Every so often, a news story comes along that is so shocking that it ceases to be shocking at all because it is simply impossible to believe it can be true. And every so often, two come along at once. The Post Office scandal is one such story. Actual postmasters, running little rural post offices, not unlike the one in Postman Pat, were prosecuted and went to jail for fraud because the Post Office preferred that outcome to accepting their IT system didn’t work.
That, it must be said, is at least faintly plausible, alongside more recent news, that education secretary Gavin Williamson (that’s another word quartet that has sadly lost its power to shock) is telling all the nation’s schoolchildren to come together on 25 June to sing a song containing the following words: “Strong Britain, great nation. Strong Britain, great nation. Strong Britain, great nation. Strong Britain, great nation.”
We are already 36 hours into some of the most relentless public ridicule of the internet age. We have never seen anything quite like it before. It has already been pointed out that, well, this is the sort of mad nonsense they get made to do in North Korea or communist East Germany or Turkmenistan. But there is a slight difference. For the most part, the people in countries where this kind of lunatic behaviour is normal can be divided into those who are stupid enough to have become genuine believers and those who are too frightened to stand up to it. But the forces that take a country to this point are highly sophisticated. It does take a large amount of nous and an even larger amount of ruthlessness to build a personality cult.
So how has it ended up that we, over here, are having it done to us by Williamson? Things, generally speaking, have improved for the world since Donald Trump was sent on his way, even if it has pushed the UK up to first place on the formerly-great-nation-turned-international-laughing-stock leaderboard. But people are still prone to ask, you know, how far down this rabbit hole are we going to go? Will we all just become inured to it, as people and countries have done for many years, but mercifully not this one.
We are, almost certainly, already inured to the simple and outrageous fact that Williamson, a man who you would only send to the shops for a pint of milk if a more reliable eight-year-old could not be found, really is in charge of the education of the nation’s children, at a time when that whole, huge area of government policy has never faced more serious challenges.
We have, more or less, come to accept that a whole generation of young people having their lives and prospects hopelessly banjaxed is just how it has to be, because the alternative would be for the prime minister actually to confront the problem, and so face some of the blame himself.
At the very worst possible time, we have arrived at government by actual, demonstrable idiocy. It has never really happened before. At least, for the time being, when they ask us to gather up our children to sing a self-parodical patriotic jingle, we’re still capable of taking the screaming p**s out of them, and it. But for how much longer? It was often said of Donald Trump that his innate ridiculousness was part of the strategy. That the absurdity of fascism, with its flags and rallies and balconies and all the rest of it, is assisted and consolidated by the ridicule it receives.
Gavin Williamson isn’t a fascist. He’s just an idiot. But eventually, we might find we can no longer be bothered even to laugh at him. And what happens then?