Although statues are quite rightly very much in the news at the moment, this post is not about them. Instead, read the compelling pieces by David Olusoga in The Guardian last Monday – The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history – and Simon Schama in today’s FT – History is better served by putting the Men in Stone in museums.
Instead, I want to look at the thread that Boris Johnson posted on Twitter earlier today, and in particular the first two tweets.
In the thread he argues that we cannot now try to edit or censor our past, he deplores the risk of damage to the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, and, having at least in his own mind placed himself on the right side of history, goes on to claim that the recent protests have been hijacked by extremists intent on violence.
It is all very much aimed at his base (and perhaps not surprisingly it has attracted a considerable number of likes and retweets).
And it is all remarkably disingenuous.
There is certainly a lot going on in the thread as a whole but what about those first two tweets?
As I read them my immediate thought was just how much Johnson wants us to see him as our latter-day Churchill – the hero leader, saving this country from . . .
Well, from what?
It was going to be the tyranny of those ungrateful Europeans. Wasn’t that what Brexit was all about? But it is now, like it or not, the Covid-19 pandemic.
And heroes, Johnson implies, should be forgiven their failings – for no better reason it seems than they are heroes.
Johnson firmly places Churchill against racism (and in doing so he very definitely edits history) and he allows him those unacceptable opinions. And in so doing, Johnson seems to be suggesting that we too should allow Johnson his unacceptable opinions.
Hmmm. He may be disappointed.
It was Mario Cuomo, three term Governor of New York State, who liked to repeat, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”. Writing in The New Yorker the day of Cuomo’s death, Elizabeth Kolbert noted that “His great gift—and it was an important one at the time—was to make listeners feel that politics was a serious business and that civic life matters.”
If only that were true today.
The present government in Westminster appears simply to rely on slogans. There is not much governing going on. This undoubtedly is a hangover from their successful Brexit campaign. But quite what the new slogan – “Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives” – is meant to mean, is anyone’s guess. They clearly are as baffled as the rest of us, as having leaked the slogan, they then felt obliged to issue a 137 word statement to explain it.
The pandemic is serious, for each and every one of us. Civic life matters and civic responsibility is paramount. But you wouldn’t know it from our lords and masters. The overwhelming feeling is that we, the public, aren’t to be trusted with truth.
It is little surprise that our trust in government is ebbing fast.
Whether or not they are thinking it yet (and my money is on the grown ups in the room doing just that), are some in the Conservative Party wondering just how much longer they can leave Boris Johnson in post? May is a long way off.
The analogy with Britain at war in 1940 has been done to death – if I am allowed to use that expression. There is a constant evocation of the Blitz spirit, a harking back to Britain standing alone (not that far off the truth given that we appear to be taking a somewhat different approach to managing CV-19 than anyone else), and appeals to a sense of country and adversity framed in terms of duty and patriotism. And all the while, the Prime Minister channels his inner Churchill, addressing the nation in front of two Union flags, his language a pale imitation of his acknowledged hero.
But just occasionally history has lessons. So back to May, and in particular May 1940. I had a debate with the boss this morning about the suitability or otherwise of Boris Johnson. The argument advanced was that however poor he is, and he undoubtedly is, we should stick with him. I disagree. For all that he tries to emulate his hero, Johnson is no Churchill and is singularly ill-equipped to lead the country through this crisis.
The events of early May 1940 are instructive. Leo Amery lit the blue touch paper in the course of the Norway Debate,
“I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: ‘You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’speech, House of Commons, 7 May 1940
By 10 May 1940 Neville Chamberlain had gone, the King had called Churchill to the Palace, and there was a National Government in place.
The question now is not whether the Tories can wait until May, but rather whether they should. Now is not the time for party but country – but then we have heard that before.
I am on my way to Paddington. Travelling this way on a Saturday seems strange. I only got back to the west country on Thursday. But I will be on Park Lane at midday, as we gather for the People’s Vote March. If all goes well, it will be the largest public demonstration in the capital for more than a decade. Somehow I shall find my son, and we will march together.
I am not a natural marcher. This is only the third time in my life I will have turned out to demonstrate. The first was exactly 50 years ago, in Oxford, protesting about the Vietnam War. More recently I stood outside the Old Bailey, to protest the cuts to Legal Aid. And today it is the folly that is Brexit that saw me up shortly after 6:00.
Much is written about the anger of those who voted leave – their anger at elites, at the politicians they believe have ignored them, at metropolitan liberals in the south east, at being left behind, at losing their identity – and their anger that many of us who voted remain refuse to accept the result of the referendum.
We are told that in holding to our conviction – that Brexit has to be fought – we are disrespecting democracy and thus disrespecting those who, for whatever reason, voted to leave.
So be it.
I feel a corresponding anger. Not at those who voted leave but at those who manipulated the truth for their own ideological ends, and at those politicians (and they are not all in the Conservative Party) who continue to put personal ambition and party before country.
I have no idea how this will all end, except my money is on it ending badly.
But when my grandchildren ask me what I did, I want to be able to say that I marched – and that I marched for them, for Lewis and Max, Otti, and Amelie.
One of the least attractive aspects of the Brexit debacle is the way in which Brexiters have prayed in aid the (fairly) recent history of this country.
Perhaps the most egregious example is this tweet from Andrea Jenkyns
It is better to go down fighting and honouring the democratic decision of our British people. Then to be long remembered for waving a white flag and surrendering to EU demands. All Brexiteers in Gov and on the backbenches its time to #StandUp4Brexit and finally #ChuckChequers.
She is not, of course, alone in all this fighting talk. As Christopher Grey notes in his recent article in Prospect, How Brexit got metaphorical,
Indeed, mentioning the war—or a war—is almost compulsory. For Brexiters, Dunkirk—that strangely ambivalent moment of defeat and triumph—has pride of place, and their leaders also yearn for a fight on the beaches, if only to dust down their dodgy impersonations of Churchill.
and Nigel Farage is never more at home than when posing in front of a poster showing spitfires in the blue skies over the Weald.
There is a risk in looking for similar analogies. But one thing strikes me: Theresa May’s shtick is that she is only following orders.
In doing so, not only has she abnegated all responsibility for the state we are in, but far from being the woman of principle that she likes to portray herself as – and as she is held out to be by those who would wear her crown – her lack of imagination and blind insistence that the referendum vote is irreversible, because “the people spoke“ simply accelerates us towards the cliff edge.
She may not be the author of our misfortunes: he is holed up in a shepherd’s hut somewhere in Oxfordshire. Nonetheless, she has been his willing accomplice.
And the ‘Good Germans’?
In a Tory party desperate to cling to office, there are very few.