The Country of the Blind
- December 12, 2020
I recently bought a copy of the official guide to the 1992 Seville Expo in connection with a novel that I’m currently working on. Most of it is written in the tourist-guide kitsch that you would expect to find from an exhibition that celebrated Columbus’s voyages as the beginning of an ‘age of discovery’ leading us triumphantly into the new millennium. The history it describes is history with the creases smoothed down, and the cracks and dark corners hastily filled with clichés before being painted over with sugary liquid.
With hindsight however, even this dizzy romp through the dawn of globalisation comes with a certain unintended irony, and never more so than when it refers to our own benighted homeland.
Take the section on the British pavilion, which waxes lyrical about the pavilion’s ‘gigantic manifestations of Earth, Air, fire and magical theatre of Communication’ all of which enables visitors to ‘discover how the British spirit of adventure, imagination and enterprise is inextricably linked to the basic ingredients of life on Earth.’
It’s probably best not to linger too long on what any of that actually means. It’s the upbeat mood music that counts. Thus page 37 informs us that ‘The United Kingdom shows the traditionalism and modernity of a nation with a long history of stability. ‘
That at least makes some sense, or it seemed to then, because until very recently that is how the UK was generally seen by the outside world, and it was also how the country liked to see itself. Whether it was Cool Britannia or Danny Boyle’s Olympic Games pageant, we were one of the oldest states in the world and a country that age could not wither. We were old, but we were also modern, with our quaint parliamentary rituals, our stately homes, Beefeaters and James Bond.
We were the country of Oasis, Mr Bean and the Royal Family; a country where the more things changed the more they stayed the same.
Other less-blessed and less-enlightened nations might fall to pieces and succumb to extremism, political violence, chaos and misgovernance, but not us. It was taken for granted, both here and abroad that whatever happened in the wider world the UK would sail on serenely, guided by the same wise, enlightened rulers and the instinctive moderation, tolerance and good sense that had always kept us straight in the past.
Am I overdoing it here? Definitely. And I’m certainly leaving a lot out. But hands up anyone who recognises any of these clichés now?
As I write, we are less than three weeks from the end of the transition period for leaving the European Union, with negotiations between this government-of-none-of-the-talents and the European Union on the point of collapse – most likely a deliberate, engineered collapse on the British side.
If that happens, the country faces the very real possibility of a serious breakdown in the day-to-day trade arrangements that keep the country fed and allow many of its industries and businesses to function, of food and medicines shortages, rising prices, and job losses. Driving on the motorway last week I saw messages warning hauliers that they will face new regulations on January 1st, even though neither the government nor the haulers know what the regulations will be.
Last week the posh ape who the British (English) electorate incomprehensibly made their prime minister shambled off to Brussels, where he proceeded to alienate and insult his European negotiating partners even more than he had already.
He then compounded the damage by seeking a personal phonecall with Merkel or Macron in a crude attempt to undermine Barnier and engage in some good old British divide-and-rule – a request which was turned down.
Bear in mind that these shameful and embarrassing games are being played in the middle of a lethal pandemic which has already delivered the most serious blow to the economy in 300 years. In these circumstances no government with the slightest concern for the welfare of its population would flippantly embrace even more economic disruption and chaos that it has clearly not planned for or prepared for, and whose own incompetence has been glaringly exposed by its cackhanded management of Covid-19.
Yet with each day that passes it is becoming clearer that the government wants precisely this outcome, or at least refuses to believe it will actually happen. Only this week Johnson told the British public and businesses to ‘prepare’ for No Deal – or an ‘Australia-type deal’ as he disingenuously likes to call it, with no indication of what the public or business is expected to do.
Johnson is not a politician with a moral brake or a moral compass and he is not likely to be slowed down or brought back to decency and common sense by Tory MPs and leading Brexiters, who have been urging him to break off negotiations and have a ‘clean Brexit’ with the disturbing fanaticism that you might have expect from a cult embracing mass suicide or the imminent arrival of heavenly beings.
Nowhere in this chorus is there any concern or consideration for the consequences that economists and businesses have warned about. Instead a new and entirely predictable strategy is already emerging, in which any chaos or disruption will be blamed on the EU, or ‘intransigent Remainers’ or foreign enemies du jour.
As I write, British tabloids are cheering the forthcoming deployment of navy warships in the Channel to ‘protect our fish’ and Twitter is awash with Brexiters eagerly anticipating an armed confrontation with the French and/or with the EU.
Let no one believe that this has anything to do with fish. This is World War 2 ‘England alone’ mythologising rewritten by Benny Hill and acted out by Teletubby armchair warriors for whom the EU has become a target in their own first person shooter game.
None of this is accidental. The military posturing, the xenophobia, the bad faith, the blustering aggression and the endlessly whining victimhood are all consequences of the extremist nationalist disease that has rotted the brain and heart of a country that has always had the potential to be so much better, yet somehow failed to live up to it in the last four years.
It is a country that is very far from any notion of ‘stability’; a country that embraces ruin and humiliation as a kind of liberation; that treats its neighbors and former trading partners like enemies; a country that rages about the Proms and the Vicar of Dibley and every manufactured rightwing culture war, yet cannot even find the will, the basic common sense, and the basic attention span, to unravel the greatest grift in its entire political history and avoid inflicting one of the greatest wounds that any country has ever voluntarily inflicted on itself.
In his poem The Country of the Blind, C.S. Lewis wrote of ‘the mouldwarps’ who ‘With glib confidence, easily/Showed how tricks of the phrase, sheer metaphors could set/Fools concocting a myth, taking the worlds for things’.
Our mouldwarps are the Farages, the Hartley-Brewers, the Claire Foxes, the Johnsons and the Rees-Moggs. Their lies and fantasies have unraveled us, and turned us into something uglier and nastier than we could ever once have imagined.
There is no happy ending for this. From next year, things may get even uglier, and the notion of British ‘stability’ will become even more threadbare.
That is a desolate prospect, but these grifters have nothing else to offer. Most of them will never feel the consequences of what they’ve done.
Some of them will actively profit from it. So we may not have hit the bottom yet, but even as we continue our freefall we should take this as a salutary lesson. We are not exceptional. There is nothing intrinsically virtuous or sensible or superior about being British or English. Any country, in the right circumstances, is vulnerable to the forces that have undermined us.
Perhaps, if we can learn this, and come to terms with how it happened we might be able to pick up the pieces, morally, politically, and economically, and find a way to work together to build a society where our better natures can flourish.
Because we are better than this. We have to be. Otherwise the direction of travel can only be further down.