The Siamese Twins: the Lion and the Unicorn
Every day on my timeline and across the media the idiocy of the MAGA crowds is ridiculed, rightly. The Trump supporters are equally hilarious and terrifying as he stomps through Iowa toward a hideous victory. But there’s an unconscious sort of disdain for Trump’s dumbass supporters. I admit it. But the other thing it does is stop us from looking at the equivalents of the MAGA crowd right here.
It’s easy to become bored or inured to the casual racism, the systemic violence, and the disgusting narrative that spools out of the mouths of our politicians, but this week’s episode of the longest-running sitcom in British History – ‘Tory Civil War’ – takes a darker turn. Yesterday ’30p’ Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith resigned as deputy chairs of the Conservative party after defying Rishi Sunak by backing right-wing challenges to harden up his Rwanda deportation bill (referred to today, quite correctly as ‘state sponsored people trafficking’). Other luminaries among the ‘rebels’ included Bill Cash, Suella Braverman, Robert Jenrick, Liz Truss, and ‘Kemi Badenoch’s parliamentary private secretary, Jane Stevenson’. All of this was cheered on by the Tories ‘King across the Water’ Boris Johnston.
Cook’s Tikka Masala Speech
The degeneracy of the dialogue about immigration can’t go un-talked about. If we just pretend it’s not happening we allow it to be normalised. It’s not Trumpian, not everything is ‘Trumpian’, though it is part of the rise of far-right populism that is leeching into the air we breathe as capitalism cracks and burns under its own far-advanced meta-crises. This is a particularly English problem that’s imposed on the rest of us. The latest breakdown/rebellion reminded me of the time in 2001 when the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook got into a lot of trouble when he stated the simple fact that the British were not a race. This sent the Daily Mail, among many others, into a predictable meltdown. It’s worth looking back on because it shows us how far we have come, and it also shows some of the underlying stories behind the ongoing Tory immigration saga and the deeper problem of how deep-seated xenophobia is built into English nationalism and the concept of Britishness.
It was in a defence of multiculturalism that Cook dismissed the idea of an ethnically pure British race as “a fantasy”, while describing immigration as “necessary and desirable” for the UK’s economy and society. Cook was responding to William Hague’s dog-whistle threat that a second Labour term would “turn Britain into a foreign land” and blamed Hague for encouraging recent outbursts from members of his party such as Yorkshire East MP John Townend, who accused immigrants of undermining Britain’s “homogenous Anglo-Saxon society”.
In a speech in London, Mr. Cook said: “This narrow view of British identity, fed on myths about `our island race’, arises from a pitiful misreading of British history.”
“The British are not a race, but a gathering of countless different races, the vast majority of which were not indigenous to these islands.”
He continued: “The idea that Britain was a `pure’ Anglo-Saxon society before the arrival of communities from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa is a fantasy” and he went on to argue that Britain’s multicultural identity was “an immense asset that contributes to the cultural and economic vitality of our nation.”
It became known as Cook’s Tikka Masala speech (you can read it here).
The response was hysterical.
The Daily Mail’s front page on 19 April screamed: ‘ASTONISHING DECLARATION; THERE IS NO SUCH RACE AS THE BRITISH … Robin Cook caused a major political row last night after declaring the British are not a race…’
The esteemed Roger Scruton got involved suggesting that the origins of the ‘British race’ was from “a long process of melding in which at least three races – English, Welsh and Scots have acquired common institutions, common customs, a common language and a common religion”. This new Super-Race was defined for Scruton by: “belief in liberty, democratic spirit, love of fair play and a genius for compromise, attachment to the countryside and tolerance of …those accepting its laws and customs.”
I mean it is a really weird form of exceptionalism but what strikes you reading it twenty-three years on are two things. First how it is this idea of British racial purity that lurks behind the ongoing Tory hysteria and the dog-whistle racism of post-(and pre) Brexit England. Second how none of the disgraceful ‘rebels’ such as Truss, Johnson, Jenrick, Braverman, Patel or Lee Anderson exhibit ANY of these supposed qualities it’s hilarious how much they are a checklist for what these people are not. They explicitly don’t believe in liberty, the democratic spirit, fair play, or tolerance, they are terrible at compromise and are casual about breaking the rule of law. The descent of the ‘party of law and order’ was witnessed throughout Boris Johnson’s time in office and only yesterday Robert Jenrick said, “The law is our servant, not our master.” The whole Rwanda debacle is an exercise in bending and breaking and escaping domestic and international laws and treaties.
How do you explain the chasm between Anglo-British nationalist’s self-description and the – how shall we put it? – slightly more disappointing reality?
For Tom Nairn, it’s a sort of mania. Writing in Pariah (Verso) he suggests: “An explanation is that when many English intellectuals and politicos are forced to think about ‘Britain’ and England together they do go ‘mad’. This is not because they are those ‘whom the gods wish to destroy’ as Enoch Powell once darkly hinted. Rather, it is as if the ‘one people/race’ dilemma triggers the equivalent of a fit, or spasm, from which they find themselves momentarily unable to escape. The low semantic barrier between ‘British’ (dead but Great) and ‘English ((desirable yet intolerable) sets up something like a computer loop. A form of Automatic Writing takes over. Normal debates degenerate into séances, during which ancestral spirit-guides appear and fight it out in the respective craniums, relaying encrypted messages alternately from Beowulf (or J.R.R. Tolkien), Edmund Burke and the speeches of Churchill. These are usually mixed-up with protestations of antiracism, outreach affidavits and platitudinous conclusions like Scruton’s. Studying these we can see that for the subjects of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ have become like Siamese Twins. There can be no question of sacrificing the one to save the other. What the Union of Britannic watchdogs demands is that at all costs both must be kept alive.”
This tells us a lot about our predicament, where we are witnessing (again) the Tory party ripping itself apart as a handful of far-right politicians threaten to destabilise their own government for not being extreme enough in law-breaking and rights-destroying to create a policy that a few years ago would have been thought to belong exclusively to the manifestos of British fascist parties. A lot of this grotesque absurdity is driven by an extraordinary exceptionalism about Britain’s role in the world, a fantasy about ‘Britannia Unleashed’ and an underlying philosophy of unsullied racial purity. This Make Britain Great Again movement is a powerful force that can never own its own successes or stand-up to the reality of its own consequences.
In Nairn’s analysis only very occasionally can these movements be unambiguously English in their identity. The English sibling can only be resorted to “when peripheral nations are felt as obtrusive or demanding” when the “brute fact of Englishness is unveiled”.
As Anthony Barnett wrote for Bella way back in 2017 explaining the identity crisis and elite uprising that brought us to the brink of Brexit: “The Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, ran a pained, ferocious editorial. It was headlined in huge, bold capital letters, across most of the paper’s front page: WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ENGLAND? Its opening words (the italics are mine) went: ‘Today the Mail asks a question of profound significance to our destiny as a sovereign nation and the fate of our children and grandchildren. Who will speak for England?’ The editorial continued over on an inside page. There, buried in a parenthesis he wrote: ‘and, of course, by “England”… we mean the whole of the United Kingdom’.
The Daily Mail prints a separate Scottish edition. Its editors replaced the front page.
‘By England… we mean the whole of the United Kingdom’.
Nairn suggests Gorge Orwell’s strange essays The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941), which come in three parts: England Your England, Shopkeepers At War, The English Revolution are a rare example of England being England (and containing nostalgia for that previous nostalgia) hence John Major’s evocation of it.
The most famous passage which Major quoted goes: “When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?”
Looking back on this famous passage makes you wonder how it might be re-made in 2024:
“When you come back to England from any foreign country, after having waited for hours in airport queues you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. It might be the pollution after the Blade Runners opposed lower emissions. The pound in your pocket is worth less, the rivers are full of shit, the Queen is Dead, people are beating up Just Stop Oil protesters, we are bombing Yemen, and homeless peoples tents are being put in the bin. There are no queues outside the Labour Exchange because everyone’s been sanctioned. As you realise they’ve just spent £8million on a portrait of the king in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, the vastness of England swallows you up. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?”
Back to Scruton’s Super Race – which incidentally is mainstream thinking in 2024 while Robin Cook’s quiet, unremarkable speech would be political suicide today. If this racialised thinking is the soil (or blut und boden) that today’s awfulness has grown out of it’s interesting to think how exclusionary it is, and is supposed to be.
The idea of a ‘British race’ in which “the English, Welsh and Scots have acquired common institutions, common customs, a common language and a common religion” is of course nonsense, but it’s a construct that is a quiet underpinning of today’s rhetoric and has lineage from Tebbit’s Cricket Test, to the Salisbury Review, to ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, to ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?‘, to Farage’s Brexit poster, to the Home Office Hate Vans, to the mainstreaming of Nick Griffin to 30p Lee and the cesspit of today’s Tory party.