The stage adaptation of the 1976 satire Network arrived at the National Theatre this week. Bryan Cranston plays Howard Beale, the newsreader whose meltdown is broadcast live on the evening news and who yells that immortal line: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more”.
Everyone seems to agree that the National has timed the production perfectly. The question today isn’t whether or not you’re mad, just what exactly you’re mad about.
A lot of us are mad as hell about the prospect of Britain leaving the EU; a lot of us are mad as hell about the possibility of Britain not leaving the EU; a lot of us are mad as hell about this government; a lot of us are mad as hell about capitalism.
According to Lee Hall, the playwright behind the adaptation, Network mostly concerns the latter: “It’s about the anger generated by corporate capitalism and the media … it is about how that is used, abused and incorporated into the very system that creates it.”
This is nakedly conspiratorial thinking. Yet if today’s various angry brigades have anything in common it is the kind of thinking that Hall indulges in. Brexiteer ultras are vigilant against an Establishment counter-revolution. Upset Remainers insist the 52 per cent were duped into voting Leave by a cabal of conmen. And when it comes to the anti-capitalist conspiracy theories, take your pick: there’s everything from garden variety Marxism to blaming it all on Rupert Murdoch or the Jews or the Illuminati or some combination of those three.
Yet if anything useful has come out of the chaos of the last week in Westminster, it is a reminder that these conspiratorial states of mind are nothing more than coping mechanisms. The most dramatic news events are not part of the masterplan of some shadowy committee or powerful press baron. The altogether more complicated – and unsettling – reality is that incompetence and randomness rule the day. That is the banal truth.
Truth isn’t something that has ever mattered much to ideologues like Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader is so determined to bend events to a narrative that suits his politics that inconvenient facts simply fall by the wayside. Domestically, Tory heartlessness can explain more or less anything. Internationally, it’s only ever American foreign policy to blame for injustice and tragedy.
Similarly, at the extremes of the Brexit debate, no fact can get in the way of a conviction that Brexit will be, depending on who you are dealing with, an unmitigated disaster or a stupendous success. With every piece of inconvenient news brushed aside as an enemy smear, the two alternate realities drift further apart.
But if there is anything to get mad as hell about, it isn’t conniving capitalists or the other side of the Brexit debate. It’s the sheer exhausting unpredictability of it all. A prankster and a sore throat means that a chance for Theresa May to reset her premiership becomes a humiliation. One week Westminster is in the grips of a reckoning over improper and in some cases potentially illegal behaviour. The next it is gripped by the progress of flight KQ100 as it makes its way from Nairobi to Heathrow, where a Cabinet minister will start her final ride in a ministerial car.
Randomness should suit Conservatives. They are supposed to take the world as it is, not as they would like it to be, and adjust accordingly. At their best they are the pragmatists who prioritise what works above all else. Sometimes that means offering radical solutions to big problems, something the Chancellor should do in the budget this month. The housing crisis and sluggish productivity, for example, demand drastic measures.
Corbyn has the advantage of a seductively simple electoral message. The Conservatives have the advantage of having power. With it they might actually be able to fix the problems that have made so many so mad.