5 minutes with… Julian Dutton: On Comedy, Culture, Class, and why Brexit will happen
Julian Dutton is a writer, actor and comedian. His writing credits include The Big Impression, Scoop, Pompidou (which he co-created), and many radio series such as The Harpoon, Truly Madly Bletchley, The Secret World etc. On television, he has appeared in The Big Impression, Scoop, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Time Gentleman Please, and in The Story of Light Entertainment, sharing his love of impressionism. He is the author of the best-selling history of comedy Keeping Quiet: Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound. He has recently taken to the stage with a hugely successful live show about the legendary John Le Mesurier and his upcoming one-man adaptation of Last of the Summer Wine will be touring soon (which we can’t wait for).
Oh, and you may also recognise him from this:
Hi, Julian. Firstly, thank you for talking to us. How do you think the comedy world has changed since you began your career on Week Ending?
With the caveat that probably everyone thinks their younger days were more exciting than the present generation, and whilst admitting there is an element of delusion in that, I genuinely think much comedy (not all) has become a trifle anodyne & safe. Something I’ve also noticed recently is that characters in comedies seems to be less likeable – a certain amorality seems to have infused comedy. Characters one can’t like seem to be de rigeur. I’ve no idea why that is.
I’ll deal with stand-up, sketch shows and sitcoms in turn. In terms of stand-up, when I began writing and performing comedy there were legions of what I call grotesques – eccentric acts in the tradition of variety or even theatre of the Absurd – Simon Day, Harry Hill, Gerry Sadowitz, the Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper etc. There seem to be less zany, experimental comedians now – a few bubble up like Tape-Face, the great Paul Foot etc. but by far the cultural norm is someone standing in their normal clothes talking about their lives. I’ve always preferred zanies.
In broadcast comedy the sketch show was still huge when I began in the industry – Fast Show, Big Train, Little Britain, Smith & Jones, Spitting Image, Herring & Lee, Glam Metal Detectives: TV was still pushing the envelope with sketch shows, which are of course a great training ground for writers – David Renwick, Linehan & Matthews, all began on sketch shows. That’s all gone. In sitcoms, the studio multi-cam format was still producing genius series – One Foot in the Grave, Father Ted etc. They too have gone from the comedy landscape. I must emphasise I’m certainly no fuddy-duddy – I absolutely adore lots of contemporary comedy, it’s just that I’m observing its changes as per your question: This Country, for example, is a masterpiece.
Overwhelmingly of course a certain safeness has taken over, because of offence culture. There is nothing as funny as the absurdities to which lust reduces men, for example – a staple of comedy for centuries from Roman farces through Restoration Comedies and the Carry-Ons – and that’s all gone of course. We’re all supposed to have ‘grown up’ – which of course we haven’t, we’re just not allowed to express it in outward culture. My mother was an ardent feminist but loved the Carry-Ons. Rising Damp, for example, could never be made today – because Rigsby’s attitude, if expressed today, would be untenable: in the 70’s, it was an expression of the truth. ‘Political correctness’ of course (dreadful phrase) has rinsed comedy of many tropes. Even my last TV series, Pompidou, intended to be a harmless little slapstick family show, fell victim to criticism that it was celebrating ‘privilege,’ simply because the central character was a lunatic aristocrat bumbling about the modern world: some critics dismissed him as being ‘entitled!’.
I’ve observed that class-hatred has seemed to have rid our culture of any affectionate portraits in comedy of the upper class. In the 60’s and 70’s the upper class were gently mocked but there always seemed to be an underlying affection. Now there’s simply hatred. Terry-Thomas, for example, could never have a career if he was starting out today. This I find sad – this fuelling of hatred and division in our society on class grounds. (Chief culprit of which seem to be polemicists like Owen Jones, who loathes the upper classes with a venom).
In the last year or so, however, I think there has been a push-back. I am excited by the new wave of non-left comics – a club called Comedy Unleashed in East London seems to be doing very well. Comedy has an underground again! And this of course is what comedy is all about – new waves, disturbing the pond. Life of Brian, Derek & Clive, Chris Morris? – comedy that caused ripples, that was grossly offensive and wonderful and ‘belonged to us young people.’ We’d listen to in secret in our bedrooms. That’s as it should be. If I was to be asked what is the current new wave I would say it’s the non-left (I don’t like using the term ‘right-wing’ or ‘alt-right,’ because those labels are used as weapons, surrogates for criticism, as if the act of labelling itself is argument). It’s exciting because the left have always considered themselves – wrongly in my view – to be the ‘ones with the sense of humour, because they are punching upwards.’ Whether this new wave will translate into mainstream comedy I don’t know, but of course there is a question of whether it needs those platforms anyway. At the moment it’s quite ‘underground’ and subversive, which is great.
And that of course brings me to the biggest change of all in the world of comedy since I started – the internet. Since I began all the old platforms have been relegated. We’re still in the eye of the storm, the Wild West: podcasting, streaming, etc. I love the BBC but it will have to become a subscription channel. But one thing the internet has proved to me is that simply because platforms proliferate does not mean the amount of talent has increased. Humanity is just as talented as it was before the internet. This means one has to search longer and deeper for something of quality – in fact there is so much landfill it is actually a bit overwhelming. I’ve stopped knowing what the measure of success is in comedy any more because of this removal of the cultural gatekeepers. Everyone famous for fifteen minutes? – I think the internet has ushered in an age where no one will be famous for fifteen minutes.
Paradoxically there’s never been a better time to be a creative, but never a worse time to actually get recognised as an artist. I’ve been very lucky because I caught the last two decades of the old platforms so have had 50 episodes of TV broadcast, have co-created and written several series and numerous radio series. When young people used to ask me how to ‘get into comedy writing or performing,’ I’d give them a list of producers to contact. Now I reply ‘do it yourself, put it out on the internet.’ That’s the biggest change, in truth.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be “anti-establishment”, to “punch up”… What does it mean to be anti-Establishment now?
Well I’ve always been very pro-establishment, in terms of the traditional ‘British Establishment.’ I love the establishment. I love hierarchies, I love elites, I believe in a meritocracy of intellect, I believe in people being trained in great schools to govern. I believe in the ‘deep state.’ One of my favourite books as a youth was John Fowles’ The Aristos – his philosophy of the meritocratic aristocracy of the intellect, very Plato-esque. Knowing that me saying ‘I love the establishment’ might shock people is one of the banes of my life. But my defences are sound. If you examine British history you will discover that what we consider to be ‘the establishment’ is actually a system of social order that has resulted from centuries of upward democratic pressures: it hasn’t been ‘imposed’ from above at all. From Magna Carta through the Peasants Revolt, the evolution of grammar schools & public schools, Thomas Elyot’s Tudor Book of the Governor (the ‘how to train people to run Britain’ of its day), the Reform Acts, Suffragism – all these upward pressures created the British establishment. Grammar Schools were established to help poor children of a town and were sustained by charities.
The British establishment is not autocratic at all, this is a gross misrepresentation: it is a distillation of centuries of democratic synthesis. What I despise – in a tolerant way! – is the pantomime prism through which the left criticise the ‘establishment’ as if it is a fascistic ‘enemy,’ – this is delusory, ignorant thinking at its worst. At the heart of this delusion is the proposition that if this ‘evil establishment’ were swept away or reformed tomorrow, a similar establishment would not simply take its place. Have people not read George Orwell or studied the history of the Soviet Union or the French Revolution? Give me the British establishment any day of the week, an establishment nourished by the traditions of liberalism, meritocracy, intellect – rather than an establishment of ideology, class-hatred and division. The idea that our country would be a better place if everyone educated at Eton were expunged from centres of power and replaced by people selected or approved of by Seamus Milne or Len McCluskey is, quite, frankly, insane. Eton and Oxford are fantastic institutions and we should treasure them as trainers for our governors.
Punching up and punching down: well, we’re living of course through a revolution of the internet, which has created new centres of power. Power is no longer based on land, and hasn’t been for some time. When twitter can secure the sackings of lecturers, scientists, ministers, celebrities etc. it’s becoming increasingly clear that this particular tail is wagging the dog, so has become very powerful indeed. So while social media still perhaps considers itself to be ‘subversive’ and ‘punching upwards,’ or ‘speaking truth to power,’ it’s nothing of the sort. There’s a case to be said that deriding the woke groupthink is now punching upwards – Titania McGrath etc.
A huge lie of our current culture of course is how the left have framed themselves as somehow punching up and the right as ‘punching down.’ And in an associated but perhaps tangential point, this whole business of the left saying ‘the right aren’t funny,’ for me, is utterly preposterous. I think the left are the most humourless people on the planet. Saying ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg is a ****,’ is not comedy.
In fact, I can’t think of one single left-wing humorist. George Orwell was a great writer but possessed not one single iota of humour. The reason, of course, is that to be left-wing is itself to be serious. The non-left, on the contrary, are very funny and have advanced senses of humour. Johnson is an obvious case in point. Rees-Mogg is not only funny, he also has a sense of humour and often sends himself up, in tweets etc. Corbyn has never sent himself up, and never will, because Corbyn has absolutely no sense of humour. Being left-wing is a deadly serious business. Because they are driven by ideology, whenever they are lampooned or criticised they freeze into a frigid rage: hence the reaction to the Tracy Ullman sketch lampooning Corbyn. Hysteria. Somehow they have managed to persuade the culture that they are victims, and re-framed lampooning of themselves as punching downwards. How on earth is lampooning Corbyn punching downwards?
Even on the current most successful satire show, Dead Ringers, the sketches lampooning the left are minimal – for some reason it’s far easier for writers to mock the Rees-Moggs and the Johnsons than the Seamus Milnes and the Corbyns. Why isn’t Seamus Milne being lampooned on Dead Ringers? – a communist in sunglasses who said Stalin’s crimes have been exaggerated is now running the Labour Party. And he’s not being lampooned? Why?- because we are afraid of the groupthink. We imagine that because Seamus Milne is Labour we’ll be punching down.
I find myself increasingly troubled by the tone of our cultural debate – particularly the emphasis on black and white politics and shutting down opposing positions. What do you think about this – and what can/ should we do about it?
I have to say that much of the hatred, division and venom in our social discourse seems to come from the left. The left, it is clear, hate non-left people. Yet curiously, non-left people don’t hate left-wing people. At worst they patronise them. I must footnote this by saying I love left-wing people! Most of my friends are on the left! I still firmly believe that ones’ political beliefs don’t define us – we are all the same under the skin. (And I must also add another footnote that when I talk of ‘the left’ I am of course referring to Corbyn’s Labour party and the hard left, not the pre-Corbyn Labour party or social democracy. Labour is dead – Corbyn’s party is now a hard-left Stalinist machine. The landscape has changed and the hard left has positioned itself midstream).
But the background to all this attack on pluralism and Karl Popper’s Open Society is this: because Marxism has not succeeded in Britain in achieving political power (Marx made the fundamental error in thinking the working-class are left-wing when they are the complete opposite: the British working-class are deeply, profoundly conservative) – because the hard left has realised it will never achieve political power in a democracy it has set about achieving soft cultural power – in schools, universities, the media etc. This is a classic Marxist-Leninist strategy.
What can we do about it? We can push back. Challenge it. And there is a push-back happening. I’d say ten years ago we were in a terrible state regarding free speech, especially on campuses, with blacklisting, no-platforming etc. (what is no-platforming but blacklisting, McCarthyism, Stalinism? – it’s horrendous.)
But as I say I think there is a reaction against this, and I’m convinced it’s growing in strength. One recent example is Roger Scruton being reinstated. I don’t know about academia as I don’t work in that sphere but in the media there are definite signs of a push-back: non-left comedians, for example, are now consciously being given air-time, when even a few years ago they’d have been denounced as Nazis; and non-left ‘influencers’ like Spiked or Andrew Doyle are being given mainstream platforms, which is encouraging. The non-left comedian Simon Evans has made several brilliant radio series that have tackled the orthodoxy. So I am optimistic for the future of pluralism in our culture. It’s by no means a battle that’s been won, not by a long chalk – but the signs are good. But the challenge must be vigorous, because the enemies of pluralism are cunning – they dish out derogatory identitarian labels with gay abandon – ‘alt-right,’ ‘Daily Mail,’ ‘gammon,’ etc. – a very sly branding of people consciously designed to consign their ‘enemies’ into a camp of untouchables: a classic tactic to avoid actually engaging in the intellectual arguments. For example, labelling someone ‘unwoke’ is merely a pernicious method of silencing, a use of labelling as surrogate argument. ‘Don’t listen to him – he’s Daily Mail,’ or ‘don’t read her book, she isn’t a TERF,’ or whatever. This is junk thinking, and must be challenged wherever it appears.
Another reason I’m optimistic about the defence of liberalism and pluralism is this… All the major intellectuals, writers, thinkers currently writing global cutting edge works today are non-left: Pinker, Harris, Peterson, Dawkins etc. (and there’s not a day goes by when I don’t regret the early death of Christopher Hitchens – think what glorious play he would have with our current culture!) In fact, I would push the boat out and say there is not one single major cutting-edge global left-wing thinker writing today (Chomsky is in his late 80’s so I’m relegating him to the past, perhaps unfairly but understandably). This is very telling. Corbyn has never written a book. Owen Jones? – I’m afraid vitriolic polemics don’t cut it: Chavs – the Demonisation of the Working-Class? I’m tempted to write a rejoinder – Toffs – the Demonisation of the Upper Class. Some non-left intellectuals do still have a very hard time in the media – I’m thinking of Jordan Peterson’s roasting on Channel 4 and the dumb mockery with which his fascinating analysis of genes in lobsters proving the innateness of hierarchies was greeted. How did we get to that? – from revering scientists like Bronowski, Desmond Morris and Attenborough to mocking a scentific theory because it runs counter to the left orthodoxy? That was dismaying. But generally, I’m optimistic that the attempt by Marxist-Leninism to shut down debate is losing, because there are far too many people pushing back against it. And no-one on the left is writing any good books.
I think you’d describe yourself (correct me if I’m wrong) as an orange book Liberal – a Classical Liberal – and I would describe myself as a free market Conservative. Both positions revolve around a belief in free market economics as an engine for ‘good,’ and respect for our historic culture and institutions. I am absolutely convinced these are noble positions – just as noble, if not more so, than the key positions of the Left (which have morphed considerably in the last few years).
Yes, I’m a free market libertarian liberal. I’ve been a lifelong member of the Liberal Democrats and have even stood for office but my membership is now hanging by a thread after the Libdems have become a single-issue non-Brexit party. I’m a supporter of Brexit.
So my place in the party is tricky at the moment. But I believe any party is bigger than one issue and I want to see how the Libdems survive after this single issue recedes from the radar and fades from the political landscape.
But yes, I agree in free marketism, simply because of the incontrovertible fact that if you start curtailing people’s economic freedoms you have to – have to – begin curtailing their political freedoms. That’s why every statist ideology ends up with gulags – at the extreme, of course. Now I’m not suggesting that Corbyn’s Labour want gulags – but without question, if they had the chance, they would kill people. When Lenin took power he said ‘trade was an evil capitalist conspiracy’ and promptly murdered the entire bourgeoisie – and then Russia woke up one day to find they had no business and everyone starved. Corbyn’s Labour certainly want to steal from people by plundering centuries-old endowments of private schools: state kleptocracy at its most vile.
Once again, can I reiterate that I love left-wing people – love them for their compassion, their drive, their commitment. The only problem is, they are wrong about absolutely everything. Economics, foreign policy, their anti-scientism – everything. They call the USA ‘imperialist’ when the US has not conquered one single country – and Russia has conquered dozens. It’s laughable. Von Hayek refuted socialist economics way back in the 1930s with his remarkable Socialist Economic Calculation, yet somehow it still seems to be proffered as a cogent argument. When you remove the theory of value from an economy you destroy it, which is why every single socialist economy has collapsed. But for socialists it’s as if the 20th century never happened. ‘Oh, that wasn’t socialism, that was Stalinism,’ ‘that wasn’t socialism, that was state capitalism,’ etc. – re-labelling to permit the dead ideology to live again.
The problem with the left’s relationship with capitalism is they harbour a pantomime (and paranoiac) Wolf of Wall Street view of it; for them it is not the shoe-repair kiosk in the tube, the sculptor, the florist. No, capitalism is merely Trump, or ‘evil bankers,’ (the same evil bankers who contribute 25% of all our tax yield, incidentally). What they do not seem to realise is that capitalism is an infinitely flexible assuager of want, a malleable human matrix expertly responsive to demand – which is why it is capitalism that will solve the climate crisis, not statism.
Capitalism and free trade has saved millions of lives in the last 50 years, eradicating famine, disease, and poverty. What the left do is constantly push the straw-man argument, trotting out the crooks and the borderline psychopaths as if they are representative of the entire economic system: the Trumps, the Robert Maxwells, etc., as if statism is immune to kleptocracy and criminality. Private Walker does not represent the capitalism of Walmington-on-Sea – the shopkeepers do.
Statist economics has failed in every country in which it’s been tried, including the UK – people revere Atlee but we tend to forget every single one of his policies failed. All of them. Even Bevin said at the end of the 1950s, ‘we should never have nationalised the hospitals.’
Tradition, history, and culture… yes, I’m with Roger Scruton on this: love of one’s country and its history and traditions is not the same thing as hating other countries’ history and traditions. What is puzzling is that we revere those traits in other nations but when it comes to the question of ‘pride in Britain’ we are squeamish. This is something that’s happened in my lifetime – I grew up in the confident age of Buy British, Keep Britain Tidy, etc. It would be fatuous to say that the history of Britain has been spotless – of course it hasn’t, but that’s true for every culture in every era: the largest and most brutal contiguous empire in the history of the world for example was the Mongolian empire, estimated to have killed more than a third of the world’s population. Compared to Ghengis Khan the British Empire was a scouts’ jamboree.
When did I recognise that tradition, respect for our history and institutions, is profoundly important? Well, I’m a child of the Sixties. Like every young person I went through a left-wing phase. I can trace my divorce from the left/revolutionary/counter-culture at the age of 16 when myself and a friend met some hippies in our local park. We sat around for a couple of hours, smoking, talking. And I was bored out of my mind. Even at sixteen I knew these people had nothing to offer. It was from then on I realised that the counter-culture was a cul-de-sac, a red herring, postwar baby-boomers having a party while their parents went out to work. I always preferred my Grandparent’s generation of the 30s, 40s & 50s.
Now I revere the Beatles & 60s music as much as anyone – it was a shining renaissance. But I’ve gradually come to believe that the entire counter-culture in its mockery of and erosion of faith in our institutions – was garbage. Perhaps, I thought, Middle England has actually got life right? What if Middle England is correct, I thought? Because it was in the 60s that the glue of our society began to melt, when our institutions began to be subject to attack, in film, culture (Lyndsay Anderson’s embarrassing mockery of public schools in If) – Women’s Institutes, Scouting, National Service, Rotary Clubs, that whole freemasonry of provincial England that we now know was holding the whole bloody thing together. So in a nutshell – yes, we must preserve what’s left of our institutions, because it’s them and them alone that bind us together. Otherwise there’s nothing. Well, there isn’t nothing – it’s no accident that when a country gets rid of its institutions and figureheads it just replaces them like for like: for every monarch deposed or executed you end up with a Stalin, a dictator, surrogate monarch etc.
My other damascene moment was in my twenties when I’d briefly joined the Worker’s Revolutionary Party (as an actor it was practically mandatory – for a while the WRP was even considered a branch of Equity) and realised that all of them were completely insane. And it has to be remembered that these people are now running the Labour Party.
I think Classical Liberalism is an ideology worth defending: but, and I’m biased I know, I think the Conservatives are now flying the flag for it with far greater enthusiasm than the Lib Dems. How do you feel about the Lib Dems now? Do you think they need to re-embrace “true” liberalism?
I think perhaps you’re right. As I said I’m a lifelong member of the Liberals but am disillusioned with their reluctance to proclaim their embrace of, for example, libertarianism, individualism or free-market economics. I’m a Gladstonian Liberal. These values are still at the heart of the party but they rarely declare them from the rooftops – they tend to downplay them, and often seem more concerned with stealing Labour’s thunder and focussing on statist social programmes.
I think the Clegg-Cable-coalition years were more representative of the party’s traditional values. Minority parties have to seize on opportunism so I don’t blame their current idee fixe of being the remain party. I await their life post-Brexit. And yes, I inhabit the Venn diagram between classical liberals and One-Nation Toryism. You are perhaps right that at the moment the Conservatives are now the party of classical liberalism.
Whether I’d feel more at home in the Conservatives will be something for the near future. Classical liberalism is freedom, pure and simple, and as aforementioned in a question above when someone attempts to control ones’ economic life an inevitable outcome is control of their political life. I was speaking to an anthropologist recently who’d studied hundreds of different societies around the world from advanced civilisations to remote Amazon tribes and Kalahari bush-people, with the goal of discerning which were happiest. Their conclusion was that the happiest societies are those where no single idea of how that society should be run has been imposed. As soon as you impose an ideology on a society, you’re doomed. People don’t like it.
There is a term which I have just come across – “oikophobia”. It refers to the current fashion amongst the Western intelligentsia (and perhaps this was always a “thing”) of not just criticising but despising the West’s culture and history. What do you make of this?
Yes. Self-criticism and pluralism, ie. the right to criticise one’s own society, is vital of course – but… I think T.S. Eliot said a human trait is to ‘lust after strange gods.’ I was sitting in a pub recently with three people. All of us own our homes, are well-fed, have thriving families. We were talking politics. ‘Capitalism has failed,’ they said, ‘the West has failed.’ I gently pointed out that post-war liberal Western democracy is perhaps the finest socio-economic system ever attained by humanity. But they were having none of it. After our meals we all drove off to our comfortable homes. You see, people will always be negative about life, because it’s human to moan, to rehearse danger, to think we are in a bad place in order to prepare for the worst. None of our grandparents had bathrooms, yet people think ‘capitalism has failed.’ It’s nonsense.
There is a more dangerous element to your question, though, in that negative views of the West and its values have noticeably become weaponised, as a method of undermining. This has been especially prevalent with the freedom of social media and its lack of gatekeepers. Phrases like ‘pale, male and stale,’ ‘white man,’ ‘white privilege,’ etc. – these have become acceptable terms of abuse. Now I will fight for anyone else’s advancement until my dying breath but undermining me because of what my ancestors achieved is devious, negative and wrong. If I am ever asked, for example, to ‘check my privilege,’ I reply – my ancestors died to build up my privilege. I’m proud of that privilege. We should be celebrating ‘privilege,’ not using it as a weapon to undermine.
I think a solution to this negative undermining and self-hatred is not to become bellicose and tub-thumping – that way leads to disaster. The way to tackle it is to quietly celebrate and continue to have confident pride in the wonderful elements of our civilisation. There is a danger of a push-back being labelled ‘far-right.’ That’s a problem. Labelling again. But it’s a challenge to fight the weaponisation. One chief promulgator of self-hatred currently is, of course, Corbyn. His entire life has been protesting against the society he was born into. It would take too long to go into the psychology of this – in a nutshell, academic failure, sees peers succeed, blames ‘system,’ becomes ‘activist’ – the easiest thing in the world to be etc. His rhetoric is fantastical: he weaves imaginary visions of a far-right intolerant country on its knees. The way he whips up fear and hatred is bizarre: only the other day he said ‘the far right are on the march.’ No they’re not. The EDL counts its members in the hundreds. In Europe far-right parties are in Government. There is no far-right to speak of in the UK. Corbyn is a fantasist just like his brother.
Arnold Toynbee said all civilisations fall, and one symptom of our ‘decline’ might be, as you say, this ‘oikophobia.’ But I’m more optimistic because a) there is a push-back – the very fact that we’re talking about it means we don’t agree with it, and b) all the alternatives to our Western democratic system have absolutely no traction and no support. Since the nineteenth century the West has been struggling with moaning ‘enemies within,’ (it all comes from Marx) but they will be defeated, of that I have no doubt. Self-haters will never go away, but they will be defeated because they are wrong, and no one likes a moaner. That’s why Boris Johnson, the optimist par excellence, has been elected and why he will in most probability be swept to greater power in the next general election.
…Perhaps this feeds into the difference between Remain and Leave. “Anywheres”/ “Somewheres”… I think Brexit has highlighted divides which many of us weren’t fully aware existed. What is your view on Brexit? And – crucially – do you think we’ll ever leave?
I support Brexit because of the following… (and I’m bullet-pointing because everyone’s heartily sick of these debates!):
- Often a nation acts with an unconscious impulse that predicts the future: perhaps unwittingly Britain, by voting for Brexit, has proved itself ahead of the curve. I believe the future lies in the Anglosphere – USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and with the Asian economies India & China. Global free trade is the future not just for Britain but for every country.
- The Libdems & the Greens believe in ‘communities running their own affairs,’ but oddly when it comes to the EU they drop that and weirdly embrace Verhofstadt’s supra-national ‘empire.’ Remote government is always bad, and it’s good not to like that. Tony Benn was wrong about most things but his rejection of the EU was spot on.
- The instinct of ‘not liking being told what to do’ is a good instinct, not a bad instinct.
- The emotional response to ‘brand EU’ is delusory. When we look at a Pepsi logo we feel thirsty – when we look at the EU flag we feel warmth, fuzziness & ‘togetherness.’ That is delusion. In our lifetimes and parent’s lifetimes many European countries have been fascist, and many are now teetering on the edge of fascism. Britain has never had a powerful far-right or far-left. France is riddled with racism – Jews gunned down in supermarkets. France has banned the burkah – we will never ban the burkah. Immigrants to the UK say Britain is the most tolerant in the world.
- Those who say Brexit is ‘inward’ and ‘backward’ are wrong. The EU was a project to preserve peace between France and Germany through a coal & steel union and promote Germany to economic prominence. Tony Benn correctly predicted in 1975 that Germany would destroy British manufacturing – it did. It wasn’t Thatcher, it was Germany. Germany’s triumph has meant the exportation of unemployment to many parts of Europe – Spain 25%, Greece 40%. I believe that Brexit will restore British manufacturing – and I’m convinced Johnson’s relentless focus on infrastructure is part and parcel of that vision.
- The EU has kept Africa crushed under crippling tariffs – Germany exports three times the amount of processed coffee than the entire continent of Africa, resulting in many African economies stultifying, with the consequent poverty and migration. African migration to the EU has been caused by the EU. They are reaping their own whirlwind. Britain outside the EU will forge free trade links with Africa and help build up that continent into the prosperous powerhouse it should be.
- Brexit is not a ‘right-wing’ project – it is an advance of liberalism and free trade. And it most certainly is not a ‘rejection of togetherness, unity, co-operation.’ That’s absurd calumny.
- Britain’s story is one of bolshiness, stubbornness, a fierce love of freedom: Peasant’s Revolt, Napoleonic Wars, WW2 etc. If people want to understand why Brexit has happened just read the history of British yeomanry, the history of an island that hasn’t been invaded since 1066. That’s where Brexit comes from – the deeply independent bolshy peasantry. This isn’t tub-thumping Dunkirk stuff – it’s healthy, positive, instincts – the instinct of not wanting to be told what to do. I have yet to be persuaded that that’s a bad thing. We teach our children to be tough and independent, why not revere that in a country?
- It’s telling that quite a few 60’s rock stars have come out for Brexit – Ringo, Roger Daltry etc. It’s confirmed my view that Brexit is rock and roll. The Beatles are Brexit, the Kinks are Brexit, the Sex Pistols are Brexit. Brexit is individualism, two fingers – and that’s good.
- My only problem with Brexit is that its public advocates have not perhaps been the best in terms of ‘brand.’ Johnson is formidable, but I really wish some academics, liberal economists and a few scientists and writers would come out of the woodwork and broaden the pantheon a bit: I genuinely believe that there would be more support for it in the remain camp if that had been the case. Farage has persuaded many, but if people have already decided they don’t like Farage, they’re never going to be persuaded by him. Same with that Wetherspoon fellow. His arguments may be sound, but he’s not likeable. And as for Dominic Cummings… immeasurably clever, but as a public face of independence? Basically the Brexit project needed more charismatic intellectuals and academics to argue its case. It needed a figurehead with more cross-party national appeal than Farage. Maybe we’ve now got that now in Johnson – whom I believe to be the first Prime Minister in decades to possess the common touch. I foresee great things from him.
- Will it happen? Yes. British democracy is too powerful, and we now have someone in charge who not only believes in it but whose entire life has been leading towards this moment.
Somewheres/Nowheres: well, there is nothing wrong with loving where you live. It’s one of the strongest instincts in the human animal. I celebrate difference. One of the most depressing things about the EU is standardisation: as a young man I travelled extensively in Europe, particularly Italy. On a recent visit to an Italian town I was saddened to see its High Street was now virtually identical to every other High Street in Europe. In the UK we celebrate the immigrant population’s veneration of their own culture, so there’s nothing wrong with celebrating our own. All my non-indigenous-British friends – from Mexicans to Bangladeshi – without exception tell me: ‘British people should be prouder of their own culture.’ They are baffled by any creeping ‘oikaphobia.’ So let’s!
As we’re a Conservative site, I always ask this question. Which Conservative do you most admire and why? (Feel free to throw in a Liberal, too.)
It has to be Churchill. His life is a great story, and a story, moreover, written by him. And ‘throwing in a Liberal’ is apt because of course he started out a Liberal. Even setting aside his wartime achievement, his partnership with Lloyd George in pushing through the famous People’s Budget of 1909 is a crowning glory: old age pensions, national insurance, free healthcare for children, labour exchanges (Churchill’s invention). The welfare state began in 1910 which is not often remembered. And of course it was Churchill’s idea to have an NHS.
He commissioned Beveridge (a Liberal) to research it – and it only fell to Labour (Atlee) to deliver it. The claim by Labour that they invented the NHS is one of the biggest lies of the 20th century. I read his memoir My Early Life, covering his time at Sandhurst, Africa & Afghanistan, and gave my son the book for his birthday. My son is now a Captain in British Intelligence, having passed through Sandhurst and serving in Africa and Afghanistan. So on a personal level, thank you Churchill – a Conservative & a Liberal!
Thanks, Julian… Illuminating and thought-provoking. You are a scholar and a gentleman, and it’s been a pleasure.
Check out our recent “5 minutes” interview with comedian and writer Simon Evans here.