What is still to come remains hidden. It may be suspected, but it isn’t known. Nothing could have prepared us for the apparent disintegration of Great Britain.
Today, Boris Johnson becomes Queen Elizabeth’s 14th prime minister. Greeting Tony Blair at the palace in 1997, she famously said to him: “You are my 10th prime minister. The first was Winston [Churchill]. That was before you were born.”
That almost nobody in the upper reaches of a once-vaunted establishment now personally remembers Britain’s “finest hour” (Churchill’s term for the evacuation of forces from Dunkirk in 1940) is not just generational move-on, it is an essential part of the problem. All that’s left now are a 93-year-old woman and a cartoon version of Churchill, called Boris.
There is nothing about this we shouldn’t regret and won’t soon have cause to. The dangerous destabilisation of a 400-year-old polity on our neighbouring island, and
in Irish unionism, is the stuff of nightmares. I purposely write of Irish unionism. There is no republicanism, worthy of the name, that “others” what is an Irish political tradition and which must be one pillar of any shared, sustainable future. This is a British difficulty that is not Ireland’s opportunity.
At the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, a slow and softly glowing 21st century beckoned. Within the delicate DNA of the agreement, rough stones could be smoothed by time. Time would heal, and memories that had seemed so horrible they could not be forgotten would be laid in the grave, one by one, by those who had to live with them.
By mid-century, a new normalcy, and a new generation, would have overtaken current realities. And lest we forget, current realities are much improved on former facts. The guns are silent. The belligerency is at least settled within its own silos.
And seeping out from them is a tentatively hopeful indifference to sectarianism. It’s limited, mind you. Two ultra-parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, still have a lock on most political expression. From a different time and tradition, they pre-empted Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson.
People who are defined by what they are not, led by politicians who “hurled the little streets upon the great,” always beg the same question, which WB Yeats coined: “Had they but courage equal to desire?”
Brexit is not just an ultra-English assault on Europe. It is an assault on, and a vicious reaction against, the layers of co-existence that comprise modern Britain. There could be no Brexit without immigration.
In the land of Brexit, immigration is the unwanted reflux of colonialism, an intolerable, present reminder of past power and current impotence. Nigel Farage has been called the most influential politician in Britain, and he is. But the leader whose legacy looms
largest is Enoch Powell. Looking back over 50 years, the man who embodied the jeer about all political careers ending in failure is the overarching link between the end of the empire, after 1945, and the end of Britain, after it exits the European Union.
Powell stood, at the end, a defeated Ulster Unionist MP for South Down, looking back at the subversion of British sovereignty in the EU and the betrayal of Irish unionism in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The cards he held as a losing hand are being dealt again today and being picked up by Johnson. Powell and Johnson share a classical education and highly capable intellects. There the comparison ends.
Powell believed. Johnson, however, like David Cameron, believes in nothing, except the game itself. The latter two reference Margaret Thatcher and would seem to revere her. But politics of principle is foreign to them. They are tacticians and opportunists.
Powell begat this. But that buttoned-up man, with the blazing eyes, would be appalled by the rabble following him. But at the pivotal moment in his career, in 1968, in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, he told of a constituent who said to him that, “in this country in 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”.
He continued by saying that, “in 15 or 20 years, on present trends, there will be, in this country, three-and-a-half million Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants”.
“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood,” he concluded.
It was the ranting of a lunatic, albeit one with a classical education, who would have baulked at the accusation of racism. He found a political home in South Down because, for all his erudition, he only felt safe behind a border. Neither the Trumpian world of “send them back” nor the advent of Johnson is imaginable without Powell.
Betrayed, as he saw it, by the Thatcher he supported, he posthumously took over Thatcherism. Today, we are in the maw of a Frankenstein version being played as comedy, but no less frightening for that.
Iran impounding a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf, as revenge for British seizure of Grace 1, a ship apparently bound for Syria, is a metaphor for prime minister Johnson and potentially an immediate crisis. If Powell was in rage about the decline of the empire, and its ultimate denouement in the Suez crisis in 1956, this imbroglio reads as if Suez is simply forgotten.
Britain can no longer play the game of gunboat diplomacy. It doesn’t have the boats to do so. Pulling the beard of the Iranians in their old back yard was a stupid conceit. American cover is effectively ephemeral. But now they are hitched to Trump in an affair that may put both Brexit and the Iraq war in the ha’penny place.
Brexit is an extension of the thought processes that have falsely rationalised Britain’s place in the world. Because of Thatcher, they are in the largest free market they will ever access (the EU). They have the opportunity to be a main player in Europe and an influential rule-maker. But, no. Better to go on a crusade.
In any event, it’s now too late. What is unleashed cannot be calmed. The ultimate destruction, from a British perspective, will be of the union of England and Scotland. Queen Elizabeth must know this. The armed forces, when they
had critical mass and a living memory of former victories, were a cohesive force of identity across the British kingdoms. So was Protestantism.
The monarch remains revered, but if her antiquity is an asset, it also has a sell-by date. The unquenched bitterness of middle England, articulated by Powell, has found their man in Johnson. He believes in none of it. He despises his followers.
But he has achieved his schoolboy ambition. That he has hurled the little streets upon the great, as casually as some boys throw cats on bonfires, doesn’t matter. It may be the great game. But it is only a game.
Immigration is the reflux of colonialism, a present reminder of past power and current impotence