The Empire and the City
In On Living in the Old Country (1985) Patrick Wright argues that Britain is a place where the past and the voices of the dead are crowding out those of the living and the present. We can see this being lived-out in the archaic elite malfunctions of the Conservative Party election campaign, which somehow, miraculously, is worse than Theresa May’s 2017 debacle.
Commentator Gerry Hassan has written: “There is a serious connection between the rise of a form of zombie capitalism and a zombie national imagination, of the power of the ‘living dead’ and the rise of a morally degenerative , antisocial form of capitalist order.”
This is what we are seeing played-out daily in television studios as bumbling politicians – forced out of their clubs and bars – collide with the fresh air of the real world.
Reviewing Wright’s book Paul Addison writes:
“Wright detects a strand of Utopianism: the conviction that old England still exists around and beneath us. The past can be recovered and restored: we can touch it, or stroll around it, wherever the material remains of the past are to be discovered. This reconstruction, Wright argues, is a reworking of patriotism. He draws a fascinating parallel between the re-enactment of the English past in the Falklands war, and the raising from the mud of the Thames, later that year, of Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose. A common significance could be attached to both events: an ancient seafaring people, Churchill’s island race, were recovering some long-buried aspect of their identity.”
This is a meme reiterated in endless Brexit declarations about us being a ‘maritime people’, Atlantacism, Britannia, “Free Ports” and the “Island Nation” (sic), plus endless references to Dunkirk the Blitz and war-footing.
Addison suggests: “In Wright’s vision, nostalgia has become a monster with a stranglehold over English society: as we are almost all governed by a sense of loss and decline, we no longer have the faith to change and improve society.”
I’m not sure “we are all governed by a sense of loss and decline” is a pan-British cultural experience, nor one shared by Generations X, Y and Z.
But Boris’s Brexit Britannia is certainly a janus-faced one. Brexit as a retreat from reality – an exercise in Empire Loyalism has another aspect, as Revolutionary Conservatives and chaos-mongers merge and Johnson’s recent bizarre speeches have been a melange of his default classical references and a new spree of garbled high-techno gobbledegook.
Right at the heart of this story are the intertwined narratives about class, national identity, race and empire.
The inferiority-superiority complex being played out by the Brexiteers has its roots in these myths.
As Bagehot writes (2009):
“The City and the Empire grew up symbiotically. Imperial trade and investment made London a world financial centre; the City became vital to the British economy, while at the same time, preoccupied as it was with foreign deals, largely separate from the rest of it.”
It’s in this context that the opening salvos of the 2019 election campaign about “billionaires” and “kulaks” goes on. It’s in this context that the casual racism and eugenics tumbles out of their mouths before “oops” sudden apologies are rushed out and hushed over.
At the heart of the election is this terrible balancing act, a party of government showing open contempt for ordinary people, masquerading as an anti-elite force. It’s not surprising that it’s all coming apart at the seams under even the weakest scrutiny.
The utterly bizarre idea that we should have solidarity and respect for billionaires can only be maintained with some sharp propaganda.
As Luke Hildyard has written:
“A billion pounds is an almost incomprehensible amount of money. One of the most successful tricks that the rich and powerful have pulled on the rest of us is not merely capturing a disproportionately large share of global wealth, but hoarding amounts so vast that it is practically impossible to grasp the scale of it, and thus to criticise. If you had been given £1,000 a day, every day since Jesus died, and stuffed it under a mattress, you would still not be a billionaire. There are around 15 or so countries whose entire wealth does not equate to that of an individual UK billionaire.”
As UK Gold (2013) uncovered we lose approximately £25 billion a year from tax evasion. The myths of austerity, the decline in public services, the nation of foodbanks, housing crisis and grinding poverty, all of it is unnecessary.
And this notion of Empire-loss keeps bubbling up unexpectedly.
Writing in the summer Simon Jenkins in the Guardian observed: