To draw an analogy from the world of motoring, where once politicians were like chauffeurs gliding their limousines to their destination, nowadays they’re much more like tractor drivers wrestling with a worn out clutch and sticky accelerator.
Things that were once unspoken or hinted at are now bludgeoned. Our public discourse and conduct of government and opposition is being coarsened; division and conflict are being promoted and it’s not doing us much good. Everything from science (Covid, the climate) to remembrance sunday, to recycling bins, has become ridiculously politicised and polarised. We live in a society where some politicians believe that what divides us is much greater than what unites us.
Suella Braverman is the poster girl for these new ways, and she showcases them at their ugliest. We’re familiar now with the sort of language she uses, and the aggression and defiance which she deploys it. She doesn’t need to swear, because the violence infuses even the sociological jargon she uses.
People who sleep rough are “making a lifestyle choice”. Just to read those words gives one a sinking feeling about the callousness of those in charge. “Hurricane” isn’t a dirty word as such, but when applied to refugees it summons up an image of destruction and horror. Rather than using the gentler arts or politics to hint to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Mark Rowley, disquiet about arrangements for the next Palestine solidarity march, and keeping just the right side of the constitutional convention of protecting police operational independence, she publishes an article accusing him of bias towards the “pro-Palestinian” mob. Note there the pejorative use of the word “mob” – not applied to the “nationalists” she cites for false equivalence.
She can be opaque, but still nasty with it. What, exactly, does the word “primacy” mean in the following extract? Creating fears, in no uncertain terms: “I do not believe that these marches are merely a cry for help for Gaza. They are an assertion of primacy by certain groups – particularly Islamists – of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland.”
To my mind, the phrase recalls Enoch Powell’s famous speech in 1968, invoking the so-called “rivers of blood”, in which he said that “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. Powell was, supposedly, quoting a constituent in Wolverhampton, but he did not demur.
A fine classical scholar, Powell was eloquent and fluent in his writing and his oratory, but it sometimes contained that insidious cargo of hate. Back then the party leader, Ted Heath, immediately sacked Powell from the front bench for stirring things up in the country; Sunak, a man who the country hoped would clean up the moral quagmire mess his predecessor left behind, is yet to make his move.
It has to be said, though, that the extraordinary swearing that was revealed in the hearings for the Covid-19 inquiry also revealed a cultural shift. Past confidential government papers released by the national archives do not contain the same habitual effing and jeffing as seems routine now.
Winston Churchill, ribald in his own way, didn’t stamp his memos with “Action this b****** day!”, or tell Clem Attlee that anyone was “effing hopeless”. They just told then they weren’t up to the job and let them go. Matt Hancock, though universally despised as a lair and incompetent, was allowed to carry on until he got caught snogging his adviser – nothing new, but certainly would never have been on video in the old days.
It seemed even to infect the top civil servants, nowadays more the potty-mouthed Malcolm Tucker types than the Latin-quoting Sir Humphrey Appleby. The satirical cultures portrayed in The Thick of It and Yes, Minister are apparently a highly accurate reflection of what’s happened to our permanent secretaries and all the rest of them. According to messages revealed at the inquiry, the then-cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, wrote to his eventual successor Simon Case: “Hancock so far up BJ’s [Boris Johnson’s] a*** his ankles are brown.” Johnson famously concurred with his adviser Dominic Cummings – an accomplished swearer – that Hancock was “totally f****** hopeless”; but some of Cummings other messages about Helen MacNamara used language described by the KC as misogynistic. Not so funny.
I suppose the most depressing episode in recent years was the unlawful prorogation of parliament in 2019. This was basically a move to cut the elected Commons out of Brexit, and rule by executive decree – an obvious abuse of the normal unwritten rules of behaviour. It involved misleading the Queen about the reasons for the move, and was a grave betrayal of trust. The independent Supreme Court struck it down as null and void, and Johnson had to conform.
But that never stopped him, his colleagues and elements of the press attacking “lefty lawyers” and attacking judges as “enemies of the people”. The delicate machinery of the British constitution was again brutally manhandled by Johnson and his cohorts and, with brief interludes, they’ve been doing it ever since. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng crashed the public finances because they had a crude, and unjustified, faith in their own economic orthodoxy – just as Braverman believes in her own unpleasant brand of populist nationalism.
This weekend we will see the best of Britain, showcased at memorial services across the country. As the King puts it, we are a community of communities. This is still a civilised country, and the best in the world to live in – not the hate-filled country on the verge of civil breakdown that Braverman would have us believe. But our civic life and our freedoms – including to protest – should not be taken for granted. If our way of life, our tolerance and our values are being attacked by an enemy within, you’ll find the perpetrator in the Home Office.