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Brexit was a typically English revolution – one that left the elites unharmed

Rafael Behr
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/PA</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/PA

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s star has waned since his glory days leading backbench rebellions against Theresa May. He is on TV less, playing to smaller crowds. I caught him the other week on the BBC Parliament channel telling the Commons that fish unable to reach EU markets were “better and happier” because Brexit makes them more British.

Watching his performance, I recalled the perennially startling fact about Rees-Mogg: he is younger than Kylie Minogue (also Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn, but Minogue is the more arresting comparator for some reason).

No one expects politicians and pop stars from the same generation to sound and dress alike, but how many people realise that the artist known to fans as Moggy is of Kylie’s generation? His style implies something ancient, but that is the point. It is a look, tailored for an audience – just like any theatrical costume. Except his stage is parliament.

That is not to accuse Rees-Mogg of fakery. He hams up the fogeyism, but he plays it with conviction. He is an authentic adherent to a fashion subculture. Tory anachronism was his lifestyle choice, its uniform worn as sincerely as those of the punks, new romantics and goths who were around in his formative years. All are valid modes of Britishness, but not all include the hint at having sprung from some antique source of nationhood.

Costumes, like pageantry, have an important function in public life. The Queen’s speech, the ermine-clad Lords and bewigged clerks are all parts of the mechanism that excludes the masses while drawing them into complicity with their exclusion. They fence off politics as a spectacle for consumption, not an activity for participation. They promote a sentimental, passive detachment from power. The veneration of British democracy’s lineage is meant to demonstrate how archaism provides security through stability.

There is truth in that idea, and much fiction. Every modern country tells stories about its origins that impose a narrative of continuity over messy reality. For England (different in this respect to other nations of the UK) the tendency is taken to extreme lengths. The greatest myth – a backdrop stretched so wide we hardly notice it’s there – is the succession of monarchs that links Elizabeth II to William the Conqueror.

Generations have grown up thinking of 1066 as the origin of a line that, after some zig and zag, joins up with now. That long, casual stroke of the pen glides over savage occupation, butchery, usurpation, religious massacre, civil war, regicide, chaos, theocracy, military coup, foreign intervention, mass migrations, colonial genocides, and a constant cycle of rebellions and repressions. The treacherous, blood-drenched landscape has been covered with the polished parquet of National Trust houses, skated over effortlessly in period drama balls.

The English cast themselves as a peaceful people, occasionally provoked to war by foreigners (Germans, mostly). We are no more or less bellicose than human nature dictates. There is a credible claim to have been world leaders in adherence to law. Magna Carta was truly a landmark on the road to civilisation. But it is also a monument built to disproportionate height, admired at an angle that lets us avoid seeing uglier sights closer at hand.

But nothing matches victory over the Third Reich as a resource for making us feel better about ourselves. It was indeed a magnificent thing that Britain did (in alliance with others), but not the only significant thing that happened in modern times, as its compulsive dramatisation sometimes implies. The attachment to the collective endeavour of “blitz spirit” speaks to insecurity about national cohesion. We idealise the time we stuck together, from fear that the glue is thinly applied.

Solidarity is a defence against trauma, which is why war metaphors abound in the struggle against Covid. But there is dishonesty in the claim that unity and patience are solutions to problems of government. The pandemic affects everyone, but not equally. There are limited resources and places to assign in the queue for help. Appeals to stoical togetherness camouflage the exercise of political priorities.

A functional democracy recognises that societies contain competing interests. Parties represent those forces and mediate between them. Conflicts are managed without recourse to actual fighting. But British democracy has a subtly different mechanism. The ruling class defuses social grievance by selectively recruiting from the ranks of the aggrieved.

The Conservative party is a brilliant machine for adapting to social pressure from below, remaking itself to absorb new supporters without the established elite having to surrender power. It happened in the early 1980s, with the sale of council houses. It happened with Brexit and the co-opting of working-class “red wall” voters. It is a pattern predating the modern party, going back to the 19th-century reform acts and selective extension of voting rights.

Society’s upper echelons have been historically permeable, by European standards, admitting individuals from lowly backgrounds if they have the right education, wear the right clothes, speak with the right accent. That flexibility is one of the ways England avoided violent revolution on the French model.

The price is dilution of the reforming spirit, coupled with a weird aristo-centric populism that conflates meritocracy and social climbing. Our version of the American dream is a perverse heritage myth that the lives of a tiny, rich minority can tell a shared national story. It is the fantasy that we all dressed in finery once upon a time. The servants and peasants who were chopped to bits to settle obscure vendettas between noble families must have been someone else’s great-great-great-grandparents.

The genius of this system is its ability to contain violent upheavals behind the veneer of continuity. Brexit is just the latest iteration: upsetting the established order while somehow leaving the established order untroubled, a rebellion that succeeds by inflicting the highest economic cost on the places that rebelled.

It is typically English: a revolution without emancipation. It ends with Jacob Rees-Mogg, in fancy dress, strutting the parliamentary stage as if he has been there for centuries, although he was born a year after Kylie Minogue. Take back control? We should be so lucky.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist