Monday, January 18

Throughout history, the British ruling class has created crisis after crisis, like now | Class problems


When novelist John le Carré died earlier this month, among the passages cited by journalists was a short excerpt from The secret pilgrim, published in 1990. In the book, the words are spoken by Le Carré’s beloved character, George Smiley. “English with private education, and English, if you will allow me, is the greatest dissimulator on Earth,” he says. “It was, is now and will always be as long as our shameful school system remains intact. No one will charm you so lightly, hide their feelings better, hide their tracks more skillfully, or find it harder to confess to you that they were a bloody fool.

The words are a curt summary of the distant era of upper-class betrayal and cold war subterfuge, but they also fit the less romantic era of Brexit, the pandemic, and a conservative party whose leadership by two public schoolchildren has us led to disaster. Therein lies a large part of the national tragedy that, amid stranded trucks, an embarrassingly high death toll, and some of the biggest peacetime mistakes this country has ever made, appears to be reaching something of a terrible climax recently. Lately, some of the best writing about the mess we find ourselves in has focused on Boris Johnson’s character flaws, which are undoubtedly a big part of the story. But what has been examined far less is the fact that its flaws are blurred in a much longer story about our former ruling class and its habit of creating crisis after crisis.

The year 2021 will mark the 80th anniversary of George Orwell’s inspirational essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, his warmly patriotic text on English national character, and his belief that this country’s efforts in the early stages of World War II were being compromised by the fact that it still resided in “the most class-oriented country under the sun.” . . Here too are many characterizations of the English elite that seem as relevant now as they were then. “The Battle of Waterloo was probably won on the playing fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars were lost there,” Orwell wrote, and as an Etonian himself, he surely knew what he was talking about.

Of the ruling class politicians who had overseen Britain’s internal tribulations during the 1920s and 1930s while pursuing disastrous foreign policies that culminated in appeasement, he said the following: “What is expected of them is not treason or physical cowardice, but stupidity. , unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct to do the wrong thing. They are not evil, nor at all evil; they are simply unattainable. “When conservatives understood, at least in part, such criticisms and successively embraced the first postwar consensus politics, then the populist meritocracy most dramatically embodied by Margaret Thatcher, they were harder to slander as chancellors and chancellors. full shirts. But in the run-up to Christmas, as I watched Johnson deny the nightmare of a no-deal Brexit, revert to his stupid promise of a normal Christmas, and then once again offer the prospect of a return to normalcy (this time, it seemed to suggest, for easter), Orwell’s words made perfect sense again.

Since David Cameron’s election as party leader in 2005, even if conservatives have been left with a post-Thatcher worldview, many of the inner circles of Tory politics have reverted to a way of doing things more deeply rooted in the grouse. Moors of yore than in the modern world. Johnson’s rise to the top revived a familiar mix of rights, shallowness, and lives that most people would think incredibly opulent. We all know what those things have led to: a seemingly endless series of terrible decisions, from the 2016 referendum call to the chain of bullshit that has defined the British Covid-19 experience.

To be clear: the downsides of a certain type of privileged leadership have exploded on all sides of politics, from the messianic arrogance that led Tony Blair to the disaster in Iraq, to ​​the virtual destruction of the Liberal Democrats by Nick Clegg. But overall, this is a conservative story. If your Christmas gifts included the hideously readable memoir, Diary of an MP’s Wife of Sasha Swire (whose husband, Hugo, was Cameron’s minister and part of his social circle), you’ll have an idea of ​​what this all looks like up close. . . Johnson’s biographer Sonia Purnell described Swire’s book as a portrait of people who are “unserious, titled, snobbish, incestuous, and curiously childish,” obsessed with the subtle distinctions of taste and status that separate the middle class. high up, and drawn to politics and power, not out of any sense of mission or duty, but out of a boring belief that those things are what people like them do. Under Johnson, the same culture of law and mutual back scratching has hardened into the so-called “chumocracy.” The oligarchy is rarely an efficient or sensible way to rule, but that doesn’t seem to get in the way.

Just before Christmas, the dismay at the Johnson government and its apparent distance from reality seemed to be reaching its peak. But then the Brexit trade deal came along, and a familiar idea emerged, especially in the right-wing press, that, under the shaky exterior, the prime minister is something of a swashbuckling genius. This is an archetype that relies on the simplistic charm cited by Le Carré, and is based on a deep well of deference. The reality is, without a doubt, that a reckless project driven by private school students (Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg et al) has probably resulted in the only trade agreement in history that puts barriers to investment. trade rather than eliminate them, and they will be hurried through parliament with disgusting disdain for any scrutiny. Combined with the economic effects of the pandemic, the result will be damage and uncertainty that is just beginning: all the talk that Brexit is now over is yet another proof of the trench we have gotten into.

Disasters, then, will continue to accumulate, but will they result in any change? If history teaches us anything, it is that this country’s mix of cap-taking off and unassailable privilege tends to keep even the most rotten hierarchies in place, and the saga continues. This is the essence of the British mess from which we seem unable to escape.

• John Harris is a columnist for The Guardian

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