‘There is nothing comfortable or comforting about modern British history’
You can tell a country is running out of luck when it degenerates into forced laughter. The default style of British culture is a jocularity that carries with it the conviction that “it can’t happen here”. The insouciance plays to the aristocratic style that can still draw applause, but it is rooted in the fact that Britain was a lucky country that avoided revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and the totalitarian catastrophe of the mid-20th. The style works well enough when there is no true danger but sounds like the giggle of a neurotic when the times are as chaotic as ours.
You could hear the giggles when Channel 4 attempted to dramatise the Vote Leave campaign in January. The supposedly radical broadcasters carefully avoided showing the machinations that were to lead to the police being called and the Electoral Commission concluding there were “serious breaches of the laws put in place by Parliament to ensure fairness and transparency at elections and referendums” .
Instead of hard and difficult facts Channel 4 gave us grotesque and entertaining caricatures of Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. As so often in England, the grotesque was harmless. There was no need for Channel 4 to be brave and risk threats from lawyers and attacks from the right-wing press by repeating the revelations of whistle-blowers from the Leave campaign. The producers and audience could remain safe and comfortable, and adopt the appearance of radicalism without taking risks.
You catch the same combination of mockery and indulgence in the voices of BBC journalists when they relax and talk in a knowing way of the schemes of the powerful. Once again the tone sounds satirical and superior but its true purpose is to not commit audience and journalists to any risk. They take no political position beyond a pseudo-sophisticated sigh of “aren’t they all awful?”.
There is a long tradition in England from Fielding via Dickens that allows you to say that politicians are incompetent, sex-crazed, scheming or stupid. They can be anything you want them to be except truly dangerous. A consoling message emerges amid all the mocking depictions of buffoonery: you don’t need to worry too much or take events too seriously. Buffoons aren’t dangerous and seriousness is a bore, and a needless bore at that. There’s no need to do anything other than snigger from a position of superiority, because deep down you know it will work out in the end as it always has in the past. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have built their careers on the astute understanding that, if you play the buffoon, a large section of the public will not wake up to your real intent until it is too late.
During the Brexit crisis many have been able to hold contradictory thoughts simultaneously, and never once realise that both cannot be true. On the one hand, they believe that politicians are useless and treacherous. On the other, they believe that Britain will be all right and we will muddle through, as we always have done. Who will do the muddling other than the ridiculous politicians is a question left unasked.
I accept there are other traditions. But consoling mockery is what dominates and, often, what lasts. It is a monument to national complacency that the only description of British fascism that has survived from the 1930s into the 21st century is not from a victim of Mosleyite violence or an author analysing the dark appeal of the Blackshirts, but Bertie Wooster’s takedown of Sir Roderick Spode (Wodehouse’s Sir Oswald Mosley). “The trouble with you, Spode,” Wooster declares, “is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’”
No hint of the coming war, in which Wodehouse would be interned by the Nazis and then accused of collaborating with them. No hint of violence or suffering or danger. Just schoolboy slang that was dated even then, and the reassuring notion that the British — or rather the English, for this is English culture at its most confident and complacent — will never listen to extremists.
Other countries follow fanatics. The English laugh at them, and treat them as characters, as befits a nation that may not be great at much but is world-class at producing character actors to hide behind masks and assure the audience that whatever they see is only a show.
I am tempted to emphasise my earlier point about the deep security of English life. But if you move on from the era of the world wars and totalitarian dictators there is nothing particularly comfortable or comforting about British history. By late-20th-century standards Britain was not a safe haven which knew nothing of the turmoil that afflicted less blessed lands and their excitable inhabitants. Strikes finished the Heath government of 1970-74 and the Wilson/Callaghan government of 1974-79. The civil disobedience and riots her poll tax provoked may not have brought down Margaret Thatcher but they hastened her on her way. The comfortable period in modern British history was comparatively short — from the early 1990s, after the pound left the European Exchange Rate mechanism, through to the crash of 2008. Tellingly, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the politicians who presided over it, are hated by the far Right and far Left. Meanwhile, the Brexit Right in its folly and fanaticism is happy to risk destroying that era’s greatest political achievement: the Northern Ireland peace agreement.
The 1990s and 2000s were also an age when comedy and standups assumed a greater place in the national culture than ever before. Their success was a testament to the age’s stability, and it fitted perfectly with the times. Now the caricatures and grotesques, the self-satisfied coos of appreciation that greet people or dramas that are “very British” or “quintessentially English”, the refusal to take real risks or face real crises, the superior smile and knowing chuckle, only confirm the truth of Peter Cook’s prediction that “England will sink giggling into the sea”.