I have been watching the Brexit shenanigans in Britain with close attention for many months, and I could not help but think, “Here they go again, those Tory grandees, carefully raised in life through their special system of schools, universities and clubs to believe that only they have the right to rule their nation.”
You could feel the attitude every time the then-Prime Minister Theresa May spoke in tones of withering contempt to the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. It was all there, underneath the polite Tory façade, just as it has always been: I could have been listening to Harold Macmillan or one of his ministers, talking on the same subject almost half a century ago, describing the ruination that lay ahead for the nation should they ever have been foolish enough to vary from the Tory pathway.
I spent 11 years of my life as a resident of Britain, observing the breed from close up, and I think one of the best descriptions of them was given recently by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European politician, who said, “everyone understands English, but no one understands England.”
Echoes of the historic attitude were heard in the remarks by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, on accepting the challenge to a new election . “I will be proud to be the Prime Minister,” he said, “but I have to warn that it will be very different because we have not been born to rule.”
I don’t want to give the impression there is nothing admirable about this entrenched Tory attitude to life. What is admirable was on display when the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had to make a graceful speech of farewell on the occasion of the retirement from office of John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, a man that in other circumstances Johnson may well have relished the thought of burying, so detestable does he appear to find him. He slithered though this address with immense gracefulness, drawing many laughs, and even a big belly laugh from Bercow himself, winding it up with a play around the word “ministrations”, the significance of which I only later came to understand when I heard a play-back of how Bercow himself had used the word frequently while admonishing members. It was an elegant display by Johnson, a man who appears to be almost toxic to most of the political establishment, who are to be heard denouncing how uncomfortable and unsuccessful have been Johnson’s recent appearances in Parliament. At those same times I have found myself thinking that the man may be a vulgar pretender, but I can imagine him going over big with the Tories main base voters. “Enough of delay and prevarication,” is Johnson’s message. “Let’s get Brexit done. That’s what everybody wants, and I am going to do it.
The Tory party’s merciless, steely assumption of authority which enabled them half a century ago without a qualm to deliver their poorly equipped colonies to make their way in a cruel world economy, goes along with a civilized overview that has made Britain one of the most admired democracies in the modern world, the place that all dissenters could retreat to when things became too hot at home.
In the 1960s, when I worked there as a foreign reporter, Britain was full of movements pushing for independence in their colonies. I interviewed numerous young protesters who later became respected world figures --- Kenneth Kaunda, of Northern Rhodesia, now called Zambia, Julius Nyerere, Tanganyika, now called Tanzania, the Sardana of Sokoto, of Nigeria, Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, now called Guyana, and so on, all unsuccessful leaders in waiting.
The Macmillan government had taken office to replace the disgraced government headed by Sir Anthony Eden, (1st Earl of Avon, KG, MC, PC --- oh, yes, they stitch themselves up with numerous titles and recognitions of their worth, these grandees), which had made the rookie mistake of joining France and Israel in invading Egypt to try to turn back the nationalization of the Suez canal, the sub-plot here being that of course a nation of wogs, as the British thought of them, could never be trusted to run such a complex organism as an international canal. This was a last-gasp for the old-style colonialism.
They adjusted almost immediately to the new-style colonialism, and part of that adjustment was that when Britain believed it could make more money out of trading with Europe than with the colonies, it was time to drop the colonies.
This was the task undertaken with effortless ease by Harold Macmillan (1st Earl of Stockton, OM, PC, FRS, a considerable stitch-up), who lives in my memory as the only speaker I have ever seen to deliver a tongue-in-cheek joke with his actual tongue in his actual cheek.
He had supreme self-confidence coming from an internationally successful business family descended through his grandfather, a crofter on the Scottish Isle of Arran, something he never tired of boasting about, and his sang-froid was world-class. It enabled him on one occasion, after having just sacked five ministers at a single blow, to go to London airport en route for Russia, to dismiss the problem “as a little local difficulty” not worthy of serious attention.
On another more famous occasion when Nikita Khrushchev made one of his turbulent appearances at the United Nations, and took off his shoe during one speech with which to bang the lecturn for added emphasis, Macmillan could be heard to murmur, “could we have it in translation?”
He might have been more severely dealt with in modern times. Here is John Crace, a humorous political commentator on The Guardian, talking about the present Prime Minister: “Then there is Boris Johnson himself, a byword for untrustworthiness, duplicity and laziness…”
He went further on a later occasion:
“The lying then became so out of control, that the lies started backing up on each other so that he couldn’t even connect them into meaningful sentences. He accused Corbyn of dithering when he could barely hang on to a single thought. Unable even to realise just how badly he comes across.
“Johnson fails both as a serious politician and as a comedy performer. At a newcomers’ open-mic night he would have been booed off in under 30 seconds. Still, he had got all his lies in and that’s what really counted. And with any luck, some of them might have been believed.”
And there was I thinking how skilfully (and unfortunately, from my point of view) Johnson was handling matters in Parliament!
I only once in my career ventured, more or less by accident, into this astonishing world of British upper-class assumptions. It occurred on the only time I ever travelled first class, on a British ship from Montreal to London to take up my new job, the ticket having been bought by the company. At the first-night captain’s cocktail party, my wife and I decide to look in, just for fun, so we could laugh at all the toffs. There, we were buttonholed by a fellow who was returning from a session as British Army representative to the NATO office. One of his former appointments had been as commander of the Commonwealth troops in Korea, and he was returning home to take over the northern command of the British Army.
This was Lt-Gen Sir Michael West (GCB, DSO & Two Bars, quite an impressive military stich-up this, with two bars to the old DSO). He seemed to be a man of immensely impressive enthusiasms, the most recent of which was for James Michener’s novel Hawaii, presently reading, that he pronounced to be absolutely one of the great ones. To our surprise Sir Mike and his wife Cynthia sought us out on later occasions, and by the time we were due to arrive, he suggested we could have an interest in renting a small apartment they kept in London that they would have no immediate use for over the next year. He invited us to meet on the following Monday, where, in an atmosphere of riotous cheer, fuelled by several of his generously-mixed martinis, we agreed on the business deal, and haled off downtown to Wheeler’s, one of the posher restaurants in London for a further riotous occasion.
The afore-going describes every one of the several visits they paid to us in London over the next year, after which he invited us to visit him in Yorkshire at Christmas. This was the sort of man who, finding himself expected to live in an ugly ancient sone pile in the Yorkshire countryside, announced he would do so only if he could have central heating installed throughout. Having done that he decided to paint the exterior of the pile of stone --- pink.
He did his with no further trouble from his superiors except, that after his death fifteen years later, his biography in Wikipedia confirmed he was a friend of Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, and was a witty and unconventional soldier with a taste for jazz and partying.
I once asked him why the British generals, unlike the French, never threatened to take over power in Britain.
He thought for a moment and then said, “We have discussed it from time to time, By the end of our first whisky we have all dissolved in laughter.” After a moment’s more thought he added: “I think it is that if I raised my arm and said, On to Whitehall, chaps, no one would follow.”
Lower down, after listing his considerable military achievements around the world, the biography comments:
“West was often routinely provocative and, as a relatively junior officer, he regularly challenged US President Dwight D. Eisenhower's planning and was ‘invariably’ found to be right. Despite his successes and influence, West was thought to be too unpredictable for the highest levels of command and he retired in September 1965.”
Whatever the army brass might have thought of him, to me Mike West seemed like the sort of guy you would like to have in your corner if you were facing a fight.
I’m not sure the same could be said of the rest of his class, unfortunately. We may be given the chance to find out if Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister for the second time, confirmed by vote of the people.