THE THUMPING electoral victory of the Conservative and Brexit (no longer Unionist whatever it might claim) Party has confirmed in power the most reactionary government in modern British history. It was handed to the lying, narcissistic Boris Johnson and his English Nationalist Party by Nigel Farage and, very sadly, the Labour Party. The first, a charlatan of the very highest order, simply abandoned his own so-called political party. The second’s sins go back much further to the catastrophic failure of the party to acknowledge the traditional internationalism of socialism and campaign forcefully against Brexit in early 2016. Had it done so, the outcome would almost certainly have been different. Instead, Britain now faces growing wealth inequality, increasing insecurity, diminished global status and, most importantly, the disintegration of the nation itself. For the millions of people who consider themselves primarily British, this will be a truly existential and highly distressing process. And it will all start as soon as the end of January 2020.
Brexit has become faith in England and Wales,[i] the answer to everyone’s problems. ‘Just get it done’ is delivered endlessly in simplistic and irritatingly whining tones (think Michelle Dewberry of ‘The Pledge’ on Sky). Since this is a mindless response, it follows logically that it has multiple origins. One of them stands out like a flaming beacon: nostalgia for a lost past.
When I started my higher education in 1970, less than 10% of British school leavers attended university. Indeed, the term student was for many people a term of disparagement, spat out with disgust. Many of us had long hair and left-wing views after the uprisings and protests of the 1960s. Our family’s next-door neighbour was one of many who was heard to mutter that protestors should be ‘stood in front of a wall and shot’. The Britain of those days was a deeply philistine, half-educated, anti-intellectual, reactionary, ultra-conventional and (needless to say) patriarchal society that voted Conservative and Labour according to inherited tradition based on one’s perceived place in society.
Today, and for some decades past, well over 50% of British school leavers enter higher education; large numbers to places that call themselves universities. But voting patterns and participation in recent elections, and continued enthusiasm for Brexit, call into question the education they have received. Here follows a highly superficial measure: watch most British quiz shows (except ‘University Challenge’) and the contestants will display a woeful and often hilarious ignorance of their own country’s history and anything to do with world affairs. They can, of course, answer the most obscure questions about football and American music and films. These seem to be the main, and ominous, cultural drivers of much of British society.
If you are not British and wish to live permanently in the United Kingdom, even if you are married to a British subject (I use that term deliberately), you have to write language and general knowledge tests that most Britons would fail – spectacularly. And it is this sheer arrogance and effrontery that informs Brexit. On trips to Britain over more than forty years I have regularly been asked my opinion of ‘Home’; and ‘how are things are over there’? To the British their habits and ways of thought are the norm; natural and superior. ‘Over there’ is a place of confusing complexity hardly worth a thought. Afua Hirsch put it well on CNN a day after the recent election: most of the British have absolutely no conception how unimportant and marginalised they are in global terms. It’s about to get very much worse, never mind the blue passports.
However, what they do know is twofold: they ‘won The War’; and they used to have an empire upon which the sun never set. There is that memorable moment in John Boorman’s wonderful film ‘Hope and Glory’ when a junior school teacher in London, asking a question about the empire, vigorously taps a map with a pointer and shouts ‘the pink bits’. Some of those fictitious pupils could still be around in their eighties and probably voting Brexit. While the empire left a positive imprint in some ways (Helen Zille was correct, upsetting a set of South African myopic assumptions) the downside also involved economic exploitation and a string of massacres among other embarrassments. British industrial development and economic prosperity was built on mercantilism and slavery (Bristolians and Liverpudlians in particular should look honestly at their histories).
How much of this unsavoury past is taught in British schools; or is it more a matter of naval triumphs and military victories (sometimes disguised retreats)? How many people know that the naval hero gazing down from his column in Trafalgar Square was not just a supporter of slavery, but an active opponent of William Wilberforce? Where are Wilberforce’s memorials? How many British people know about the massacres at Amritsar (1919) or Mome Gorge (1906)? The Tory/Brexit version of British history, put about by Boris Johnson and supporters, is of a buccaneering great nation that simply needs to throw off the yoke of Brussels and the EU to reclaim its great glories. This trades on a mythical history as fake as most of Johnson’s other claims, and his clear tactic to evoke a Churchillian legacy. It is a highly dangerous, and utterly dishonest, set of delusions and the educational system bears heavy responsibility for its popularity. Is it significant that many Brexit-supporting politicians have history degrees (think Johnson and Rees-Mogg); while many Remainers had an education in law (Starmer and Grieve are good examples)? It may tell us something about university history departments.
Local history perceptions are no better. Bristol and Liverpool have already been mentioned. I was born near Clacton-on-Sea, one of the hard Brexit heartlands of England. But the regional centre, Colchester, dates its modern growth and prosperity from the sixteenth century, an influx of skilled weavers from Flanders and close links with countries like Belgium and Holland upon which the locals are now turning their backs with gleeful contempt. Most Britons know a history that is little more than a dangerous illusion, a set of fairy tales and half-baked assumptions.
This feeds into warped perceptions of the contemporary world, trapped in a time zone somewhere in the 1940s and 1950s when Churchill was prime minister. The empire has simply been renamed the Commonwealth and the most important international relationship is the ‘special’ one with the United States. Unfortunately, the Americans don’t necessarily see it that way. In this same narrative the British are a specially blessed nation on account of their history and an ability to muddle through somehow to triumph. Brexit Britain is a land of unicorns that will soon find out that world politics is very unforgiving.
Johnson and his party have just won a pivotal election on the strength of lies about both past and present. Punching the air he drums up images of a glorious and comforting past that he says can be re-ignited to secure the future. Britons will sooner or later discover that in their sheer ignorance they have been sold a package that simply reinforces their prejudices and misplaced conceptions. What one wants to hear is rarely what one needs.
The recent election raises a wider, crucial point of more universal importance. What price democracy when knowledge is so woefully lacking, attention spans decrease by the year, and communication is increasingly pictorial? The future of communities, nations and even humanity now apparently depends on slogans. The Nazis knew this; Goebbels would love Twitter. He successfully grasped the fact that lazy human minds latch quickly onto simplistic messages and that the lie repeated often enough eventually becomes perceived truth. For the last three years and more Britain has been bombarded by ‘Get Brexit done’ and ‘The will of the people’. It worked extremely well: clearly many people who voted remain in 2016 must have succumbed to this dumbing down of political discourse to a point of near extinction.
Has democracy been reduced to the equivalent of commercial advertising, the prize going to the most popular catchy slogan? Simplistic propaganda only works in a state of abysmal ignorance and prejudice; so one returns to the question of educational standards. The challenge for progressive, rational, thoughtful people and politics is staggering; seemingly overwhelming. And the opportunities for new levels of authoritarianism are apparently there simply for the taking. Environmentalists tell us that the globe has passed the hour of midnight and the planet, abused by humanity, is falling apart. Those of us whose values are based on social and liberal democracy, and international co-operation, must surely be feeling the same. Much will now depend on the Americans in next year’s presidential election. If they can kick out Trump, there may be hope. But if not …
[i] The people of the United Kingdom have always presented writers with terminological problems. The Scots and Northern Irish have for understandable reasons (and a variety of tangled motives) voted to retain European links, so when I refer here to British, I often actually mean English and Welsh.