Though Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has stuck in the wider cultural memory as a great romance for the ages, one of the most important parts of the novel does not deal with pining or misunderstandings or grand love declarations: it is instead when Charlotte Lucas, who had until that point all but become a spinster, tells her friend Elizabeth Bennett that she intends to marry the self-important Mr. Collins, an idea that shocks the independent spirit Elizabeth, but which, for everyone else within the world the characters inhabit, makes perfect sense.
Keir Starmer, whether or not he is the inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s modern reimagining in Bridget Jones’ Diary, has run a campaign much closer to a Mr. Collins proposal than to that of a hunky Colin Firth soaked by the rain. While this is to some measure unfair to Starmer, by all accounts a brilliant legal mind and a politician of some talent, there is a similar underlying message of accepting the safe choice instead of trying your ever-diminishing chances. There are so many worse fates than settling for a man with a nice position with no known huge character flaws, such as an incapacity to stamp down on antisemitism or having no regard for the international laws of warfare; why not cut your losses and accept this decent, albeit boring politician?
It seems like that strategy has paid off. Starmer looks set to win the leadership contest on April 4th by a comfortable margin, having apparently built a wide, if not enthusiastic coalition. This is not to say that there are not dyed-in-the-wool Starmerites among his voters, though they are harder to see, as they tend to be inhabitants of Facebook rather than Twitter, and usually much more sanguine about Remain than the man himself. Instead, much of the Labour membership seems to accept its new leader not with the previous passion of 2015 or 1994, but rather with a sort of fond resignation that implies a long journey back into power, which Starmer himself might not see through.
All of which makes perfect sense when one is working within an assumed framework of the future. The issue, of course, is what happens if instead of being in one genre with a fixed set of conventions and rules, you turned out to be in another, completely different one. What if the Martians from H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds were to appear a century earlier, and destroyed Charlotte Lucas’ carefully planned life? What if, say, a virus were to cause an unprecedented change to the way we live as well as to the economic framework for the foreseeable future? What would happen to the previous promise of stability and quiet?
It is possible that during this turning point, our heroine is struck by a sudden realisation that she does not want to be in this loveless marriage, that she is indeed, a lesbian amazon, yearning to fight Martians with her lover Elizabeth Bennett; that compromise is not essential in the face of total destruction, and that the only way to get through them is by embracing the left’s ideas and passion.
Equally, the opposite is also possible: that Charlotte Lucas will wake up one day, two years after the horrible events of the invasion, and find that she really does love the man she married, that his worst traits have largely disappeared with the shared experience of facing hardship, and that actually, a more careful, collaborative opposition to the government was the correct approach to a tremendously serious emergency.
The issue with unprecedented times is that there are no roadmaps or forecasts that we can apply to the events actually unfolding in front of the public. Many of us do not know how we will act in the next couple of weeks of isolation, let alone how everybody else will act in the next four years. There will be repercussions that are not yet planned for, or even registered as eventual problems – situations for which no prime minister or leader of the opposition can hope to prepare.
This isn’t just to say that Starmer – quite a mature man, but a somewhat inexperienced politician – will need to change and adapt to if he is to remain viable as leader of the opposition, but that even the usual methods of gauging what comes next are no longer valid: polling might look great for the government in one week and terrible in the other; it might show acceptance for a certain type of politics but only until the deadlines for quarantine being lifted are repeatedly missed, or people’s own families start to die, or until they have to deal with issues such as Universal Credit or see the true consequence of years of cuts.
However, the reverse could be true as well – that the Tories will inevitably win in 2024 with the biggest majority imaginable, because this will be the moment Boris Johnson overcomes all the lingering doubts about him, such that no Labour leader could hope to defeat such a popular force.
In a way, even writing pieces like this is an attempt to regain control by trying to predict the future of British politics: the truth is that everything is suspended until it no longer is. According to the scientists, it could take almost two years until we return to something like normality; it will take us far longer to make sense of what has happened and look to the future. This story has not been written. All our narratives run dry. We do not know the ending of this tale.