Well, not for the first time, let me quote Ogden Nash, who wrote
Let us pause to consider the English
Who when they pause to consider themselves
Come over all reticent and tinglish…
Or words to that effect.
Not any longer, it seems. Because now that the so-called United Kingdom has a new Prime Minister, he has been roundly denounced by the leaders of three of his adherent nations, Welsh, Scots and Irish Parliamentarians who, appear to excoriate his every manoeuvre, leaving only the English standing alone astride the battlefield, as it were. Horatius at the bridge might be another apposite quote, if only I could remember it.
Many descriptions could be applied to Boris Johnson, but reticent and tinglish are not two of them (even if tinglish was a word). When he was elected, I tended to believe that when the electorate woke up to what a buffoon he is, there would be an immediate contrary reaction against him. But I have been listening to him since he became Prime Minister, and it has reminded me of one thing: these upper-crust Englishmen have been especially educated for centuries with the objective of governing the Empire, and just because the only Empire left to them is this group of smallish islands off the coast of Europe, it doesn’t follow that they have abandoned the governing habits of centuries. One can tell from the casual street interviews conducted by the BBC, that Johnson’s cheerful optimism, following the years of drift and indecision under Theresa May, has already begun to impress the public, so if it should happen that he is able to manoeuvre himself into an election at a time of his choosing, it would not surprise me at all if he should sweep back into power. The Labour Party suffers from the honest leftism of Jeremy Corbyn, who, as has now been documented from many sources, been the target of a brutal onslaught of unreasoned criticism such as has probably never before been seen in the politics of the nation.
I was working as a reporter in London for The Montreal Star when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his acolyte Edward Heath decided to try to join the European Economic Community in the early 1960s. Their reasons were, in essence, acquisitive, although they never admitted that in public. The fact was they had emerged from the Second World War in a pathetic state, although basking in the admiration they received for the brave fight they had fought against the Nazi war machine, for two years standing alone among the world’s great powers, except for the support of those distant cousins in what were originally colonies, but had gradually become self-governing entities who, grouped together, became known as the Commonwealth.
In the days of Empire, Britain, while widely accepted as the originator of the idea of democratic government, had been also, in its relations with its foreign subjects, always ready to bare its teeth in a vicious snarl, a willingness backed up even as late as the 1950s and 1960s by the indiscriminate use of brutal force used to put down the various insurrections raised against its rule. During these years, for example, the Mau Mau rebellion of the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya was brutally beaten into submission by aerial bombing followed by mass incarcerations, and mass public hangings of miscreants. The dedicated, specially-trained civil servants who carried out these British brutalities seemed seldom to be worried by the niceties of freedom of expression and the like. I have previously described how a wonderful young Kikuyu who was a fellow-student with me was brutally forced by Colonial Office officialdom into suicide. His crime was that he had been mentioned in the trial of Jomo Kenyatta --- at that moment of 1953 under trial in Kenya, accused of leading the Mau Mau rebellion --- where he was alleged to have been forced before his departure for study in Britain to take the Mau Mau oath. The colonial Office officials arrived at the adult education college we were attending in Scotland, with a demand that my friend Henry, one of the sweetest little men I have ever known, confess, which, being entirely innocent, he refused to do. No compassion in those boys: they went after him for the kill.
In those post-war days, the raw materials provided by the colonies --- African, Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Asian --- fed the industrial machine in the home country, and in return, by imperial fiat, these colonies also provided the premier market for the goods manufactured in Britain. But by the 1960s this method of so-called Commonwealth preferences was no longer providing Britain either with the guaranteed markets, nor the guaranteed supplies of materials that they needed. So, without so much as a by-your-leave, Macmillan, who loved the big gesture, decided to jettison the Commonwealth connection and replace it with the more profitable European trade connection. A Swedish study at the time showed the facts and figures of this change in Britain’s trade, although they were not that readily available to the British public. They were losing money from their Commonwealth connection, so they simply decided to wave goodbye. It was fruitless for such doubters as Hugh Gaitskell, at that time leader of the Labour Party opposition, to remind the government that hundreds of thousands of young men from countries like New Zealand, Australia, Canada and even South Africa, not to mention other colonies like those in the West Indies, had rallied to the British cause in two world wars, in both of which they gave their lives while the Europeans meekly surrendered, and the United States stood aloof as the years rolled by.
When it came down to it, this meant nothing to the men who controlled the United Kingdom government. They were ready to join, and to hell with the Commonwealth. At that time, in 1963, President De Gaulle of France, himself a man who loved the grandiloquent gesture even more than Macmillan, shut Britain out by delivering a decisive no. This gave the Commonwealth countries a few years to adjust their economies to the British perfidy. And of course Britain joined the EEC, as it was then known, along with Ireland and Denmark, in 1973.
Many people have observed since then that Britain has never been an enthusiastic member of the European Union, as it is now known, and as one listens to all the broadcasts emanating from the TV, especially from the BBC during this week, one can immediately grasp the truth that the standoffish British attitude is as lively as ever. It is extremely striking that almost without exception, the leaders of the member countries of the EU speak English, many of them perfectly, as if they have been deliberately preparing to play a role in bringing Europe together, whereas the Englishman, of no matter which background, who can speak French, German or Spanish at all is a rarity.
I recall from my days as a resident of Britain reading on a newspaper billboard the declaration of a huge storm. “Continent cut off,” declared the headline. Not the off-shore island of Britain cut off from the mainland, as was in fact the case, but the continent was cut off from the island. Just a way of looking at the world that, the other week, caused Jean-Claude Juncker, one of the European leaders these days, to remark wittily that “everyone understands English, but no one understands the English.”
And so say all of us…..