I said years ago that if we ever had an authoritarian movement in Britain it would not have uniforms, goose-stepping marches and torchlight parades. It wouldn’t be that interesting. Ours would be a shabby poujadism, led by golf club bores, residents’ association busybodies and parish Pol Pots.
The boorish self-righteous know-all is a staple of British comedy, perhaps because every neighbourhood has at least one. It’s easy to imagine Terry Medford, Martin Bryce, Warden Hodges and Reggie Perrin’s brother-in-law Jimmy in your local UKIP branch. Basil Fawlty would have joined in the early years but left once they started letting in riffraff like Eddie Booth and Alf Garnett. But at least in the comedies even the most dislikable characters had some redeeming features and, in the end, they usually got their comeuppance, their own puffed-up stupidity eventually bringing about their downfall.
Alas, in 2017, this once-ridiculed tendency in our national culture is now calling the shots. As Rafael Behr said last week, to the rest of the world, Britain now looks urbane but unhinged. Sitcom characters, only without the comedy:
To succeed in Britain, radicalism eschews the fancy dress of martial bombast. Nigel Farage advanced the cause of Brexit not by banging podiums but by propping up the bar, nudging and winking at insurrection through a pint of ale.
Last week, the government produced two Brexit position papers described as foolish by a former government legal advisor and as destructive ambivalence by the FT. And those were just the polite reactions. As Chris Grey says, the reason for the incoherent and contradictory messages in these papers is the government’s attempt to walk a line between the national interest and the demands of the noisy Brexit fanatics:
Even the realpolitik of negotiating with the EU would not be so difficult were it not for the relentless pressure of the vociferous and ever-present Brexit ultras inside and outside the Tory party. They are so detached from reality and so implacable in their demands that even the government’s attempts to negotiate hard Brexit are regarded as a betrayal. Since they do not have to take any responsibility at all for the consequences they are free to oppose transitional periods, exit bills, or any kind of deal at all (see John Redwood here, for example). If May thought that she had bought their loyalty by rejecting the obvious, pragmatic, compromise of soft (single market) Brexit then she failed to understand that as with every concession made to them before it just produces an even wilder new demand.
This chorus, made up mostly of middle-aged men, shouts ‘treason’ at any attempt to translate Brexit into something that might limit the damage to Britain’s economy. They claim a monopoly on patriotism, wrapping themselves in the Union Jack and calling those that disagree with them anti-British.
Most distasteful of all, though, is the weaponising of ignorance. The snobbish and condescending suggestion that knowledge and expertise are somehow elitist and irrelevant to most people has taken our political debate to a new low. Plummy accents affect common cause with ‘ordinary folk’. We common plain-speaking chaps are fed up with experts, aren’t we, eh what? Oxford history graduates tweet things they surely know to be nonsense and Fellows of All Souls cast themselves as anti-Establishment. The strategy when confronted with inconvenient questions or facts, is to simply go red in the face and shout a lot, hoping to browbeat your opponent into submission. Some of the noisy old men on Twitter really don’t know what they are talking about. Worse, though, are the ones who pretend not to know things because knowing them would be inconvenient.
As if to emphasise the sitcom takeover of Britain, as soon as she came back from holiday our prime minister chose to become embroiled in the War of Big Ben’s Dong (oo-er missus). We may be 18 months away the most calamitous event to hit this country since the Second World War but our government can still find time to pontificate on a manufactured tabloid row. Never mind that the plan to repair Big Ben was signed off by parliamentary committees in 2015, that the bell has been silenced for refurbishment before or that doing delicate repair work with 120 decibel chimes going off every quarter-hour is self-evidently stupid, the pompous boors have to be appeased. Once again, those who know what they are talking about and who have done the painstaking planning are dismissed with typical bluster.
Some council jobsworths are planning to silence the town hall clock. The local rag is up in arms and retired colonels are writing letters to the Times. But don’t worry, Hyacinth Bucket and her residents’ committee are on the case. They’ll put these namby-pamby so-called experts in their place.
Hey, here’s an idea. An old Etonian hack, who has built his reputation by making up stories about foreigners and telling xenophobic jokes, somehow gets to be foreign secretary. He carries on exactly as before, which upsets lots of foreign politicians and diplomats. We could have European dignitaries with funny accents saying, “Ach so, zis is famous English joking, yah?” OK, it’s preposterous but it should get a few cheap laughs in the half hour between the serious programmes.
The trouble is, the joke is wearing thin. An aspect of our national culture that used to provide endless comedy material has gone mainstream. The bombastic, self-righteous middle-aged bore, revelling in his homespun philosophy and convinced that what he can see from his own doorstep represents a universal and timeless truth, is now calling the shots. The knowledgable and those with workable suggestions are shouted down. The people who used to provide us with midweek comedy laughs are now running the show and, when you get close up, they are really not very funny at all.