If you want to understand the mood of modern Britain, James Hawes’s novels of middle class fury are not a bad place to start. Hawes’s heroes are middle-aged men, whose dreams have collapsed. They want the nice, “normal” middle-class homes and secure jobs their parents received as a matter of course. But Britain is not offering them normal anymore. Normal is a foreign country to which they can never return. They are harried and broke. They work in dead end teaching jobs, as Hawes once did. Their homes are in rundown streets, where they must pay vast amounts of money to live in a pokey dump.
The moral of Hawes’s stories is that the puritan virtues of hard work and thrift offer no chance of escape. You have to do something extraordinary to have ordinary comforts. So his heroes turn to crime in A White Merc with Fins or become contestants in a reality TV show in Speak for England, Hawes’s best comedy, which Andrew Davies is filming. Hawes’s plots are absurd, but they speak for England too: for the frustrated, put upon and contemptuous England, which is exploding around us.
In My Little Armalite, the hero tries to become a celebrity in liberal London: a concerned talking head, whose career is made because the BBC and the Guardian make if for him. He finds an abandoned IRA gun in his back garden and persuades his accomplice to pose as an Islamist terrorist. After the accomplice stages a fake assassination attempt at a televised public meeting, the hero turns to the cameras and says what liberals want him to say – that he forgives, that Islamism is all the West’s fault etc. The house in north London, the Guardian column and BBC2 series are his for the taking.
When he first picks up the gun, however, his first thoughts are as about as illiberal as possible. He imagines all the enemies of the middle class, from benefit scroungers to bankers, and thinks:
‘You know what this country needs? A real bourgeois armed uprising at last! A black, bloody insurrection of the hard-working, over-taxed and unbenefited. A dictatorship of the normal suckers. Merciless with revolutionary discipline against all who utilise tax shelters or vandalise bus shelters. Down with dealers, in drugs or securities. Let fairness prevail on pain of summary execution. Welcome to the Day of Judgement, roll up and get your low-number party cards, all ye who never lied to social security or sat down with a tax barrister, and let our battle-cry be: righteousness!’
Hawes wrote this just before Lehman Brothers went down, but he might have written it yesterday. A righteous revolution is striking at all who want public money. Bankers, benefit claimants, immigrants, BBC executives, tax-dodging corporations, MPs… Anyone on the take is for it, even though the grounds for popular fury are often dubious to say the least.
George Entwistle received a redundancy payment of a year’s salary. This is the standard compensation package in secure, professional jobs. But then as Hawes understood, most people are not in secure jobs. They receive the miserable statutory redundancy terms. They cannot understand why license fee payers must reward Entwistle for failure. Nor, come to that, have they ever met someone who earns £450,000 a year.
Far from whooping it up at public expense, meanwhile, one third of the City workers who enjoyed the boom have lost their jobs. Conservative writers warn with justice that high finance is going the way of North Sea oil, and we may never see its generous tax revenues again. I don’t think the public will listen. The City showed how disconnected it was from the country, when it carried on paying bonuses after the crash. If it had had intelligent leaders in charge, rather than money-grubbing fools, they would have told their employees that there could be no bonuses for a few years; that they could not take taxpayers’ money and expect to carry on as if nothing had happened. Instead, the bankers chose greed over political caution, and turned the nation against them.
As for benefit claimants, the cuts the government imposes on them are equally stupid. The state cannot force the unemployed into work when there is no work to be had. As for immigrants, most want to work not scrounge. As for MPs, their £65,000 salary sounds a lot. But MPs must have a home in their constituencies – God help any who do not – and a London home too. Sixty five thousand pounds is not such a grand sum in those circumstances. Hence they played the system. Of course they did.
Is the British revolt counter-productive, then? I’m not sure about that. However messy and occasionally brutal Britain’s clean out of the institutions is, we have to do it, and keep going. (The law will be next, I predict.) But it is certainly hypocritical. MPs, journalists, bankers all have the right to complain that their critics would have done what they did if they were in their position. They can protest that Britain is punishing many for honest errors; that their accusers fiddle their taxes, pay with cash rather than cheques, and complain with unblushing piety when the state threatens their tax credits or child benefits.
But what did they expect? What country did they think they were living in? This is Perfidious Albion, and if you do not understand that the English can turn on you with a hypocritical ferocity, you should never have pocketed their money in the first place.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.