Tomorrow Will Be a Good Day

The country is battered and exhausted. Under almost every conceivable metric, people are worse off than they were in 2010. Food bank use has increased fifty-fold. The number of people on NHS waiting lists has more than doubled. Child poverty is up and average child height is down. Every single river in England is polluted with untreated sewage run-off. That isn’t hyperbole. Every single river in England, and most of its coastal waters, are full of shit.

UK general election preview

Theresa May campaigning last week, captured by Ring camera

In recent years, the UK has produced a startling number of films in a genre I like to think of as “the olds get their mojo back.” They are titled things like The Last Bus, or The Great Escaper, or The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and generally feature an old codger, vital in youth, long since sunk into routine and despondency, as events pull him back to the surface for one last hurrah. They are, needless to say, transcendentally ignorable, which is good because if they weren’t they would be something worse: pitiable. While each of their subjects trudge across the British landscape toward a type of narrative dignity, in the aggregate they simply protest too much. These are not confident films. They have a bleating, desperate quality, as if they cannot themselves forget that the unlikely feats they portray are simply not enough to redeem (or even distract from) the decrepit society in which they take place.

Britain’s fixation on geriatric redemption found a living host during the pandemic. On April 6, 2020, a few weeks into the UK’s first Covid lockdown, a 99-year-old man began to walk laps of his garden in Bedfordshire. Ducks in the pond, trees emerging into leaf—yet the bucolic English scene belied an atmosphere of terror. The virus was everywhere. The prime minister had been admitted to hospital. The Queen, in a special broadcast, had invoked a wartime Vera Lynn song in an attempt to assure the nation, “We will meet again.” The old man began to walk. He was slow; he hobbled, assisted by a walker. Down to the end of the garden and then back up again. Each step was an effort, but he was determined. After his first lap he embarked upon another. Then another. Soon, everyone in Britain would know his name.

Thomas Moore, or Captain Tom, as his brand came to be known, was the sensation of pandemic Britain. His sponsored walk to raise money for local NHS charities, ten laps of his garden in the ten days leading up to his 100th birthday, induced a viral mania more intense and more packed with absurdity than any of his fictional cousins. His final day walking was accompanied by a guard of honor. By then, public donations had exceeded his initial one-thousand-pound fundraising goal by roughly thirty-two million pounds. Buses and trains were named after him. A police dog was named after him. He landed a number one single (a cover of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”). Nearly a million people signed a petition for him to be knighted, and he was. Boris Johnson, then the prime minister, implored us to stand outside the houses in which we were sequestered and clap for him, and we did.

In many ways, this reaction wasn’t surprising: Moore was something out of marketing fantasy. A Second World War veteran, he had served in India and Burma, was possessed of an iconic age and a kindly, mischievous face. Even before the pandemic and the subsequent one-two debacle of Boris Johnson’s ignominious ousting and the short-lived Liz Truss disaster, Britain had been having a rough time of it: a sluggish economy, run-down public services, rampant cronyism, cynically stoked culture wars, and bitter divisions over Brexit. Captain Tom was, apparently, the point of light we could all agree on. “It is clear Captain Tom’s appeal spans generations,” reported the BBC, in one of its many breathy write-ups. For a while there, they weren’t wrong. You could buy both a bottle of gin and a children’s picture book emblazoned with his image.

The Captain Tom phenomenon, I have often thought, feels symptomatic of the British government’s unraveling rule: frenzied, cynical, nostalgic to only farcical ends. This never more so than in the lead-up to the current general election, which will be held on Thursday, and which the Conservative Party, in power since 2010, will lose.

That they will lose is, by the way, not a take. No one paying attention will be surprised when it happens. As much as any future electoral event can be settled reality, this one is settled reality: the Tories are going down. Rishi Sunak, their leader and the current prime minister, is in freefall, unburdened by democratic mandate, coherent policy agenda, charm, wit, campaign instincts, or friends. His party is shedding votes to everyone organized enough to field a candidate. One large poll has them cut down to seventy-one seats. Another to sixty-six. Even the most generous predict they will only retain numbers in the low hundreds. For those unfamiliar with Parliamentary arithmetic (326 is required for a majority), any of these figures represent an existential loss. Over the past few weeks, Conservative staffers have developed the slightly hysterical demeanor of people who have suddenly grasped how close they are to the edge, and just how deep and inky-black is the abyss. When Nigel Farage, Britain’s blokey anti-immigration provocateur, announced his intention to run as leader of the Reform party, threatening to split the right-wing vote, one apparently texted: “the party’s fucked.”

They are. Until recently you could still find the odd Telegraph columnist or bullish MP willing to argue otherwise, but it has been obvious for three years, and completely undeniable for two, that the Tories are fucked. After the Covid scandals, when government officials were caught breaking lockdown rules and partying, the cards would have needed to fall just right for the party to be saved; after Liz Truss’s brief and disastrous tenure, in which she spearheaded un-costed tax cuts for the rich and crashed the pound, nothing short of divine intervention would have sufficed. Neither has been forthcoming. Since these twin disasters, nothing the party has done has shifted the polls in any meaningful way. Brand relaunches have fizzled. Policy announcements have been greeted with mockery and skepticism. Defections to rival parties are rife, and more Tory MPs have now decided to stand down before the election than before Blair’s landslide 1997 victory. The public have made up their minds. If there is surprise to be had, it is in the sheer scale of the fall since the previous election.

Back in 2019, Boris Johnson had won the Tories an eighty-seat majority in the commons. The Labour Party, led for the second time in a general election campaign by the veteran leftist Jeremy Corbyn, slunk back to the opposition benches, reduced to a mere 202 seats—their worst result since 1935. Corbyn, who had over-performed in the snap election called two years earlier by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had by this time become freighted by a long-running antisemitism scandal, showed wear under a relentlessly hostile press, and struggled to unite a mutinous party under his leadership. Against May, who was awkward, uninspiring, and had been consumed by the inter-Tory politics of implementing Brexit, Corbyn had landed blows by articulating the need for genuine change. Against Johnson, whose messy hair, entitlement to power, and hi-lo banter (he was just as likely to say “banter” in any given sentence as he was to say “Pericles”) lent a certain promissory levity to a country still riven by divisions over Brexit, he seemed tired, compromised, and unsafe. A tranche of northerly, traditionally Labour-voting seats in the so-called “red wall” (a term I had never heard until election night and which is widely understood to have been made up so commentators could say that it had crumbled) abandoned the party. Johnson had promised an end to Brexit infighting, a program of “leveling up” for deprived areas and forgotten towns. The country went for it. The incoming decade seemed as likely to be as dominated by Tory rule as the last. Skip ahead five years and some are predicting the outright extinction of the party. How did Europe’s oldest and most successful political entity, Britain’s “natural party of government,” squander such an enviable position in just a single term?

Two scandals deliver the killing blows, though they are merely the visible parts of a larger iceberg of corruption, cronyism, and contempt. The first was Partygate, when it was revealed that during the lockdowns so haphazardly, yet so harshly, imposed, the government’s inner circles had not been masking, or social distancing, or contenting themselves with drinks over Zoom. They had been partying. Over a ten-month period, while citizens had been confined to their homes, receiving huge fines for minor breaches of protocol, or being denied access to their loved ones’ deathbeds, Johnson and his pals had been partying. Wine Fridays, drinks in the garden, Johnson’s own birthday, a knees-up on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral: no event, it seemed, had been too large or too small to warrant a knees-up. Maybe slippery survivor Boris might have been able to ride it out if he hadn’t lied to the House of Commons—denying categorically that any such events had taken place, denials that were subsequently made ludicrous by loads of video and photo evidence. But he did, and he couldn’t.

The second was the entire existence of Liz Truss. Even after Johnson’s downfall, a new Conservative leader, one who could successfully distance themselves from the previous administration’s scandals, might have been able to restore trust. Instead, the Party embarked on a messy, ill-tempered leadership contest. Over the course of seven unbearable weeks, during which the general public could do nothing but spectate (only party members could actually vote) two candidates emerged: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Of the two, Truss appeared by far the more unhinged, and so she was duly elected. The UK had its third prime minister in as many years and everyone had to learn what was meant by “Tufton Street,” the hub of libertarian think tanks that had fostered her path through the halls of power. Famously, though, they didn’t have long to learn, because as soon as its economic policies were set in motion the economy tanked, the pound crashed, government bond yields skyrocketed, and the lettuce cam, a stunt by the Daily Star that pitted a supermarket lettuce’s shelf-life against Truss’s political survival, went global.

Truss was in Downing Street for forty-four days, the shortest tenure of any prime minister in the country’s history. Her budget stunt opened up a forty-point polling deficit with the Labour Party that recovered to twenty and has remained stubbornly at that level for two years. Her challenger, Sunak, was meekly installed as PM, without even the fake mandate of his own party. He inherited a factional, warring, humiliated government and was tasked with righting the ship. If the Johnson project’s genius was to deliver the Tories from themselves, then this task was the Sunak administration’s tragedy. He has succeeded in calming the chaos of the two previous prime ministers, but this has only allowed the public to join up the previous fourteen years and see them for what they have been: a complete and utter disaster. The country is battered and exhausted. Under almost every conceivable metric, people are worse off than they were in 2010. Food bank use has increased fifty-fold. The number of people on NHS waiting lists has more than doubled. Child poverty is up and average child height is down. Every river in England is polluted with untreated sewage run-off. That isn’t hyperbole. Every single river in England, and most of its coastal waters, is full of shit. Corruption scandals have become so commonplace that the Tories no longer even recognize them for what they are—in just the past few weeks, it has emerged that, prior to Sunak announcing the election, multiple party members took out large bets on when it would be held.

Captain Tom had a sort of catchphrase: “Tomorrow will be a good day.” He told it to BBC Breakfast during his first major interview, and it became the title of his #1 best-selling (ghost-written) autobiography. The phrase is meant to sound, I think, generally hopeful and uplifting, but it’s not difficult to hear in it the same prissy cope that attends Harold Fry and his ilk. Especially as the Captain Tom story, in the time since his rise to national treasure, has been anything but.

It began with a trip to Barbados. Following his walk, British Airways donated tickets to Moore and his family because it had, apparently, been a lifelong dream of his to visit. I imagine that the airline didn’t exactly mind the high-profile passenger in the middle of the pandemic travel downturn, even if it’s sort of difficult to see exactly what a 100-year-old man would get up to on the palm-lined beaches of the Lesser Antilles. The point is not that everyone was a bit confused as to why he was going. The point is that he went, got Covid, and died. Cue a great outpouring of grief and another spasm from our obsession. Boris Johnson called him “a hero in the truest sense of the word.” The BBC presenter Nick Knowles suggested the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, since 1999 reserved for new sculpture on a rotating basis, should be turned over permanently to a statue of the man. His family set up the Captain Tom Foundation, to honor his life, promote his legacy, and provide support to the elderly.

Here is where he becomes a fuller avatar of contemporary Britain. There were always a few kinks in the Captain Tom story. For one, it was never quite the natural phenomenon the adoring headlines claimed. Captain Tom’s daughter, Hannah-Ingram Moore, had worked in brand consulting, and it was she who recognized the opportunity Tom represented and who put word out through her networks and alerted the media. It was the Ingram-Moore family who, early in the Captain Tom phenomenon, trademarked his name. Get that bag, I suppose, but as the more visible aspect of the man’s work was charitable, there was always some disquiet over the for-profit aspect of his brand. And, apparently, some confusion. In June 2022, the charities commission began an investigation into family members’ relationship to the financial aspect of the foundation. They had begun construction of an extension to Captain Tom’s house, ostensibly to better serve the foundation’s charity work, but this extension turned out to be a big hot tub and pool house, far larger than the planning permission for which they had applied. It had to be demolished. The faint smell of the con began to linger around the Ingram-Moores, and public figures, once so eager for a piece, started to keep their distance. If you go to the foundation’s website today, you are confronted by a single paragraph, which begins: “At this moment in time, the sole focus of The Captain Tom Foundation is to ensure that it cooperates fully with the on-going Statutory Inquiry by the Charity Commission. As a result, The Captain Tom Foundation is not presently actively seeking any funding from donors.”

Since at least the 1960s, journalists, politicians, and academics have repeatedly contended that Britain was in terminal decline—the narrative has at times gone into remission, such as in the late 1990s and 2000, the era of “Cool Britannia.” Those are distant days. To grapple with the Captain Tom saga is to glimpse, to adapt a phrase from Philip Roth, the indigenous British berserk: a country gone haywire, helplessly corrupt, desperate above all for symbol, its last scraps of 20th-century martial pride picked over and inflated to grotesque proportions like some kind of mad loaves-and-fishes parable rewritten as cautionary tale. The tendency of everything, everything it sells as positive to degenerate into some kind of obvious scam.

During this period of Tory implosion, the Labour Party, Britain’s traditional party of the left, has successfully rebranded itself as the grown-ups in the room. “Oppositions don’t win power, governments lose them,” goes the maxim, and while there is certainly strategy for the opposition in occupying this role, it is also true that Labour have committed to little and allowed the truism to play out. Sir Keir Starmer, their leader and the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, has focused relentlessly on the chaos of the past few years, promising order, professionalism, and stability at the expense of many of the party’s traditional causes. Out are commitments to green investment, new taxes on top earners, abolishing the House of Lords, abolishing caps on benefits for multiple children; in are plans for “consequences” for those not looking for work, a “border force command” to curb migration, and skepticism about teaching “gender ideology” in school. In moving the party to the center, Starmer draws obvious comparisons to Tony Blair and New Labour. But he is more cautious, less a conscious reformer, more a managerial presence. On the level of rhetoric and image, if not policy ambition, he invites comparison to Labour’s postwar prime minister Clement Attlee, a man once described by Churchill as “a very modest man . . . who has much to be modest about.” But he is also ruthless—under his leadership the Corbyn left has been unceremoniously marginalized, deselected, and run out of the party. Starmer’s lawyerly, technocratic approach has been effective against the Conservative’s increasing disdain for the rules, less effective in articulating a hopeful, genuinely transformative future for the country. The party’s recent manifesto promises much in the way of new committees and regulatory bodies, and little in the way of investment or increased public spending. The party’s leaflets and membership cards now come branded with the Union Jack. Yet there are causes for hope, too—a pledge to apply tax to private schools for the first time is quietly radical, to judge by the frothing reaction in the Tory press. And the incoming Labour cabinet promises to be the most working-class, as measured by educational background, in the country’s history.

Personally, I am stuck between the necessity of this hope and the insistence of my doubts. The Starmer offer is less one of modernization or transformation, and more the initial promise of Captain Tom writ large: a still point in a disordered world, an appeal to a traditional, humble Britain of basic decency and public service. Can you simply promise these values without ever committing to any of their occasions? It is not clear if the way Britain has become does not mandate the eventual reality of Captain Tom and his family’s demolished hot tub: some sort of path, however winding, however initially unlikely, toward an obvious scam.

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