[Written By: Andrew Trower]
When Americans use the expression ‘only in America’, they mean to convey the impression that something wonderful or unexpected has occurred; here we say ‘only in Britain’ when something risible or stupid or predictable has taken place. Oscar Wilde said that we are separated by a common language but really what distinguishes us from U.S. is our national pessimism: we are more cynical, more mordant, more derisive, and none of these qualities is really worth having—except in politics.
America, remember, is the country that gave us Gary Johnson, a presidential hopeful who, when asked about the situation in Aleppo, responded ‘and what is Aleppo?’ It also gave us Rick Perry, a man who was once engaged in verbal para-gymnastics with Donald Trump and compared the aureate fraud to a timepiece: ‘even a broken clock,’ he said, ‘is right once a day.’ And then of course—Michele Bachmann, Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin, all of whom were elected, on purpose, and all of whom made one recall the nomination of Caligula’s horse with a sort of nostalgic sigh. And this would be to say nothing of the recent election in Alabama, where the electorate was given a straight choice between a man who wore a suit and another man who wore a hat and rode around on horseback and was a paedophile: the vote was split 48-49.
Only in America? Well, no. One effect of globalisation has been the spread of politics-as-entertainment, of the 24-hour news cycle, of the widespread assumption on the part of electorates everywhere that absolutely anything will do, and of the ascension of nonsense candidates the world over. Consider the current leadership of the opposition, a run-down main-street of backbenchers and cranks and mandarins headed by a man whose supporters are apparently so keen on the boarded-up aesthetic that they are willing to overlook any or all of the following warning signs:
- He has a distrust bordering on contempt for the mainstream media, but endorses the propaganda network Russia Today.
- He keeps on saying nice things about lunatic regimes (Chavez, Castro, etcetera), but stays silent on the protests in Iran, where a moribund oligarchy syphons-off much-needed money to fund, (who else?), Russia Today.
- He does not support the free movement of peoples, and has singularly failed to oppose Brexit.
- He has, as of last month, cancelled the investigation into institutional anti-Semitism in his party, and failed to properly reprimand Ken Livingstone for his sinister remarks about Hitler last year.
In the past, light sarcasm could have been relied on to see us through, and such a candidate would have been laughed off. He is, or his candidacy is, silly. One can just about see how he would appeal to the sort of person who owns a typewriter and wears non-prescription glasses and believes in herbal medicine, but that he should have such widespread support among college graduates is worrying. It means that we have lost our collective sense of the absurd, and that we are close to losing our most valuable cultural asset, a sense of humour. Clive James got it right, as ever, when he said that ‘a sense of humour is just common sense, dancing,’ and the corollary holds that people who lack a sense of humour probably lack common sense, too. Not only does that apply to Jeremy Corbyn himself, it also applies to the millions of voters who see a beard like that and think, as they put it, ‘Jez We Can!’ (Incidentally: who was the last bearded PM? Salisbury?)
When you tell a joke about Jez, his supporters tend not to laugh very much; a few weeks ago, after the “investigation” into anti-Semitism was quietly packed away, I said that he should change his slogan to read: ‘For the Many, Not the Jew.’ You wouldn’t believe how hard certain people try not to laugh at that, or try to miss the point. But I was not remotely surprised last week when the comedian David Baddiel—who criticised Ken Livingstone in a short, incisive article in the Guardian of 6 April—was accused by no less laughable a figure than George Galloway of being a ‘vile Israel-fanatic’, or to read that Charlie Brooker had been the target of a slab-faced and mirthless blog-post in the Canary for his joke about Corbyn, a joke that was too mild and too polite to bear repeating. One begins to recognise the lineaments of a cult on that website, incidentally, where the same article breaks off to detail a mad conspiracy theory and then adds, without irony, ‘But this is not a conspiracy theory.’
Reading this sort of stuff, pondering it, recovering from it, you get the uncomfortable feeling that the whole tenor of political debate has shifted or rather lunged towards the paranoid and the insane. But that would be optimistic. What has taken place is a gradual diminution of our capacity for nuance; the collective funny-bone has become so worn and so arthritic that we are now taking seriously the sort of stuff that, before the age of Trump, would have sent us into spasm. If the day should ever come when we have to decide between Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob-Rees Mogg, I hope we will at least be able to mutter, with sullen resignation, only in Britain.
And we still won’t vote Lib-Dem.
 Perhaps it counts as an irony of history that these candidates all run on platforms of “anti-globalisation”, and by their very existence provide the most compelling argument that has yet been adduced against it.