change. Now is maybe not the moment to say, “Let’s force everyone to get closer.”
Another report talks about the rise in hate crimes towards Poles and Muslims this weekend, with people of color being beaten and taunted by passers-by who have been saying awful things. One Conservative politician described the activity as pro-Brexit people saying, effectively, “Look, we voted Leave, it’s time for you to leave.” Some of those being persecuted have lived in the U.K. for generations.
As we all know, because the media just can’t quit him, Donald Trump is in the U.K. these days, and has spent zero time meeting anyone of significance, a point the local press has noted, though in the piece I read it was more with bemusement than offense.
But of course he had plenty of time to talk to reporters. Trump has told them the European Union is about to die, perhaps will do so even before Scotland can secede. (Frighteningly, in another article George Soros is quoted as fearing something pretty similar.)
More striking though, to me, was this comment from Trump, complaining about those freeloaders in NATO. “So we’re expected to get into World War III and many of these countries don’t even pay their bills.”
First of all, if we were in World War III, would bills really be what we need to be worrying about? But also—and way more importantly for the world, humanity, pretty butterflies and I’m going to say even God—why is the likely Republican nominee for president contemplating World War III? And who does he suspects we are going to “get into” it with?
Never mind, I’m sure this election is going to work out fine all by itself.
Certainly gun control is.
Speaking of unusual public figures, there’s a great piece about Boris Johnson, heir apparent to Cameron’s job, in which his staff from his time as mayor reveal that Johnson came into office with no plan or even ideas about whom to hire for his municipal staff. In the end they had to hire someone else to run the city because Johnson couldn’t really be bothered: “They decided he would merely be in charge of ‘putting the bubbles in the champagne.’”
One sentence stands out: “The old hands were appalled to conclude he wasn’t running for mayor because he actually wanted to run the thing. He just seemed to want it because it was a big job and it was there for him.” Buyer beware, hotel king supporters. Buyer beware.
There’s another interesting profile of two English communities, one that voted overwhelmingly to stay, another to go. One Labour supporter who voted Leave argues that politicians and journalists alike are not understanding the message being sent.
“Hartlepool’s one of the poorest towns in the country,” she explains. “People here are probably less fearful of the dangers of leaving the EU because they feel they’ve got nothing to lose. I don’t think any politician in Westminster understands what it’s like to survive on benefits or the minimum wage.” Another local agreed, saying he thought those who voted leave were “sticking a finger up to Westminster” as well as Brussels. An insight that seems useful consideration for our own country, too.
The Times also has some interesting stories from abroad.
Like the financial situation in Zimbabwe being so dire that shop owners are now being forced to accept seven different currencies, dollars, yen, sterling, yuan, rand, rupees and pula, often having to convert them without knowing the exchange rate; Italian criminals in an Alcatraz-like jail in the Mediterranean are being employed by an Italian wine maker, so they’ll have a skill when they leave prison—recidivism for Italian criminals is quoted as dropping from 85 percent to an astonishing 20 percent when prisoners are given a skill. It’s hard to believe that’s exactly right, but still, I’ll have a Shiraz.
French secondary students are petitioning for changes in their A levels, after excerpts from Alice Hoffman’s novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things in an English exam perplexed students who did not know that Manhattan was in New York; a second petition is circulating “for students in their last year of school to stop complaining.” Not even kidding.
In Russia, Edward Snowden has attacked a proposed new law that would require phone companies to keep transcripts of all phone calls for up to six months. Obviously, speaking out once again has big risks for Snowden.
There’s also a wonderful story about people within the Kremlin who have come to view Netflix as a C.I.A. propaganda outfit, pumping in American culture to undermine traditional Russian values.
a) Darn it, did Netflix remove streaming of “The Hunt for Red October”?
b) I totally agree—have you seen “Grace and Frankie”???
c) Your move, Mr. Underwood.
And at nearly 1,000 feet above our own Los Angeles, an insane new 45-foot outside-the-building slide created by only 3.2 centimeters of glass allows truly crazy people to almost certainly have heart attacks and die.
The business section has talk of “referendum drag,” how the months of waiting have led to a decline in investment and growth. Hard to believe that trend will change anytime soon.
The life section has an astonishing two-page spread on Prince Harry’s longtime former Zimbabwean girlfriend, who the paper repeatedly compares to wild animals, because, you know, she’s from Zimbabwe. Then again, she’s come out of many years of media avoidance to launch a line of jewelry. So yeah, on many levels things are similar to the United States.
But some things in the Times of London are wonderfully different, too, like this unexplained blurb about a family of flowers. “The cranesbills are notable among wild flowers at the middle of the year. There are two very small but attractive members of the family, cut-leaved cranesbill and dove’s-foot cranesbill. Cut-leaved cranesbill lurks in long grass with its pairs of little, deep pink flowers that gleam out from among the grass stems or are hidden by them. It has instantly recognisable deep-cut, star-like leaves. Tufts of dove’s-foot cranesbill may grow near them beside a footpath. This has similar pairs of flowers but they are a pale pink. It can be recognized by touch, since the lobed leaves feel very soft and wooly with their soft white hairs.”
Not everything is about politics, thankfully.
Though it’s also true, it sure would be nice if some day the Leaves and the Remains and the Republicans and the Democrats and the “migrants” and the “citizens” and every other divide we can think of could all remember how to appreciate one another’s soft, woolly colors the way this writer did.
In London as everywhere else, we live in hope.
Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent.