I have had, over the last few weeks, the dubious good-fortune of watching a political changing of the guard in the UK. Or rather, not a genuine changing of the guard, since the Conservative Party remains in government, but rather an in-house cleansing, as Theresa May’s team, its cabinet riven with dissent over how or whether to do Brexit, was replaced by the uniformly pro-Brexit Boris Johnson premiership.
There are, now, Brexit ideologues in charge of running things, people who truly believe in an exit from the EU no matter the economic and political and reputational damage a disorderly crashing out of the union would impose on the country. It is, in a twisted, car-wreck sort of way, fascinating to watch. After all, for hundreds of years, in good times and in bad, the Conservative Party has prided itself on being the party of stability, the party that big business would always turn to for succor, the party that never would want to undermine the country’s economic foundations. It’s almost definitional, hard-baked into the very name of the party. And yet, now the Brexiteers are hell-bent on a collision course with Europe that could knock both the EU and the UK off their axes for years to come.
Amidst the chaos, Johnson, who has long fetishized Winston Churchill, has put together what he grandiosely, hubristically, terms a “war cabinet,” to hold regular crisis meetings that, as far as this outsider can tell, are mainly concerned with how best to alienate erstwhile European friends and allies.
Out of this motley crew, none is more absurd than Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Leader of the House of Commons. The Mogg is a caricature of caricatures, a man with a grand and vastly simplistic nostalgia for a Britannia ruling the waves and imposing its world vision with a tactical combination of gunboats and grammar. His voice, his manner, his style, all deliberately are molded on his perception of a what a grand imperialist would look and sound like. Not without reason have British wags labelled him the “Honorable Member from the Eighteenth Century.”
One would think that, given the enormity of the moment facing the UK, given the scale of self-inflicted damage that could envelope the country over the coming months, Rees-Mogg’s energies would be spent on, I don’t know, perhaps things like planning for how to respond to a collapse in the value of the pound. But no, last week Rees-Mogg sent out a memo to his staff informing them that certain words and phrases were too outré, too weird and freaky, too modern and foreign, to be countenanced in Brexit Britain. Out were words like “very,” “ongoing,” “equal” and “speculate.” Out were phrases like “a lot,” “pleased to learn,” and “no longer fit for purpose.” In were double spaces after full stops, but out were commas after the word “and.”
The British press had a field-day. Yet in Rees-Mogg’s lunatic memo, there is the kernel of an idea present: a yearning for an imperial past in which British language conventions, as well as broader British ways of interacting with, and interpreting, the world ruled the roost. That’s why, amongst the bizarre and eccentric linguistic restrictions were included instructions to revert to imperial measurements – to miles and yards and feet, rather than kilometers and meters and centimeters; to Fahrenheit rather than Celsius temperatures, to the good old imperial pint rather than to mealy-mouthed American pints or to liters (or, rather “litres”).
Rees-Mogg and his boss yearn for an Imperial past and an Imperial culture that is firmly pre-modern; one that came of age in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They long for a period when this tiny island nation could dictate terms of trade and foreign policy alliances to one quarter of the world’s people and lands. It is that Make Britain Great Again vision, that nostalgic misinterpretation and over-simplification of history so as to whitewash the brutality of colonialism and to romanticize Britain’s beneficent and indispensable place in the grand scheme of things, that now fuels the stampede to Brexit.
Of course, most Brexiteers realize in at least one part of their minds that the country’s role has changed over the last century; that even if they exit the EU with Union Jacks flying from every pub and pie-shop in the land, from every gun-boat on the high seas, unfortunately they still will be rather reliant on that johnny-come-lately upstart ex-colony The United States.
And this is where the real warning lights ought to start flashing red. For, no matter how preoccupied one is with Brexit, it’s fairly hard not to notice that America’s leadership isn’t, um, well, how should one delicately put it, behaving quite normally these days.
Trump’s Make America Great Again revanchism is, at best, an awkward fit with Rees-Mogg’s and Johnson’s imperial nostalgia. Trump romanticizes not the American past as a whole – he’s no fan of the tail-between-one’s-legs 1970s, for example; doesn’t like the counter-cultural trends of the 1960s; doesn’t care for the “loser” years of the Great Depression; and so on.
Instead, there are particular periods that tickle his fancy: he’s a great fan of Andrew Jackson, and, more generally, the years of unabashed westward expansion, of grab-it-while-you-can rapaciousness, that characterized the middle-third of the nineteenth century. He’s simpatico with the 1920s, a decade when the economy roared, when the political dominance of whites in America went largely unchallenged, and when, in the aftermath of war and the collapse of the old European power-structures, American pop culture began dominating the world. And, perhaps above all, he’s nostalgic for his childhood, for the early post-World War Two years when American economic and military might was transcendent, when conservative social mores held, when racial hierarchies had not yet broken down, and when much of the rest of the world could be utterly remade in America’s image.
Trump’s nostalgia is as mendacious as is Johnson’s and Rees-Mogg’s. For, of course, in reality, America was always more complex, more multi-racial, more diverse, more riven by divisions about its relationships to other countries and to other cultures, than he would like to have us believe.
And here’s the rub: when two mendacious, revanchist movements seek each other out as bed-fellows – Trump promising fantastic trade deals to a post-Brexit Britain; Johnson going out of his way to sweet-talk and cajole the narcissistic American leader – it can only every be a temporary relationship.
In the near future, Trump’s my-way-or-the-highway strong-arm politics will collide with Johnson’s. He will, at some not too distant point down the road, make demands upon the UK leadership that even a man as cravenly opportunistic as Johnson will find near-impossible to accept; or he will say things so entirely offensive that Johnson will feel compelled to condemn the remarks – at which point Trump’s a-grammatical, misspelled, exclamation point-laden twitter tirades and insults will begin.
Which leads me back to The Mogg. How will a man who can’t abide such modern linguistic mannerisms as “a lot” and “very” deal with a tweet saying something to the effect of “Boris very bad, DISHONEST PM! Weak. Thought could do deal with him. WONT HAPPEN!! So Sad for UK! Wonderful Country. Farage would be much BETER in Downing Street!!!”?
And where will post-Brexit Britain turn when Johnson’s team have to confront the lonely reality that Make America Great Again doesn’t really gibe with Make Britain Great Again? That Trump’s ugly nostalgia actually isn’t about recreating the same world for which the Rule Britannia club now yearn?