It looked so unlikely to rational-minded commentators a few months ago as to make one wonder whether the entire historical process might, in fact, be governed by mere irrational chance. That would be anathema to most academic historians, who like to think that we can perceive order in events where ordinary folks can’t. Johnson’s elevation, however, suggests that anything can happen.
The accidental factors contributing to this astonishing outcome are obvious. That it should have come down in the end to a vote among fewer than 160,000 of the most reactionary people in Britain – the rump of the Conservative Party – is the most egregious.
Jeremy Corbyn is getting a lot of stick just now – certainly on the anti-Brexit Facebook pages I subscribe to – for not coming out clearly in favour of a second referendum, and for Remain. The Guardian is especially critical: but when hasn’t it been, of this untidy bearded radical who flouts even liberal standards of political respectability? I have to say, a part of me is disappointed too. I’d have liked Labour to have taken more of a pro-European lead. But then I think again. There are three reasons for suspending judgment on Corbyn until the whole sorry affair has worked itself out.
The right-wing press – Telegraph, Times, Mail, Express, Sun – is peddling the old accusation of ‘communist subversion’ against the Labour Party, specifically against Jeremy Corbyn. One leading Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, was forced, under threat of legal action, to withdraw a tweet in which he claimed that Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’. I hope they charge Bradley nonetheless. He’s the man who suggested that the unemployed could be vasectomised to stop them breeding.
The IRA bomb that went off in the Grand Hotel, Brighton in the early hours of 12 October 1984 blew half the building to bits, killed five Tory high-ups, including an MP, and seriously injured 34 others. The security forces really should have sniffed it out before Margaret Thatcher and most of her Cabinet moved in. It had been set up, with a timer, several days in advance. As an assassination attempt directed against Thatcher, however, it failed, having been placed in the wrong room. ‘The cry went up: “Maggie’s safe!”’ Jonathan Aitken remembered afterwards. ‘Such was the relief that strangers shook hands, and clasped each other’s shoulders.’ (How ‘British’! No hugging or kissing!) It also failed as an act of terrorism. Terrorism is supposed to terrify. The Brighton bomb didn’t. If anything, it had the opposite effect.
The Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described by the shadow leader of the house as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which expresses and enacts the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time. The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs against the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy.
Donald Trump’s reference to Sweden at his rally in Florida on 18 February had Stockholmers mildly amused at first. 'We've got to keep our country safe … You look at what's happening in Germany, you look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what's happening in Brussels. You look at what's happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris.' He didn’t explicitly say that Sweden was experiencing Islamic terrorism, but that was clearly implied. His reference to ‘last night’ was precise. Swedish journalists tried to find the incident he might have been referring to, but could come up with nothing more exciting than snow-blocked roads in the north, a car chase in Stockholm and a randy elk. No Islamicists were involved. It transpired that Trump had been misled by an item on Fox News – where else? – which had tried to link rising crime in Sweden with its generous asylum policy; but even that turned out to have been a distortion.
Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, plans to institute military cadet corps in schools. The idea, apparently, is not only to provide future recruits for the British army, but also to instil discipline and ‘British values’ – whatever he thinks they may be – in young people. School cadet corps started up in the later 19th century in order to encourage national and imperial patriotism. Most public schools had them; state schools refused to, out of anti-militaristic principle. (That was one reason Baden-Powell founded his Boy Scout movement.) As far as I know, the public schools have them still. So do, or did, the grammar schools that liked to ape the public schools, such as mine.
My historical centre of gravity, so to speak, is the 1890s, and has involved research into the London Metropolitan Police; so I’ve been a keen watcher of Ripper Street on BBC2, starring Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Reid, a fictional detective in Whitechapel around then. It takes a strong stomach to watch it; but historically it’s pretty accurate, despite the occasional (unsurprising) anachronism. This week’s episode centred on the Thames Ironworks factory in the East End; and in particular its football team. Thames Ironworks FC was the original name of West Ham United, a.k.a. the Hammers or the Irons. I've followed them for decades. On Monday night, we saw them playing, convincingly (i.e. roughly but skilfully), in late-19th-century strip. The plot involves the murder of one of the star players – with a hammer. It also features the Arsenal. But I don’t want to give too much away.
There hasn’t been much rejoicing on the winning side of the EU referendum. How many of them must have spent the weekend thinking: ‘Fuck, what have we done?’ As the pound plummets, Cameron falls on his sword, a clown is set to take over, Corbyn (the only one who put a rational case for the EU, if only the press had bothered reporting it) is stabbed by the Brutuses in his own party, the UK breaks up, region turns against region and generation against generation. I’m embarrassed meeting young people now; I ought to get a badge: ‘I may be an old fart, but I voted Remain.’