Mon 29 November 2021

The Coronavirus pandemic should have been the wake-up call to ‘Never-Gonna-Happenism’ and the lure of empty populism, says Otto English

My uncle died, aged 92, in the summer. His passing came as a punctuation mark for my immediate family, he being the last of four siblings whose lives spanned the tumultuous events of the 20th Century. My oldest aunt and father were both born during the First World War and all four of them lived through the second.

Their descendants, myself included, grew up knowing nothing but peace. The fear of a third war may have haunted my late Cold War era childhood but – unlike my father, my aunt and my two grandfathers – I never had to don uniform and go off to fight in yet another European war. 

For most of us alive in Britain today, those events are history. For my father, his siblings and millions of others, it was lived experience.  

It is something I have reflected on a lot over the past few years and it very much informed my stance on Brexit. So, with my late uncle’s memorial service looming, I was more than a little surprised last week to find myself in agreement with Boris Johnson. 

In a much-shared Channel 4 News interview with Gary Gibbon, the Prime Minister, standing in Rome’s Colosseum, said: “Civilisation (can) go backwards and history (can) go into reverse”, adding that “people should not be so conceited as to imagine that history is a one-way ratchet”.

Now, of course, the idea that history can “go into reverse” is silly, but what I think Johnson was trying to say was that we should never take our security for granted. He was talking about climate change but his words could just as well have applied to the so-called ‘great’ events that my uncle and his siblings lived through.

It is easy, with hindsight, to see the two world wars as inevitable events; two conflicts forged out of the culmination of abject political failure that proceeded them. But, on both occasions, many people believed that war would be avoided right up until the moment the first shots were exchanged. And few, even in August 1914 or September 1939, anticipated the extent of the horror that would follow.

In our own time, another event has jolted our certainties. For decades, scientists predicted that a Coronavirus-type pandemic would likely visit itself on the world, but many of us just shrugged it off as a scare story and thought ‘never gonna to happen’. 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that ‘Never-Gonna-Happenism’ is not that sensible an approach to the threats, both real and existential, that we face. We cannot simply take it on trust that everything will always turn out okay. Cheery optimism is no safeguard against war, global pandemics or climate change. And history demonstrates this over and over again – so Boris Johnson was right to highlight that.

Unfortunately, his message was wholly eclipsed by the rest of what he said.

Classic Johnson

Having touched on the sensible stuff, the Prime Minister then said: “When the Roman Empire fell, it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration; people came in from the East and we went into a ‘dark age’.” 

A few years ago, I coined the term ‘Ladybird libertarianism’ to illustrate the tendency for politicians and pundits to reduce the complex events of the past to this sort of nursery school bunkum – the sort of history in which King Alfred burns cakes; Canute tries to stop the sea; Britain wins the Second World war with a ball of string; and the Roman Empire collapses because, when the barbarians are not at the gates, they are under-cutting the prices of the local plumbarii.

History is complicated and the fall of the Roman Empire – placed by convention in September 476 CE, when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus – is a case in point.

The reasons leading up to the collapse are manifold, and while migration may have played a part, so too did economic turmoil, political failure, bad leadership, corruption, civil war, an over-reliance on slavery, a huge wealth gap, instability, over-expansion of the Empire and, well, a million other things. It is also the case that Rome didn’t fall in a day and that there were two Roman Empires in 476 CE. While the Western one fell, the Eastern half carried on into the 15th Century. And don’t get me started on ‘the Dark Ages’.

Boris Johnson has a classics degree and I do not doubt for one moment that he knows all of the above and far more about Roman history than I ever will. One therefore has to assume that he said what he did because he felt it was politically expedient to blame mass “uncontrolled immigration” as the reason for the fall of Rome. 

When not playing loose with history last week, Johnson was playing loose with the French language. The ongoing row with our second nearest neighbour over post-Brexit fishing rights and Australian submarines took a new turn over the weekend when it was widely – and wrongly – reported in the UK press that Jean Castex, the French Prime Minister, had sent a letter to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Layen, calling for the British to be ‘punished for leaving the EU’.

The letter said no such thing. It simply stated that the UK, as a third country, should not be able to have the same advantages that it had as a member of the EU. But Johnson eagerly leapt on the slight and let it be known that he was “puzzled” by the letter and that he had “deep concern over the rhetoric emanating from the French Government”.

Johnson grew up in Brussels and speaks French well. So, again, one has to assume that either he had not read the letter or (more likely) that he was being deliberately provocative to rile our closest allies. Poking France and winding up French President Emmanuel Macron goes down well with core Johnson supporters who like nothing more than to indulge in a little light Francophobia. 

Ben Habib, former Brexit Party MEP, was among those getting in on the act. “It is high time for Boris Johnson to cease referring to a (sic) French as a friends and partners,” he wrote. “If they want a showdown at sea let’s have it. They lost the last one.”  

Macron hasn’t exactly helped matters by questioning the UK’s “credibility” and clearly enjoying the sparring match with it and Australia. Next year’s French presidential elections are looming over the horizon and playing the strong man sticking it to Perfidious Albion in a phony fish war plays to the French right. 

But how any of this is supposed to benefit any of us, apart from the politicians, on either side of the Channel is up for debate.

France is one of the UK’s closest allies. The interests of the two nations are largely intertwined and – whether tackling climate change, global security, the virus or other threats – we need to have our leaders engaged in political co-operation not diplomatic jousting.

The Coronavirus pandemic should have been the wake-up call to Never-Gonna-Happenism and the lure of empty populism. It has shown that bad things can and do happen and on a huge scale, and that in a joined-up world, nations need to work ever closer together and not pull each other apart. Ghastly events on the scale that blighted my late uncle’s childhood are not just for the history books. 

Otto English’s book ‘Fake History’ is published by Welbeck


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