News from Nowhere: Bonfire of the Idiots
This is the moral pandemonium of those ‘dark and erroneous doctrines’ whose flames burn without any hope of light, as unquenchable as its diabolical sovereign’s appetites.
Once upon a time – and a long time ago it was too – there lived a wicked old ogre, high up at the top of a great glass tower overlooking an ancient kingdom lost in the grey granite mountains of a distant continent. It was a land enthralled to his casual cruelty, a place which quaked in constant terror in the vice-like grip of his brutal reign, and which paid daily tribute to his glory at shrines hacked into the rocky slopes on which its fragile villages so precariously perched.
Or, to put it another way, in rather more prosaic terms, some years ago I suffered the minor misfortune of encountering at close quarters an especially unpleasant specimen of an otherwise often inoffensive (and even frequently benevolent) breed: an elected member of local government. It was in the context of some trifling matter with whose details I will not now presume to bore you.
I use the word ‘elected’ with some hesitation – and indeed with some need for qualification – for in truth the said representative had stood for office unopposed, thanks not only to their compelling qualities of personal magnetism but also (and perhaps more so) to the apathy of the area’s electorate. This indifference had been fostered in part by a disillusionment with the opportunities for civic engagement afforded to the people of the parish. Those voters had in effect grown so alienated by politics that they were uninterested in participating in those democratic processes which might have prompted the changes they craved.
This curious individual played the part of a diminutive despot of this modest domain, what might once have been dubbed a rotten borough, not so much a big cheese as a barrel of overripe camembert straining at its seams, a prancing, preening, supercilious narcissist, with all the manners of a boar snuffling and truffling at its brimming trough. An embodiment of entitlement and self-aggrandizement, the creature spat its words between mouthfuls of municipally catered tea and cake, bestowed by the unwitting munificence of the taxpayers of the town.
Squeezed into a designer suit a size too tight, this unsavoury sight brought to mind nothing less awful than George Orwell’s ghastly vision of those anthropomorphised beasts – those pigs dressed as men – which have stood as classic emblems of power’s capacity to corrupt, in the final moments of his novel of 1945, Animal Farm. But this was far worse than merely a timely reminder that we are all just monkeys with machines. It was a shadow of the state of things to come.
There are of course those (and fortunately still very many) who enter democratic politics, at whatever level and under whatever banner, out of a genuine desire to work hard and to do good. Yet today there has emerged a swelling cohort of would-be politicos who seem to relish the rewards of authority without sparing much thought for the responsibilities of their roles.
It is saddening to observe that this egocentric and self-serving approach to public service has become increasingly indicative of the broad state and thrust of British politics. Indeed, we might suppose this to be the inevitable corollary of an edifice of national government overseen at its very peak, from the dizzying heights of Downing Street, by a hedonistic hog of a man, a rough slave to his relentlessly insatiable animal appetites. To put it bluntly, the filth drips down.
All across the land, this new generation of arrivistes can be seen swanning round their realms like the lords and ladies of their manors rather than as the humble servants of their people, with all the hauteur of eighteenth-century squires, bloated on the proceeds of their properties. These jaded peacocks display nothing but condescension and contempt for their electorate, the peasantry of their own petty fiefdoms. They strut their hours upon their stages great and small, as though preparing to perform latter-day iterations of the myth of the medieval master’s droit du seigneur, translating their vassal constituents, prey to their capricious prerogatives, into the reluctant vessels of their questionable bounty and their illegitimate dominion.
(This has of course been put into outrageous terms for the sake of dramatic effect. The absurd hyperbole of my language and imagery is here, as ever, intended to illustrate the strength of my feeling on this subject. In short, these guys really get my goat.)
Halfway through the seventeenth century, during a period of extraordinary political turmoil in England, Thomas Hobbes published his celebrated work of political philosophy, Leviathan. Hobbes proposed that the successful nation is governed by a covenant with its sovereign – through an architecture of popular consent which Jean-Jacques Rousseau would, a century later, influentially describe as a social contract. This head of state leads by right and by example (the former being underpinned by the latter); and in this way the character of a nation comes to reflect that of its leadership.
The moral probity of a country’s Prime Minister should in this manner resonate through its politics and society. Yet, when the conduct of those in the most exalted offices of government rides roughshod over laws, promises, parliamentary processes, common decencies and actual facts, their brazenly cavalier attitudes to notions of duty and integrity tend to seep their toxins further down the structures of power.
The grand old oak doesn’t rot from its roots. It rots from the top. Beset by parasites, its highest branches, leafless and flayed, blanch in the unforgiving glare of the midday sun.
When a Prime Minister breaches international law and international agreements… when he breaks his own administration’s emergency rules in order to attend unlawful parties at the height of pandemic lockdowns, and in doing so insults the memory of a nonagenarian monarch’s recently deceased consort, and belittles the losses of so many thousands of ordinary citizens… when time and again he lies to parliament, the press and the people about his actions, and shamelessly defames senior figures in public life in vain attempts to distract attention from his own transgressions and deficiencies… when he uses keynote speeches to ramble his incoherent way through the first random thoughts that fall bizarrely into his head… when his government repeatedly promotes the personal and financial interests of its friends, both foreign and domestic, and of its own members, appearing as acquisitive and kleptocratic as those regimes it vilifies… when his failures to execute the responsibilities of deliberate and decisive leadership lead to the deaths of untold numbers of his own people at a time of national crisis… when he fails to sway the international community to enact meaningful responses to the threat of imminent environmental collapse… when all these crude fiascos coincide upon a single point in the political history of a nation, then the aspirations of the Hobbesian commonwealth may well degenerate into that ‘confederacy of deceivers’ which that author characterized as ‘the kingdom of darkness’.
This is the moral pandemonium of those ‘dark and erroneous doctrines’ whose flames burn without any hope of light, as unquenchable as its diabolical sovereign’s appetites. It is what the artist and novelist Wyndham Lewis once described as a ‘moronic inferno’ of social decay. The Nobel laureate Saul Bellow later glossed Lewis’s idea of this inferno as ‘a chaotic state in which in which one is overwhelmed by all kinds of powers that carry everything before them with a kind of heathen disorder.’ This notion of a barbaric conflagration stoked by authority’s most boorish vanities – this bonfire of inanities – now feels depressingly familiar.
This is not the natural and original state of animal anarchy, but a sinister perversion of the body politic in which the monstrosity of the ravening Leviathan is devastatingly unleashed, gorged to bursting on a diet of ignorance and lies. This is the prospective state of a nation under the government of a flagrant charlatan of a premier. It threatens to descend into a nightmare which is not merely the absence of civilization but is specifically the opposite of civilization.
This is a dystopia whose real risk I must confess I failed fully to recognize when I looked into the porcine eyes of that puffed-up popinjay of a parochial politician all those years back, or indeed in the risible babble of a future British Prime Minister when he first rose to fame as a tolerably comical guest on a TV panel show nearly a quarter of a century ago. Yet we would do well to hone our senses to detect the signs of this particular brand of political sociopathy, to remain alert, while we still can, to the future perils of any similarly resistible rise, and so be careful whom we put into power.
For all hope is not yet lost. There remain decent people across the spectrum of mainstream politics; and these days we might even admit to being lucky enough to meet quite a few of the good ones in our daily lives. Indeed, the despair that many currently feel about the dearth of virtue at the peak of the UK’s power pyramid has inspired some to redouble their efforts to rebuild trust in our democratic systems before it is too late, while any traces of those ideals still survive.
It has become a matter of cliché to suggest that the triumph of evil requires only that the righteous do nothing. But it now seems clear that this is the proper time for people of conscience – and principally the honest souls in the Prime Minister’s own party – to act. Though we may naturally doubt those voices whose populist rhetoric pledges to drain the swamp of contemporary democracy, there are also those sincere in their dreams to build a cleaner and more honorable mode of politics, before all the poisons that lurk beneath this lake of flaming muck hatch out.
This moral excrement spawns fungi and flies. But it may also raise roses.