Francis Sandford, A Prospect of the Inside of Westmister Hall on 23 April 1685, 1687. Courtesy New York Public Library General Research Division
The iron law of oligarchy seems to have been written for the British political establishment. In his 1911 book Political Parties, the German sociologist Robert Michels stated, “Historical evolution mocks all the prophylactic measures that have been adopted for the prevention of oligarchy.” If oligarchy refers not only to an elite leadership class, but also to a hermetic, self-referential and extractive corps, then no institution mocks measures to prevent an elite bubble of political and corporate interests from coalescing at the heart of power like Westminster does.
In recent years Westminster has given up the pretence and delusion that it once laboured under – the belief that it could somehow apply checks and balances to itself – and finally succumbed to its establishment default setting. There was a precise moment when the journalistic ideals of the Westminster Lobby (that meeting place of MPs and Westminster correspondents) died – and with it the ideal of self-auditing humility. When the MP expenses scandal was scooped from the outside by the Daily Telegraph in 2009, nothing could have better illustrated the slide into irrelevance of an institution that was ostensibly meant to report from within, but had instead been co-opted.
Left image is a photograph of a painting by George Hayter, The House of Commons, 1833. Below, MPs sit and stand in the packed House of Commons Chamber on 2 December 2015. Following ten hours of debate, MPs voted by 397 to 223 in favour of launching air strikes on ISIS targets in Syria. Just hours later, RAF Tornado jets began their first offence on the Omar oilfield in Syria. Below image is produced by the UK Parliament from House of Commons broadcast stills, 2015. © UK Parliament
During the 2000s, New Labour forged alliances with corporate powers to outflank the Conservatives, and when in 2015 the Tories celebrated unequivocal victory at the polls, the loop in which both right and left embraced the City was closed. The notion that the greatness of Britain is underscored by good hard economic sense, naturally dressed up as morality, was enshrined. It is, of course, the same City that managed to finance the country’s growth beyond the limitations of its natural resources, underwriting a mercantile colonisation of the world under the political auspices of a civilising mission.
Once you begin to see modern Great Britain as a product of empire, you cannot unsee it. Every palace, every great historical building, every pavement stone impeccably set, was in some way financed by the yield of empire. It is still an arresting thought: a tiny island extending itself far and wide across the globe, out of the comfort zone of cosy front rooms, weak tea and polite conversation, into hostile climes from West Africa to East Asia. And yet, apart from the ubiquitous and now quintessentially British curry house and the ghettos of immigrants from ex-colonies dotted across the country, there is little evidence of British international military expansion and settlement in the cultural orientation or curiosity of its people. How could a nation of men and women so quick to colonise remain so parochial?
The answer is, counterintuitively, precisely because it is so parochial. The certainty of British values and the seniority of Britain’s needs play an important role in the ruthlessness and detachment with which it sees the world. No country hesitant about what it believes, or who it is, ever embarked upon a massive geographical expansion, unperturbed by what that meant for the people it colonised – empire was an economic necessity at worst, a civilising mission at best.
One of the things that makes London such a remarkable place is how these two attitudes sit side by side, vibrant cosmopolitanism coexisting with a fierce, small-minded hermeticism. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the bubble of British politics. Within a building steeped in the history and drama and bloodshed of empire, in a chamber that sent emissaries to North America, Africa and Asia, sit elected men and women who recently had to grapple with the complicated unravelling of the Middle East following the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS and a refugee crisis at the gates of Europe, yet whose entire narrative over the past months has been dominated by David Cameron’s alleged japes with the head of a dead pig, and the impropriety of Jeremy Corbyn’s shorts.
The politics of most countries look ridiculous from the outside, but few so much as Britain’s in 2015.
The general election was profoundly uninspiring, both on the right, where expected significant UKIP gains after the European elections failed to materialise on a national level, and on the left, where Ed Miliband’s cautiously curated campaign fell flat. Not a single speech or sound bite managed to capture a “moment”.
Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn addressed a silent House of Commons for 15 minutes. He evoked Labour’s record of standing up to fascist Europe. As Benn returned to his seat, MPs on both sides of the Chamber broke Parliament convention to stand, applaud and cheer. Image produced by the UK Parliament from House of Commons broadcast stills, 2015. © UK Parliament
As far as the media was concerned, the only rousing speech of 2015 was by Hilary Benn during the debate on whether to bomb ISIS in Syria – which is telling. Little demonstrated the narcissism of British politics, its parochialism, its constant failure to see the world as nothing more than a theatre for ambition and moral grandstanding, than this speech. In keeping with rich tradition, Hilary Benn managed to make it all about us. As Bridget Christie pointed out in the Guardian:
“Benn’s speech took on a life of its own. The narrative became about him and his father, the late Tony Benn, former president of the Stop the War Coalition, when it should have been about humanity, about history repeating itself, about the potential loss of civilian life. It should have been about a lack of strategic planning, about accountability and about where we’ve suddenly found billions of pounds to fund a war while imposing austerity measures on Britain’s poorest.”
In short, it was an embarrassing display of self-regard. And Westminster loved it. The applause from his fellow MPs was so gushing, so smug, that it only could have been in appreciation and relief at the unapologetic certainty of it all. Even the most hawkish of politicians recognise the sobriety of a moment when it is established that innocent civilians will perish. No, this was not the relish of war, it was the ecstasy of moral superiority.
Though it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that British politics remain so frozen in time. It’s impossible to maintain all the relics of the outdated establishment without them seeping into the spirit of things. If you are an outsider, one thing that might dawn upon you after spending some time in the UK is that what you thought was ironic and a nod to quaint tradition is, in fact, just the way it actually is. The Queen’s Speech isn’t some Christmas tradition you fall asleep in front of the TV watching, the Opening of Parliament not just a comical indulgence. By their very continued existence these rituals perpetuate a status quo. It’s like watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians ironically, then realising you’re just watching it because you enjoy it. This is who you are.
It’s hard to say these things without people thinking of you as a raging radical with no sense of humour or appreciation of history and drama. Of course it is important that a nation have some sense of ceremony about things, but there is a particular inward-looking self-aggrandisement that Westminster just cannot shake, and even when it tries, we won’t let it. The British media, despite auditing MPs’ expenses, remains fundamentally conservative – an intersection of the establishment in terms of both corporate and personal interests.
Look at the horror with which Corbyn’s perceived micro-slights of Britishness are vivisected: his bad suits, his not singing the national anthem; his not bowing with enough scraping deference to the war dead (the Sun published a protractor visual to measure the depth of the Corbyn bow, and the extent of his offence); his not kneeling before the Queen. These are not criticised as the behaviour of a man who is anti-establishment, but a man who is anti-British. It is a jingoism that dare not speak its name. Unlike in America, us British don’t salute the flag or honour our presidents and we don’t have a foundational myth that glosses over the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. Our politicians are civil servants; our head of state has no power; we never had (that much) slavery. But the truth is that Britain enjoys its own exceptionalism – one that rears its ugly head during military campaigns; in November of every year, when not wearing a poppy has become tantamount to treason; in the quiet and sinister “in this country” antipathy towards immigrants – it is just more elegant about it. David Cameron even went so far as to say that Corbyn and his kind were “terrorist sympathisers” for not supporting the aerial bombardment of Syria, an outrageous smear that exposes the petty obsession with landing a party political blow, while also playing on the self-perception of Great Britain as a great moral power extending itself once again, out of its comfort zone, to combat the forces of darkness.
It is one of the main reasons why Britain’s foreign policy is so flat-footed – because it is refracted through the prism of whatever political domestic spat is happening at the time, combined with a confidence backed by little intelligence and a lot of entitlement.
Benn said: “We are here faced by fascists... And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil.” There you are: the fight against European fascism in the 1930s, standing up against nebulous injustice and the battle against an Islamist terrorist group in 2015, all collapsed into one long continuum of a self-aggrandising battle against “evil”, with Britain on the right side of history, of course. Never mind that ISIS has been butchering Muslims in Iraq and Syria and generally being quite evil for a long time now, without that managing to exercise Mr Benn or the majority of British MPs. This is the heritage that two decades ago gave birth to Tony Blair, and the opportunistic value goggles that suddenly make a cause worthy. The logic of bombing ISIS targets is shorn of any practical motivation or endgame, reduced to “fighting evil” and showing solidarity with our neighbours who have been attacked. As if Britain was some neighbourhood vigilante who wasn’t going to let Paris be targeted without roughing up a few culprits to send a message.
This is why Westminster cannot leave anything alone: what will the neighbours think? What does this say about us? Are we cowards? Is this un-British? Repeating the same mistakes out of a misplaced sense of historical status, the results almost irrelevant, the fallout mere collateral. Westminster is the ultimate oligarchy, leavened by graceful British grandiloquence – Foreign Meddler by Appointment to HM the Queen. §