Looking down with a vaguely-superior disdain at the outside world is a long-established Anglo-Saxon pastime. Over the years we have been taught to use the words ‘very British’ to distinguish the bad things that happen in the world beyond from the better things that happen here. We talk about ‘very British revolutions’ with a certain smugness. The notion of something being ‘very British’ conjures up comforting notions of a national character based on gentleness,moderation and an aversion to extremes. It evokes a nation supposedly moved more by common sense than the hot political passions that cause civil wars and revolutions in less cultured or sophisticated places.
I learned this a long time ago, when I studied O’ Level History and learned how nineteenth century British statesmen grappled with continental instability and the Ottoman ‘sick man of Europe’. Back then we were very much steeped in the ‘great men’ school of History and we understood that British leaders were greater than most.
We learned that our statesmen were visionaries like George Canning, who ‘ called the new world into existence to redress the balance of the old’; that they were sensible, pragmatic and diplomatic men who did not act rashly; who were always wise enough to prevent a serious crisis from getting any worse.
Other countries, we assumed, were not so blessed. They were led by leaders who weren’t as wise or all-seeing as our own, and that was why we sometimes had to intervene in their affairs and perhaps even take over their countries.
Our ancestors had been forced to deal with the sick man of Europe. They had taken on ‘the burden of Empire’. They had intervened in two world wars. They had been forced to deal with ‘the Irish question’, and the ‘problem of India’ and the dangerous aspirations of the ‘Russian bear’, when all they really wanted was to put their feet up in a Mayfair club or watch a good game of cricket somewhere.
Other leaders wanted power or territory. Ours were only concerned with ‘the balance of power’ and safeguarding the nation’s interests – interests that we were never taught to question and always assumed were legitimate. Even our empire was ‘accidental’.
Of course I have long since shed these illusions, or at least I thought I had. Because I still find it impossible to reconcile these schoolboy narratives of British caution and moderation with the mind-boggling combination of malice, idiocy, prejudice, magical thinking and epic incompetence that is dragging the country towards one of the great self-inflicted wounds in its history.
In the last week, lying in a sickbed watching the country speed towards Article 50 like a train heading for a cliff, I’ve often myself thinking of the Joe Dante 80s comedy Gremlins, when a dad purchases a little oriental animal called a mogwai for his son as a present and inadvertently brings forth an army of destructive little monsters that wreak havoc on a small American town.
I can’t help feeling that a similar process is now taking place on a national level as I watch the oafish Boris Johnson turning what was once seen as one of the most serious posts in the British government into a vehicle for his narcissistic buffoonery. No one can be surprised that his own department is in despair at his inability to read briefings or his willingness to alienate his foreign counterparts, because such an outcome could have been predicted from the moment he got the job.
Which brings us to Theresa May, gremlin-in-chief, who has allowed her personal ambition to put herself in a position when she is painfully and terrifyingly out of her depth. Her party can’t even guarantee the interests of big business – the main purpose of the Tory Party after all – let alone the wider interests of the country.
May is nominally leading the country, even though she only seems to listen to the Brexit gremlins that prance around her shrieking that we must leave, leave, leave the EU, regardless of how we leave it or what leaving means or whether their exits are even possible. They include the more thug-like gremlins like Aaron Banks and Nigel Farage, ‘the bad boys of Brexit’ , who clearly don’t care what happens if we leave just as long as we leave.
And posh Jacob Rees-Mogg – a politician who looks more and more like a ghost from the fourteenth century rather than a living person. And stonecold idiots like Ian Duncan-Smith and Andrea Leadsom – an environment secretary who is so pig-ignorant that she thinks farming has been around ‘since the dawn of mankind’.
Like Brexit secretary David Davis, these gremlins can’t be doing with any negative talk about what might happen, or any fussing about single markets, tariffs, schedules and regulations. That is namby-pamby, lefty pinko liberal europhile talk and they aren’t having it. They want out and they want it now. They’re ready to take the ‘economic hit’ that none of them will ever feel. Because after so many years of continuous suffering they just can’t endure the tyranny of Brussels for a moment longer – now that the green fields of freedom are so near.
The more the pitfalls and negative consequences mount up, the more they put their fingers in their ears and chant ‘la la la la la’. Or they stamp their feet and shout at anyone who says anything they don’t want to hear. So when judges uphold the rule of law and say that parliament should have some scrutiny over the Brexit process, the judges are vilified as traitors, and gremlins across the country talk of hanging them for treason. Because just like the gremlins in the movie, some Brexit gremlins initially seem cheeky and mischievously appealing – like Farage or Johnson – but they quickly turn menacing and even homicidal.
In these circumstances, no one can be surprised that a career diplomat like Ivan Rogers is ignored by his own government when he warns of the dangers ahead. When Rogers resigns and has the cheek to write a resignation letter he is screeched at by the king of the gremlins Nigel Farage that he is just a ‘Europhile’ anyway and the foreign office is full of ’em, dontcha know? And then the ghastly Theresa Villiers calls Rogers ’emotionally needy.’
Yep, that’s the way to treat your diplomats when they don’t tell you what you want to hear. According to the version of British history I was once taught, civil servants were ‘mandarins’ who knew how to run the country and the empire and gave wise disinterested counsel to governments. Given the staggering complexity that the task of leaving the EU involves, you would have thought that even the most ardent Leaver would want such men in place to ensure the best possible outcome. After all, it’s only common sense to want an experienced negotiator to take part in … negotiations, right?
But Gremlin Britain is not a country where logic and common sense applies. It’s not the country that my teachers told us about. Gremlins only want to see gremlins like themselves in power. Because otherwise their vacuity is likely to be revealed to the world. And the more it becomes clear that they have no coherent plan and don’t even understand what they’re doing and don’t even care about the consequences the more they shout down the people who point this out.
Meanwhile the NHS is crumbling away to the point when Red Cross volunteers are now assisting…the NHS as patients die on trolleys in corridors. And prisons across the country are rioting – the same prisons where Paul Dacre’s Gremlin Times recently said that prisoners were living a life of luxury.
All this is also part of Gremlin Britain- a country where it’s much easier to rise high if you’re willing to destroy things than if you’re willing to build them, where cronies, grifters and zealots are promoted above their ability while civil servants who actually have ability and experience must step aside.
The historians of the future will have their eyes popping out on stalks when they look back on this incredible mess and try to understand how this was allowed to happen. They will know it wasn’t because someone brought a weird oriental mascot for his son. Some may Conclude that a combination of post-imperial corruption and decadence led the British ruling classes inadvertently to apply shotgun to the nation’s collective head like a boozy squire on a grousehunt, supported by a population that wanted to believe in Santa Claus when it wasn’t even Christmas.
Others might see it as a popular rebellion gone wrong, or another part of the same generalised democratic corrosion that has given us a president who boasts about his ratings on a tv show less than two weeks before taking office
But one thing is clear. The words ‘very British’ are even meaningless than they were before, and in the future, like Joe Dante’s Gremlins, they may well conjure up horror rather than affectionate amusement