Rule, Britannia. Britannia Take the Knee

15 May 2021

by Dr. James Alexander

Britons are slaves and if they are not yet fully enslaved then there is certainly every sign that they wish to be slaves, and this is what all the taking the knee and taking the jab is about. If we do not want to be slaves, then we need beliefs which will enable us to confound the politics of others. And we also need to maintain a politics of justified opposition – something which collapsed during the pandemic.

The BBC was right, by its own standards, to try to erase the words from the performance of Rule, Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms last year: because these words are no longer part of the official ideology of the United Kingdom. Let us consider its most famous lines, and some of the best lines from ‘God Save the Queen’:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!

Britons never, never, never will be slaves!

Confound their politics,

Frustrate their knavish tricks…

In recent times we might as well be signing these lines instead:

Ruled, Britannia! Britannia take the knee!

Britons never, never, never shall be free!

Adopt their politics,

Applaud their knavish tricks…

Any opposition in this country will have to begin by declaring firmly that even if Britons no longer rule the waves, they never, never, never shall be slaves. We need, as the words of ‘God Save the Queen’ suggest, beliefs that will enable us to confound the politics of others; and, in particular to confound the politics of those who are against the politics of justified opposition.

Boris Johnson has turned Britannia into an inverted pyramid of piffle: a very Johnsonian phrase, involving three elements which are very characteristic of him: inverted, in that no one can say what they mean or mean what they say (or, rather, that he, of course, can say whatever he likes, since he always has two versions of a script to hand); pyramid, in the sense of something remarkably strange and unfamiliar and massive, a project requiring a mass of slaves run by an oriental despotism; and piffle, meaning sheer nonsense, blurring, bluffing, inadvertence, absence of mind, incapacity, vanity, shirt untucked, knees buckling, thumbs up, English sense of humour (mostly a distraction). Johnson’s chief impertinence in using this characteristic phrase was to invert its meaning by ascribing it to what others were saying, whereas the only thing we need to know about Johnson is that he himself is an inverted pyramid of piffle. I have always thought that modern politics is satirised too much, and, indeed, is satirised to the point of inanity – consider Private Eye’s effect on the media – (perhaps I should say satirised so effectively that it is also sanitised) but if anyone requires us to bring back the bold satire of the eighteenth century it is Johnson, and not the Johnson of 2016, who had something to be said for him, but the Johnson of 2020, who has nothing to be said for him, and whose fatuity and incapacity and unintended sanctioning of tyranny, despotism and totalitarianism is unparalleled in British history. Johnson is not actually so much to blame: what is to blame is the moralising, sententious, second-rate culture which has allowed him to have his say and after putting power in his hands has had nothing to say in response to his ineptitude.

Britain is apparently opening up. But there is no opposition. Opposition has been destroyed. The only apparent opposition which exists appears to be criticising Johnson for not doing more of what he has done. This is not opposition. It is just the resentment of the impatient winger who thinks the striker wasted a ball. Labour is not an opposition, but a pious chorus. Hartlepool has spoken. We are in a one-party state, under a government a bit tainted by Brexit, but happily redeemed by Covid.

We need an opposition. There has never been a greater need for a Bolingbroke to theorise a ‘Country’ opposition to this highly globalised Walpolean ‘Court’ regime, or for a Burke to polemicise against this revolution. Everyone of any intellectual calibre needs to come out and call out the crimes of logic, meaning and possibility which have been perpetuated by the variously corrupt, colluding and compliant – and this is a long way before we get to conspiring – mediocrities of no moral compass who have strutted, fretted, lectured and fiddled while Rome has burned. Someone with the requisite Machiavellian or Mazarinic abilities should cajole and coerce all the Talents into a party.

If I were not defending opposition, I would even suggest that in the recent crisis the Queen should have used the Royal Prerogative – though, alas, it was not even used to resist encasing her face inside a mask for the funeral of her husband, as if she were the Leper Queen – used the Royal Prerogative, I say, to dismiss the Government and appoint a dictatorial government with Lord Sumption as High Lord of Emergency, and with Noel Malcolm, Robert Tombs, John Gray, Richard Tuck, Niall Ferguson, Peter Hitchens, Toby Young and James Delingpole as Lords of Varying but Sound Counsel. All should have been ennobled at once, on a hereditary basis. Sumption should have had dictatorial powers for a year, or 10, or become dictator in perpetuum if necessary. No scientists or economists should have been allowed into counsel, though they should occasionally have been asked for written answers: otherwise the most conspicuous of the government scientists, including the Goebbelsian characters called ‘behavioural scientists’, should have been imprisoned in the Tower of London to await trial for treason. Guy Fawkes Day should have been replaced by Neil Ferguson Day. After we had sent Boris Johnson to St. Helena we should have appointed a state ‘Boris’ – to be the head of a new Office of National Endangerment: an office designed to remind us of just what is possible in politics. This Boris should have been let on Question Time to say stupid things and repeat slogans to encourage everyone else in politics and in public life to avoid saying such things. He or she should have been the national scapegoat. John Bercow or Diane Abbott could also have applied for the position.

In that last paragraph I have engaged in my own dictatorial imagining, for the sake of good policy. But that was imagination; so let us return to the alas all too actual dictatorial situation of our recent politics in the face of which, let me repeat, we require opposition. In the Big Tech Great Reset Climate Crisis Woke World we now live in, everyone’s politics are meant to be the same. We value diversity, but the diversity we value is social, cultural, racial, sexual. We do not value political diversity. There is no political diversity in the Houses of Parliament; there is no political diversity in the BBC; there is no political diversity in Oxford and Cambridge and other universities. The pandemic, with its tying together of education, medicine and politics in a single affluent ethic of correctness, has issued in that now famous triple policy of lockdown, distancing and masking, a policy which was both foolish and evil: foolish because of its consequences, evil because of its causes. Both its causes and its consequences were malign. Its causes have to be a matter of lament, speculation, coruscation and, later, if there is a later, hard and brutal and unforgiving analysis; while its consequences, obviously, to anyone capable of clear thought, spectacularly outweigh the supposed benefits. Masks were or are, I think, worse than the other policies: worse, even than mandating vaccines, or perpetual lockdown. They indicate submission. They are political. They encourage us into a perpetual fear of other human beings – so that every friend or neighbour becomes at every moment an other, an alien, an enemy. This is sublime (in the sense of awesome, terrible, astounding, cataclysmic). Masks are an attempt to enforce party membership. And the sort of party that this policy is meant to incorporate is a single party, the party of a one-party state. There is not meant to be any argument. There is not meant to be any other party.

This is a revolution in our politics, because all of this is an assault on what I like to call the politics of justified opposition. For a few hundred years our politics has been predicated on the view that opposition is justified: and so should not be exiled, imprisoned, executed or ‘cancelled’ – or, for that matter, masked. Ever since Whigs and Tories squared off and called each other insulting names (Whigs = Scottish rogues, Tories = Irish rogues), names they called each other for a hundred years, until more sophisticated post-1789 names were adopted (Liberal, Conservative, Socialist, etc.), we have had a politics of justified opposition. Byron’s friend John Cam Hobhouse jokingly coined the phrase ‘His Majesty’s Opposition’ in 1826 and it immediately stuck. This habit of name-calling, of seeing some value in confounding the politics of others (while accepting that their politics is justified) was the beginning of what we have come to call the politics of government and opposition, where there is an official elite which composes a government and also some part of an official elite which voluntarily composes an opposition – and is not punished for composing such an opposition. We still have this, apparently but not actually: for, currently, in both western and non-western democracies, that is, in democracies and non-democracies, we have a convergence of contented despotism. Rulers of historically despotic orders are content to use COVID-19; but they are now, for the first time in history, on the same side as rulers of historically democratic, republican, liberal, constitutional regimes – call them what you will. Recall, if you please, that the United Kingdom (and most other states) copied China. Recall that astonishing interview Neil Ferguson gave to The Times in December 2020 in which he almost laughed at the discovery that we could copy China. Recall the fact that it was Michael Gove who, once upon a time, said we had put too much trust in experts.

We need to have a politics which identifies our enemies; and the only politics which has any capacity, given our traditions, to do that is a politics of justified opposition. It must be obvious to anyone who is reading this that there were no official debates about any aspect of the sudden Government response to COVID-19 after March 2020. There have been unofficial debates, such as the ones arranged by Mike Graham on Talk Radio. But the truth is that those who are for lockdown are against debate, and have been against debate from the beginning. Even Neil Ferguson, apparently a rationalist, has fallen back on sneer and smear when considering the proposition that anything like an opposite point of view is a possibility. I believe in argument, actually: I am a bit innocent. I even occasionally tolerate statistics. So I approve of Peter Hitchens, Lockdown Sceptics, Lord Sumption, etc., but I also think our side needs to use sneer and smear too, the entire repertoire of scorn and condescension and disparagement and calumny. Our enemies are knaves, and their tricks should be confounded by all and any means. One should not always be polite.

So let me say it again. Britons are slaves and if they are not yet fully enslaved then there is certainly every sign that they wish to be slaves, and this is what all the taking the knee and taking the jab is about. If we do not want to be slaves, then we need beliefs which will enable us to confound the politics of others. And we also need to maintain a politics of justified opposition.

Dr. James Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.