Sunday National, 6th December 2020.
Up yours, Louis Pasteur. It is testament to the small-mindedness of this UK government that it has been able to turn the discovery of a raft of effective vaccines against Covid into an excuse for jingoistic one-upmanship – but here we are, on the cusp of a no-deal Brexit, on the brink of a major breakthrough against the virus – and leading Tories see it as an opportunity to make fun of Belgians, mock the French, and remind the Germans who won World War II. I despair.
As political outlooks go, it is almost more to be pitied than despised. Almost. After the better part of a calendar year has been consumed by this sodding virus, leaving thousands dead, the aftermath of a busted economy, firms closed, jobs lost, families impoverished, brains frazzled and relationships ruined – what kind of small-minded specimen of humanity do you have to be to be to immediately frame this cherished opportunity as an opportunity for damn fool sideswipes at foreigners?
The Prime Minister, as usual, gave the rest of his ministers the cue, first comparing the prospect of an effective inoculation against Covid to the “morale-boosting bugle-blasting excitement of Wellington’s Prussian allies coming through the woods on the afternoon of Waterloo.” Because when you are talking about a collective achievement of humanity’s scientific imagination, involving researchers of every creed, colour and nationality working together to advance our understanding of the world’s dangers and how we counter them – standing on the shoulders of giants – of course you’d want to frame this in terms of a historic setback for the French nation and a win for Blighty. No other metaphors were available?
I suppose it is a mercy Johnson didn’t explicitly invoke Agincourt or the Normandy landings. Because as your Brexit talks judder and stall, with scant weeks to go till we crash out on no deal terms, you would want to be thinking and expressing yourself in similes about historic wars against your friends and allies. This kind of rhetoric is so normalised in British political culture, we don’t recognise how weird and compulsive it seems to be, or how oddball and smallminded it looks from abroad.
Not to be outdone by the boss in the vulgar exaggeration stakes, this week Gavin Williamson served up a Trumpian word-salad on Sky responding to reports that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had been judged safe for use. “I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country, and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have,” Williamson said. “That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”
His defenders and apologists suggest the tarantula-loving South Staffordshire MP was joking – but really, who jokes in this way? Downing Street claimed the education secretary’s zealous patriotism just got the better of him – who can blame him for loving Britain? – but whichever implausible explanation you prefer to disbelieve, I cringe to the sphincter that we can live with Scotland being governed in this way, represented to the world by this a clueless band of oiks, chauvinists and brylcreamed schoolboys.
Having cheerfully lied about the legal basis for the UK’s speedy authorisation of the new vaccine, Jacob Rees-Mogg doubled down on Matt Hancock’s claim in the House of Commons this week that the Covid shots somehow represented some kind of “Brexit dividend.” Claiming we are now free of the “dead hand” of the EU, Mogg argued “the UK should be really proud that our regulator got in first and we notice that the European regulator is a bit sniffy about it, wishes we hadn’t done it, and that Germany and France and other European countries haven’t managed to do the same thing. We have, we’re leading, draw your own conclusions, as I’m sure the British public will.”
It is an indicator of how mainstream Britain’s John Bull delusions are that nobody bats an eyelid at senior ministers coming out with this kind of guff. If a Scottish politician talked about the virus being “chopped down like Henry de Bohun” or framed the discovery of effective vaccines as a national Bannockburn – they’d be roundly and rightly denounced as a fruitcake. Tory MSPs would crash Twitter in their rush to condemn. Annie Wells’s left kidney would burst with the excitement. Darth Murdo would sprain his thumbs.
Boastful and brittle at the same time, laughable and thin-skinned about being laughed at, at once jealous of its supposed “greatness” and simultaneously unsure about it, mistaking being rude to foreigners for signs of real confidence – for readers with longer memories, this modern iteration of aggressive British patriotism may feel strangely familiar.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher gave a TV interview whose preoccupations chime a familiar note 40 years on. “I can’t bear Britain in decline. I just can’t. We who either defeated or rescued half Europe, who kept half Europe free, when otherwise it would be in chains! And look at us now.”
Although Boris Johnson isn’t the ideologue she was, his government partakes in the precisely the same nostalgic vision of a once-and-future Britain, guided back to greatness by the Conservative Party. For Thatcher, the flags, the anthems and the Falklands were understood as a restoration of things lost – of ancestral pride forgotten – a recovery of nerve, long frayed by intermittent Labour governments and timid upper-class mandarins content to watch Britain sink elegantly in the sand of history, like the dying colonist drinking gin on his veranda as the sun sets over his empire managing
The parallels with much of the Brexit rhetoric – and its suspicion of traditional British elites – are sharp. Brexit isn’t just about trimming Brussels red-tape. Indeed, this administration seems to have remarkably little interest or developed ideas about how to exert the competencies which will return from Brussels, beyond centralising them in Westminster and Whitehall. No: Brexit is principally a moral voyage aimed at giving this country its soul back and recovering a lost national character.
In November, Jacob Rees Mogg explicitly identified devolution as one of the “constitutional blunders which were out of step with many centuries of our parliamentary democracy” hoping that the Johnson administration could find a way of “restoring our constitution to its proper form.” Underestimate this kind of rhetoric at your peril. This batch of Tories see themselves, rightly or wrongly, as counter-revolutionaries.
Like Mrs Thatcher, their impulses aren’t particularly conservative. They don’t see their role in the political system as resisting change and accommodating to change when change becomes inevitable. Their persistent metaphor is “restoration.” And restoration, in this version, can only mean ripping up and ripping out the alien innovations root and stem. When it comes to equality law, human rights and devolution – the Tories are currently havering, but with power in its hands, there is only one way this political counter-revolution can go.
Here in Scotland, I think we sometimes overestimate the extent to which these union manoeuvres are really aimed at us. Last week, it was reported that Downing Street’s so-called “Union unit” had petitioned the producers of the Oxford vaccine to stick a union flag on the bottle, as a little Marks and Spencers branding would perk up the anti-Nat antibodies and eradicate the virus of Scottish nationalism , one jab at a time. While this was roundly mocked – and rightly so as a solution to the United Kingdom’s fractured bones – it may make more sense if you think about it this way.
Transforming this vaccine into a symbol of British scientific virility is principally about England rather than any serious attempt to keep Scotland on side. They’re familiar soundbites from every English high street vox pop about the state of the nation: “Why doesn’t this country make things any more?” “I think we’ve lost our national pride.” In Scotland, hardened separatists like me might look and laugh at Tory ministers’ attempts to claim national credit for the efforts of multidisciplinary, multinational teams of research scientists.
But for many voters in the rest of UK who share the diagnosis that Britain has gone wrong, lost its soul? “Put Land of Hope and Glory on the gramophone, mother. It’s music to my ears.”