The Boris-Bone

All the political commentary in Britain these days seems to revolve around Johnson: his character and personality, his morality, his sexual philanderings, his egregious errors in government, his standing with the Tory Party, and his electability. All these things are worth discussing, and indeed it’s entertaining to dwell on them: after all he was always an entertainer before everything – watch him cracking his silly jokes at the G7 summit. But they might also act as a diversion from some of the bigger and more serious trends he represents.

For the fact is that he’s not only the clown he’s widely taken to be, or even on the other hand a serious political operator; but something far more dangerous. That is, a vehicle for other political operators to drive their mainly right-wing agendas through, conveniently clouded by his PG Wodehouse-like bumblings. I used to think he was unaware of this, and simply picked on policies and slogans he thought would get him into and then sustain him in his expensively gold-wallpapered PM’s flat. But then a little-noticed part of the interview he gave in Kigali, Rwanda, last Saturday – the one that seemed ‘delusional’ to reporters because it talked of soldering on as PM for a third term: that is, until the 2030s – suggests that he does know what he’s doing, or enabling; which is to undermine many of the fundamental principles and institutions on which the British system of government is based. He needed his third term, he said, to continue his party’s

‘massive project to change the government, of the constitution of the country, the way we run our legal system, the way we manage our borders, our economy. All sorts of things we’re doing differently. We also, at the same time, are embarked on a colossal project to unite, and level up… It’s going to take time. And I want to keep driving it forward.’ (Observer, 6 June.)

That could be interpreted quite progressively. He might be signalling a switch to proportional representation in Britain’s voting system, for example; a more compassionate refugee policy; more power to the judiciary and a reformed House of Lords in order to moderate or delay the dictats of an over-powerful executive; and a fairer economy. What ‘levelling up’ signifies in his mind is obscure at the moment; it’s a nice phrase, which could even be envisaging a form of socialism.

But we know, don’t we, from his previous utterances and actions that Johnson’s ‘colossal project’ doesn’t intend any of those things. Rather, its ultimate destination is a system of government that is more ‘efficient’ than the present one; in the sense that it will enable the executive branch of government – in a word, him – to do anything it wants; irrespective of informed public opinion, of the pesky interference of ‘lefty lawyers’ (in other words, of the Law), of current constitutional convention and parliamentary procedure, of international treaties and universal ‘Human Rights’ legislation, and even of ordinary morality – hence the resignation of two of his ‘ethics advisers’ – to hold things up. All these tendencies are clearly revealed by the work of his government over the last couple of years; in particular with regard to the Good Friday (Northern Ireland) agreement, refugee policy (deportation to Rwanda), the gerrymandering of his party and neutering of the Civil Service, his government’s projected withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, and Priti Patel’s draconian new laws limiting the age-old right of public protest in Britain; as well as much else that may be looming on the horizon.

Who is ‘behind’ all this is hard to say. Surely it can’t be the duffer Boris alone? Or is that Bertie Wooster image of his, and the comical bestrawed hairstyle, deliberately intended to obscure a sharper, Jeeves-like cunning beneath? He’s clearly a tool of right-wing factions in his party, and of the broader super-rich in the country, who are using him, even if they weren’t originally responsible – conspiratorially – for putting him there. I espy the hidden hand of Dominic ‘Machiavelli’ Cummings in much of this, despite his supposed departure from Number10 a couple of years ago. Many of these proto-authoritarian measures were on his wish-list.

This is what the current emphasis on Johnson’s larger-than-life personality is hiding from most people, both critics and supporters. ‘Personality’ hasn’t always dominated politics in Britain. Attlee hardly had any, for example, and his was arguably the greatest peace-time government of the 20th century. In that case it was policies that took people’s attention; devised and pursued by a cabinet of equals, and with a population broadly behind them. If today commentators in the popular press would leave off Boris for a while – juicy a bone as he is – and looked behind him at what is happening in the shadow of his bulk, we might get a healthier political debate going. Ours is not a ‘Presidential’ system, after all. Or a one-man dictatorship. Yet.

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Dutch Cricket

Here’s another oldie – – disinterred in the light of the current one-day series between England and the Netherlands, played in the Netherlands, and before crowds of several thousands. And it wasn’t just any old rubbish, so far as the England team was concerned; most of them are established ‘Test’ players, giving their all. England are 2-0 up so far, with the Dutch being hammered in the first match, but putting on a better show in game no.2. So Britain’s ‘informal empire’ – and the best side of it – is still out there, colonising Europe, as well as overseas.

I looked up the biographies of the Netherlands team. Most of them, as indicated in that earlier post of mine, came originally from overseas; but there were a few recognisably Dutch names among them. I always thought Holland would be a likely convert to cricket, in view of the South African (‘Afrikaner’) connection, and the fact that the country is so flat. Which should be ideal for cricket, even with all those windmills in the way.

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Old Colleagues

I remember feeling a little discomfited by this episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, in which a German spy was unmasked by making the mistake of thinking that the University of Hull was on the same prestigious level as Oxford and Cambridge:

Of course there wasn’t a University of Hull at the time this drama was set; but the humour lay in the very idea that Hull could be mentioned in the same breath as those other two seats of learning – or indeed in any context that might seem to flatter the place.

Hull was then, and probably still is, almost universally regarded by Southerners as the lowest, dirtiest, most working-class city in England, the ‘crappiest town in Britain’, according to a book of that name, and the ready butt of classist jokes. Which is why when I decided to begin my university teaching career there I was widely scoffed at by my fellow-Fellows in Cambridge, who simply couldn’t understand why I should want to exchange my comfortable situation in such a beautiful, as well as prestigious, university for what seemed to them like a kind of ‘secondary modern’ college in the dismal North. In fact I never ever regretted the move, and in fact did regret my move away from there, to a Chair at Newcastle about twenty years later. When I retired, I moved my British base back to Hull.

In a later blog I may explain in detail why I became un-enamoured with Cambridge. Class came into it, I think: I just didn’t fit in socially, even after eight years there, and I found the effort to live up, or down, to the standards set by the dominating ex-public schoolboys there a great strain. It was not their fault; they were mostly ‘decent chaps’, kind to me albeit in a patronising sort of way. And then came my row with the college’s governing body over undergraduate admissions, with the senior Fellows refusing to agree to my very modest plan to widen the college’s intake to include a few comprehensive or even grammar school boys: ‘we don’t want that sort of boy here.’ (Before you ask – no girls, of course. I know; I should have objected to that too.) It was after this that I took up an invitation to go in for a Lectureship at Hull.

After all that, I found Hull wonderful; full of people – both staff and students: we were allowed to call them ‘students’ there, not ‘undergrads’ – who were very like me. The two professors, John Kenyon and Richard Vaughan, were currently building up a new History department of great talent, which it was a privilege to be allowed to join; including about half a dozen young lecturers in our twenties, all recruited at about the same time (the late ’60s), who had novel ideas, about what should be taught and how, which had a great impact on what for that time became a really quite progressive syllabus. There was a core of ten of us, all pretty good scholars, who were particularly close; and in our family lives too, most of us having babies at about the same time. The others were Alan Lee, Howell Lloyd, Peter Heath, Leslie Price, Ken Andrews, Theo Hoppen, John Palmer, John Major and John Bernasconi; plus of course Kenyon and Vaughan: great scholars themselves, and highly liberal Heads of the Department. (Again: almost no women.) I’ve worked in other universities since: Cambridge, Newcastle, Yale and Sydney, and more briefly and temporarily at Rochester NY, the Australian National University, Copenhagen and Stockholm; but have always looked back on those years at Hull as the happiest and most productive time in my scholarly life; and would rate Hull University and its History Department as the best, based on my experience, and not at all deserving of the snobbish put-down of Captain Blackadder in that episode of ‘Goes Forth’. (And Hull itself, incidentally, isn’t anything like as ‘crappy’ as it’s made out.)

Of my list of those colleagues and dear friends from that time, seven are now dead: Kenyon, Vaughan, Lee, Heath, Andrews, Major and Lloyd. Howell Lloyd is the latest to go, about a month since, to my very great sadness. I hope the survivors, if they read this, won’t mind my saying that I think I loved him more than anyone in that group. Howell’s death is what has prompted these memories, and this rather gloomy post. I’m returning to Hull from Stockholm next weekend to attend his funeral in the Minster on the 27th. I hope it will be very Welsh. He was.

Seven gone. Five of us left. Who will be next?

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Publication Day – Sort Of

My new book is being published today, but as an e-book only ( Publication in proper paper-and-print form – the only one I recognise – will not be until Thursday 14 July. I don’t know why they do it that way; but no doubt the publishers know best. The trouble with an e-book (for me) is that I can’t hold it – my new baby – to my breast, as I long to. It has been rather more than nine months gestating, and the world is right for it now. My milk is flowing. Is it any wonder I’m impatient?

Anyway, to whet appetites, here’s a blog post I wrote a few years ago which contains just one of the arguments of Britain’s Contested History. It’s worth another airing, I think.

British Anti-Imperialism

(Originally posted on November 23, 2017.)

Although she’s getting the brunt of the criticism just now for her imperialism – see – Britain was obviously not the first nation to go in for this kind of thing, nor even the latest. I don’t want to get into the argument that has been going on for years now over whether the British Empire was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing, mainly because I don’t see this as a useful way of looking at it, and because my own researches have persuaded me that British imperialism was a far more complex and ambivalent phenomenon than seems to be assumed on both – or all – sides of the debate. For what it’s worth, my more sophisticated angle on this is spelled out in my books, and especially the latest, British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t (IB Tauris, 2016), which was intended for a ‘lay’ or popular readership. I’m not writing letters to the Guardian on this now because I don’t think my argument can be spelled out in the couple of hundred words I’d be allowed there, or even in a 2,000-word article. For a start, all kinds of deep assumptions would need to be unravelled before I could start. It needed a book or two for that.

One thing needs to be said, however, which can be put fairly simply, and should have a bearing on the larger question. This is that, although the British didn’t invent imperialism, they could be said to have invented anti-imperialism, which has arguably been just as significant a phenomenon in recent times. By anti-imperialism, I mean opposition to imperial expansion in principle. Many people, of course, have opposed the particular imperialisms they have been subjected to themselves. Boudicca and Caractacus are two of our (British) own. The Americans were anti-imperialists in this sense in the eighteenth century. The difference between this, however, and principled anti-imperialism is that the latter opposes imperialism in all its forms. The American revolutionaries didn’t, but only the British kind, insofar as it was felt to shackle them, and to prevent them from embarking on colonial adventures – to the west, south and north of the Thirteen States – of their own. (I don’t know what colonial ambitions Boudicca would have had if she’d won.) It was left to others to begin to criticise imperialism per se, after a couple of millennia in which ‘expansion’ of one kind or another was regarded as normal.

The most important of these was John Atkinson Hobson, who – drawing on the ideas of liberals and socialists before him – first came up with a theory that could be applied generally, to condemn his own country’s subjugation of others, rather than others’ subjugation of his. Imperialism. A Study (1902), which I based my PhD thesis on, was the first cogent exposition of what is now called the ‘capitalist theory of imperialism’, which underpins most critical interpretations of ‘imperialism’ today. (See my Critics of Empire, 1968, republished 2008.) This kind of anti-imperialism had a significant following in twentieth-century Britain; as great, probably, as the more positive ‘imperialism’ that is supposed – wrongly – to have permeated British society then.

Perhaps retrospective credit should be given to the British for this, to set against the discredit that their imperial record continues to heap upon them. If Britain was the leading imperial power in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and my British Imperial casts some doubt on that), she was also – and at one and the same time – the leading anti-imperialist country in the world. So you see what I mean about imperial history being ‘complex and ambivalent’! This is just one example. I wish modern critics would take more notice of it; not in order to be fair to us, the British – I don’t care at all about that – but in the interests of historical accuracy. That’s something I do care about.

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Patriotic Shame

Of course the stuff that comes up for me on Facebook is the sort of stuff I’m likely to agree with. I imagine Facebook’s algorithm wizards see to that.  I’ve not dared to stray far from their selections, and go into Tory or pro-Brexit sites, for fear that they might intensify my current depression to a dangerous level. Perhaps I should? After all, as a historian I was diligent in trying to understand all sides of past arguments: imperialists as well as the anti-imperialists I wrote my first book about, 1900s anti-feminists as well as suffragists, Fascists as well as democrats, neo-Classical architects as well as neo-Gothic. (That’s a reference to my obscure Battle of the Styles.) But in any case – to revert to the present – one can’t avoid right-wing and populist comments entirely, copied as they are into ‘my’ Facebook posts to show what we liberals are up against: comments from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and John Redwood (how on earth did he get his Fellowship of All Souls?), and stark headlines reproduced from the Mail and the Express: ‘Traitors’, ‘Scroungers’, ‘Fake asylum seekers’, ‘Lefty Lawyers’, ‘Marxists’ (still?!), and so on.

On ‘my’ side of the debate – if you can call it that: usually it’s just name-calling – one of the most common feelings expressed is one of patriotic shame: that the nation the commentators used to be so proud of, and still profess their fondness for, has fallen so low. The ‘nation’ referred to here is England, with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parts of the ‘Union’ usually exempted from the general charge. Much-touted examples of England’s ‘fall’ are Boris’s lies, of course, and his flouting of so many of Britain’s constitutional conventions; upcoming laws directed against the ancient right of public protest; and of course Priti Patel’s Ruanda scheme for asylum seekers, although it’s slightly awkward to object to that without attracting suspicions of racism. (Why is Ruanda so bad?)

Another sign of the ‘fall’ is the level of hatred and sheer nastiness that is said to pervade England’s political discourse just now, in a country that had used to pride itself on being able to conduct its politics in a fairly ‘civilised’ way. That comes out in the language expressed in the social media; or is it simply the form of the social media – which of course is new – that provokes this, or has revealed deep-lying hatreds that were always there? In fact that’s part of the problem: that we can’t really tell how ‘low’ the country has fallen before we know how low it was before Facebook, Twitter and the rest gave voice to it in recent years. And of course those who speak out in these ways in the social media aren’t necessarily ‘typical’ of the nation – any of our nations – as a whole.

As neither is another supposed index of Britain’s ‘decline’: the tabloid press, which either reflects (as it claims) or manufactures this nastiness. In view of its ownership, by right-wing capitalists for whom ‘liberty of the press’ seems to mean simply freedom for anyone with enough millions to buy it up – by all other criteria the British press comes out at around 38th in international indexes of press freedom – I’d go for both options. The British popular press is both a mirror and a provoker of much that is felt to be wrong about Britain today. Any decent country would have either effective laws to regulate its ‘press barons’, or a public morality that would nullify its worst aspects, such as its descent into ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure which of these factors operates in Sweden; but its press is immeasurably superior to ours.

And Britain’s situation has indubitably got ‘worse’; particularly since Rupert Murdoch arrived on the scene. Apologists for Murdoch, like I remember Michael Gove was – Gove was once one of Murdoch’s employees, I believe – in giving evidence to the first Leveson Committee hearings in 2011-12 (the second, which would have focussed on ownership, was stopped by the Conservative government before it got off the ground), vigorously denied this; arguing that the press had always been as it is now, and so always must be: a typical Conservative response to any proposal, in almost any area, to improve things. As an avid reader in the course of my researches of the British press over nearly 200 years, I know this to be untrue. Yes, there are glaring examples you can cite (as Gove did) of journalistic malpractice and propagandizing over those 200 years: ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’, and so on; but a few precedents – or even more than a few – don’t necessarily indicate a joined-up tradition in any field of life; and certainly not as far as the British press was concerned, whose content from my reading of it was nearly always fuller, fairer and more intelligent than its equivalents are at the present day. This applied equally to the weekly newspapers designed to be read by the working classes, which were often edited by socialists. Here is one area of British life where things have definitely got worse – or, if you like, more right-wing – in recent years. As one commentator from across the Atlantic has observed (I’ve quoted him before: Britain now is ‘nastier’ and ‘more spiteful’ as a result.

Foreigners are aware of this, and of the harm that this behaviour – and certain policy decisions, including of course Brexit but also Britain’s flouting of international laws, plus the generally farcical nature of ‘Boris’ and his government as it is presented to them – are doing to Britain’s reputation abroad; which used to be fairly high, but no longer is. This is a crucial factor behind the ‘patriotic shame’ felt in particular by many Britons living abroad (like me), and who still cling on to what I now feel may be a somewhat roseate image of how the Old Country used to be. I’m thinking here of its ‘liberalism’, in ways that transcend the sterile field of ‘free commercial exchange’; ‘progressive’ reforms in penal, racial and gender policy – not yet completed but on the way there, which gave us all hope; social democracy as a solution to the old ‘capitalist/communist’ dualism; a ‘welfare state’ much admired and even copied abroad, before the tigers of the ‘market’ got their claws into it; rising living standards; school reforms replacing ‘private’ by ‘comprehensive’ education, hopefully; a position in the world no longer dependent on the ill-fated Empire, but resting now on the international comradeship that its successor, the ‘multiracial’ Commonwealth, was thought to represent; a terrific tradition of humour of course (‘Don’t mention the War’); and, as mentioned already, a ‘civilised’ public discourse, so that all these improvements – if that’s what they were – could be made gradually and gently, drawing the great majority of the country along with them, instead of alienating great sections of it, with the results we see today. Is this rose-tinted? It’s how I experienced things in the much-traduced 1960s and ’70s; the last period, as I see it, of progressive hope. Hurl as many of the less likeable features of the period you like at me – sexism, homophobia, late colonial atrocities, the Murdoch press, strikes and all the rest (and there are many more like these) – and it won’t alter my view of the period as one of hope, at least. Thatcher – or the forces behind her – destroyed most of that.

They also pushed to the front of the stage another kind of Britain, and of Britishness: the mean and nasty one that is represented by the tabloid press, and is supposed to attract our ‘patriotism’ today. It’s important to bear in mind that this is not the only sort on offer; and that you can still be patriotic, albeit shame-facedly, while rejecting it. (That is, if patriotism is important to you.)

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More of the Same

This bloke again. I’ve just discovered him. He’s really good. (OK. Overstates his case. But still…)

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Social vs. Liberal Democracy

This guy’s a serious thinker, with a broad view. Mainly USA, but recommended for its analysis of the British situation too; since we abandoned ‘social democracy’ – the great project of Attlee and Wilson – for ‘liberal democracy’ – Thatcher through to Boris and Brexit. ‘Late-stage’ capitalism, of course. His description of the ‘nastiness’ of present-day Britain (or England) is spot on.

My only hope now – as a ‘Dual’ – is that Sweden keeps to the old faith.

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Ain’t dat de trut’? And ain’t it a shame (for me) that my new book – Britain’s Contested History. Lessons for Patriots: bang on the topic, as the subtitle hints – isn’t quite out yet to illustrate and amplify the point?

Not in print form, anyway, A correspondent tells me it might be published already as an e-book. I’ll check with the publishers.

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Jubilee Thoughts from Sweden

Yes, Swedish TV did report the Jubilee celebrations the other night, cheering patriots and all; and with a reprise of the original coronation of seventy years ago – golden carriage, golden crown, golden everything. OK, so we Brits do this kind of overblown flummery well, if that’s what turns you on. I doubt whether any other nation can compete with us in this line; except perhaps the USA. I asked Kajsa how it compared with Carl XVI Gustav’s coronation in 1973. She couldn’t remember it. From what I gather, talking to other Swedes at a party last night, he simply swore an oath to his government in private, to be a good social-democratic boy, and then was given the keys to his castles. No pomp and circumstance at all – or none that Kajsa could recall.

If you’re going to have a monarchy – and the major drawback of a directly-elected President to my mind is that it might land us with someone like Trump, or a favourite comedian, or Boris Johnson for that matter – then this is the kind of monarchy you want. Keep the hereditary aspect, roughly: restricting your choice to Windsors; but sack all the marginal freeloaders – younger sons, daughters, cousins, uncles; make the other royal relatives do proper jobs; take away most of their palaces, their silly clothes, and all those medals they’ve never actually earned – and have them living as much like their ‘subjects’ as is possible. (OK, perhaps just a little better. We don’t want them resorting to foodbanks.) It might also be good to restrict your choice to people who don’t actually want to be king or queen, although that might prove difficult; and to have them dragged to their throne, like Speakers of the House of Commons are symbolically dragged to their chair. One other desideratum might be that they should have disabilities of some kind that could be seen to put them at least on a ‘level’ with their subjects, and so curb their royal arrogance. Carl Gustav is shy and dyslexic. George VI of Britain, of course, had a severe stammer, which was what always commended him to me – a serious stutterer in my youth. As it happens I’ve met – briefly – both Elizabeth II and the Swedish Crown Princess Victoria, and been impressed by their naturalness and lack of arrogance; and in Liz’s case by her intelligence (we talked about America), which surprised me in view of my prejudice at the time that all royals were brain-dead inbreds. Liz II has done a remarkable job over the past 70 years in seeming pretty ‘ordinary’, despite the luxury in which she lives, and despite her family problems – which are perhaps a sign of ‘ordinariness’ in themselves (there must be other families with ‘nonces’ in them) – and in giving offence to virtually no-one.  

So although I shan’t be celebrating her jubilee – no street parties in Kantarellvägen – I shall be tolerating it. And hoping that whoever succeeds her – the poor bastard: it must be a rotten job – can maintain the tradition she has set, and perhaps succeed in downsizing the whole excessive, vulgar and tasteless institution.

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Pounds, Ounces and Nostalgia

I’m trying to interest newspapers in short articles to whet the appetite for my new book when it comes out next month. I’m told they should ideally be hooked on to news items of the day. So here’s one I’ve sent to the Indy. No reply yet!

A government push to boost the use imperial measurements after Brexit will bring British “culture” back into shops, a minister has claimed. (Independent 31 May.)

‘British culture’, eh? As if that can be measured in pounds and ounces. Or in acres, rods, poles, perches, gallons, pints, shillings, half-crowns and pence. Really the ‘culture wars’ have sunk pretty low, haven’t they, if that’s the best they can come up with? At most it appeals to a superficial sort of nostalgia, which has very little to do with the essentials of the national history the nostalgists [ed: is that a word?] clearly want to return to.

Such reactionary musings – which were a factor in the Brexit debate too – are scarcely surprising, considering the losses that people feel they have suffered over the last couple of decades or so. For some – those whom Jeremy Paxman has colourfully dubbed the ‘harrumphers’ – it was nostalgia for the days when Britain was supposed to have ‘ruled half the world’, and only comprised ‘white’ people. For others it was a longing for the security and promise of Labour’s welfare state, whose erosion since Thatcher’s time seemed to be leaving them at the mercy of cruel ‘market forces’.

But if they really want to return to the past, the nostalgists need to get their history right. At present it relies on selective and superficial memories of a past that was far more complex and contested than they make it seem. For example: Britain has always been multicultural, as well of course as multi-national; religiously divided; riven by class and gender; with both capitalist and socialist traditions, and even Fascist (certainly proto-fascist) elements in its politics; republican as well as royalist; deeply divided by wealth and education; imperial, of course – that ‘half the world’ boast: wrong, of course, and in any case a trait Britain shared with most other European countries – but also antiimperial: an ideology that could even be said to have been invented by the British, as imperialism was not. And that’s not to mention the darker sides of Britain’s past, which the nostalgists might not want to revive (or would they?): like capital and corporal punishment, unnecessary wars, colonial atrocities, institutionalised racism and sexism, and dull English food.

And while they’re at it, nostalgists might like to take on board certain other values that were once thought to be essentially and exclusively ‘British’, but are less recognised or celebrated today. These include welcoming immigrants indiscriminately; the absolute right of asylum; probity and honesty in government; genuine press freedom; internationalism (all those ‘citizens of nowhere’ Theresa May was so dismissive of); and the absence of ‘continental’ methods of policing: especially espionage.

Blue (or blue-ish) passports and pounds and ounces, surely, are as nothing compared to these. Which is not to say that any of them should be privileged over any of the others, by those who want to take Britain ‘back’; but only that ‘British culture’, even rooted in its history, goes beyond pounds and ounces, and is more complex and contentious, and in some ways more modern, than nostalgists tend to assume.

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