Saturday, 17 August 2013

Tories at play: a field guide

Part I: team sports

Sport was a key part of the invention of public school education in the 19th century. It served to teach the life skills needed for any potential officer and gentlemen. Therefore, it is essential for understanding the Tory Imagination. The two main team games are rugby and cricket. Both are imperial sports, as seen in the countries that participate in them. Each sport teaches a set of values, and must be understood in turn.

Rugby Union
Rugby Union is designed as preparation for military service. Unlike football which is fairly obvious to pick up, rugby is highly didactic. The rules are complicated, giving referees a great deal of control. Education is chosen over pleasure. The chaos and physicality that puts off outsiders is, of course, the point. Rugby teaches its players to suck up punishment, take control, and hit back. Like an infantry platoon it requires small groups to specialize in particular tasks, and to produce their own leaders. The unpopularity of rugby with most of the British public is again part of the point. Just as the British Army has always been small with a regimental system that encourages elitism, so rugby union installs a feeling among its players that they are a caste a part.

This is why rugby hung on to its amateur status for so long. It allowed its elite players to retain a foothold in key sections of Tory society, so they could assume leadership positions in everyday life. So JPR Williams was a doctor at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, the Underwoods flew Tornadoes for the RAF.


Cricket is for peacetime. Unlike rugby, pleasure is allowed here (hence the importance of meal breaks). Crickets teaches its players that hierarchy is the natural order of society, and that We Are All In This Together. The MCC is the centre of the cricketing world. Below them are the counties each with their own headquarters (The Oval, Trent Bridge, Headingley etc). This structure clearly parallels the Anglican Church, with its diocese and cathedrals. Each county ground also installs hierarchy. As cricket grounds are circular, the pavilion can be seen from all the stands. It is clearly bigger and taller, and the only building of architectural merit. The members of the county (distinguished by their jackets and ties) sit in special sections of the pavilion, allowing normal punters to see them. 

However, a common contemporary misunderstanding is that cricket is a 'Posh' game (although this does reflect the sad decline of local clubs in many areas.) If football is working class, and rugby is middle class, then English cricket is cross-class, a legacy of its rural origins. Traditionally, batsmen were middle and upper class, as this was the elegant part of the game, but one which required less physical movement. Working class players were bowlers, the more aggressive and exhausting side of the game. This became the notorious 'gentlemen vs players' divide: middle class amateurs vs working class professionals. Many of the great England players - Harold Larwood, Fred Trueman, Geoffrey Boycott - have far more impressive proletarian credentials than most suburban Aston Villa fans. However, cricket works hard to create working class Tories, of whom Ian Botham is the outstanding archetype. Fred Trueman and Darren Gough were also both Tories. 

The Left could learn something here, but they refuse to take working class Toryism seriously, seeing it either as a form de-politicization or proto-fascism. Cricket is the real microcosm of class relations in England. Trueman, Boycott and Botham all fell out with cricket's establishment, but never found a way to defeat the blazers. They were left to seethe with resentment for years to come, or ended up fighting among themselves. Finally, they were rehabilitated as colorful characters in the commentary box, acting as foils for the whimsy of the professional cricket journos.

Boycott recalls the injustice of Harold Larwood's career:

Friday, 16 August 2013

We'll Muddle Through

If the civil religion of Britishness has its pantheon of saints, then surely Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a candidate for canonisation. This British Stakhanov embodies three of the most sacred values of Britishness - hierarchy, endurance, and projection. Hierarchy is what helps to give Britain its sense of stability and continuity, and though it is very visible in British public life, it is not entirely inflexible - a blinkered devotion to pointless acts of endurance can often help one raise one's social status. Sir Ranulph's high position within the hierarchy is denoted by both his knighthood and his rare and effete surname, whose tonguey, airey quality denotes he is not from common Saxon stock.

Sir Ranulph is an endurance specialist, and it is in this vocation that he is a paragon of British civil virtue. Being British is, fundamentally, about enduring - about keeping calm and carrying on, keeping your pecker or your chin up, not letting the bastards grind you down, and maintaining a stiff upper lip. We are where we are. Gibraltar. The Falklands. Anniversaries. Austerity. Coronation Street. Dr. Who. James Bond. All going on and on and on just like Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Or Bear Grylls. Or Ray Mears.

Perhaps one day Dr. Who will jog backwards to the North Pole with a cannonball chained to his penis just like Sir Ranulph. He'll muddle through. And being at the North Pole, he will be embracing that third British value - projection - which is the idea that British people belong absolutely everywhere in the world, especially those places that are most remote and inhospitable. There is simply no environment in the world, no matter how parched, windswept, frozen or dangerous, that is not augmented by the presence of a lycra-clad Briton wiping his or her forehead with a water bottle in a status-raising act of pointless endurance. And it goes without saying that any nation that gets a bit testy about Brits running hither and thither across its blasted landscape, such as, say, Russia or Iran, must be both inscrutable and perverse.

Can they not understand what we are trying to do?

Monday, 5 August 2013

Last of the British Battleships

"The car was announced in July 1947. It was completely new with no resemblance to the previous models, and was Standard's first post-Second World War car. It was also the first model to carry the new Standard badge, which was a heavily-stylised representation of the wings of a Griffin.
In the wake of the Second World War many potential customers in the UK and in English-speaking export markets had recently experienced several years of military or naval service, therefore a car name related to the British Navy carried a greater resonance than it would for later generations. The name of the Standard Vanguard recalled HMS Vanguard, the last of the British Navy's battleships, launched in 1944 amid much media attention: permission to use the name involved Standard in extensive negotiations with senior Royal Navy personnel."

- A British-made car in its natural habitat, out to pasture -

Das Auto: The Germans, Their Cars, and Us: Dominic Sandbrook is probably one of the most popular British historians writing at the moment, with his weighty books about the history of post-war decades in Britain (a common interest at the moment, David Kynaston, Jennifer Worth, etc). As became apparent in the documentary about  The 70s Sandbrook presented last year, he has his own particular corner to argue, all apparent on last night's doc about the German and British car industry ('Autobahn' was obligingly played, though strangely none of the small canon of British car songs, 'Brand New Cadillac' '2-4-6-8 Motorway' 'Wheels of Steel' or, uh, 'Car Song' - very possibly Britain doesn't lend itself to that sort of thing).

Sandbrook's recurrent argument is that Britain has a destiny as a Great Nation, but is continually thwarted by the likes of crusty imperialists naming cars after battleships, management confused at the change of pace in the postwar decades, and unruly militant unions. Sandbrook looks nostalgically to the immediate postwar period when production at Volkswagen was handed over to the British, who made most of their initial earnings supplying vehicles to the occupying forces (the VW is an unusually fated car - Adolf Hitler took a personal hand in developing it, but it is doubtful if any at all would have been affordable during wartime; VWs later became pivotal in the early 60s revolution in advertising as documented by Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool). 
It is hard to pin down exactly what Sandbrook's about (despite obvious sympathies for eviscerating the unions, he seems to regard Thatcherism as a step to far and an injury too deep), until nearer the end of the car documentary when things become more clearer and more optimistic. Sandbrook heaps acclaim on the few remaining British factories (avoiding the fact most are owned by foreign companies), and seems to be hinting that British car manufacturing is on the rise. Sandbrook is clearly drinking out the same cup as the Free Enterprise Group of Tories, who suggest that it is necessary for Britain to relearn its work ethic, to toughen up and get smarter for the trying economic times ahead. Sandbrook looks nostalgically to Germany with their friendly relations between management and union; in reality the new generation of Tories look eagerly to the working conditions of the country's the West currently exploits, more Foxconn than BMW.

This optimism is punctured somewhat by a seemingly unnoticed slip in production. Sandbrook draws on the nation-spirit of James Bond to illustrate his points about Britannia Unchained. During the 1990s Britain seemed a more power on the slide; Bond in GoldenEye (1995) drives a BMW, consciously choosing a 'superior' piece of engineering. Presently in SkyFall (2013) the Bond franchise partakes to some classy autoretromania by placing Daniel Craig behind the wheel of an Austin Martin. We are once again a Great Nation. Except, much earlier in the programme, Sandbrook makes an admission: none of the Great British car companies are owned by Britain at all. The car Bond demonstrates is brand patriotism with (his patriotic brandism?), is collectively owned by a consortium of Americans, Italians, and Kuwaitis.

Cars have always been a barometer of the levels of belief in a country's nation-spirit. Battleships to rusting death-traps to city trader BMWs. A forgotten story now about the American automobile industry is that around the early 1960s it was believed to have more or less crashed out when: a) production costs became too large; and b) there was a wave of skepticism about the car industry captured by books such as Ralph Nader's or John Keats'. 

The American auto industry was saved (in Thomas Frank's telling) by the innovations of advertisers who married the image of the small unassuming VW with a new sense of cool, hip, earnestness that would later become "the 60s". If the efforts of Sandbrook, the Free Enterprise Group, and others are to be observed, Britain's future is about to be tied to a self-image that the original innovators of the VW would have found not very unusual at all.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Civil Religion Of Britishness

In his classic essay "Civil Religion In America", Robert Bellah delineated the manner in which the mythology of the founding and development of the United States of America amounted to an unconscious, or semi-conscious, religion that paralleled the nation's Christian foundations with its own Moses (George Washington), its own scriptures (the Constitution), its own divine mission (Manifest Destiny) and eschatology (The Shining City On The Hill, the light of mankind).

Britain too would appear to host a civil religion, rich in emotive signifiers whose ubiquity in recent years would tend to indicate that it is in rude health. The symbols of monarchy, the Union Flag and the military are more prevalent than they have been for many years, and yet there is little recognition that they represent a cosmology that the majority of the British people are spiritually embedded in. If these institutions are questioned at all, they are dismissed as a kind of false consciousness, or an archaic remnant. Indeed, it wasn't so long ago that all these symbols appeared played out; a hangover from the past that needed to be shed in order for society to progress. "This Is England" by The Clash is the superlative summation of that moment, when Thatcherism in its most destructive phase reinforced the gloom of the collapse of the post-war consensus, and the Falklands War revealed an anachronistic, redundant yearning for Empire.

That Britishness is a real, if largely unrecognised, civil religion is revealed by how its contents are subject to contestation. Margaret Thatcher's funeral, a state funeral in all but name, was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the Right to canonise her as one of the nation's secular saints. Similarly, the Olympic opening ceremony was a more successful attempt by the "acceptable" Left, those that don't question the basic structure of the civil religion, to further embed the National Health Service, and the industrial contribution of the working class into the cosmology. Robson Green's recent documentary on the North had a similar purpose.

The reason the civil religion of Britishness evades identification is because unlike most Western civil religions, it is non-eschatological, and this is its strength. If it resembles anything, it is like a violent version of Taoism: Britain is endlessly waymaking itself through the world, meeting similarly endless external challenges with a mixture of cunning, innovation, and, where necessary, brute force. This is what makes the likes of James Bond and Dr. Who such emblematic British figures. And they share with their homeland its most remarkable feature - the ability to re-invent and rejuvenate. If "This Is England" captures Britain at a nadir, at a moment when its myths and narratives appear spent, then it signals not the end, but the time to call in a new team with new ideas and a new script.

But, as John Michael Greer has pointed out, every religion, including civil religions, must have an anti-religion, which inverts its core values in order to give succour to the disappointed and discontented. The classic example of an anti-religion is Satanism, which with its own bible, rites and masses exactly inverts the Christianity whose promises have proven so unsatisfactory. In the same way, Ayn Rand's Objectivism is the the anti-religion of Communism, inverting the elevation of the collective with the elevation of the individual.

And it is in the residue of the once august civil religion of Marxist Socialism that we find the anti-religion of the civil religion of Britishness, in the anti-patriotism of the contemporary radical Left, with its dancing on Thatcher's grave, jeering of Royal Weddings, and animus towards Remembrance poppies. It's sobering nowadays to read a book like Ted Grant's "The Unbroken Thread" and realise how confident British Marxism once was. Grant, born Isaac Blank in South Africa, formed the Trotskyist Workers' International League in the 1940's, and his writings in this period of crisis for ruling class ideology are blithely unconcerned with the patriotic symbols of Britishness. For Grant, the victory of Marxism was inevitable because it was a scientifically superior system of organisation, and was bound to win out in the Darwinian competition for economic efficiency. Indeed, the social inequality that was a product of liberal capitalism was proof proper of its inefficiency.

Grant viewed Britain's capitalist class with a kind of indulgent pity: they were yesterday's men, bound for the dustbin of history, no matter how often the backsliding trades union bureacracy or treacherous Stalinists allowed them a reprieve. There's a similar tone in the contemporaneous writings of Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson; a sense of men who know themselves to be on the winning side of history. It would no doubt astonish them to find today's Left as an effectively ghettoised sect, casting impotent symbolic spells against the blithely uncomprehending followers of a mainstream Britishness, still striding purposefully onwards in its eternal cycle of decay and rebirth.