A conservative renaissance of sorts is in full swing. Building on the sea change in public opinion encapsulated by Brexit and Trump’s presidential victory last year, incipient reactionary movements have burst their banks and flooded the mainstream. Far right politicians such as French firebrand Marine Le Pen and synthetic wig model Geert Wilders lead the polls in their respective EU nations. And, more interestingly, 2016 saw the breakthrough of the alt-right; a loose group of far-righters with no one coherent ideology save a love of the word “cuck.”
While Stephen Bannon, Trump’s close adviser and former executive chair of the now-infamous Breitbart, is the most obvious face of the alt-right in America, the figureheads and followers of the movement tend to be younger intellectuals; such as gay-bashing homosexual polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos, and weaponised nasal voice Ben Shapiro. Both court large online followings, where they are lauded for debating and humiliating regressive liberals, and are wildly popular; Yiannopoulos’ recent book deal (although cancelled over outrageous and possibly career-toppling comments on paedophilic relationships) with Simon & Schuster was worth an initial $250,000.
Here in England, where there is entrenched an almost virulent allergy to the glamour of American politics and the showmanship of a figure like Yiannopoulos (Kent-born but flashy and opportunistic, and so bound to be more successful in the United States, the country where a television advert for laxatives has the budget of a Hollywood film), there is a conservative counter-culture of a slightly different ilk.
Inspired by the American alt-right, this British conservative movement finds no popular young voices, but instead appropriates for its heroes the older, overtly patriotic and straight-talking intelligentsia; Nigel Farage, the banner-bearer for Brexit and recipient of the first rodent-to-human mouth transplant, as well as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Peter “No, the other one” Hitchens.
These are seemingly unlikely idols for the youth of this country – but at least the right have idols. It becomes apparent here that, despite the vast majority of young people voting to stay in the European Union, this 75 per cent find for themselves no popular cult icons, at least nowhere near the scale of those on the right.
Sane, strong, and popular voices on the left are simply hard to come by. Working-class hero and professional man-child Owen Jones is a latter-day Gore Vidal in his mind only.
It is hard to think of any current journalist more punchable; perhaps Piers Morgan currently holds the welterweight belt, but Jones’ incessant condescending chatter and penchant for dramatic (and petulant) stage exits may prove tough competition.
Meanwhile, the “Shoreditch Che Guevara” Russell Brand has been rather quiet since 2015. Perchance it has something to do with his sucking up to the first party leader who was desperate enough to come on his show; which has perhaps slightly diminished his credibility as the political voice for drugged-up arts students, disenfranchised Midland housewives, and people who gurn and knock on the glass at aquariums.
Figureheads on the political stage are equally thin on the ground. Jeremy Corbyn, much vaunted and romanticised upon becoming Labour leader, has seemingly been found out as lacking the charisma to organise a game of Scrabble; and, when Remainers needed him most, betrayed the trust of his Islington disciples and ordered his MPs to hand power over to reluctant Brexiteer Theresa May.
Which leaves precisely who in the current Labour party? Chuka Umunna? (Meanwhile, David Miliband will presumably return to us when the sky is rent in two and swarms of locusts descend upon man).
And then, there’s Tony Blair. Like the family dog that nobody wants put down because he defecated on the Ikea carpet and was banished to the garden, nobody is impressed when he struts back into the house at dinner and slobbers all over the table, least of all the kids, who are making the case for a new puppy. A laboured simile, I realise, but the point is that nobody on either side of the spectrum is looking to Blair for hope.
He is political kryptonite of the worst sort, inseparable from the hugely unpopular foreign policies of New Labour and associated with precisely the kind of smirking globalist elite that Britons lashed out at during the EU referendum.
So far so uninspiring in British politics, then. Yet is the situation any rosier across the Atlantic? With Hillary Clinton immobile in her lair, draining the life force from her husband and expending all her energy laying a new clutch of face-huggers, the Democrats look somewhat bereft of heavy hitters who could mount a challenge to Trump in 2020 (though it may very well be Pence by then).
While one may hold out hope for Bernie Sanders, who has displayed admirable intellectual conviction in interviewing the current president’s cabinet nominees (though it would be fair to say that an earthworm could corner Betsy DeVos on the subject of public education), some fear that at the age of 900 his powers are waning and he will soon be forced to retire to his swamp-home on Dagobah.
It is a confusing, if not disheartening, state of affairs. Confusing, because popular liberalism lacks an intellectual voice which commands real respect and deals in real substance (or, may I add, in a convincing pretence of one).
Yet the interests of many young liberals, both in Britain and America, were no doubt piqued by the events of 2016. Perhaps there will soon be light at the end of the horizon for the beleaguered mainstream left; yet for now, the prevailing counterculture is very much a conservative haven.