THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
There Will Always Be Some Sort of England
A uniquely embarrassing episode in the annals of British sport took place on April 3, 1993 at Aintree race course near Liverpool. What was supposed to be the 147th running of the Grand National, one of the world's premier horse races, ended instead in a shambles.
Ordinarily, the Grand National is a four-mile steeplechase, considered by enthusiasts to be an extreme test of skill and endurance for both horses and riders. It is run as often as not on a muddy track in a cold rain, rendering it all the more tense and exhilarating for the perpetually weather-obsessed British fans. Massive sums are bet on its outcome. On this ill-fated day, the race was first delayed while some animal rights protesters were cleared from the course. Next, a false start was called when the starting tape, dripping with the requisite spring rain, became entangled among some of the horses. This was the first false start in the race's history, and cause enough for some quintessentially British tut-tutting. Little did anyone anticipate the greater fiasco to come.
The 39 horses and riders returned to the starting line and were set to go again, only for a second false start to be called because of more problems with the blasted tape. Only this time, most of the riders did not see or hear the call and set off down the course. Attempts to wave them down further down the track were only partially successful, most likely because some riders mistook the wildly gesticulating race officials for more protesters trying to disrupt the race, and ignored them. While most riders did ultimately respond to the officials' call and held up, a few did not and ran the length of the course to the finish line. The race could not reasonably be started again, and the result was declared null and void. There is no winner listed for the 1993 Grand National.
It may be a bit over the top to declare this peculiar display of incompetence (which yours truly happened to see live on television while visiting friends in London) as a symbol of British decline. The tabloids had a jolly good time with it, and it probably remains an acute source of shame for the race's organizers. In the end, it was just a horse race. But over the course of a century during which Britain's power and influence in the world steadily declined, every isolated and otherwise insignificant screw-up and come-down built to a slow crescendo of terminal disappointment. The British have never been shy about complaining about their lot even during flush times, and will certainly not pass on a chance to immiserate themselves when confronted with a truly awful example of the nation's dilapidated condition. How could a once mighty empire that brought commerce, law and table manners to the far reaches of the planet turn into this sorry excuse for a country that can't even organize a proper horse race? This particular incident, unimportant in itself, came at the tail end of the Thatcher era, a period that some saw as a reinvigoration of entrepreneurship and individual achievement, but which many others bemoan still for its privatization of state industries, union-busting and general disregard for the social compact. The debacle at Aintree had nothing directly to do with increasingly unreliable public transportation, decaying housing estates or years-long waits for surgery. But it did give the people one more notch to add to the litany of blunders that reminds them all too frequently that the sun does indeed now set daily upon what little is left of the British Empire.
It is not unique among the nations of the world in having shoddy public works and shabby politics, but the disparity between the grim reality of Britain's creaking bureaucracy and shrieking politicians, and the fur-trimmed ceremony for which it is renowned, is perhaps nowhere as pronounced. Let's face it: no one does pageantry like the British. There's a reason why all of humanity seems to tune in to every royal wedding. In this one regard, they remain the wonder and envy of the world. However, this only underscores how utterly irrelevant and disconnected Queen Elizabeth and her heirs are from the reality that is Britain. Nowhere is this more evident than in the suggestion made by a few political figures and commentators in recent weeks that the way out of the Brexit stalemate may be for Her Majesty to step in and exercise her prerogative as the monarch to rescue her nation from an existential crisis. How exactly she would do this is anybody's guess; it's been centuries since a British sovereign dared to interfere in a political dispute. Most Britons probably hope she stays out of it, not because it might turn an already dreadful dilemma into a full-fledged constitutional crisis, but because few would welcome the sight of their gracious Queen bespattered by the mud of political trench warfare. Britons seem to want to keep the royal family just as they are: detached and utterly useless, and therefore, incongruously, a symbol of national greatness.
There is an old Canadian joke: We expected English law, French culture and American know-how; instead we got English know-how, French law and American culture. Two-thirds of this quip makes perfect sense: it is something of a Canadian national pastime to denigrate the various forms of American entertainment which flood the neighboring airwaves, and of course the mutual derision of Francophones and Anglophones is, sadly, ancient and well known. But how did a stereotype of British incompetence become so enmeshed in the Canadian mind that the joke still lands its intended punch? Can it be chalked up merely to anti-colonial grumbling against the dominion's long-time master? Who among Britain's former overseas subjects fails to harbor a lingering resentment of English arrogance and smugness?
And yet, this is only half the story of Britain's relationship with its ex-colonies. Countless citizens of Britain's former vassal states still eagerly follow the doings of the royal family as though they never actually severed their ties with the mother country. How many far-flung, one-time colonials — Aussies, Kiwis, Yanks and Canucks, not to mention a sizable stream of Africans and Asians — gamely troop to London on holiday as though embarking on a quasi-religious pilgrimage, duly taking in the august sights of the imperial capital as though fulfilling a mandatory rite of the English-speaking peoples? Every day of the year they form a throng outside Buckingham Palace to catch a glimpse of, well, most of the time, nothing much at all. They queue up to see the jewels in the Tower of London, read the famous names on the crypts in Westminster Abbey, and stroll along Pall Mall. Even some of those who threw off the kingdom's yoke through violent revolution (that would be you, fellow Americans) nonetheless cling with an inexplicable sentimentality to the crown and all its vacuous splendor, as though the Queen and her decidedly uninspiring descendants remain a vital part of our own national identity, and not just some profit-seeking historical re-enactment of a long-lost civilization. Not one, but two television series about English queens have been running intermittently on American television over the last year. No doubt they are popular above the 49th parallel and Down Under, too.
As we watch from a distance as the slow-motion Brexit implosion shatters whatever illusions may be left about Britain's vaunted parliamentary democracy, we are hard-pressed to imagine how things came to such a pass. Perhaps if we hadn't spent the last few generations equating Britishness with wedding dresses and horse-drawn carriages, with cream teas and posh accents, we might have noticed that there's a country to run like any other, and that from the perspective of many poor and working people especially it has not been run terribly well at all. One would never suspect this from visiting central London, and without engaging the natives in lengthy conversation. For the most part, the capital remains a glittering, bustling, cosmopolitan jewel. Whatever may be amiss in the body politic is also far from evident among the picturesque villages and verdant terrain of the Cotswolds, Lake District, or Scottish Highlands, where tourists are most likely to venture. Sunlit travelogues celebrating the country's rolling hillsides, steam railways and quirky local traditions remain a staple of British television. (Evelyn Waugh's indelible character Lord Marchmain, estranged from his wife and living in self-imposed exile in Italy, says, "I abominate the English countryside", an utterance perfectly calibrated to evince shock and horror. He could not have disconcerted his English guests more if he had referred to the Queen by the c-word.)
Again, a nostalgic fetish for country living is not uniquely British, but the distinctions between urban reality and rural fantasy are very striking. The industrial north and midlands have been decimated economically by globalization, much like America's Rust Belt. The wealth showered upon London as a center of banking and finance, not to mention the royal tourist magnet, are a boon to the southern Home Counties but do not filter out very much to the rest of the country, any more than the ceaseless reinvention of New York and California have done much for Kansas or Iowa.
Conventional wisdom would have it that the American presidential election and the Brexit vote, which took place within a few months of one another in 2016, are both part of a wider wave of populist discontent that has arisen across western civilization. This is a partial truth at best. All societies harbor malcontents at all times, with many competing agendas, and the factors that bring disruptive sentiments to a boil are complex and variable. It is undeniable that a small number of well-positioned demagogues can wreak untold havoc on the social balance, but it is equally true that if a relatively small number of votes had gone the other way in the U.S. and the U.K. two years ago, both nations would be living now in an entirely different political reality. In both systems, the victor accrues authority out of all proportion to the divisions apparent within the electorate. The British Parliament is effectively a one-party dictatorship, and the American presidency is, in Lincoln's phrase, "clothed in immense power", even though both are sometimes elected without even achieving an actual majority. These elections are fought so bitterly because the stakes are so high. Once the winners take office, their agenda reigns supreme, and the views espoused by the losing side count for almost nothing. In the Internet age, marginal divisions are often magnified into yawning chasms, leaving the vanquished with innumerable outlets for their frustrations.
To believe that progressivism was permanently on the rise, and that racism had been eradicated, by the election of a black president in America or a South Asian mayor in London, made no more sense than to assert that the world order has been turned upside down irrevocably by the subsequent election of populists in various countries and by the decision of a bare majority of Britons to leave the European Union. These are all consequential outcomes, and their effects will be serious and difficult to unravel. But they could be nonetheless overturned in future election cycles, as the result of the 2018 mid-terms in the U.S. made abundantly clear. If and when Britain finally bows out of the E.U., whether through an orderly process or in a holy mess, Europe will remain forever its close neighbor and trading partner. No amount of grumbling at the pub about bureaucrats in Brussels can turn back the clock or change geography. The prospect of not having to rub elbows with all of those grubby foreigners may be irresistible to many, but it is hardly a rational assessment of the proper place of a large trading nation in the modern, digital world.
Every country, to one degree or another, is a state of mind. The debate that the British are having right now is not, fundamentally, an economic one. The British economy, like its American counterpart, recovered strongly from the financial crisis of 2008 and was humming along rather nicely, though too many admittedly were left behind. Brexit is really about British culture and identity, which are, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Decades of entanglement with the E.U. have certainly had far-reaching effects from industry to agriculture, but whether one sees these effects as a net positive or negative coincides almost exactly with one's long-held views about Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe. Those with an expansive view of history and a generous disposition towards others tend to be Remainers; those who value sovereignty more highly and view non-Britons with suspicion tend to be Leavers. What a coincidence.
One thing is certain: the state of a nation is rarely radically altered, for better or worse, by the results of a single vote, even one as critical as Brexit. Governments always claim altogether too much credit when a country's fortunes are rising, and have too much blame heaped upon them when they are not. It would be a very healthy development indeed if we could de-couple economics from politics, so that every election and every referendum were no longer dependent on whichever part of the business cycle we happen to be passing through at a given moment. A fixation on the potential economic consequences of Brexit, though very important, misses the point. People supported Brexit for more or less the same reason that voters plump for populists: not primarily because they think they will do better, but because it will make them feel better. If Britons wake up the day after their country leaves the E.U. and find everything exactly the same, no better and no worse, Leavers and Remainers will mostly feel the same way about Brexit as they did the day before. A vote is not an economic plan. If the current British government had kept that in mind over the last two and a half years, the country might not have found itself in the awful mess it is in today.
In the run-up to the Brexit vote in 2016, it may also have been useful to remember that it wasn't the European Union or any other nefarious foreign forces that botched the race at Aintree in 1993. Like many another let-down, the British managed that damp squib all by themselves.
February 2, 2019
Return to home page • Send an e-mail
All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.