By Nick Werren
There are many contradictions at the heart of England. Take the idolisation of Winston Churchill as an example. It is a historical fact that Churchill was partly responsible for the 1943 Bengal famine and the resulting deaths of millions of innocent people. The most obvious and undeniable way in which he did this was by imposing restrictions on food imports to a region experiencing crop shortages. Winston Churchill was not a good man. That should not be a controversial statement. Indeed, it is true that he led Britain through the Second World War, yet he was also a murderously racist aristocrat. That is the complex, grim, and disappointingly nuanced nature of English history, warts and all.
Following WWII, Churchill failed to get re-elected as prime minister. Despite losing to Clement Attlee and Labour’s socialist vision, he managed to return to the premiership in 1951. Churchill’s leadership through the war, and his character, made him a colossal cultural figure. His admirers famously include US President John F. Kennedy, who he apparently mistook for a waiter. The clear moral lines of WWII made Churchill untouchable and obscured legitimate criticisms of his government and character. Churchill resigned from the premiership amidst ailing health. Avoiding a career ending in scandal, countless books listing the man’s witticisms would be published as quickly as his faults were forgotten.
Over time, the truth of Winston Churchill was replaced with characteristics that would become synonymous with the nation of England itself: quick-wittedness, fortitude, and perseverance. This was all propaganda, of course, and as a result of this process many people would come to unconsciously see Winston Churchill as inseparable from what it means to be English. Therefore, the atrocities and evils that stained the man’s soul cling to the fabric of the country and to discuss them can be seen as a form of treason.
At this point in the article, it may surprise you to hear that I do not hate England. I love the island that I grew up on, from tor to coastline. I am, however, deeply saddened by the deluded state we currently find ourselves in, which brings me to the new Myth of England.
Before the coronavirus pandemic eclipsed all other things, the British people had spent more than 3 years spectating and entangled in the culture war of Brexit. Some didn’t want to leave the EU, and others wanted to leave under different conditions.
A culture war is a conflict of values, with each side vying for control over what the collective thinks and believes. The idea is to create a new normal. The group that won this specific war did so by redefining England, and by extension Britain, as a nation which thrived when it was independent. This Britain was for patriots, it was the nation of Churchill, a nation with resolute self-confidence and pride regardless of circumstance.
This was the new Myth of England. The ‘corrupt’ media were criticised for being too negative about Britain’s prospects outside of the European Union. Frank discussions on economic and social uncertainty were the new taboo. The ‘corrupt’ media listened, and discussions on Brexit softened but even then, it was not enough. For the myth to survive the country needed to unite. It needed someone to rally around.
Amidst this debate, one man claimed that leaving the EU would free up £350 million for the NHS. He demonstrated how deeply he believed this by having it painted on the side of a bus, something which is normally reserved for cheap beer and crap films. This man’s name was Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, or simply Boris Johnson. He attended Eton College because his dad was incredibly rich, after which he went to Oxford University like many other future politicians and rich people do. He became a journalist, a Conservative MP, and wrote a book about how great Winston Churchill was. In 2019, following a campaign filled to the brim with lies and misdirection, Johnson became Prime Minister of Britain. An event with the same painful inevitability of a pigeon getting sucked into a jet engine.
By displacing Nigel Farage, and thus assuming his position as “Mr Brexit”, Johnson was able to insert himself at the centre of the culture war of Brexit. He knew he needed to mimic Winston Churchill by integrating himself into the national myth, to become inseparable from a patriot’s idea of England. We now reach the coronavirus pandemic, within which this process of mythologization is in full swing.
On April 7th 2020, The Telegraph published an article by Allison Pearson entitled “We need you, Boris – your health is the health of the nation”. This was the latest, but most explicit, piece of propagandistic trite to come from the paper. But it wasn’t the first, and it is not isolated to The Telegraph. A particularly insidious worm has burrowed its way into our culture and its name is cowardice.
As I write this, Britain has the world’s second worst death toll and yet our government avoids being critically torn apart. A process necessary for it to learn how it can do better. Maimed by the culture war of Brexit, our media outlets and the journalists who write for them tiptoe around the tragic catastrophes that are happening every day whilst fascinating over irrelevant things that are intentionally handed out by our government to avoid actual responsibility and criticism.
Whether you like it or not, Boris Johnson and his new myth are both irrelevant. Beyond the stories we tell ourselves, the world is out there, and its truth is undeniable: from the massive wealth inequality visible from our bedroom windows to climate change feeding apocalyptic fires that are consuming entire nations. It’s all happening and it is as real and present as this pandemic. We can lie to ourselves all we want, but it shall continue to confront us.