Britain on Life Support
The ties that bound post-war Britain together have been shredded and what’s left is the violence of the British state and the social mayhem of austerity and class war wrapped up in the flag of Muscular Unionism.
The story of Jenny McGee, the nurse who had kept vigil on Boris Johnson while he was gravely ill in intensive care resigning has an almost folkloric quality to it, as does much of the pandemic experience. Picture Jenny tending to the fetid hulk of the Prime Minister, the epitome of broken Britain captured in a moment of life and death, the underpaid worker literally nursing back to life the priapic Etonian buffoon only to be rewarded with a manipulated photo-opportunity at No 10 and a paltry 1% pay offer.
The exchange neatly encapsulates the country we’re part of: disfigured by inequality, ruled-over by a shallow and contemptuous elite and staggering constantly between total collapse and dreams of grand and magnificent renewal.
All of this unfolds in the murky-soup of Britain’s constitutional mayhem and in the context of simply not knowing some basic precepts about democratic rules and structures. As Nicola Sturgeon is to be sworn in as First Minister at the Court of Session with a renewed mandate for a referendum its status and legality remains blurry.
Britain’s neo-feudal ancien regime staggers on held up by its own dogma of confusion and the crutch of social deference. This deliberately befuddled state has some backstory. In the Royals case of 1953 – which concerned whether the new queen should style herself Elizabeth II in Scotland, where there had never been an Elizabeth I – the Scottish judge Lord Cooper made the pronouncement that the unlimited sovereignty of parliament was an exclusively English concept, which had no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law.”
Speaking of the royals it’s refreshing to see the Diana Cult still has some life in it with the astonishing self-flagellation of the BBC over the botched interview with Prince Diana in *checks notes* 1995 (!). The rancid episode just reinforces the realisation that while the British media is impervious to criticism from the left it is wide-open to criticism from the right. Of all the myriad live and egregious failings in public broadcasting, the idea that this is the most important issue in 2021, is mind-blowing.
As the Home Secretary takes to the airwaves to insist we really aren’t in a Police State after using a deportation raid as a photo opportunity and The Scotsman publishes the Sunday Times Rich List with unbridled glee (“The Sunday Times has released this years rich list, and ten of the UK’s 171 billionaires are in Scotland“) – trolling the nation as if the single foremost idea on everyone’s minds right now struggling with post-covid (?) recovery is: “Look I’ve lost my job, my relatives have died and I can’t afford my rent, but at least Glenn Gordon and his family, are worth £3.595bn.”
The word “worth” is doing a lot of work here.
It may just be me feeling ground-down by the last year but the phrase that comes to my lips most days as I look across the news-feeds is: “What fresh hell is this?”
Sovereignty – the great rallying cry of both independence and Brexit – remains an apparently elusive concept as we tip-toe tentatively back into each others arms and sip on frothy pints again. But if there’s legal ambiguity that acts as a fog to political strategy, other aspects are more clear:
Is there a democratic deficit in Britain between the government Scotland elects and
the government Scotland gets? Yes.
Is there a legal route for Scotland to decide its future? No.
This won’t go away and as we pretend the worst is over and the very British performance of inquiries and reviews begins the very worst of governance will be revealed. Like the backlog of mental health and other illnesses displaced and delayed by the pandemic we can only begin to imagine the state of sleaze, incompetence and negligence it will reveal. But we have an inkling. The corruption of Johnson’s regime hasn’t exactly been pursued by the mainstream media but it’s not exactly been top secret either.
As the Union wheezes on its life support system is packing in and dark irony abounds. Jenny McGee was a lead intensive care nurse at St Thomas’ hospital in London. She described what took place at St Thomas’ as a “cesspool of Covid.” She said: “At one point I don’t know how to describe the horrendousness of what we were going through. We were desperate.”
Here is a moment where a cleverer politician than Johnson could have made a unifying gesture as the country (sic) tries to endure and recover. Instead, choosing to exploit one of the people who saved his life he has reaffirmed what we already know about him.
The irony in all of this is that Britain is unraveling not just because of the multiple constitutional crises in Ireland, Wales and Scotland but because the very institutions, the sinews of ‘Britain’, like the NHS have been sold off, privatised and used to line the pockets of Johnson’s mates.
The railways, the Post Office, telecoms, and dozens of other key utilities and industries were sold-off one by one – and if Britain has little to hold itself together other than the Bake-Off and Kate and Wills, this is why.
But if Britain has been sold, what was the price?
These days in Scotland the only place you’ll see a Union Jack is Ibrox or George Square, which apparently has become the venue for routine and mass displays of lumpen violence, about which, apparently, no-one can do anything at all. These are the new poster-boys for the Union, the Better Together Ultras, the only visible adherents to the Old Order. They can operate with impunity in the city, the Strathclyde police openly saying there’s little they can do. It’s funny that, I’ve never been on a demo that the police couldn’t contain or quash (with or without violence). I’ve been on huge mass protests and the police always had the numbers to control them. So its quite the message to put out there: Glasgow is basically captured by a loyalist mob. If I was a Scottish politician I’d be ashamed to preside over that reality, and if I was a senior Scottish politician I’d be calling in top brass of the police force for a chat.
Last year the Royal College of Nursing surveyed their members. Nearly three quarters (73%) of their 42,000 members across the UK said higher pay would make them feel more valued. Many of them like Jenny McGee are leaving in droves. After the toughest year of their lives they were faced with a derisory pay offer.
The British government claims that paying public workers more is not sustainable as we attempt to ‘recover the economy’. Though how this squares with spending tens of billions of pounds increasing the number of nuclear warheads at Faslane from 180 to 260 is anyones guess. It does fit the pattern of post-Brexit / mid-pandemic Britain though, convulsed by hubris and neo-imperial flights of fantasy while incapable of finding the moral compass or taking care of the ordinary.
As Peter Geoghegan writes about Johnson’s new ‘Muscular Unionism’ in the Irish Times: ” …the Tories’ electoral success comes at a potentially great cost to the union itself. The post-war – and post-empire – United Kingdom was held together in large part by social democratic reforms. The welfare state, particularly the NHS, bound Britain’s “nations and regions”.
“Now British unionism comes in a single shade of red, white and blue … This is not how unionism has traditionally prospered. For centuries, unionism has taken on different forms in different places, from Orange walks in Ballymena to bake sales in Berwick. In Scotland the once dominant Tories, then Labour, were essentially nationalist unionists: each were pro-UK but won votes on promising to defend local interests. Such heterogeneity was key to the union’s success. In trying to force a unionism into a single form, Johnson and his colleagues are inadvertently flagging up its weaknesses. The union has always worked best when nobody talked about it. Johnson’s muscular unionism increasingly serves to highlight – and accentuate – the union’s underlying tensions.”
As we (mibbe) lift out of lockdown a mood of hope and renewal is notably absent. The sunny uplands have been replaced with dawn raids. The xenophobia and victim-blaming of Brexit has been replaced by a virulent new racism as Patel’s Home Office is emboldened by a mood of retribution. Farage’s Brexit blaming and othering hasn’t been assuaged, it needs fed even as society struggles from a year of hell.
At one end of the country Britain is celebrated as an excuse for public disorder and sectarian violence, at the other it is used as an excuse for cleptocracy.
Britain is on life support. We should place a Do Not Resuscitate order on it now.