Writing And More - A Blog by Alan Devey
“For years inventors have tried to create a time machine. Now Britain has done it: riots on the streets, unemployment rocketing and blokes banging on about the Union flag. All we need now is some Punk Rock and we’re back somewhere in the mid to late 1970s.” – Omad Djilli
“The heritage industry moves in when people don’t know who they are any more and have to focus on who they were instead.” – Deborah Orr
I recently watched ‘White Riot’, a documentary exploring the Rock Against Racism movement, one that sprang up in response to the extreme right-wing views expressed by male musicians like Eric Clapton and David Bowie back in the 1970s. In a clip from that time Poly Styrene (recently the subject of a film to herself) talks about the rise of white supremacy after Enoch Powell amid the rising popularity of the National Front. She sees it as a response to struggles with British identity from privileged white people. Indeed, the lyric of one famous X-Ray Spex song goes: “Identity is the crisis, can’t you see?”
Forty-plus years on the crisis around our nation’s identity seems to be even more pronounced, if anything. I’ll be referring to England in the main here, because while there are plenty of similar issues floating around Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the most problematic beliefs and propaganda that underpin our current situation seem specific to the English - those individuals who think back fondly on all they’ve been told about the glory days of the British Empire. This is something that doesn’t really register with Glaswegians campaigning for Scottish independence or Belfast workers struggling to get through the unheralded consequences of our exit from the EU.
The dominant ideology of the governing politicians in England and the majority of our (right-leaning) media is that this is the greatest nation in the world. Some of you reading this might well laugh out loud at such an idea, but then you probably haven’t grown up with it. It’s the same belief that brought us Brexit (“they need us more than we need them!”) and one that is behind our country’s ridiculous veneration of a Royal Family. Now it means that, in the wake of a deadly pandemic, expanding our stock of nuclear warheads and fooling ourselves we possess overwhelming military might is a higher priority than giving NHS workers a pay rise.
Cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress a person suffers from being forced to retain two or more contradictory beliefs in their mind simultaneously. This is one of the themes of my recent novel about polarisation and creeping fascism in the wake of the Leave vote, The Gestalt Switch. While much has been made of our ruling party’s failures economically or in terms of the population’s physical well-being, little has been said about the toll they have exacted on our collective mental health with a wildly surreal and outlandish approach to governing; the blatant lies and continual gaslighting.
Because how can we be proud of living in what is billed as one of the great democracies when plans are afoot to criminalise protest, restrict civil liberties and stifle any form of dissent? Do we truly consider this a fine country to live in when we have one of the highest Coronavirus death rates in the world, falling life expectancy due to austerity, and depressed living standards accompanying horrendous inequality as the most fearsome economic storm comes our way? How do you go on believing everyone wants to live here when 1.3 million foreign-born residents have upped sticks and left through recent months?
“Stop talking down the country!” That’s the standard response from Conservatives when you try to engage them with the facts. But there’s no need for exaggeration when the reality is that the British economy has shrunk appallingly, unemployment is up and 30% of children here live in poverty. You can obey our illustrious leaders by parroting their delusions and keep them at the forefront of your mind, but reality has an unfortunate habit of intruding. If your business has lost most of its trade with Europe or you spend every morning queuing at a food bank because the company that used to employ you isn’t eligible for government support, I can’t see that singing ‘Rule Britannia!’ at the top of your lungs or wrapping yourself in a Union Jack is going to be much of a panacea.
As Robert Saunders has written in this excellent article, not only is there a huge disconnect between right-wing parties bragging they will make countries “great again” and the work that enables a nation state to prosper through the 21st century, but these populists can’t even accurately portray the eras their nostalgia and jingoism hankers for. If the revanchists were genuinely out to return to the days of Empire, with all its dominance, exploitation and oppression, that would at least be historically honest, albeit impossible (I mean, good luck subjugating foreign lands or enslaving their inhabitants with so much international competition, even if it’s mainly corporations doing this work nowadays). But no, the patriotism that is promoted by these charlatans appears to be of a type that views the Empire as a benign manifestation of “world-beating” British values, just as it hoists Winston Churchill up to culture war symbol of untrammelled good, ignoring his racism, the Indian genocide and his opposition to universal healthcare. I mean, this man compared the foundation of the NHS to actual Nazism, for goodness sakes.
But it’s tricky for Boris Johnson and his amoral cohorts to positively invoke the British Empire, because of the obvious downsides for those who were colonised and ‘ruled over’ by it. Jacob Rees-Mogg discovered this when trying to defend Churchill’s penal set-up in South Africa during the Boer war where tens of thousands died. His logic was that anything run by Englishmen must be inherently positive, including Concentration Camps. So while Rees-Mogg harked back to an imagined golden age of singlehandedly winning wars and bringing ‘civilized values’ to a quarter of the globe, our Prime Minister is still careful to avoid pointing out that the infrastructure of Empire was responsible for our nation’s success; those “gunboats and battleships” of a colossal military fighting machine Saunders mentions.
No, these days England simply doesn’t have the power to steal resources from developing countries, human or otherwise. We can’t occupy them to divide and rule while “educating” the locals in the ways of Christianity. But our Brexit narrative and nostalgic myth of imperialism asserts that, collectively, we will once again subjugate the rest of the world; from striking unprecedented trade deals to flourishing as a nation, even as our exports drown under oceans of paperwork in a world of spiralling food prices and deserted high streets. Meanwhile the young have divorced themselves from politics altogether, simply because it has nothing to offer them. It is particularly hypocritical for those in power to ask the electorate to reconcile all they’ve been taught about England’s history and place in the world (at school, and by our ‘patriotic’ press) with a day-to-day existence that’s increasingly driven by want, anger and struggle; where the very fabric of society is threatening to come apart at the seams. Actually, it is the politicians’ fault our previously-United Kingdom has been side-lined from the world stage and they’ve undermined that ‘special relationship’ with a President who knows Boris Johnson to be an untrustworthy shapeshifter, even as our European neighbours initiate legal action against us. And how do you swallow the idea that hard work is the route to health and happiness when most jobs here are pointless, soul-destroying, insecure or too ill-paid to offer a way out of wage-slave penury?
Bread and circuses, that’s what we get instead, only without the bread. Ministers decry the focus on ‘identity politics’ while pushing a narrow – wealthy, white, patriarchal – narrative as our dominant English self-image. They spend untold billions expanding defence capabilities to puff up the self-esteem of retired, Telegraph-reading, military men. They distract the populace with visions of pointless bridges, vitriol for Meghan Markle and arguments about statues while quietly privatizing the NHS to make their well-off cronies even richer, all to the detriment of the 99%.
Look at them – just look at the Royals in all their finery! Side with Her Maj when ‘the firm’ offers little support for her grandson and his young family as they are besieged by the most intrusive and amoral press in the world; hacks deliberately left unregulated who constantly assault the mental health of figures they would demonise. Yes, stand to attention for our Queen, a woman as rich as Croesus who is set to expand her wealth exponentially thanks to the offshore wind boom because she owns the fucking seabed. Worship her, but don’t ask why you must defer to blue bloods when the evidence regularly assaults us that none of them are our ‘betters’ in any real way. Nobody in the Royal Family is more talented, intelligent, hard-working, compassionate or likely to leave a generous tip at Woking Pizza Express than anyone else you know, and a system of hereditary privilege can never be beneficial for us peasants. Still, it’s been drummed into us to tug our forelocks while looking up to these entitled thoroughbreds, simply because such archaisms have been thrust into our faces constantly; we’ve been intimidated into believing they are somehow a good thing. More cognitive dissonance there for us bootlicking scum. The Queen could have done something practical to help her subjects through this pandemic, beyond reassuring words and posing in front of a solid gold piano. It's no surprise to me that she didn’t. In fact, it’s not my place to even ask, as the politicians, aristocrats, media barons and billionaires would say.
The collateral damage in this situation is that much of the English population, especially the poor, young and marginalised, have washed their hands of current affairs altogether, in an effort to protect their mental health in the face of cuts to services that might otherwise safeguard a fragile state of mind. This is exactly what our rulers want, of course. Just like in America with the Republicans, the fewer people who vote, the more likely reactionaries are to retain their grip on power. The Tories are certainly focussing hard on that part, bringing in an I.D. card requirement for voters and revising constituency boundaries to help them rule in perpetuity.
If we don’t educate ourselves, find our voices and vote for whoever is least awful, these problems will continue, that’s how the argument goes (often from those who backed Jo Swinson in 2019, but I digress). To this, I would respond, that if every major political party backs a status quo of police abusers and failing to make the rich pay their share, it makes perfect sense to ignore all the options or spoil your ballot. The wider problem is this: when wealthy establishment liars hold all the power, we lose faith in the very institutions they control. Then England becomes even more like America, where millions refuse vaccines because they are administered by that same profiteering medical establishment which caused unbelievable harm by pushing addictive opioids. Meanwhile few young Americans trust the police to do the right thing and fewer still believe the U.S. legal system is about justice or convicting the guilty, not when the defendant with the most expensive lawyers routinely wins. This is understandable, especially in light of trial outcomes like those of O.J. Simpson and Robert ‘The Jinx’ Durst. But the consequences of never trusting the system become obvious when the shoe is on the other foot. If someone who has done nothing wrong is investigated at length by the most qualified experts in the land, exonerated of all alleged wrongdoing (to the extent he isn’t even charged, let alone convicted) and the ill-informed still scream ‘rapist’ or ‘paedophile’ across social media, the innocent party is then convicted in the court of public opinion, based on nothing more than hearsay, fabrication and the coaching of the easily manipulated to serve up a uniquely horrendous kind of vengeance. So many people across the Atlantic have become collateral damage from this lack of faith in the institutions that are meant to protect them.
These are all symptoms of a glaring but understandable rupture in public trust, both in the US and, increasingly, here. After all, if your leaders have lied to you about everything else, why would you trust them when they say that vaccines are safe, or that wearing a mask in public will protect everyone, or that lockdown is the best way for you and your loved ones to stay alive? The cognitive dissonance among those who don’t have time to look into the detail because they’re busy making ends meet has precipitated a psychological crisis, one that is made worse by an ideology that forces us to wrap our brains around stuff like: “this government works for you but also targets people like you with its hostile policies” or: “we’re promoting cultural change to help women and girls while employing more police” or: “the EU continues to be the source of all our problems, even though we aren’t in it any more”.
Maybe some aristocrats and privileged old-money types really do believe England should go back to being a colonial power, and that their forefathers did unmitigated good by deciding they owned any country they came across on their travels, I’m not sure. My ancestors were bog-trotting Yorkshiremen, Hog’s Back hillbillies and at least one strand of those gypsies the Home Secretary has set her sights on demonising for reasons of ‘suspicion’. This means I have little first-hand understanding of ruling class values or the traditions they pass down. Furthermore, I gain no sense of my personal identity from that whitewashed depiction of British Empire seen in history books because, like the vast majority, my ancestors were being oppressed at home by those same rich Englishmen who ran the colonies abroad.
But the point is that our government’s vision of the future isn’t even based on the reality of the past. Rather it’s a collective delusion that prioritises theatrically demonstrative patriotism against a backdrop of ever-larger flags, even as imminent threats to trade, public services, women, minorities, the economy and our collective well-being are ignored, just as the Coronavirus was played down in March 2020 then again before Christmas, at the cost of an estimated 47,000 preventable deaths. Still, it’s nothing new for right-wing governments to have the blood of innocents on their hands, is it now?
The good news is that there’s something we can do about all this. Superannuated opinions from those who can’t bear to let go of a mythical past will always float around the troposphere; men lubing up their metaphorical Union Jacks. But for those who are willing to put in the mental work, it doesn’t take much to grasp that certain beliefs about England are no longer plausible, let alone acceptable. It may take some time to deprogram ourselves of the bullshit we’ve been fed over the decades (you can tell this because so many nationalists aren’t even willing to try), but the results are more than worthwhile.
So repeat after me:
- Britannia does not, and will never again, ‘rule the waves’.
- The Royal Family aren’t my friends; they don’t care about me. Their presence in public life merely serves to distract us from more important matters.
- It isn’t the EU making my day-to-day life harder than it needs to be, it never was.
- Those people I've been taught to look up to only have their own interests at heart, not mine.
- My fellow humans around the world should be treated as equals; with respect and compassion. We don’t have to exploit others in order to succeed.
- Don’t take everything at face value, whether in the legacy media or online, and certainly don’t accept the assertions of those who do.
- If Boris Johnson speaks, you can be sure he’s lying (but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get vaccinated).
- Universal healthcare is a human right and, while we’re at it, that nurse who tended myself and my loved ones in our hour of need deserve a fucking pay rise.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are now putting in place a framework to leave the sinking ship of union, and I can’t help feeling that progressive cities like Liverpool, London, Manchester and potentially the whole North of England, should harness local powers to secede as far as possible too. As time goes on the voices screaming about England being the greatest land on earth will only grow more ridiculous and isolated, drowned out by the massive floods, super-storms, unprecedented droughts and acidification of the oceans; by the recession and joblessness, mounting civil unrest and any number of health crises like Coronavirus our rulers can no longer gloss over. Perhaps then we’ll face up to the challenges of our collective future, honestly and confidently. Achieve a settled frame of mind that doesn’t reach for the comfort blanket of fantasy when forced to assess the causes of our broken society for future generations. Perhaps then we will inhabit and even celebrate what could be a very different England through the years to come.