The Britain of Yesterday
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.
Help to support independent Scottish journalism by subscribing or donating today.