The Britain of Yesterday

13th October 1971: English Conservative politician, Enoch Powell (1912 - 1998 ) signs copies of his book 'Common Market - The Case Against' during the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

There’s a darkness underneath Parody Britain. Beneath comedy there’s the macabre aspect of Conservative rule argues Mike Small.

If “hurtling backwards” has been the direction of travel and Vanguard Cry of Tory Britain for a long time, it now has a precise date, 1971. For no reason at all – other than the suffocating hyper-nostalgia of post-Brexit England – Boris Johnson has announced the return of “pounds and ounces”. We had a preview of this pantomime with Trump supporters last year – and The Times announced it as a “victory for metric martyrs” – but in truth it’s long been an issue close to the PM’s heart. He wrote when he was editor of the Spectator “Why are we coercing Britons to use the measurements of Napoleon, when the imperial system survives and flourishes in America, the most successful economy on earth,” adding “It is monstrous that little tinpot ‘meteorologists’ on local authorities should be fanning out across the country, threatening shopkeepers with fines and imprisonment if they fail to comply.”

While many have pointed out that it doesn’t matter whether you are Imperial or Metric if you’re looking at empty supermarket shelves – or if your £20 Universal Credit has been cut – the announcement is a masterstroke of culture wars and spectacle – gesture politics replacing substance in crisis. A country riddled with jingoism is presided over by a collection of incompetents the like of which has never been seen. As Nadine Dorries becomes Culture Secretary Britain announces that TV productions will have to abide by some new cultural purity laws: “The UK’s public service broadcasters will have a legal requirement to produce “distinctively British” programmes under plans drawn up by ministers.”

I’m not sure Dorries has the wit for the culture wars that her Prime Minister has embarked on. As Matthew Anderson of the New York Times noted: “Germany’s culture minister is a trained art historian; France’s wrote a book on Verdi. The new UK culture secretary … ate ostrich anus on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.” Perhaps Anderson is being unfair but the prospect of Liz Truss taking on the mantel of Foreign Secretary is no laughing matter. She was behind a decision in July 2020 to resume UK sales to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, a year after all new British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait were suspended. At the time she told MPs that there were no patterns of violations of international law by Saudi forces in Yemen, and any breaches were “isolated incidents”.

Amnesty described Truss’s decision to restart arms sales to the Saudis as “deeply cynical” and said her statement on the subject was “alarming”.

The UN has described Yemen as being stuck in an “indefinite state of war”,  and as noted that states including the UK, France and the US were continuing “their support of parties to the conflict, including through arms transfers,” adding, “arms sales are fuel that perpetuates the conflict”.

So in-between the “shilling and pence” and the Nadine Dorries jokes and the Carry On Film references, the work of Johnson’s hard-right government-we-didnt-elect goes on. What is that work?

Well it’s an ongoing assault on the poorest in society by some of the wealthiest – a move that will be boosted and amplified by the end of furlough as we enter a new post-pandemic austerity. The joke this time is that as calls to “open up the economy” swell alongside derision for public safety and collective health measures we are deluded into thinking that the pandemic is over. It’s over because the Tories want you to believe it’s over and that vaccination is the single-bullet that solves and absolves everything. It isn’t. We aren’t in a post-pandemic world we are entering a new sars pandemic existence for a very long time. None of the politicians – certainly not the UK government can tell you this.

Instead what we get is the cynical double-hypocrisy of telling you on the one hand to “unleash” business and open up the economy and encouraging air travel and business-as-usual – while also then looking on in shock as the health services and ambulance services crumble under the pressure. The crisis is not just (or only) from covid, it is from the backlog of physical and mental health cases that are mounting like a tsunami, the intransigence of the GP service and the wilting and over-pressured NHS.

It’s in this context that the Unionist press and Britain’s tabloid media have slavered over the prospect of the British military being called-in to help the beleaguered ambulance service in Scotland. The weaponisation of the ambulance service crisis is no surprise but two or three factors should be taken into consideration. This is, as we are often told, an unprecedented crisis, the problems facing the service in Scotland are acute, but they are not unique. The service in England requested military support back in August. We should be past the time when the pandemic crisis is used a s apolitical football. It was embarrassing (on all sides) when the vaccine rollout was used to score points for north or south of the border.

But the ‘business as usual’ crowd can’t have it all ways and forever. If they demand to “open things up” for the sake of business, and at the same time demand no controls or public health measures, they can’t then stand by and complain when the national health service keels over under the strain.

This idea of the supremacy of business, this idea of snapping back to some mythical “normal” this idea that people in Britain can and should just start flying everywhere (with fewer and fewer checks at all) has echoes that might sound familiar to you. By prematurely sounding the klaxon of ‘all clear’ we are ensuring the pandemic nightmare just goes on and on. New variants will arrive and new vaccines will have to be created. Without any sense of the dire need for international solidarity, without any sense of the need for collective responsibility and restraint and without any consciousness of the genuinely new realms we are operating in we are doomed by this short-sighted exceptionalism.

The reckless ideological rampage of the Conservative Government is like a Panzer camouflaged as a Clown Car, it’s full of comedy characters and bizarre side-stories but the main narrative is a sick one. The jokes and the spectacle might seem like an irrelevance but they are the scene-setting, the surround-sound. Once treatment of asylum seekers in the Channel and vicious attacks on the poor become normalised, anything is possible. Writing in Prospect Magazine this summer the ex-Labour MP Chris Mullin has a foreboding premonition:

“The Tory Party is now firmly in the hands of English nationalists. I do not see this changing in the near future. Flag-waving is all very well, but eventually they will need more to offer. In due course, I would not rule out a referendum on the reintroduction of the death penalty. Britain would have to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, but the next step in the plan may be precisely that. The year before Boris Johnson brought him into Downing Street, Dominic Cummings wrote on his blog that once Brexit was done “we’ll be coming for the ECHR referendum and we’ll win that by more than 52-48.”

“The path would then be clear to bring back the gallows, but it wouldn’t get through parliament directly—what is easier to imagine is the matter being thrown over to the public. Proponents would need to choose their moment carefully—the immediate aftermath of a terrorist incident or a particularly shocking murder…”

“It may also have to be at a time after the torch has passed from Johnson: the great irony with him leading an English nationalist government is that he is a shameless opportunist rather than a right-wing ideologue, who retains some libertarian instincts and is on the record against capital punishment. But he has ambitious colleagues like Michael Gove, who in an article for the Times once flirted with bringing back hanging, and has been quiet on the subject since. Then there is the home secretary, Priti Patel, who is perfectly capable of taking us down that road. It could even be her calling card in her leadership election campaign.”

In amongst the jokes and the “hurtling backwards” anything is possible in the Britain of yesterday.


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Comments (28)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Instead of the death by a thousand cuts, we’ll have death by a thousand Toryisms.
    At the rate they’re going, a post-collapse scenario is looking pretty rosy!

  2. Hargrave Mennell says:

    A brilliant article but very depressing. As a regular follower of your epistles ,an Englishman north I hope the contents are noted by opposition parties in uk/ ecosse

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    Well said Mike. You only have to read the comments attached to articles on MSN to know the bastards are winning. The thick cling to blue passports and British imperial measure (smokescreen for price rises) as justification for their stupidity. If the (supposed?) CO2 shortages contribute to even emptier shelves and farmers going bust it will be a case of “it wasn’t Brexit or the Australian deal after all”. The thought of not escaping this asylum is unbearable.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    A return to Imperial measures is anti-science (SI Units are not only the global scientific standard, but are designed to be interoperable across physical dimensions in an easy-to-use way for humans, so that one litre of water is one kilogram, combining volume+chemistry+mass in everyday convenience), will negatively impact numeracy skill acquisition, and create more bureaucracy (aka ‘red tape’). I wonder if the Army will be going back to 17-pounder shells. Anyway, US and British imperial measurements are different, so you’d need to convert even between those. Still, the most significant unit of measurement will remain the same: the wheelbarrow, used in multiples to cart off the profits from these state-backed corrupt schemes.

    Will there be the death penalty for corrupt police officers who frame people for what will be capital crimes? Like the case of the murder of Lynette White:
    not that those South Wales policemen were ever put to trial, apparently.

    This Conservative government, ever embracing the British values of hypocrisy and cant, try to present themselves as the party of law and order whilst trying to give legal immunity for war crimes committed by the country’s military. Partly, I guess, is they know of significant examples that may not be public knowledge (yet). It was always difficult to get statistics relating to the British military and crime. I’ve been reading an interesting (if expensive) book by Clive Emsley called Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914 (2013). Although the records are patchy and useful summaries difficult to find, and a supine press has apparently gone along with official pressure including D-notices, successive governments have made it even more difficult by suppressing the documentation. I was rather puzzled as to what justification could be given for keeping files closed to access on criminal cases from WW2 for 80 years or more (Emsley gives the examples of MEPO 3/2205 and CRIM 1/1381). One expert view given in 1946 by A Norman Schofield was that British troops were ‘the biggest thieves in the world’, and of course the British carried out a massive looting campaign in Europe in WW2 that makes the German efforts look feeble by comparison. With Brexit, expect to see European gloves taken off in modern histories (for example, there’s a Dutch book out on systematic British looting).

    So, the Britain of yesterday is not what we are usually told; there will be one rule for the public, another rule for the elite’s enforcers, and no rules for elite, who seem to be clamouring for a new Dark Age, where contractors for plague pits will have never wielded so much as a spade, Priti Patel will be made Grand High Inquistor by whatever Protestant Pope sits on the throne of England, and military adventurism around the globe will used as constant distraction, the troops repeatedly called in to help with the endless pestilences they keep bringing back from foreign tours.

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      Great post SD. How many hangmen would they have needed in the 70’s. Guilford 4, Maguire 7, Birmingham 6, the police who fitted them up, Bloody Sunday, the Ballymurphy massacre,…………………………………………………………..

    2. Mons Meg says:

      Yep, you’re on to something, SD. History (in the ‘collective memory’ sense) is largely a projection of our current hopes and fears onto the signs that remain to us of past events.

    3. Mouse says:

      Will police offices be executed for murdering someone in Kircaldy?

  5. Chris Ballance says:

    “The intransigence of the GP service” – what do you mean by that Mike?

    1. I mean that from multiple accounts and reports the GP service (which was never fully integrated into the NHS) is failing to meet demand and to meet patients, this causing a knock-on effect of pressure on the ambulance service as people are desperate to see medical staff.

      1. Chris Ballance says:

        That issue possibly deserves a whole article to itself. I thought it was simply a shortage of GPs, particularly in more impoverished areas.

        1. DB says:

          Our local surgery has closed due to lack of GPs (intransigent or otherwise). Several thousand patients have been transferred to a neighbouring practice with no additional staffing. We have pockets of severe deprivation but I wouldn’t describe where I live as an impoverished area by any means. Meanwhile paramedics are doing 4 hour+ round trips to another hospital due to downgrading of services at our local one.

      2. Brian says:

        So GPs/primary care, which has historically been the least well funded aspect of healthcare in the UK, that has been open for business and provided care for patients all during the pandemic whilst other parts of the health service have stopped operating due to COVID pressures, are now the problem that there are not enough Ambulances to take sick people to hospital?

        What am I meant to do? Work 10 hour days in GP and then drive round scooping people up in my Skoda and taking them to AE? If patients can’t be seen in Outpatient clinics for literally years to even see a consultant and then have to wait more years – around 5 in NI for orthopaedic operations, what am I as a GP meant to do? I can’t do a hip replacement at home. Nor can I treat strokes, heart attacks or severe infections in a 10 minute consultation, even if it is face to face.

        Remote consulting allows me to deal with more cases more efficiently and use my time more effectively than if I have routine appointments booked by patients. I am able to offer same day face to face appointments purely because I have screened out patients who don’t need to physically come to the practice.

        I suggest you go and do some research Mike before following the media line of “GPs need to open up”. GPs are under huge amounts of pressure, the number of older GPs who are looking to retire early is massive and the number of newly qualified GPs who are even considering taking on full time partnership roles is miniscule. When the media is full of articles bashing GPs why would anyone consider it?

        1. Tom Ultuous says:

          This rings true to me and I personally prefer a phone call to having to go into the surgery. Being able to order my regular medicines through patient access also helps but why can’t we access our history through that as I’m sure they can view test results etc. in England rather than having to phone the surgery? It would also make sense to be able to order less than the fixed amount of a particular medicine (e.g. if you normally get 3 medicine X’s you should be able to order 0, 1, 2 or 3 X’s) as, for various reasons, you might not require the full amount. Doctors should also be able to ‘sticky’ certain medicines so they don’t get automatically removed after 6 months. The former would save the NHS money and the latter wasting GP’s time getting the medicine reinstated.

          I did contact patient access with these suggestions but got dog’s abuse from their illiterate help staff.

        2. Paula Becker says:

          Did you support the lockdowns Brian? If so, then you bear some responsibility for the disastrous state of the health service in Scotland. Same goes for Mike Small.

        3. Mouse says:

          In urban areas, I’m not sure of what the point of GP’s is. It seems to be an institution passed it’s sell-by date.

        4. Hi Brian – this is my experience and the experience of dozens of people I have spoken to about the problem.

          1. Brian says:

            Any of them any experience of working in primary care? Any of them any idea about the funding or organisation of the health service? If the only experience one has is of not being able to come in and sit in your GPs office and tell them about your problems when you want to you may well be dissatisfied. But being pissed off you can’t get what you want from you GP practice doesn’t mean that it is your GP that is at fault.

            Anyway it’ll interesting to see how the health service adapts to more and more GPs moving to salaried or part time portfolio working. It’ll be hard to complain about your local GP practice when it no longer exists. This has happened in many rural and more remote parts of Northern Ireland. Partners have packed in early and handed the keys back to the local trust. If that happens on a wider scale…

          2. Paula Becker says:

            Hi Brian – given that the JCVI and the US FDA have recommended against ‘vaccinating’ children 12 – 15 yrs, will you be injecting children in this age group with the experimental gene therapy?

          3. Mons Meg says:

            I have to say that our GP practice has been there for me and mine throughout the pandemic, providing us with informed diagnoses of the problems we present and prescribing what we could do to address those problems.

            It hasn’t been helped, however, by the increased difficulty it’s had in accessing hospital diagnostic services and its patients have had in accessing elective treatments.

  6. Voline says:

    In a previous life I repaired computers for what is now the most valuable American corporation (and so the world’s most valuable). If you visit their web page today from the US the specifications of all their hardware will be listed in Imperial measurements. But that’s for marketing the stuff. For the folks designing, building, and repairing them everything is measured in millimeters and grams.

    Boris can take the UK back, but the US has been slowly going metric for decades.

  7. Mouse says:

    At least Dave Start is still full of hatred.

  8. Wul says:

    Jolly good!

    This should be dded to the “Britishness” test that foreigners must pass before they can gain UK citizenship. They should be asked to measure out half a dozen fluid ounces of margarine and a dozen ounces of powdered egg.

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      If they applied the same test to everyone in the country we’d probably get rid of the far right.

      1. Mark Bevis says:

        And presumably everyone under 30?

        I do like the idea of British Challenger 3 being armed with 4.7″ 40pdr 90cwt SB QF LP guns (smoothbore quickfiring Land Pattern – you know, to distinguish it from 1890s naval 4.7″ guns), yet another British acronym mouthful.

    2. Mouse says:

      The idea that the government will reintroduce a monetary system based on Babalonian arithmetic or a system of weights and measures that even British drug dealers gave up on ages ago is the incontenent dribbling of idiots aimed at other idiots.

    3. John Learmonth says:

      But next time you go in a pub you’ll be wanting a pint with maybe a dram on the side?

  9. Leveller says:

    It seems like we’re entering a new accelerated phase in the UK’s long downward spiral into irrelevence. Incidentally, I’m 67, and was taught Metric (SI) units while I was at school. If we decide to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s still the 1950’s, the World will just shrug its shoulders and move on without us.
    Not Global; welcome to Globule Britain…
    Run. Now.

  10. SleepingDog says:

    You might compare the position of the UK government with that of modern Japan, which has brought in a ‘new moral education’ class for youngsters with textbooks which seem to both glorify Japanese involvement in WW2 while omitting any colonial/imperial crimes, Japanese soldiers and war crimes, and concentrating on children and heroic adults facing the unexplained bombings and invasion by shadowy foreigners in the last year of the war:

    Note that these themes are said to have been sneaked on to the curriculum outside of history lessons and contexts necessary for understanding them. What will be the result of such teaching, intended to inculcate disinformed patriotism (“loving attitude toward the hometown and the country”) with war as the field in which the glorious national characteristics manifest themselves, mixing distorted historical events with myths?

    Would the Conservative government here like to comment on the dangers posed by such a move to support Japanese militarism and grand historical exculpation of national wrongs? How could they, without rampant hypocrisy? That’s basically the way I was (mis)taught about the British Empire in UK schools, and they want to make it much more extreme.

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