Britain’s Belle Époque
How we measure change and decay is important. Slow change can become almost unidentifiable. A measure of political change, in this case an ongoing lurch to the right, became apparent at the moment of silence to remember the events of 6 January 2021. The Republican Party were entirely absent from the ceremony – still indulging in the myriad conspiracies that the election was ‘stolen’.
As Chris Murphy, a Senator from Connecticut pointed out: “At the moment of silence for the Capitol Police officers who died, there were only two Republicans who showed up. Rep. Liz Cheney. And her father. The 80 year old former Vice President. An extraordinary image of where this country’s politics are right now.”
Yip, Dick Cheney is now part of liberal America’s conscience. Dick. Cheney.
The decline of America can be gauged by the fact that the vast numbers of Republican voters and the wider Wild Right believe entirely that the election was rigged or stolen and will willingly back Trump or some replicate candidate in 2024. It seems unlikely that Biden’s tepid programme and alternative vision can really change the narrative about this. But while the commemoration of the January 6 attempted coup shone a light on the seemingly equivocal status of democracy in the US events here also exposed the state we’re in.
From Tony Blair’s knighthood to the ongoing pantomime of life at No 10 under Boris Johnson; to the increased powers of stop and search under draconian new legislation; to the aftermath of the Colston statue case unleashing a wave of far-right discontent (including the Attorney General for England & Wales undermining trial by jury & the rule of law); to the pending economic disaster of people not being able to heat their homes in winter; British democracy is broken and breaking down.
As Brexit disappears (sort of) into the rear view mirror of our daily politics other new scapegoats must be found after The Foreigners have been expelled or repelled. The latest to fit the bill are ‘Woke Jurors’.
Tabloid Britain, unable to cope with the basic concept of how trial by jury works, are, hand in hand with the actual Attorney General attacking due process of law. Stop and think about it as you laugh at Trumpian America.
This week saw the ‘Ministerial Code’ being (yawn) broken (yawn) again and by this stage the idea that people just have any belief in accountability of those in office just beggars belief.
But if sleaze has become so commonplace it has become normalised to become invisible. We can’t be shocked any more just bored and stunned into a sullen quiteness. This level of sleaze is (I believe) new and different, in part because it’s so brazen and chaotic. But most of my adult life has just been about a cycler of watching decades of sleaze and corruption followed by interminable and utterly useless inquiries (of differing scales) just like the mini one we saw this week.
It tells you something if this can be witness and charted over decades and over countless administrations. What it tells you is that this is systemic. There is something about Britain, its state and institutions and cultures that is systemically corrupt. What is that something? It clearly has something to do with the class and privileged networks that the higher echelons are riddled with; the close relationship and convergence between ‘business’ interests and ‘political’ interests and the cultures and patterns of ownership which shape the media which describe all of this.
But a wider phenomenon can be witnessed as Britain deteriorates further. Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP representing Romford, has urged the Government to get public broadcasters to play God Save The Queen at the end of every day. He suggested it would be a patriotic way to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee year.
Andrew Rosindell told the Commons on Thursday: “I know the minister will agree that the singing of the national anthem is something that provides great sense of unity and pride in our nation.”
“So in this year of the Queen’s platinum jubilee, will the minister take steps to encourage public broadcasters to play the national anthem and ensure the BBC restores it at the end of the day’s programming before it switches to News 24?”
This is the phenomenon I’ve called the Golden Tortoise.
I had begun to think of Brexit Britain as a sort of Weimar Republic, collapsing under its own decadence and decay. But maybe it’s more like the La Belle Époque – the period in France at the end of the 19th Century characterised by extravagance and excess. It was said to be “an age of neurotic, even hysterical national anxiety, filled with political instability, crises and scandals”.
The novelist Julian Barnes in his novel The Man in the Red Coat tells the story of Count Robert de Montesquiou, a notorious poet and dandy of the era. He is said to have gilded a live tortoise with gold and encrusted its shell with diamonds, sapphires and amethysts. The splendid creature was the Counts ultimate party-trick, but it of course died from the experiment. Brexit Britain is like Montesquiou’s tortoise, a freakish exercise with no apparent purpose, staggering along giving mesmerised entertainment.
Instead of gold we are covered in Union Jacks and prompted to venerate the Royal Family, with anthems.
Johnson’s flat can be seen as part of the Golden Tortoise effect, our own Belle Époque – excess and corruption in an era characterised by disease death and poverty, a man literally lining his walls with golden wallpaper at at time when people can’t afford to heat their own homes, and all of this in plain sight, what a disgrace. When will it end?
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