The opening lines of performance poet Kate Tempest’s People’s Faces express an undeniable truth about England:
It’s coming to pass
My country’s coming apart
The whole thing’s becoming
Such a bumbling farce
Was that a pivotal historical moment
We just went stumbling past?
Here we are
Dancing in the rumbling dark
So come a little closer
Give me something to grasp
Give me your beautiful
The morning news bulletins that punctuate the music programmes in which her work appears tell of political developments that are increasingly Kafkaesque in their arbitrary and incomprehensible nature. The country has become a bumbling farce in which government and opposition seem to strive to outdo each other in absurdity.
As the lyrics unfold, Kate Tempest retreats from the public sphere to private emotions, stressing the importance of the private and the personal over against the public and the political. Sometimes, the private and the personal sphere has become the only place where conversations without rancour and resentment can take place. Discussions that stray into the public sphere lead to a retreat into entrenched positions where protagonists revisit arguments that have been repeatedly rehearsed. Thus it is that People’s Faces offers the beauty of personal relationships as an antidote to the venom that has poisoned politics.
The country may be a bumbling farce, but retreating from political discussions in the interest of harmony is not something that can continue indefinitely, every divided country has to reach a point where people talk about what it is that divides them and how that division may be healed..
The internecine conflict that now characterises English public life did not come from nowhere. A deep sense of alienation among white working class communities grew out of a sense that there was a liberal elite that had no regard for those communities; that there were people who pursued their own values and ideologies without showing awareness that those attitudes were not universal; that the liberal worldview was something far removed from those who held much more traditional and conservative views.
If there were a national narrative around which people could unite, then perhaps a reconciliation would be possible, but England has no such foundation myth, no story which people share. Instead, since Elizabethan times there has been a tradition of compromise and a definition of identity as being what one is not.
Progress from a situation where cordial relationships are only possible through focussing on people’s faces depends on a real national conversation in which people set aside rancour and listen to what is being said.