Sunday, 15 September 2013

This scepter'd isle

It has been a funny few weeks for Britain's international reputation. We have had Vladimir Putin calling Britain "a little island no-one listens to," Jose Manuel Barroso wondering aloud if "UKIP ... will be the first force in British elections" and the UN special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik saying (of the effect of the withdrawal of the spare room subsidy) "I was very shocked to hear how people really feel abused in their human rights by this decision." As if that wasn't enough, following Grant Schapps' extraordinarily petulant response to Ms Rolnik's report she listed all of the other countries (Croatia, Algeria, Maldives, Argentina, United States, Israel, Rwanda, Palestine, Kazakhstan and Indonesia) with which she is working on housing before stating that in none of these did she experience the same level of hostility and aggressiveness from the government.

So why the chorus of international voices attacking and belittling the UK, and does it matter? Well, to answer the first question, the government is clearly of the view that these attacks are demonstrable evidence that Johnny Foreigner simply doesn't know what he (or still worse, in the case of "that Brazilian woman", she) is talking about.

Which attitude of course reveals the other reason. You see the inner circle of the Tory government has developed its own new and unique approach to government that appears thus far to work domestically but does not go down too well overseas. By "inner circle" I mean the small group of Eton/Bullingdon Cameroninas (with little Mikey Gove trying to outdo everyone else in a desperate attempt to be included) who have taken high-handed arrogant bullying to previously unseen heights.

Their approach to government is simple:

  • First, come up with an idea. This should on no account derive from academic research of any kind but should have been dreamt up in a claret-fuelled evening at the Club (10 Downing Street). 
  • Second, announce its implementation. There is no need to worry at this stage about any of the tedious details of how (or indeed why) it is to be implemented. It is your idea, and so therefore by definition good.
  • Third, in the event of any criticism of the idea (especially from academics, human rights campaigners, foreigners or Liberal Democrats) resort to vicious ad hominem attacks to question said weirdos' right to criticise ANYTHING.
  • Fourth, have a quick word with the tabloids to ensure that they continue such attacks ad nauseam for several days.
  • Fifth, make fun of Ed Milliband.
The fifth stage is not strictly essential, but is enjoyable.

It's about attack not just being the best form of defence, but the best form of government too. The favoured tools in this approach are of course the despicable (but conveniently deniable) Twitter accounts like @ToryEducation and @ToryTreasury, but the approach is pretty widespread across all platforms. Try Googling "Gove attacks" and you will see what I mean. I gave up looking after the first five pages of results. The folder that the Prime Minister takes to the dispatch box for PMQs used traditionally to contain pages of facts and statistics to be used to defend the government's record: nowadays it seems to consist solely of oneliners about Ed Milliband.

Now, as I said, this approach seems unaccountably to be working so far domestically. Like the school bullies the Cameronians are, no-one seems keen to stand up to them. But as with school bullies in the real world, once they leave the school gates they begin to look frankly pathetic. Dismissing a UN special rapporteur as "that Brazilian woman" (or "loony Brazilian leftie", as one Tory MP put it), lecturing the international community about their failure to act on Syria or telling any academic who criticises their policies that they are "misguided" (or worse) is not likely to impress the international community. It's not that I think I will ever agree with Vladimir Putin on anything of substance, but he probably put into words what a lot of people in the international community are beginning to think: Britain is becoming a small island that no-one listens to.

And so to the second part of the question: does it matter?

Not a jot, is what I think. It's high time that Britain suffered some international humiliation and learned an appropriate level of international humility. This country has long boasted of "punching above its weight" diplomatically speaking and of "having a place at the top table." The trouble is that punching above your weight is a sure means of getting badly hurt, and the top table is never the most relaxing or pleasant place to sit at a formal dinner. It was punching above our weight militarily and clinging to our place at the top table that got us into Iraq and Afghanistan. It was attempting the same in the financial world that made us the epicentre of the financial crises of the last decade. So if the childishly arrogant, schoolyard bully behaviour of the Cameronians loses us that place and forces us into an appropriately lower weight division, then three cheers from me.

Shakespeare was a great writer and coined phrases that resonate down the centuries, but he cannot be held responsible for misreadings of his work. The fabled quotation from Richard II from which this post takes its title lingers deep down in many people's consciousness and has I think been one of the sources for the abiding belief that that place at the top table is ours by right:

"This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself       
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,     
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

But as so often with Shakespeare, people take the speech out of context, and even forget that this is one of Shakespeare's characters speaking, rather than Shakespeare himself. The flavour of the speech in context is both nostalgic and bitter. John of Gaunt is close to death, and is bemoaning the disappearance of a Britain that was great at some time in the past. He goes on to say that the country "Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,/Like to a tenement or pelting farm."

So even back then, half a millennium ago, Shakespeare was commenting on the way we try to hark back to a Great Britain of the past. So maybe finally it is time to give it up. Let's stop pretending. The Cameronians are doing their best to make Britain the laughing stock of the world and good luck to them. The wine might not be as good when you leave the top table but the company is better.

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