Goodbye to the Britain that we have all grown up with
The National, 7 June 2022
Four days of Platinum Jubilee celebrations; wall-to-wall endless media coverage and sycophantic commentary on TV, radio and papers; and as the weekend concluded a Tory leadership vote of no confidence was finally triggered against Boris Johnson, beginning the slow end of his disastrous, chaotic Premiership.
These are strange political times – of upheaval, disruption, chaos. But over the past few days we are witnessing – underneath all the fluffery and hype – something deep, profound, lasting and unnamed; effectively an elegy and goodbye for Britain as we have known it and as most of us have grown up with.
This is not just the beginning of a farewell to the Queen and start of the process which will lead to the succession of Charles III. It is an implicit, and for some poignant, goodbye to the Britain we have seen over the arc of the Queen’s reign.
Britain has seen across the arc of the Queen’s seventy years epic changes while still trying to cling to the wreckage of the old regime. It is a country which had a direct connection to World War Two and all its trials and tribulations; the end of Empire and era of decolonisation; the emergence of the Commonwealth; the failure of the UK as a European country underlined by Brexit; and domestically the rise and fall of the welfare state, and with it the hopes that Britain could be a more equal, compassionate society.
The Britain that emerges after the Jubilee, as it awaits Charles III, will be more defined by the fault lines which divide the UK. These range from the disillusion with mainstream politics which gained voice in Brexit and has been used and discarded by the Tories subsequently, to more than a decade of under-funding and cuts to public services, and the trashing of what is left of the welfare state.
Besides this, the UK is a dysfunctional kingdom constitutionally and democratically, with an unprecedented concentration of power taken back by the imperial centre post-Brexit; the increasing antediluvian nature of the Palace of Westminster, and the slow burning fuses of the Scottish and Northern Ireland questions which will come to the fore in the next few years.
All of these will hit the reality of a wider public culture drained of upholding decent values: honesty, trust, accountability, leadership, championing and treasuring public service of which Boris Johnson’s venal self-destructive Toryism is only the latest expression. And this will have to happen against the backdrop of the uncharted waters of Charles III which will be a bumpy ride under a monarch much less respected and more unpopular than the present incumbent.
Such moments provide key watersheds with the potential for contrasts with the past and hopes of change, fulfilled or not. One salutary example for the present and near-future is the experience of Winston Churchill’s state funeral in 1965.
This was seen at the time as the end of the wartime generation, of those who served, led and defeated the forces of Nazi Germany. It was meant to herald a bright new failure and a more free, liberated and vibrant country, unconstrained by the ghosts of the past and instead looking to a more progressive, hopeful future.
Rather the passing of that generation led to the rise of a cartoonesque, fabricated version of the past. Endless World War Two citations, tabloid and popular culture references to “Krauts” and invoking xenophobia, and constant Empire nostalgia and imperial allusions are commonplace . Alongside this has been a yearning in TV and drama for costume drama and invoking a time of class hierarchy and certainty, when there was a clear “Us” and “Them” where everyone supposedly knew their place.
This points to a UK which has collectively given up on the future. It is, in Patrick Wright’s evocative phrase, “living in an old country” where the dominant voices of the past are being distorted and used to reinforce and underpin the bleak present.
The Churchill analogy is a warning to those who assume that the end of the era of Elizabeth and the coming of Charles will lead to either the coming of a republican age or a dramatically slimmed down monarchy.
The UK is a state defined by its illusions and delusions. It is still at an elite level shaped by such hyperbole as a “global Britain” and “punching above its weight.” Yet the reality of the UK’s shrunken state is unavoidable – economically, geopolitically and diplomatically. In this the fiction of monarchy cannot prevent hard truths coming centrestage.
This is seen by the number of states that the monarch heads up – currently fourteen excluding the UK – which is destined to decline dramatically in the next few years as the Caribbean states assert their independence from the UK.
All of which will reduce the UK to looking rather diminished – having blown up its European alliances with Brexit while the UK-US relationship is slowly withering, and leaving the UK without a clear strategic purpose and place. Its only continuing raison d’etre internationally as seen in relation to the Ukraine war is of the UK as a “warfare state” in the words of historian David Edgerton which harks back to how the UK did “gunboat diplomacy” and militarism in the past.
This passing of the Britain we have known is one that mainstream political, cultural and media discourse will try to ignore for as long as possible. But look at the challenges facing the UK including the scale of hardship and poverty in one of the richest countries in the world. And then look at the exhausted Tory and Labour traditions and how little they have to say on the big issues.
It is not an accident that Boris Johnson is facing his last days – the third Tory PM who has self-destructed – after Cameron and May. The problem is Toryism – how it has become an atrophied tribe and how inadequate is its take on Britain in the face of its multiple crises.
At the start of Elizabeth’s period on the throne in 1952 the UK was a country defined by a sense of itself, glued together by powerful stories and collective endeavour as the ideals of the post-war settlement linked the working and middle classes, and in which there was a widespread belief that the UK could through its endeavours have a better future. Some of this was exaggerated, some a British establishment selective story, but it did reflect something tangible.
All of these manifestations are either gone, hollowed out or profoundly weakened. The weekend just past, underneath all of the royal commentary, was really about the loss of the optimism of that previous era. There can be no returning to that Britain and its stories, values and hopes.
The even more divided future we will soon experience is one which there can be no avoiding confronting the forces of privilege, inequality and anti-democracy and the Empire state’s advocacy for this unsustainable order. This has to be defeated – a cause more long-term than the slow end of Boris Johnson’s Premiership on which the clock is ticking.