The Colonel’s Anguish

Yesterday, for the 3rd time this year, I watched a special live announcement on the BBC News of a major political development.

Today I went to have my 6th Covid vaccine dose. They didn’t have any more of the new Pfizer one so I got another dose of the Moderna. Anyone who might need a booster is getting contacted. I’ve already had a flu jab a few weeks ago.

I had to go see someone who was ill, and for a bit of light relief afterwards I dropped by Parliament Square to see thousands of anti-Brexiters watching a big screen featuring such luminaries as A.C.Grayling and others. I wasn’t listening to any of it, I had some old 90s music on an mp3 player instead. Here are some images including a heartwarming moment when policemen were engaging in jolly banter with JUST STOP OIL protesters who attached themselves at the edges.

The most interesting thing I saw was a flyer attached to a lamp post in which someone described something that happened 2 years ago and how it lead in to a conspiracy they had uncovered. They have set up their own website. It looked like a better quality of conspiracy discourse but not I’m not going to look it up. Conspiracism has been getting plenty of mainstream attention these last few days. The Dolchstoßlegende that various Brexiters have been punting between themselves the last few years has now broken out of cover and can be heard in interviews direct from Westminster. The fact that “the markets” pose a challenge to sovereign governments has finally become a problem rather than a welcome limitation on the possible actions of a Corbyn government, or the actual performance of the Wilson government (Eden had trouble as well).

But of course the problems go back at least 100 years, captured in this exchange in The Division Bell Mystery (1932) by radical left-wing MP Ellen Wilkinson:

Colonel Stuart-Orford was coming out of the cloakroom as Robert passed on his way back to the Members’ Lobby after seeing Annette to her car.

“Could I have a word with you, Robert?”

With an irritated mental shrug, but an outwardly polite “Certainly,” Robert followed the Colonel back into the cloakroom, and propped himself against the antique weighing-machine that has told the sad truth to generations of increasing statesmen. Colonel Stuart-Orford was the representative of too much that was typical of his party for a Parliamentary private secretary to ignore him.

Stuart-Orford was county and country, the Army and the Great British Tradition.

“I am concerned about the affaire Oissel, Robert.”

“So are we all, Colonel, I can assure you. The Minister more than any of us.”

“I am not particularly concerned about the death of this man. It might be a useful sanitary measure if a few of his kind were put against a wall. But it seems to me as though the Government has actually put itself in the power of men like that. I don’t like it, Robert. I do not like it. Imagine what Palmerston or Disraeli would have said at the idea of Britain going cap in hand to such a creature for money… the British Government… damn it, Robert, was this why we fought the War?”

“I was at school when you were fighting that war, Colonel, and I supposed that you all knew what you were doing, but it’s left a pretty mess to be cleared up. And the England that it has left is not the England of Palmerston and Victoria. We’ve got to deal with facts, and American dollars are about the biggest of those facts. We’ve got to have them, so it’s no use getting high and mighty about it.”

“Let the Socialists talk like that,” said Stuart-Orford furiously, his white moustaches standing out against a face gone suddenly red. “I tell you our party ought to have been prepared to ask every Briton, yes, every Briton from Court to slum, to give the shirt off his back rather than be beholden to such a creature.”

West felt sorry for the old man, his fierce pride, and his patriotism that could only see a little island leading the world. The new age was hard for the Stuart-Orfords. He tried to be comforting.

“Americans are God’s creatures, you know,” he said flippantly, “even if you think the Almighty might have been better employed than in making such a continent. And we’ve got to live with them. The whole world is about as small as Britain was in Palmerston’s time. Communications, I mean, getting together. Of course America’s got most of the gold there is, more or less, and will soon have the rest, but after all, Colonel, it’s not the first time men like you have had to deal with the City chap who has bought the old park next to yours. You rope him in somehow, and that is what we have had to do with Oissel and his crowd.”

West left the old man muttering that even the Conservative youth was Socialist nowadays. It was useless to argue. Robert knew he spoke a different language from the Stuart-Orfords. The New York of jazz and dollars was, he felt, much nearer to him than Victorian sofa-cushions. But why would these old men whine like ladies in reduced circumstances, like genteel governesses always talking about the glories of the old families, and refuse to face the facts of the world they were living in? They hung on to the rope, jealous that the ship should sail on new adventures. 

There’s no escape from the new 20th century:

What were men like Oissel and Dalbeattie going to make of this England, which Robert through school and university had been trained to think was the centre of the universe, governing itself by its own elected Parliament. Dalbeatties and Oissels held the power now. To them and their like, whatever their nationality, England was but an incident, a set of statistics. The scope of their interests was international. Yet if they were in politics at all they belonged to the same party as Colonel Stuart-Orford, though what was their common interest with that pathetic survival, with his D.S.O., his Croix de Guerre, tributes to a personal valour for which there seemed to be little room in the world that the Dalbeatties and Oissels were creating?

…The new world they were creating, the world of bonds, and debts, and mortgages, massive industry, and wild speculation, was bringing with it a new set of traditions, a new standard of values, as it had brought new art and music, the jazz band, the mass-production cinema.

…. “I was thinking that you and Oissel were the real revolutionaries. I saw that unemployed march which was being broken up by the police last week. And then our dear old frightened middle classes think that those poor chaps are the revolutionaries to be afraid of. And you, who can skin us by a simple inflationary operation, are regarded as the really safe and respectable people.”

One thing we’ve thing definitely lost already: that older generation of Tory MPs had real quality, not like the cheap imitations we have now. Even a left-wing feminist gave them their due:

Trained in the conventions of a public school, with its compulsory chapels, Robert had simply absorbed the one guiding principle for his moral life, that there were certain things that certain people did not do. Not all conventions held true for everybody, but a man must stick to what held true for his type. A Cabinet Minister could not do things that might be overlooked in a backbencher.

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