There’s a segment of the British middle class who have been drawn into public life in response to Brexit and the collapsing centre. Prior to 2016, this group was largely satisfied with the status quo. They were pursuing professional jobs and their political activity involved incremental challenges to current policy; through academia, law, journalism or lobbying, advisory, consultancy and think tank work. Most of their engagement, though intensive intellectually, did not involve working in the public eye or trying to mobilise large groups of people in protest. If they wanted to change something, they’d contact a colleague in Westminster, arrange a policy session or luncheon, or lodge a formal legal complaint.
2016 changed that, as the status quo; liberal, market oriented, based in globalised trade and open borders for the wealthy white nations, began to collapse. Institutions that had previously been taken for granted as the birthright of a political class: free movement, legal protection, and most importantly, influence in reform and legislation, waned rapidly. At the same time the Labour centre lost substantial ground and control of the party to an insurgent Labour left, losing the liberal class its most numerous voice in parliament. A large chunk of this previously docile class has become mobilised around restoring some of these privileges: A decade ago, Alastair Campbell stalked Labour HQ behind the scenes, while Jeremy Corbyn spoke on a platform at the end of a march down Whitehall against Labour foreign policy in Iraq. At a protest on 25th March 2017, their positions were almost reversed, as Campbell took to the stage to oppose Brexit. British centrists have had to ‘go activist’ to defend their inheritance.
While the socialists’ inexperience in the politics of Westminster is pilloried, less attention has been turned to its mirror, the centrists’ inexperience in the politics of the streets. A whole generation of once-contented grey blurs have been forced into the public eye. The result is a parallel of that found in the US as Democrats talk awkwardly of ‘resistance’, going against their intuition to rub shoulders with socialists. Political liberalism is now being forced by the right to share dwindling platforms, airtime, and column inches with the historically extra-parliamentary left, which resents what they see as arrivistes who previously had no skin in the game and veer away from the consequences of their rhetoric.
To a segment of the British left that uses twitter, this process is embodied in ‘The Jolyons’: legal campaigner and former Miliband advisor Jolyon Maugham and vocal anti-Corbyn activist Jolyon Green (among others). Jolyon sticks because it is a name that captures several essences: to them, it reeks of middle class indulgences in child naming and cultural superiority. As an antiquated way of spelling ‘Julian’, the primary classical referent is Julian The Apostate, the Roman Emperor who tried to reconvert the Empire to the dying doctrine of paganism. Some insist that they had never heard the name until now; it’s a Baader-Meinhof effect, or even an entirely novel appearance in the shifting boundaries of shared reality. Whether men like Green and Maugham actually embody the new political landscape is irrelevant: they have become totemic of an entire class of suddenly disenfranchised centrists, who are now attempting to speak the language of protest to restore lost honour. Welcome to a new, tragic, age of activism. Welcome to the Jolyoncene.