(Desperately short of inspiration, I’m reduced to writing a political essay. Bear with me. As usual, the pictures have little bearing on the text)
Napoleon is supposed to have called England “a nation of shopkeepers”. He supposedly said this on the eve of his final surge into Western Europe, when total control was a battle or two away. Eighteen months later he was imprisoned on the island of Elba by the British, who had comprehensively defeated him at Waterloo. So it’s said, anyway.
For Napoleon, our mercurial, mercantile attitude towards the world was a weakness. Men like Napoleon were propelled by an ineffable sense of their own greatness and the sureness of their destiny. They were supported by a population in the grip of nationalistic fervor, just as in the far future the Germans and the Russians would be. Such is history.
I was thinking about this while I read an interesting article about a protest organised by the English Defense League (EDL) in York last week. Not many people really know about the EDL, either here or abroad. A fact or two, then, to put you in the picture: the EDL are a far-right, working men’s group of anti-Muslim, antisemitic quasi-fascists who believe that the time has come for change. They routinely make demonstrations in London, York, and Bristol, drumming up support for their cryptic political ideals.
They are just as frequently beaten back by a group of left-wing students, bloggers, and cub reporters. The full story has been reported frequently in Vice magazine (which is worth checking out, as long as you avoid the anarchic “humorous” essays on sex and drugs. Vice magazine was the sole inspiration for a short TV series called Nathan Barley about a self-satisfied, smug airhead who believed he was a big thing in the media) and recently been picked up by several newspapers. The EDL are sort of newsworthy. In the sense that a story about an orphaned foal who’s in love with a teddy bear is newsworthy.
This story I’m referring to ends badly – at least, it ends badly for British fascism. Full of nationalistic swagger, the EDL showed up in York with the intent of blockading a mosque and stirring up patriotic fervor. According to the reports, the mosque elders hatched a plan to send them packing – they opened the biscuit cupboard and found a football. After a little persuading, the EDL members, some of them frightening skinheads with tattoos and murderous intent to match, agreed to a take tea with the muslims before taking part in a game of football, having a lovely time, and returning home. It would make a great comedy sketch except, of course, this happened.
The story about the EDL is a silly but illustrative one. It shows two things: one, we as a nation are governed and controlled by the desire for that most sinister of drugs, tea, and two, it’s hard to whip the British populace into a frenzy. You can shout, bluster, swagger, play drums and shout slogans but, in the end, most British people will regard you with a vaguely quizzical eye before turning back to the sports section. Fascism doesn’t get much of a foothold in Britain. Unlike, say, France, where in 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen achieved a staggering 17% of the vote, or in Germany, which has a resurgent far-right movement, Britain has played host to many far-right movements in the last century.
They arise out of nowhere, they complain vociferously about the level of immigrants and inadequacy of the government, and they fade into obscurity. Why is it that Britain, alone of all European countries, doesn’t have a permanent far-right political presence? As far as I can see there are two distinct reasons.
The first is that far-right parties always want the same thing: racial unity. A purification of the peoples. That sort of thing. This doesn’t hold much water in the UK for one obvious reason: we’re a mixed bag. We’re a proud country of immigrants. Racial purity might work in a country like Germany, which has a tradition of Teutonic unity and blutsbrudershaft, but not here. Example: I’m as British as they come (squint teeth, large vocabulary, curious predilection for la vice anglais) but my ancestry jumps around all over the place (Ireland, French Canada, Scotland, England, etcetera). Britishness is not something genetic. You aren’t born into it. Anyone can be British. You just have to know when to pour the milk. And maybe speak a bit of English, but that’s not a given (hell, most of the kids born here don’t know where to put the apostrophe).
The second reason is something that speaks more deeply to British character: we’re apathetic. We’re indifferent. Alone of all constitutional democracies (except for Italy, where they do things different) we are aware that our government is made up of largely corrupt, corpulent, white, third-son-of-a-parson boys (The House of Commons), whose actions are mediated by a group of corrupt, corpulent, ancient, white, first-son-of-a-Lord boys. The decisions they make are frequently ratified by a woman of Germanic descent whose uncle was a crypto-fascist and adulterer. The Mayor of London, the second most important city in the world, has been embroiled in scandal for a decade but is regarded with something like adoration because he’s very funny. Of the three political parties that dominate the landscape, one is in bed with the other and one hasn’t worked out which one of them it wants to be yet. This is what a functioning democracy looks like.
Yet we are, astonishingly, unperturbed by this. And this is the root of our apathy: we don’t care what politicians are doing as long as they leave us alone. The insularity of the Brit is defined by the maxim that his home is his castle. We cannot be governed by fascists because fascism requires something of us. It requires involvement in the machinery of state.It requires a fanatical belief in something, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that Brits don’t believe in much. A few facts that compound this: our state religion was developed by Elizabeth I as a cynical compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism, designed purely to cement the power of the head of the church (viz. the monarch). A fascist government did, in fact, take hold of England between 1653 and 1659 before spectacularly falling apart. Far-right ideas never gain traction in the UK – between 1933 and 2013 there have been more than fifteen distinct fascist parties (as well as a score of nationalistic parties, one of which has taken power in Scotland). Each has flourished for a few years before dwindling into obscurity. Each asked too much of their supporters: at the very least they asked them to be involved. In other countries polling days are significant events: in Britain, you show up, put a tick on a piece of paper and go home, feeling vaguely righteous but otherwise indifferent. As somebody very wise once remarked, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, because the government always gets in.
And in this apathy, I guess, is strength. Not being motivated by political ideology can work in the people’s favor. Britain, for example, never embraced Enlightenment Republicanism. As Napoleon said, we are a nation of shopkeepers. That, in part, is the reason we’ve never had a Napoleon of our own. In this country people want to get on with the business of making money and living their lives with as little political involvement as possible. Our inertia is our safeguard against dangerous and novel political ideals. Our apathy defended us from wholesale Fascism or idealistic Communism. As a consequence, Britain has avoided concentration camps, civil war, the fall of the Warsaw Pact, internecine strife, massacres, pogroms, and the destruction of the ineffectual constitution we hold so dear. Apathy is the enemy of politics (as is laughter, but that’s another story). You can make all sorts of grand and impressive speeches, and people will clap, but nothing much happens. The hard part of ideology is having to do something about it.