“To be honest, I think that the UK has some advantages over the US, politically. For example, in the US, anyone can go into politics; you don’t need any education to be elected, even to the highest levels of government. In the UK, though, you really need an Oxbridge PPE degree to get to the upper levels of a party.” – Me, soon to have egg on my face, as explained below
Last year, when we first moved to Edinburgh, it was the beginning of the festival. A week later, I was in a Krav Maga class when the instructor said to the students, “Who’s already sick of the Festival now?” Everyone but me raised their hands; they were tired of the tourists, they said, and the crowds, and the people handing out fliers, and the inflated drinks prices, and the fact that their favourite restaurants were always full. They hated the whole blasted thing, and couldn’t wait for it to be over so they could have their city back.
But because I was so new, I didn’t know any other Edinburgh, and really, it wasn’t that big a deal – we’d been in urban riots in India, and rush hour in Hanoi, and in Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Crowds weren’t strange to us, and it wasn’t difficult to just weave our way around the tourists in the New Town.
Fast forward a year; we now have an apartment of our own, and we’ve seen Edinburgh in a snowstorm when the streets are silent and still and nobody steps out on the sidewalks. We have, shall we say, perspective; the Festival feels like a terribly planned but otherwise benign invasion of drunks from around the world.
The Fringe feels like that, anyway. I was in line at the Edinburgh International Book Festival waiting to see Yanis Varoufakis interview Jeremy Corbyn. In contrast to the Fringe Festival, which is mostly amateur theatrics, the Book Festival is made up of famous authors speaking to crowds with an average age of 67. I struck up a conversation with a retired computer scientist in the line, and, as we were both about to see Varoufakis and Corbyn, two committed socialists, one of whom may be the next Prime Minister, we started talking about politics, and I made the above comment comparing the US and UK political systems.
He laughed, and we talked about the Trump Tragedy, then filed into the auditorium. There wasn’t much of a buzz around, perhaps because this wasn’t a political rally so much as an intellectual investigation. Stuart – the man I was speaking with – said he was more anti-Conservative than pro-Labour, but nevertheless, we both politely clapped with the speakers entered.
I was reminded of 1999, when I met Bill Clinton. I remember being extremely disappointed that Clinton wasn’t nine feet tall. I wanted the leader of the free world to be a physical beast, to be able to crush our adversaries with a swipe of his mighty paw, yet here was an average-sized human being who was, if anything, only exceptional because he was exceptionally normal. Corbyn was even less impressive, perhaps because he also looked like a normal person instead of a firebrand, but also because he seemed so presumptuous, so absolutely sure of his own rightness and place in the history books.
And from that initial disappointment, it went downhill. There were some obvious attempts, especially by Varoufakis, to get rounds of applause, but almost all of them fell flat; there were a couple that would have worked if the crowd had been full of true Socialist believers, but we weren’t, and the silence that greeted his applause lines was deafening. Corbyn…well, perhaps my expectations got in the way. I anticipated that he’d be well-spoken, well-reasoned, well-presented, but he only delivered platitudes with nothing of any substance. When it came time for questions, a young woman spoke up; she was in university, she said, and she wanted to know whether he had any book recommendations. His answer spoke solely to the importance of youth in Momentum, and the future, and when it was clear he was getting to the end of his answer, people started shouting “Answer the question! Answer the question!”, and he ignored them entirely, never offering a single title.
But perhaps I felt embarrassed. Seemingly in response to my statement about the education levels of the political elite, Corbyn went out of his way to point out that he had never gone to university, and…well, it didn’t appear that he cared, or thought he would have learned anything if he had. He didn’t seem to feel that his education was lacking in any way; he was right, everyone who didn’t agree with him was wrong, and victory and history would absolve him. When asked why Labour wasn’t trouncing the Conservatives, he shouted – and I’m paraphrasing only slightly – “We’re going to win the next election and we’re going to win it big!”
But by that point, the mood of the room had shifted. Whereas the people to my left and right both applauded politely when he came on the stage, they didn’t clap again.
When we were walking out, Stuart said he was unimpressed with both Yanis and Jeremy because they both seemed like they couldn’t imagine any nuances, any shades of grey, any variation from their own world view. Yanis struck me as preoccupied; he sometimes looked at Corbyn, on stage with him, but most of the time he was looking out at the audience restlessly, his eyes shadowed, peering intently at different people. It was only later that I realized that he was probably just looking for cameras, seeking the perfect shot; perhaps he just saw the entire event as a photo opportunity. Later, I had the thought that perhaps it was just me and the people in my section who were disappointed, but then it turned out that others had the same experience; about the same event, Jeremy Sutcliffe wrote that, “the Labour leader is a staggering disappointment in real life.”
But despite the event, Monday was actually pretty great, overall. Earlier that afternoon, my visa was renewed; I have 30 months until I can apply for citizenship. When I walked out of the Corbyn event, I was struck by how amazing it was that I could get a new visa, then see one of the most important political figures in the country, both in the same day. I couldn’t do that in America, or any other country I can think of.
The UK is still a magical place, and Edinburgh is offering us some truly remarkable opportunities, even if its leaders are (only slightly) better than those of America.