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Things Fall Apart: British self delusion, Yeats and Chinua Achebe

March 24, 2019

Born 5 days before the death of George V1 you could say my life coincides more or less exactly with what was originally hailed as “the new Elizabethan Age”

And right there is an indication of the endemic self delusion from which “Great Britain” has suffered throughout my life time.

This is not an attack, per se, on “Britain”, nor do I fail to acknowledge the good things that have come to pass through its more positive elements.

But the fact is, even looking at the name, it is an entity which insists on seeing the world from its own narrow perspective and as it would like it to be, rather than as it actually is.

It’s not often featured as a pub quiz question, but how many folk know that the “Great” in GB is not qualitative but comparative. “Grande Bretagne”was originally named to differentiate from its smaller neighbour in north western France: “Bretagne”.

So even the title which seemingly proclaims greatness is a delusion.

In the years of my early childhood, one would have thought that the debacle of Suez would have provided the clearest antidote to self delusion and, to be fair, there was a kind of dawning of realisation at the time, but this was eventually replaced by the kind of frantic revisionism which saw the second world war hailed as “Britain’s Finest Hour” and “when we stood alone”.

Whilst it’s beyond question that that both world wars brought extraordinary heroism and determination in action, this kind of rewriting of history is a huge insult to the memory of millions of American and Empire troops who tipped the balance from defeat to victory.

For all that, this imagined memory was wheeled out by the union side in the Scottish Independence referendum and by UKIP, the ERG and their allies in the current Brexit omnishambles.

It’s probably no coincidence that “world war as self justification” has come to the fore as the generations who actually remember it are dying out.

Certainly, I never heard my mother, who lived through Liverpool’s May Blitz, refer to those times as halcyon days. She was fiercely proud of the way the ordinary folk got through it all, but scarcely remembered it as “our finest hour”.

Grand rhetoric can boost morale in war time, and she always appreciated the speeches of Churchill after nights of listening to Lord Haw Haw, but such semantic bluster is no foundation for a country in peacetime.

For most of the fifties and sixties, Britain made an appalling mess of exiting from an Empire which she still insisted loved her, despite decades of oppression and cultural and economic devastation. The Monarchy, always a major tool of the self delusionists, proved helpful here. The newly named “Commonwealth” countries may have been launching attacks on her occupying military, but they “loved the Queen”, apparently.

Throughout the world, territories formerly coloured pink on the map have suffered from the aftermath of colonial exploitation and the favoured British tactic of “divide and rule”. Not many of these lands have escaped post colonial war, internecine strife, corruption and economic hardship. The self delusion of “Mother England” is seldom given credence in these places.

In Aden, Cyprus, Yemen, Malaya and elsewhere, Britain’s attempts to quell the “restless natives” led to a regime of torture and oppression which would provide the likes of Frank Kitson with a template for their later, almost cartoon attempts, to deal with what they insisted on referring to as “the Irish Question”.

For all this, the British Army was continually referred to as “the best in the world”. Even with its dirty tricks department in full mode it could not defeat a small band of rebels over a thirty year period and put this down to the government “tying their hands behind their back”.

Later political “adventures” in the Falklands and Iraq brought to light the fact that, in reality, the army was under resourced, under trained, and guided by a Ministry whose financial mismanagement over decades was legendary. And, as ever, whilst the promoters of self delusion benefited from the tales they spun, it was working class lads from areas of high unemployment who usually paid the price.

Perhaps the greatest delusion of all – that the British Government was proud of its troops – has always been easily disproved by the way they are treated – during and after their service – and the need for veterans to be supported by charities.

One of the ironies is that Britain clings on to its UN Security Council position by dint of a Trident missile which can only be used with US permission and costs so much that our welfare system is left unfit for purpose

And so we come to Brexit – the latest and clearest exposition of the damage done by decades of self delusion.

“The EU needs us more than we need them” “We are being told what to do by unelected foreigners” (often directed a members of the, erm, elected European Parliament) “We did alright before the EU” “ Other countries will be queuing up for trade deals”. “We give them billions and get nothing back”.

All these statements can be easily disproved with the level of research available to a third year Modern Studies or Business Education pupil.

The delusion is almost paper thin when it comes to arguments against independence for Scotland. A widely held belief that our country is subsidised by England – as if we paid no taxes, and the refusal to acknowledge that, along with Iraq, Britain is one of only two states to have discovered oil and not set up an oil fund for the country’s future prosperity. Decades of using oil revenues for short term fixes to disguise balance of trade problems and massage figures in election campaigns are now embarrassingly revealed.

But the self delusion remains. Demands for Scottish independence are translated as if they are built on hatred for the English – as if everything needs to be about them. A desire by Scots to join the world community in their own right instead of through a “British filter” is seen as parochial, from a state which fails to learn languages and claims an independent Scotland would be “foreign”.

In 2014 they said: “Oh, but we’ve been through so much together. We really respect you. We are equals.” But, like the abusive partner script those phrases so clearly echo, before the result was even officially declared, Cameron’s comments were made out of disdain – an attitude which has persisted through Brexit, where the government which represents Scotland – and its 62% remain majority, is ignored.

The fact is that Britain is seen in Europe as a state which never really wanted to join the EU, failed to embrace its successes, while highlighting its failures, and is making use of an unexpected Brexit vote to solve party political infighting and assuage its doubts about “foreigners”.

Like its Houses of Parliament, it deludes itself that tradition trumps efficacy, and self belief can overcome reality – a not surprising world view given the percentage of public school educated politicians.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that there is no need for all this self delusion. If Britain, in particular England, could accept the reality of where it is and what it is now, it would be regarded as a small country which has given much to to the world and can continue to do so – in culture, the arts, science and innovation. It is only in clinging desperately to a sinking raft, somewhere off Midsomer and Downton Abbey, with a fly past from Douglas Bader and Guy Gibson, that it makes itself a laughing stock and lacks the insight to recognise the fact.

Ironically, a reborn, dare we say, re-constituted, England, freed from the need to be convincing itself of its “world power” status, could actually recapture some of the much missed and positive elements of its history – radicalism, tolerance, civility among them.

WB Yeats and then Chinua Achebe both used the phrase: “Things Fall Apart, the Centre cannot hold.”

They had the clear sighted advantage, as an Irishman and a Nigerian, of having seen the British state at close quarters but from the outside, and perhaps that contributed to their description of chaos.

Would that the woman who berated the UK Parliament from the podium last week had anything like that clarity of vision.

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