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Ignore Boris Johnson’s empty ‘optimism’. The real cheer lies on the left | Frances Ryan
Ubanus|Aug. 08, 2019
L ast Saturday afternoon, in a union office in central London, I got thinking about optimism. I was speaking at an event put on by disabled activists to discuss the impact of a decade of disability cuts. I spent an hour listening to people who in recent years have, by any definition, been wilfully neglected: one disabled man sleeping rough and battling with the broken benefits system ; another, an unpaid carer, trying to keep her head above water and help others as social care packages around the country are gutted .
You wouldn’t typically think this was a recipe for optimism. But I came out feeling more hopeful than I had in weeks.
Boris Johnson and his government like to think they have a monopoly on optimism. When Johnson took the keys to No 10 last month, he decried “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters” whose negativity was supposedly enough to block the Brexit project and the rebirth of the nation. He praised those who believe the sheer “pluck” and “nerve” of the British people will ensure a prosperous future.
This brand of optimism is pure performance, like the secondhand car dealer wishing you a smooth ride as he sends you off in a broken banger. It is reminiscent of the thinking that says showing concern for the country’s problems is to “talk down Britain”, while sinking the economy is the definition of patriotism.
Johnson’s supposed “optimism” is hollow, a charlatan’s magic box – and in fact it is deeply pessimistic. It offers no commitment to change for the better, nor a concrete plan for how to get there, instead telling us to survive on little more than faux macho cheer. It is the confidence of people who have never had reason to be afraid, the optimism of people who have never had reason to feel hopeless. That this is being sold to voters who are in real need of help makes it all the more grotesque.
Hope is not blind optimism, and it is certainly not bluster. It is the idea, grounded in reality, that something better is around the corner. Hope – real hope – does not require a leader to ignore or distort the problems of the day but rather present credible solutions.
Up against Johnson and his hard-right government, it would be easy for the left to campaign purely on this threat. In the past week alone, we’ve had the home secretary saying she wants people to “literally feel terror” to prevent them sliding into crime, the Department for Education warn of “panic” in schools at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, and details emerge of how the international trade secretary has been eyeing up weakening the UK’s food safety and animal welfare standards.
Those of us who wish to rid the country of Johnson must offer more, combining honest analysis of the threat of a hard-right government with an optimistic message, full of genuine hope for something different. Sitting among an audience of campaigners spending their Saturday talking about politics, I felt hope not because it’s easy to hear the problems many people are facing – it can feel brutal – but because of being around people who want to find ways to make things better. This is all the more the case in a climate that appears to reward an ever more selfish and unkind politics.
As my colleague John Harris wrote this week , whether it is austerity or Brexit, there is now a palpable fear that “a whole swathe of public opinion has turned cruel and inward-looking, and it’ll take a hell of a shock to push it somewhere else”. The role of politics in this can appear as circular as it is bleak: while certain politicians have been complicit in lighting the fuse on such a culture, it is in their interest to fan the flames. Johnson is offering the most damaging version, dressing up hard-right division and stark inequality in the clothes of cheery optimism.
The left must be the ones to tackle this head on, creating a vision for a different Britain: one of social housing, education as a right, workers with a stake in their labour, a fair social security system, vibrant and empowered communities, reduced inequality and greater wellbeing. Beware any politician who wishes to tell you such ideals are pipe dreams. To suggest Britain cannot achieve this? That is truly pessimistic.
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist and author of Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People
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