Thursday, 24 June 2021

Madness and self-destruction


It was sometime during the 1970s that the late Harri Webb regaled a group of us with a tale of visiting a local newsagent to buy a felt pen. The newsagent told him that they didn’t have any Japanese-made pens, only “cheap British copies”. “And that,” said Harri, “was the day that I knew the British Empire was finished”. In more practical political terms, the Empire died slowly over a few decades between the end of the second world war and the early 1980s, with the bulk of former possessions disappearing during the 1960s and 70s. The attitudes underpinning imperialism have, though, taken a lot longer to die, but as the end approaches the death throes are moving from pathos to farce.

Clinging on to strange symbols such as medals of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire with its five different grades of membership of an institution which to all intents and purposes ceased to exist half a century ago could simply be chalked down as quaint, if a little eccentric. Building useless boats as part of a pretension to be the same global colossus which conquered so much of the world a few centuries ago is rather pathetic, although those same delusions of grandeur can turn positively dangerous when the world king decides to start threatening China with an aircraft-free aircraft carrier, or to deliberately provoke Russia by sailing a warship into disputed waters, complete with pre-installed BBC reporter to report on events.

But it’s hard to avoid the word farce when we turn to some of the more recent attempts to shore up the remaining parts of the English Empire loser to home. Plastering union flags on everything in sight, encouraging school children to sing songs extolling the virtues of a model of Britain which has rightly been consigned to history, and campaigning for the government to provide a portrait of Mrs Windsor to hang in every home – these are more signs of desperation than a serious attempt to encourage unity. It’s as if they seriously believe that the imposition of visible symbols will awaken some sort of innate Britishness, one much more monocultural and deferential, which lurks somewhere within us all and simply needs to be drawn out. Backing it up with repeated attempts to brush away any idea that there can be more than one nation in these islands looks more likely to have the opposite effect to that intended, accentuating division rather than unity by trying to impose one single view of what it means to be British.

The old saying is that “those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”, and madness is an appropriate description of current government behaviour. But perhaps the earliest formulation of the same sentiment, by Sophocles (an ancient Greek who will certainly be familiar to Johnson), runs more like "evil appears as good in the minds of those whom god leads to destruction". Genuinely believing that what they are doing is a very good idea rather than a very bad one is certainly a possible explanation for their bizarre approach. It’s still a form of madness, though – and it doesn’t get them out of being led to their own destruction either.

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