Laurie Penny | Longreads | June 2020 | 21 minutes (5,360 words)
“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”
— Winston Churchill, unpublished memorandum
“Will Mockney for food.”
— Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vol. III
This is a story about a border war. Specifically, a border war between two nations that happen, at least in theory, to be precisely the same place. One of them is Britain, a small, soggy island whose power on the world stage is declining, where poverty, inequality, and disaster nationalism are rising, where the government has mangled its response to a global pandemic so badly that it’s making some of us nostalgic for the days when all we did was panic about Brexit. The other is “Britain!” — a magical land of round tables and boy wizards and enchanted swords and moral decency, where the sun never sets on an Empire run by gentlemen, where witty people wear frocks and top hats and decide the fate of nations over tea and biscuits.
One is a real place. The other is a fascinatingly dishonest, selective statement of fact, rather like describing how beautiful the countryside was in the antebellum American South. A truth so incomplete it’s worse than a lie.
Every nation-state is ninety percent fictional; there’s always a gap between the imaginary countries united by cultural coherence and collective destinies where most of us believe we live, and the actual countries where we’re born and eat breakfast and file taxes and die. The U.K. is unique among modern states in that we not only buy our own hype, we also sell it overseas at a markup. “Britain always felt like the land where all the stories came from,” an American writer friend told me when I asked why she so often sets her novels in Britain. Over and over, writers and readers of every background — but particularly Americans — tell me that the U.K. has a unique hold on their imaginations.
Every nation-state is ninety percent fictional; there’s always a gap between the imaginary countries united by cultural coherence and collective destinies where most of us believe we live, and the actual countries where we’re born and eat breakfast and file taxes and die.
That hold is highly profitable. Britain was kept out of recession last year by one industry: entertainment. Over the past four years, the motion picture, television, and music industries have grown by almost 50 percent — the service sector, only by 6. So many shows are currently filmed in England that productions struggle to book studio space, and even the new soundstages announced by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2018 will be hard-pressed to keep up with demand. As historian Dan Snow pointed out, “[O]ur future prosperity is dependent on turning ourselves into a giant theme park of Queens, detectives, spies, castles, and young wizards.”
There is hope: the statues are coming down all over Britain, starting in Bristol on June 7, 2020. Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down a monument to slave trader Edward Colston, who is remembered for how he lavished his wealth on the port city and not for the murder of 19,000 men, women and children during the Middle Passage. In Oxford, students demanded the removal of monuments to Cecil Rhodes, the business magnate and “architect of apartheid” who stole vast tracts of Africa driven by his conviction in the supremacy of Anglo-Saxons. In Parliament Square, fences have been erected to protect Winston Churchill himself, the colonial administrator and war leader whose devoted acolytes include both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Young Britons are demanding a reckoning with a history of colonial conquest, slave-trading, industrial savagery, and utter refusal to examine its own legacy.
Meanwhile, the economic disaster of a no-deal Brexit is still looming and Britain has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe, putting further pressure on an already-struggling National Health Service. Under Boris Johnson’s catastrophic leadership, or lack thereof, there are no signs of changing tactics on either. Fantasy Britain is having a boomtime. Real Britain is in deep, deep trouble. Read more…