Please. Someone point out the flaws in the following argument. I desperately want to be wrong this time.
England’s economy is in the toilet because of coronavirus and a firm right hand is about to reach up out of the bowl and pull the chain for ever when the United Kingdom flushes itself out of the European Union without any agreement in place that might protect at least some of its all-important trade with the continent.
It is not hard to sheet this home to the final coming to roost of the karma of British colonialism, because the connection seems to me to be remarkably direct.
Why did so many people vote for Brexit in the face of every qualified agency warning that the economic consequences would be catastrophic? There are several threads to it but by far the prevailing influence was British exceptionalism. The idea, rooted in the public soul over two centuries of owning half the world, that Britain is the greatest country in the world. Great Britain. It’s even written into the name.
We saw its mischief at work throughout February and March this year in the confident assertion from on high that the UK was the best-prepared country in the world to deal with coronavirus. Not only was this very quickly shown to be almost the opposite of the truth, there was at the time not only no evidence to support the claim but plenty of information in the public domain showing how woefully ill-prepared the country actually was. The hubristic boast was entirely based on the old colonial belief that Britain was the best at everything so it followed automatically that the UK must be the best prepared for any eventuality, including a viral pandemic. Some 60,000 dead Britons later, the Prime Minister still blithely characterises the country’s response to the virus as ‘world-beating’, very significantly one of his favourite terms. That phrase is a conscious, direct appeal to British exceptionalism.
The other karmic thread is more obviously traceable cause and effect. From the late 60s onwards a fateful demographic trend kicked off, supported by well-intentioned laws mandating that a broken marriage should not be the economic disaster for mother and children that it had always been. This was eventually followed by Thatcher’s restructuring that threw millions out of their traditional unskilled jobs, creating poverty, stress and millions of broken marriages and single-mother pregnancies. All this gave an extra boost to the almost universal fact that the less education you have the more children you are likely to have. Furthermore those children were now more likely to have only one parent – the uneducated mother – and to receive minimal education in turn. For decades a girl failing at school, with few prospects in the unskilled labour market, could make the choice to become a serial solo mum supported by the state. Out they popped, one after the other. And it was not just solo mums. Educated, aspirational people tend to count the cost in time, money and opportunity of having a child and ration themselves accordingly. The less-educated, also more likely to have grown up in a larger family, make no such calculation. So, while the ever-increasingly-busy middle classes managed to reproduce at well below the rate of replacement, shrinking in numbers year on year, the uneducated classes grew and grew. These are of course sweeping generalisations but in the field of demographics generalisations not only have validity, they rule.
Ironically the only counter-trend was the arrival of thousands of highly aspirational low-skilled immigrants who made damn sure their children mobilised upwards. But it has not been enough to eclipse that fatal drift.
Cut to the picture today. Brexit, that economically suicidal move voted in on a great raft of transparent lies wrapped around a core of British exceptionalism and its associated xenophobia won more than half the votes cast. All those ill-educated hordes that had been swelling over the decades were steeped in exceptionalism. It’s like white trash racism; when you don’t have much going for you, you cling to belief in your superiority as birthright because even you can see you have not done anything that remotely qualifies you as superior any other way. I may be a poor, loud-mouthed knob-head but I’m a British poor, loud-mouthed knob-head so fuck you.
As predicted, dozens of major companies employing many thousands of British citizens pulled up their roots in the UK and moved off shore. That trend is, if anything, accelerating. Does the Brexit-at-any-cost multitude care? Not a whit. The government will not extend the negotiating deadline in spite of the fact that the pandemic has caused negotiations to slow to a crawl. Bring it on. We just want to be shot of Europe at literally any cost.
This is mass stupidity.
Another snapshot: in spite of a deluge of public health messages making it inescapably clear that obesity is very, very bad for you, a third of British adults are now clinically obese and that fraction is growing not shrinking, as are the adults themselves and their increasingly fat children. Among other issues obesity makes coronavirus much more likely to kill you. You’d think, wouldn’t you…? But no. Thanks, I’d love another pint and then we’ll all have an ice cream. This too is mass stupidity.
The hot weather spawns newspaper displays of pages of photos of hundreds of thousands of Brits, many of them visibly obese, packed shoulder to shoulder on the beaches and lakeshores. At a critical moment, when the decline of a pandemic hangs by a thread, they cast off the thing that is keeping them safe because, well, it’s such a nice day. Out they go, stuff their faces and leave unimaginable mountains of food-related rubbish behind, including Big Mac boxes containing the other product of stuffing your face. Stupid, ugly and entitled behaviour, not by a truculent and out-0f-order minority but by very large numbers of the public.
I could go on and on but I think the point is made. Most Brits, and it is probably a fairly narrow majority, are now stupid. So stupid they believe that Great Britain is intrinsically great, which makes them as individuals intrinsically superior, and that nothing they do or don’t do can possibly affect this status. No, not quite. It can be made even greater by expelling all the foreigners who are dragging it down by caring for them when they are sick or old, by serving them their endless lattes, by picking all their fruit and vegetables and by cleaning up their giant mountain of rubbish. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I live on an ordinary middle-class street in a leafy suburb. My neighbours and all my friends here in Bristol and London are reasonably clever, reasonably well-informed, hard working people who view the impending Brexit crashout with horror. They look on at a supposedly conservative government behaving like spoiled, dishonest and not very bright children with distaste and confusion. None of them would go to the beach and walk away leaving their rubbish strewn all over the sand. They – we – have an enduring sense that we are more or less like most people, we’re fairly ordinary, and that kind of behaviour is restricted to the ill-educated, insouciant few because until relatively recently it was. But the numbers have changed. The great demographic shift has turned democracy into a suicide note and my neighbours and friends haven’t quite clocked it. Or perhaps they have but are too polite to express it, always a possibility in England. The vast hordes of stupid people live elsewhere, in the Midlands and in the North, or in suburbs on the far side of the city where they rarely if ever venture. The people of the red wall. Do not believe those who say the great switch to Johnson’s lot happened because those people loathed Corbyn. Were that the whole story they would have simply stayed home on polling day and the numbers show that they did not. No, they actively like, trust and voted for Johnson because he tells them what they want to hear, which is that Britain is the greatest country in the world and will inevitably thrive once it has Europe off its neck. The appallingly bungled response to the pandemic has not caused the slightest visible revision of this conviction. Nothing can or will. It’s wired in.
Actually that’s not quite true. There is a tranche of the public whose opinion of Johnson and his Brexit chumocracy has flipped to loathing: readers of the Times, that shrinking population of people like my neighbours. The comments section of every Johnson story in the Times is filled with fear and loathing of the narcissistic, serial liar as he is most frequently characterised. Pity that they are an ever smaller percentage of the British mass.
What is the solution? There isn’t one. The future is an unwritten book but I can’t see any rising influence that is going to stop this from going on happening. Even if Johnson’s plentiful adipose tissue were to spontaneously combust tomorrow (there are cases on record, I believe) he and Trump have given political chancers everywhere an irrevocable masterclass in how to gain power by flattering the new majority of the stupid and pandering to their post-colonial exceptionalist vanity. This is our future and there is not one damn thing we can do about it. Short, perhaps, of abolishing the universal franchise and letting only those with four or more A-levels vote. Not going to happen. The sun set on the British empire quite a while ago. After a long twilight, now comes the darkness.
Check this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_British_Class_Survey
48% of the population fall into the three lowest sectors – traditional working class, emergent service sector and precariat.
Look for ‘highbrow cultural capital’ and count that percentage – well below 50. My sense is that is the term that encapsulates the vanishing qualities once common throughout British society – a sense of decency and consideration for others, environmental consciousness (the non-litterers) etc.