“The great enemy in every book from Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) to Ann Veronica (1909) is what Wells calls ‘the ruling power of this land, Stupidity’. Against this he envisions a world in which people will behave better to each other, a world in which honest aspiration and fellow-feeling won’t automatically be snuffed out by snobbery and hidebound tradition, a world in which ‘equality’ is not a dirty word.” — Critic and author David Lodge on H.G. Wells, from The Guardian
There isn’t much you need to know about Jacob Rees-Mogg: he looks like his name and sounds like his biography. He was very fond of his nanny, he went to Eton and Cambridge, his company has multimillion pound investments in tobacco, mining, oil and gas, and he’s apologetic about giving a speech to the annual dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, a club of neo-royalists who somehow got it into their heads that the United Kingdom would be a far better place if, instead of being run by elected representatives like Jacob Rees-Mogg, it was run by an unelected aristocracy and unelected individuals of enormous wealth, power and influence — individuals, in other words, like Jacob Rees-Mogg.
I’ve singled him not because he is the most risible of the figures who stepped forth from the shadows to argue the case for British sovereignty in those entertaining days before anyone knew what it meant. Michael Gove’s impression of Uriah Heep has been a masterpiece of sustained impersonation, and no one has got more laughs out of the misfortune of others than Slapstick Boris. But Jacob Rees-Mogg deserves special mention because he is the defining caricature of a parody of a cartoon of a satire of a pastiche of the typical Tory backbencher, and his metamorphosis from archetype to actuality, from someone to be laughed at to someone to be terribly afraid of, seems to me to mark the passing and irrevocable cremation of English irony.
There are some practical consequences to Basil Fawlty becoming, say, Chancellor of the Exchequer, which I need to get out of the way. If the philosopher A.C. Grayling is right, it’s the likes of Jacob and his Eton chums who will benefit most from the bonfire of red-tape, lit by a smouldering ember from Grenfell, which will celebrate the day Britain finally leaves the EU. And the likely losers, apart from those negligible millions of EU migrants, will be the turkeys who voted for Christmas, the allegorical Sunderland fans who sold their children for a taste of victory, any victory.
But the irony of politics interests me less than the politics of irony.
The first is as ancient as sibling rivalry and as universal as hypocrisy. The effect of the demise of ironical discourse in British politics would be only to put the House of Commons on a par with the House of Representatives or the Parliament in Cape Town; to level the playing fields of mendacity from the Federal Assembly in Moscow to the House of Lords: to dispense at last with the carefully cultivated and widely consumed notion, at home and abroad, that the distinguishing merit of English democracy is the cleverness of its political repartee, a wit and intelligence far too subtle to be understood by the Welsh and the Scots, let alone by the French or the Germans, and far too sophisticated to be examined in terms as crude as truth or falsity.
It’s a measure of the irony-mongers determination to fight back that David Cameron is already being celebrated as the undisputed champion of Prime Minister’s Questions rather than remembered as the fool who gambled away his country’s honour on a whim. And Jeremy Corbyn’s competence is judged by his position in the PMQs all-time league table of Best Unrehearsed Jibes, that is, a long way from the top.
In South Africa I was privileged to work with the Independent Forum for Electoral Education, the body responsible for communicating both the practicalities and the principles of democratic engagement in the run-up to the country’s first fully democratic election in 1994. Over a period of ten months we made more than thirty TV commercials, all of them in nine different languages, to show people who had never been allowed the vote what to expect on the 27th and 28th of the forthcoming April.
We chose children to do the voice-overs to convey the idea that the ultimate beneficiaries of a successful and peaceful election would be the generations to come. We distributed our commissions as democratically as we knew how, to established producers and directors prepared to work at cost, or to those in our limited ambit impassioned enough to waive their fees. We gave directorial debuts to Jonnie Cohen, John Kani and other lesser mortals, making instant enemies out of the industry’s biggest egos.
We made millions of leaflets, thousands of radio spots, and enough posters to go into every school, police station and municipal building from Agulhas to Beit Bridge. The icon of our campaign, across all these materials, was an X made by two strips of Elastoplast over the rubric Heal Our Land.
We showed the newly enfranchised population what a ballot paper looked like, how to make a cross next to the party of their choice, how to fold the paper and put in in the ballot box, and how the ballots would be counted. We told them who was eligible to vote, and how and why their thumbs would be dyed in ink. We explained the importance of the secret ballot, the idea of proportional representation and the responsibilities of an elected government. We explained the legitimacy of parliamentary opposition, the significance of a free press and the paramountcy of the rule of law. We dramatized the civic duty of participating and why every vote counted. We painted a picture of a country in which men and women were judged by their values, not by their relative wealth or the relative amount of pigmentation in their skins.
We were shameless in our idealism. We told the story of a blind Xhosa man in his nineties being led across the Cederberg mountains by his granddaughter to the little polling station at Wupperthal so he could vote for the first time in his life. We encouraged voters to stand up to potential intimidation, we reassured them of police protection, and we romanced the idea of people of all races and creeds working together to push the broken bus of democracy up the muddy crest of a hill near Isandhlwana until it could freewheel downwards to the green valley of freedom.
The New York Times featured an image from that last production on its front page, but the campaign made less than a ripple in the local press. IFFE’s post-election research commended the campaign for the significant contribution it had made to both the turnout and to the peacefulness of those two historic days. My creative team consisted of two copywriters, Eugene Strauss and Nondwe Dazana, an art director, Sue Edelstein, a producer, Michelle Kemp, and the overworked graphics studio at JWT Johannesburg. If there were others, I can only apologise for forgetting them now.
There are two reasons for recounting this in some detail. The first is that none of it seems to have survived on the internet, which means it has effectively been lost to history, or lost, at least to current consciousness. I have a copy of the New York Times article, and some of the commercials on a Sony U-Matic, but none of the names of the people involved are recorded in the official histories of the election. Michelle posted a summary of the IFEE campaign and its subsequent research results several years ago, but that too seems to have disappeared. Nor can I find the names of the people on the IFEE committee with whom we worked so closely, that awkward mix of Afrikaner nationalists, IFP tribalists, PAC firebrands and ANC intellectuals who were able to set their bitter differences temporarily aside in that last desperate gamble for an alternative to bloody revolution. I’ve worked with easier clients, but with none more courageous.
In the context of the political convulsions of South Africa today the work we did then feels hopelessly optimistic and pathetically naïve, which almost certainly explains why it has been buried under the layers of pressing rhetoric about contemporary issues since 1994 that Google has yet to prioritise. But I can’t help thinking that it wouldn’t hurt to assemble it all again and send it to Nkandla in the hope of reminding President Zuma what his party once stood for and his people once longed for.
The second reason goes back to Jacob Rees-Mogg and the politics of irony: the difference, in short, between politics as satire and politics as bread and butter.
No one who stood in those long and colourful queues of the April of 1994 and lived to see 2017 will have any illusions about the perfectibility of democracy. It is an unmanageable beast of a thing forever struggling against the leash of its principles, furious at its domestication, resenting the whip and disdaining the treats, biting the hands that feed it, snapping most viciously at those who love it the most, and rubbing itself most unctuously against the soothing pats of those who love it the least. Just when we think it is trained to behave itself it throws up a Trump or a Nigel Farage. And no sooner have we cleaned up its vomit than it soils itself with inducements of wealth and the sweets of power. But we don’t return it to the wild because we know it is our only defence against midnight’s knock of terror.
South Africans are learning the hard way that it isn’t the cute kitten on the chocolate-box of promises we gave them in 1993. Here in England it wears a tartan coat against the winter corridors of Buckingham Palace and lies down with the corgis. On days of ceremony it’s dressed in a white ruff and paraded down the Mall to the cheers of the multitude and the titters of Jacob Rees-Mogg behind his cupped hand.
Lodge is right about “equality” being a dirty word in the conception of English life that Wells so vividly evoked and so vehemently opposed. But Wells, who was right about almost everything else, was wrong about “Stupidity”. The ruling power of this land is ironic detachment: it’s the view of men and women who occupy a perch of privilege so lofty that the affairs of the classes beneath them look like ants at work on the corpse of a slug.
From here below they are invisible, just as the elites of all the countries of the world are invisible to the people below who don’t count their loose change in tens of millions. But in those other countries the difference in altitude is a simple function is money divided by numbers few and many. In England it is heightened by class, elevated by rank, legitimised by history and obscured by the short-sightedness of ants who like things just the way they are.
There is a fog between them too, a pea-soup of precedents and titles clouding the English air — of inherited property and family estates, of 12th century entails, 13th century legacies, 14th century disbursements, 15th century amendments,16th century codicils, 17th century leases, 18th century wayleaves, 19th century licences, estoppels and easements; of escrows and tenancies, by agreements tacit and acknowledgements implicit, by circumlocution, circumduction, circumvolution, periphrasis and ambage, of a language respected for its impenetrability and deferred to out of the embarrassment of ignorance. It’s a thick and benumbing mist of obfuscation with a dense stratum between of poets long dead and of authors long unread, still revered for having once been revered; and the same misty reverence, a smokescreen of humbug and cant, for a religion invented to salve the consciences of adulterous kings and murderous queens, that frowns on people who don’t believe in it and despises the people who do. It’s the smog of national decay, a Brahminical philosophy no longer understood by the Brahmins.
Seen from the top it’s the comforting blanket of tradition decorated with scenes from Gainsborough with clouds by Constable. Seen from below it’s the right of one’s betters to own the sky.
It is this complacency of the imagination, this smug conservatism, this lack of vision, this poverty of mind, this unexamined complicity in the causes of their own unfelt indigence — all of these and a dim and grasping aspiration to achieve a perfect mimicry of the very manners that imprison them are what make irony the only acceptable currency of English political discourse. This is the crucial difference between the way the English have come to see themselves in the world and the way the rest of the world looks at the whole of the world.
This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the irony of the English was a benign affectation rather than a means of distancing themselves from the consequences of their actions: that social and political injustices pressed in on their consciences with a weight commensurate with England’s influence on the world’s affairs, that they were keenly felt and just as keenly grasped; and that there came a time, a very specific period in the history of English consciousness, when it was all too much for them to bear, and that they turned inward, and their irony was made into walls as high as any in the white suburbs of Joburg.
These are big claims and even bigger ambitions from someone who, in the long view of the evolution of the English character, stepped off the boat from Durban only the day before yesterday. My knowledge of English history is sketchy at best, my direct appreciation of English politics is limited to my experience of the past seventeen years, and I look at England and the English from a narrowly South African, narrowly London and narrowly South West London perspective. But there’s a difference between having the qualifications to do something and having the right to do something. I have that right for all the reasons rehearsed in these chapters. I have as much right as de Tocqueville had to write Democracy in America, and no less right than Emerson had to write English Traits. And sometimes, too, it takes an outsider to see the inside.