All the World’s a Stage
I wonder if, after Statey Funes on Monday, we might be permitted to prevail upon the UK government to do a spot of governing for a while?
After Brexit, lockdown, Platty Jubes, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Boris, Tory X Factor, and the Ukrainian war, you’d think that a spell of mundane statecraft might appeal to our masters, if only for the novelty value.
When I was a boy, a minister would come home from work, take of his top hat and reassure the servants that he’d managed to keep us on the gold standard despite the unstable outlook for jute prices.
Before leaving for a weekend’s horseplay with the ghillies at his Highland estate, he might place a call to the Archbishop of Canterbury and register his concern at the moral decline of the nation, as evidenced by the unkempt appearance of a railway guard he’d had cause to rebuke on his journey home.
From that historically accurate reminiscence, the sole remaining factor is the top hat, which only persists owing to the baffling presence in national life of Jacob Rees-Mogg: a man whose removal from the scene could be justified in terms of feng shui, bereft as he is of both utility and the potential to spark joy.
But he looks memorable and can generate a meaningless controversy on demand, and these are the stocks in trade of the modern governing class.
I’ve always been rather scathing about Labour supporters pointing at Surestart centres as a concrete achievement of the Blair government. In this scenario, Blair is Fred West, Surestart centres are his patio and underneath it lies the Iraq war.
They did, however fleetingly, though, actually exist in real life and I can’t think of a tangible government-led project since.
When Johnson made his resignation speech, back in Elizabethan times, he listed his achievements thus:
- Won the biggest majority since 1987
- Delivered Brexit
- Delivered manifesto commitments including social care
- Helped people up and down the country
- Ensured Britain stands tall in the world
- Spoken with clarity and authority
Now, I’m sure you’ve all undergone a job interview or annual appraisal at one time or another. How far do you reckon you’d have got with this sort of vague, evidence-free spiel? Leaving aside the blatant lie about social care, the only specific achievement listed is delivering Brexit.
The problem here is that Brexit isn’t a thing, it’s the absence of a thing: membership of the European Union. The only specific item of delivery listed is a void.
All this would make some sense if a series of projects had failed over the last couple of decades. The 2008 crash or the pandemic could safely be blamed for derailing governmental ambitions.
In reality, though, policy has ceased to represent any genuine intentions and, instead, is frequently invented on the hoof as a distraction from whatever chaos is consuming the nation in a given week.
During the Tory leadership campaign both candidates stated enthusiasm for the Rwanda deportation policy and pledged to extend it further.
You know the policy is a fiction, they know it, Rwanda knows it and the asylum seekers who continue to arrive in Kent know it.
It exists purely as theatre for the handful of voters in swing seats who can keep the actors on the stage.
Harold Macmillan warned prospective leaders about the disruptive potential of ‘events, dear boy’, but without events our current politicians would have nothing at all to justify their existence.
Johnson’s enthusiasm for the war in Ukraine epitomised the way that crises have become the meat and potatoes of politicians who have no aptitude nor inclination to get on with running the country.
Politicians look busy during cataclysmic events, but the decisions largely make themselves and any errors can be blamed on officials.
Conveniently, neglect of the nation’s management ensures that crises occur on an ever more regular basis, so it is ‘not the time’ to discuss anything that requires planning and hard work virtually all of the time.
Gaps between crises can be covered in the news cycle by fantasy announcements like the Rwanda flights or a bridge between Scotland and Ireland.
Many have spoken this week of how the ceremonial spectacle in London has made them proud to be British.
The spectacle may be all there is left.
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