Those people who say that Britannia still does rule the waves have more verrucas than friends
The ‘couldn’t hold a piss-up in a brewery’ cliché falls flatter than usual because they’ve banned piss-ups and closed breweries. Still, we can be thankful for the silence
Lynne from Skipton
By Edward Pinnegar
Max Weber once said a state was a state because it claimed a monopoly on violence. Edward Pinnegar reflects on life under a state which claims only a monopoly on questions.
VE Day. Britannia rules the waves. Well, she did once. Not anymore really. Some people say she still does a bit. Can you even rule something a bit? Surely you either rule it or you don’t?
Either way, those people who say that Britannia still does rule the waves have more verrucas than friends, and are nowadays found only in Kettering, a place which never ruled anything. And some of their only trips out of that feverish dystopia are to make up the numbers in those Made-in-China Union flag-waving hordes at the Last Night of the Proms.
That’s why such sentiments are now mostly confined to Gavin Williamson’s imagination. As Defence Secretary, in a rare moment of self-indulgence, he took this pet idea out for some exercise – back in the days when it was legal to have more than an hour of it. His announcement that the Royal Navy would deploy a new aircraft carrier to the Pacific caused only a minor diplomatic incident with China. Even by his standards, not a roaring success.
This government is fond of boats. So fond, in fact, that it once gave a £32m Brexit ferry contract to a company which owned none of them. Boris Johnson once campaigned for two new £150m Royal Yachts – and what a thankful break from austerity that would have been. After his ‘brush with death’ perhaps he will see sense and spend the cash on a really big effort to provide healthcare to the masses instead. Like, really big. NHS-sized. Oh wait.
But the line that ‘Britannia rules the waves’ provides unlikely common ground. The good ship Britannia seems steady from just about every angle.
On the one hand, there are those who’ve decided that a pandemic suspends the plurality of liberal democracy and makes a government – no matter how stupid or incompetent its ministers – morally unimpeachable. For them, Britannia is helmed by capable, gallant people who will save this country to a looped backing track of Vera Lynn and Noël Coward, beamed to Pluto so even the fossilised amoeba on the asteroids can hear it.
On the other, there are those who dare to indulge their intellects by asking the occasional question, such as why the government ignored its own pandemic exercises. Or why the Prime Minister spent twelve days on holiday at Chequers in February* at precisely the moment when his government should have been ‘moving heaven and earth’, in the words of the Health Secretary, to buy PPE, ventilators and time.
Or any of the other sore-thumb questions that in more normal times would be embarrassingly unsubtle and unoriginal to write in a column. For the more dubious, Britannia steams steadily onwards too, smashing icebreaker-like through the title of highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in Europe.
Somehow it seems almost churlish to ask these things now. Perhaps difficult questions are an affront to the enthusiasm of 50 million saucepan bashers. Or perhaps they diminish the sheer gallantry of a nation’s attempts to repent for starving its public services of cash by making a centenarian walk round his garden 100 times.
Perhaps it’s that, when ministers say ‘the time will come for such questions’, they’d rather that time never came at all.
Remember when Andrea Leadsom strained every brain-cell and told broadcasters to be more patriotic? The Tories wanted a bit more Dunkirk spirit about Brexit: heroic survival against the odds, while eating what Dominic Raab memorably described as ‘sufficient food’. Well, they want a third helping to get us through this crisis. Matt Hancock used his time at the podium last week to accuse Panorama of not being ‘fair or objective’.
The demi-orgasmic obsession with the Dunkirk narrative is apt. It’s borne of a shaky grasp of history which entirely befits the government’s overwhelming intellectual mediocrity. Most historians agree that Dunkirk was a humiliating retreat born of terrible preparation and disorganisation from start to finish, and that the ‘little ships’ narrative of a nation that was saved by its people pulling together was mostly imaginary. Very different to today, of course.
But still it looms. Now, they tell us, is not the time for questions. Before the crisis, it was already a settled, almost nostalgic fact that judges, for instance, are ‘enemies of the people’ when they disagree with the Daily Mail. But in a pandemic, if you’re tempted to read The Guardian, or dare to cast your eyes on just about anything ‘pumped out’ by the Trotskyites/metropolitan liberals/right-wing apologists (delete to taste; serve with garnish of 2tbsp of partisan rubbish] at the BBC, you can be an enemy of the people too.
The Conservatives are at 51% in recent polls. At this rate, they could probably instruct the Taxpayers’ Alliance to publicly pre-maim those unknowingly condemned to COVID by institutionalised incompetence (or, say, the decision to stockpile tests to meet a 100k target), and still win a majority. Although they’ve conceded that actually having a national broadcaster is quite useful during a crisis, those concessions have not extended to the majoritarian assault on dissent.
So, while we’re now treated to one or two hand-picked questions from members of the public at the afternoon briefing, we’re expected to believe that they’re less hand-picked than when the Prime Minister hosted a ‘people’s PMQs’ on Instagram earlier this year, in which he chose to answer a question about what shampoo he used.
By contrast, one might expect that Lynne from Skipton, North Yorks, who was plucked from the hordes to enquire as to when she might be able to hug her grandchildren again, will be executed for treason after a short show trial Ceaușescu-stylebehind the Cabinet Office bike-sheds. Skipton: there be real enemies of the people.
But all is not lost. In a divided nation, coronavirus is showing itself to be the unifying catastrophe that Britain so desperately needed. For whichever side of the good ship Britannia you might see, we can at least be grateful for the government’s consistency. Over ten years, three Prime Ministers, a Hokey Cokey succession of at least 200 policies on Europe (in, out, shake-it-all-about), sacking 20,000 police officers, hiring 20,000 police officers, they’ve managed to keep one thing the same.
They’re still bloody useless, and often staggeringly ill-qualified. The ‘couldn’t hold a piss-up in a brewery’ cliché falls flatter than usual because they’ve banned piss-ups and closed breweries. Still, we can be thankful for the silence. The roads are quiet. Nigel Farage is quiet (his net approval rating fell to minus 23 this week). But quiet, too, are the mouths of ministers, insofar as they are devoid of apology.
Instead they are waiting. How long can an abeyance of questioning and the Prime Minister’s new sprog sustain this extraordinary shamelessness?
And, sadly, the Opposition is quiet too. At the last election, this columnist posited that it was one in which the Conservatives were promising to murder your grandparents and Labour was promising to resurrect them. We can only hope that Keir Starmer’s style, often referred to as ‘forensic’, is better suited to the post-mortem.
*Answer: The Prime Minister fathered an illigitimati so profuse that Wikipedia prefaces the number of children he’s got with the words ‘at least’. He announced his engagement to the next-in-line on Instagram. But he was feeling a spot shaken up by his estranged wife being a little bit acrimonious in their divorce proceedings. The affrontery!
Edward Pinnegar lives in Sussex with two dogs and three chickens. Formerly a political campaign manager, he is the author of several extremely boring books on aviation history.