As sundry wheels come off Boris Johnson’s Tory wagon as it careens from one U-turn to another, they seem to believe blindly incanting Zero Mostel’s mantra from Mel Brooks’ classic film, The Producers, will restore power and prestige to once-great Britain that he and his backwoodsmen supporters crave.
To be fair to him and acolytes like The Honourable Member for the 16th Century, he may actually believe he inhabits a Churchillian role: St Bojo of Wryslip rescuing an eyelash-fluttering Britannia from the clutches of Trotskyites at home and Juhnny Foreigners beyond the white cliffs. He will then escort her toward those sunlit uplands where green sward echoes to the ‘thwack’ of leather on willow, the shrieks of rosy-cheeked children and there is honey still for tea. Cue a swelling soundtrack segueing from Vera Lynn to Rule Britannia, with lyrics now gloriously restored.
Unless it stokes hostility towards others, there is nothing wrong with shared national pride and identity. But to be effective and unifying, it must also be relevant to the vast majority involved. Unfortunately, this resurgent brand of English jingoism comes unstuck on all three counts.
Firstly, it is largely not relevant because it is rooted in another era, when the world was a very different place. It is no wonder those tunes that stir Tory blood were composed when Britain did indeed rule the waves. Having overcome Louis XIV and Bonaparte, plus once-great Moghul and Chinese empires, who could stop us making mightier yet?. And a very nice profit we made from it too, without being too choosy about what goods were traded and how degraded the labour was to achieve it. The sop of Kipling;s ‘White Man’s Burden” served to salve the conscience. The disgrace of white superiority from that festers behind present Tory indignation over immigrants. Tory belief that Britain can again be an independent trade titan rests on naive nostalgia for when we possessed all the factories and could force the world to ship us raw material cheap and sell finished goods to them at high prices.
Secondly, it is not unifying because the present Tory government may talk about ‘the nation’ and ‘The Union’, but don’t seem to realise that they are an oligarchy of Home County types, those nabobs of South-East England who look increasingly like an alien occupation to people in Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle, quite apart from Wales, Ireland or Scotland.
Their vision of Britain is actually that of a subset of England whose social mores and ambitions Thackery was already lampooning a century ago. Tories gloating over their breaching of the ‘Red Wall’ in December’s election should examine the Trojan horses now flooding their benches. For most of them are genuinely local and not from the genteel confines of Tunbridge Wells. For example, Katherine Fletcher, pragmatic new MP for Ribble South, a qualified scientist channrling Victoria Wood on form, will be just one that reactionary traditionalists like Bill Cash, still celebrating Brexit triumph, must adjust to.
Tory assumption that the rest of England outside the 100-mile radius of Westminster, in which they feel most at home, share their culture and ‘Britannia Redux’ vision of the future are not only flawed, but threaten the joint prosperity of everyone else on these islands. A hundred years ago, this culture drove the Empire. Its easy arrogance as tholed by all its beneficiaries, including a Times obituary for a Scot could get away with saying “he brought renown to England and all its dominions”.
Finally, this does not effective in binding the peoples of Britain. A result of the backwards-looking English Nationalism espoused by BoJo and masquerading as British patriotism, will have a shelf life no longer than his government’s. That is likely to end in the 2024 general election. At that point, the poor performance of his blundering: the worst handling of Covid in Europe; the sluggish economic recovery; a recovery exacerbated by declining exports and swingeing tariffs from a No Deal Brexit upon which he is clearly hell-bent. Four years from now, all will be dragon-sized chickens come home to roost on a re-built Red Wall.
But the resentment of the North at being sold a Brexit pup will be as nowt, compared to the wrath of the Scots. Having voted in another SNP government in May 2021, who put independence front and centre and a Scottish Tory loss of a quarter of their MSPs for following instructions to defend the union. With the attitude described above, things will get hot. BoJo may spend the balance of his tenure denying the Scots a referendum but even non-SNP voters in Scotland will lose all patience with authority exercised without moral justification.
That’s what lost England America and Ireland. The last colony will take the chance it gets, once a more enlightened government drops the Cummings autocracy, covered up by Bullingdon-club bullshit.