The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Whether or not that ever well described the preparation of the British military I cannot say, but I feel like to understand British politics you need to go back earlier, to the playground of whatever toff kindergarten prepares the English elite for Eton. How else to explain Boris Johnson thinking he can pressure the Labour Party into agreeing to an election on Dominic Cummings’s preferred schedule by calling Jeremy Corbyn “frit”, a “chlorinated chicken”, or “a great big girl’s blouse“.
This last expression struck me as so bizarre — not only is it much too ungainly a phrase to function effectively as an insult, but I can’t think of another term of abuse that compares the target to an item of clothing — but various explainers have revealed that it is indeed a slang expression from the period of Johnson’s childhood, and that Johnson has been known to use it in the past.
It never ceases to astonish me, not just that someone in a position of influence would publicly speak this way, but that his co-partisans seem to find it normal, acceptable, not at all embarrassing, even powerful.
None of this can compare to early-twentieth-century British playground politics. One of the most horrifying details of Christopher Clarke’s meticulous analysis of the march to war in 1914 The Sleepwalkers was his adumbration of the temperamental state of mind prevailing in the British foreign-policy establishment in the decade before the war, illustrated by the comment of UK Ambassador to France Sir Francis ‘the Bull’ Bertie that the Germans wanted “to push us into the water and steal our clothes.”
Among the many recurring farcical features of the Brexit morass has been the British government’s willingness (as I discussed two years ago) to proclaim, that its Brexit plans and negotiating position needs to be kept secret from the UK public because, in its favoured gambling vernacular, its ability to bluff would be fatally undermined by showing its cards. In recent weeks we have learned that no-deal Brexit is easily managed, nothing to be frightened of; and yet, the EU will truckle at the whiff of grapeshot, once it is clear that Parliament cannot rescue them from this terrifying fate. That proroguing Parliament changes nothing, and yet will persuade the EU that the UK has thrown its steering wheel out of the car in its game of diplomatic chicken.
What is odd is not that the government might have a public posture (e.g. no-deal Brexit is easily manageable) at odds with its private beliefs (e.g. no-deal Brexit will be hugely destructive). It is that they openly and persistently proclaim these contradictions, using poker metaphors to justify their contradictions. As though their diplomatic counterparties in Brussels would not also read their allusions to bluffing and draw the appropriate conclusions.
I am reminded of an anecdote in David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris, an American writer who lived many years in France, describes the conversation of two American tourists who were crammed in close to him in the Paris Metro:
“Peeew, can you smell that? That is pure French, baby.” He removed one of his hands from the pole and waved it back and forth in front of his face. “Yes indeed,” he said. “This little foggy is ripe.”
It took a moment to realize he was talking about me.
The woman wrinkled her nose. “Golly Pete!” she said, “Do they all smell this bad?”
“It’s pretty typical,” the man said. “I’m willing to bet that our little friend here hasn’t had a bath in a good two weeks. I mean, Jesus Christ, someone should hang a deodorizer around this guy’s neck.”
It’s a common mistake for vacationing Americans to assume that everyone around them is French and therefore speaks no English whatsoever… An experienced traveler could have told by looking at my shoes that I wasn’t French. And even if I were French, it’s not as if English is some mysterious tribal dialect spoken only by anthropologists and a small population of cannibals. They happen to teach English in schools all over the world. There are no eligibility requirements. Anyone can learn it. Even people who reportedly smell bad…
There came two other gentlemen, one of whom uttered the common-place complaints, that by the increase of taxes, labour would be dear, other nations would undersell us, and our commerce would be ruined.
JOHNSON (smiling). ‘Never fear, Sir. Our commerce is in a very good state; and suppose we had no commerce at all, we could live very well on the produce of our own country.’
This was Samuel Johnson, in the 1770s, who also wrote that
The interruption of trade, though it may distress part of the community, leaves the rest power to communicate relief; the decay of one manufacture may be compensated by the advancement of another…
Johnson, of course, also famously said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Which may somehow be relevant.
De Gaulle famously opposed British entry into the European Common Market, in part because of fear that the UK would serve as a stalking horse for the US. Now the UK is withdrawing from the EU to chase after its unrequited transatlantic crush. And this photo from Le Monde shows the penultimate stage of the drama. The body language is telling. Trump is relaxed, Johnson the overeager schoolboy trying to suck up to the teacher.
I know that public figures are often caught in awkward postures by photographers, but I can’t imagine any person with a shred of self-respect — not to mention any respect for the country he is supposed to be representing — mugging like this in public.
What Johnson wants is for one of two things to happen:
No deal, with blame falling both on the obstreperous, sclerotic, backward-looking EU, and on the traitorous socialists who weakened Britain’s negotiating position from within by suggesting they would block no-deal in any case. We would have had the perfect buccaneering Brexit deal with complete access to European markets, if we hadn’t been betrayed;
A deal that is forced upon the government by the same traitors in parliament.
In either case Johnson then hopes to win a new election by campaigning against the traitors. It’s even better (but riskier) if the country is in chaos because of no-deal Brexit.
No one who actually hoped to make a deal would publicly declare that the other side must entirely abandon one of its key demands, that had already been conceded by a previous UK government, and suggest that their opposition is only a public negotiating posture. But it’s a perfectly good way of provoking a crisis, while allowing low-information voters to believe that he’s really tried everything. Continue reading “Writing the Dolchstoßlegende in English”
I think often of an interview with Jerry Garcia that I read in 1987, when the Grateful Dead had rebounded and gone back out on tour following Garcia’s brush with death: A combination of diabetes and heroin addiction had landed him in a coma, and for a while it wasn’t clear if he would ever be able to play guitar again. Anyway, the interviewer asked him directly about his addiction, and he said (approximately; I don’t have the original text) “You come to drugs with your problems. And after a while the problems fade away, and it’s just you and the drugs.”
And similarly Brexit. Britain came to Brexit with lots of serious problems: housing shortage, inequality, underfunded health service, declining influence in the world and uncertainty about what global role it should or could aspire to. Brexit doesn’t solve these problems, but they’ve faded away. Now it’s just us and Brexit.
The European parliament has voted to stop the practice of switching clocks forward and backward every year, from 2021. I’ve long thought this practice rather odd. Imagine that a government were to pass a law stating that from April 1 every person must wake up one hour earlier than they habitually do, and go to sleep one hour earlier. All shops and businesses are required to open an hour earlier, and to close an hour earlier. The same for schools, universities, and the timing of private lessons and appointments must also be shifted. Obviously ridiculous, even tyrannical. The government has nothing to say about when I go to bed or wake up, when my business is open. But because they enforce it through adjusting the clocks, which seem like an appropriate subject of regulation and standardisation, it is almost universally accepted.
But instead of praising this blow struck for individual freedom and against statist overreach, we have Tories making comments like this:
John Flack, the Conservative MEP for the East of England, said: “We’ve long been aware the EU wants too much control over our lives – now they want to control time itself. You would think they had other things to worry about without wanting to become time lords,” he said, in an apparent reference to the BBC sci-fi drama Doctor Who.
“We agreed when they said the clocks should change across the whole EU on an agreed day. That made sense – but this is a step too far,” Flack added. “I know that farmers in particular, all across the east of England, value the flexibility that the clock changes bring to get the best from available daylight.“
So, the small-government Tory thinks it’s a perfectly legitimate exercise of European centralised power to compel shopkeepers in Sicily and schoolchildren in Madrid to adjust their body clocks* in order to spare English farmers the annoyance of having to consciously adjust the clocktime when they get out of bed to tend to their harvest. But to rescind this compulsion, that is insufferably arrogant.
*Nor is this a harmless annoyance. Researchers have found a measurable increase in heart attacks — presumed attributable to reduced sleep — in the days following the spring clock shift. A much smaller decrease may accompany the autumn shift back.