Those World War II “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters now so ubiquitous in the U.S. were never officially used in the United Kingdom. Brits, it seems, really didn’t need the nudge to stay stalwart during a crisis.
This stiff-upper-lip ethos manifested itself in Manchester, where ordinary citizens joined first responders to help heal, house, transport and connect concertgoers targeted in Monday’s terrorist bombing after an Ariana Grande show.
“The people of Manchester responded incredibly,” said Martin Whalley, British deputy consul general at the consulate in Chicago. “The attack which was designed to divide us has served to only unite us, which just shows the senselessness and stupidity of the attacker.”
The stoic heroics are “pretty typical of Brits,” said Frances G. Burwell, a distinguished fellow for the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “They have experienced terrorism for generations,” she added, citing IRA bombings. “They tend to come together. They tend to not be hysterical about it.”
No, not hysterical, but understandably emotional as citizens admirably rallied in a show of support that made Manchester United more than just a name for the city’s world-famous soccer team.
But divisions, in Manchester and throughout the country, were already playing out in campaigns for the June 8 national election. The Manchester tragedy may make terrorism more of a campaign issue, albeit in a British way.
“I think it’s subtle. But a lot of British politics is more subtle,” said Burwell, speaking from Brussels, where she was covering the NATO summit. It would be difficult, Burwell continued, for Prime Minister Theresa May to say of her main opponent, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, that “he would be a disaster. But she would probably spend a lot of time saying she is a safe pair of hands. … This gives her an opportunity to look very commanding, which she does well.”
May, who became prime minister when David Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote, called the snap election to give her a firmer majority as she enters into difficult divorce proceedings with the European Union that were triggered by last year’s Brexit referendum on leaving the E.U.
The Manchester attack “is firing up Brexiteers in a big way, even though of course E.U. immigration has nothing to do with it,” Distinguished McKnight University Professor of English at the University of Minnesota John Watkins said in an e-mail exchange.
Watkins, writing from Rome, added that the attack’s aftermath “will strengthen the Brexit side of the Tory party even more. But things get tricky. Hard Brexit is NOT in the interest of City financiers and they are a major part of the Tory establishment. And plenty of establishment parties know that keeping trade advantages with Europe will entail continuing E.U. immigration policies. May is really THAT side of the party, not a UKIPer [United Kingdom Independence Party]. I still suspect her hard-Brexit gestures are sops to populist conservatism.”
The Conservative split reflects the Republican Party divisions between Wall Street (“the City” in London) and Main Street’s focus on free trade-triggering deindustrialization. Many similarly concerned in the U.K. heeded UKIP’s call last year to vote “yes” on Brexit.
But now comes the hard part for the U.K., let alone the E.U. And maybe even harder for Labour if it performs poorly.
Should Labour lose, Corbyn may resist resigning as leader, despite calls from fellow members of Parliament. And Watkins believes that Labour may become “pro-immigration with a vengeance” in order to keep key constituencies in cities, but that risks setting the party “at odds with its older Trades Union constituents who nostalgize a white working-class Britain.”
Still, “remainers” remain a potent force, and a recent poll suggested a tightening race. Some Scots may continue backing the Scottish National Party, but support for a new independence referendum is uncertain. And although some may leave Labour because of Corbyn’s fecklessness, it’s uncertain how much that would benefit the centrist Liberal Democrat Party, which supports sticking with the E.U.
But Burwell believes “even those people who voted ‘remain’ are now in favor of moving ahead, so it’s like the people have spoken. … There’s also the British sense of fair play which says, ‘you know, the umpire has made the call; we’re going.’ ”
And, added Burwell, if a major May victory occurs it might strengthen her hand not as much with the E.U., but within the U.K.
“I think what they [E.U. leaders] anticipate is that May will have more flexibility, because she will not be so narrowly beholden to Brexiteers, to those who want a very hard deal,” Burwell said. “She may have more room for compromise.”
But those negotiations now seem secondary to the alacrity of tracking terrorists (and to a growing row with the U.S. over leaks, which is just the latest test to the “special relationship”). Rightfully showing respect to the Manchester tragedy, the candidates suspended campaigning for a few days. But the vote will proceed as planned, which seems fitting for Brits, who’ve shown grit and grace in equal measures in the face of such depravity.
British resolve is an archetype, but it’s “based on something,” said Deputy Consul Whalley.
“I think what the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ stereotypes are exactly that; Manchester will pick itself up and continue to be a great city, that the U.K. will pick itself up and continue. These attacks will never break the British spirit.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.