When the novelist John le Carré died earlier this month, among the passages quoted by journalists was a short excerpt from The Secret Pilgrim, published in 1990. In the book, the words are spoken by Le Carré’s fondly loved character George Smiley. “The privately educated Englishman – and Englishwoman, if you will allow me – is the greatest dissembler on Earth,” he says. “Was, is now and ever shall be for as long as our disgraceful school system remains intact. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool.”
The words are a cutting summary of the far-off era of upper class treachery and cold war subterfuge, but also fit the less romantic time of Brexit, the pandemic and a Conservative party whose leadership by two public schoolboys has so pushed us into disaster. Therein lies a huge part of the national tragedy that, amid stranded lorries, a shamefully high death toll and some of the greatest peacetime blunders this country has ever made, has recently seemed to be reaching some kind of awful climax. Of late, some of the best writing about the mess we are in has focused on Boris Johnson’s character flaws, which are undoubtedly a big part of the tale. But what has been rather less examined is the fact that his shortcomings blur into a much longer story about our longstanding ruling class, and its habit of creating crisis after crisis.
The year 2021 will mark the 80th anniversary of George Orwell’s inspirational essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, his warmly patriotic text about the English national character, and his belief that this country’s efforts in the early stages of the second world war were being compromised by the fact that he was still resident in “the most class-ridden country under the sun”. Here, too, there are plenty of characterisations of the English elite that seem as pertinent now as they were then. “Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there,” wrote Orwell, and as an Etonian himself he surely knew what he was talking about.
Of the ruling-class politicians who had overseen Britain’s domestic travails during the 1920s and 30s while pursuing the disastrous foreign policies that culminated in appeasement, he said this: “What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable.” Back when Conservatives at least partly understood such criticism and successively embraced first postwar consensus politics, then the populist meritocracy most spectacularly embodied by Margaret Thatcher, they were harder to malign as chancers and stuffed shirts. But in the buildup to Christmas, as I watched Johnson deny the nightmare of a no-deal Brexit, row back on his stupid promise of a normal Christmas and then yet again offer the prospect of a return to normality (this time, he seemed to suggest, by Easter), Orwell’s words once again made perfect sense.
Since the election as party leader of David Cameron back in 2005, even if the Conservatives have stuck with a post-Thatcher view of the world, many of the inner circles of Tory politics have reverted to a way of doing things more rooted on the grouse moors of old than in the modern world. Johnson’s arrival at the top revived a familiar mixture of entitlement, superficiality and lives that most people would think impossibly opulent. We all know what those things have led to – a seemingly endless run of terrible decisions, from the calling of the 2016 referendum to the chain of stupidities that has defined Britain’s experience of Covid-19.
Just to be clear: the downsides of a certain kind of privileged leadership have flared up on all sides of politics, from the messianic arrogance that led Tony Blair into the Iraq disaster, to Nick Clegg’s virtual destruction of the Liberal Democrats. But in the main, this is a Tory story. If your Christmas presents included the horrifically readable memoir, Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire (whose husband, Hugo, was a minister under Cameron and part of his social circle), you will have a sense of what all this looks like up close. Johnson’s biographer, Sonia Purnell, described Swire’s book as a portrait of people who are “unserious, entitled, snobbish, incestuous and curiously childish” – obsessed with the subtle distinctions of taste and status that separate the middle from the upper class, and drawn to politics and power not out of any sense of mission or duty, but a dull belief that such things are what people like them do. Under Johnson, the same culture of entitlement and mutual back-scratching has hardened into the so-called “chumocracy”. Oligarchy is rarely an efficient or sensible way to govern, but that doesn’t seem to have got in the way.
Just before Christmas, dismay about the Johnson government and its apparent distance from reality seemed to be reaching a peak. But then came the Brexit trade deal, and a familiar idea returned – not least in the rightwing press – that under the shambling exterior, the prime minister is some kind of swashbuckling genius. This is an archetype that depends on the glib charm cited by Le Carré, and draws on a deep well of deference. The reality is surely that a reckless project driven by the alumni of private schools (Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg et al) has resulted in probably the only trade deal in history that puts up barriers to commerce rather than removing them, and will be rushed through parliament with a sickening disdain for any scrutiny. Combined with the economic effects of the pandemic, the result will be damage and uncertainty that is only just starting: all the talk about Brexit now being finished is further proof of the ditch we have been led into.
The disasters, then, will continue to mount up, but will they result in any change? If history teaches us anything, it is that this country’s mixture of cap-doffing and unassailable privilege tends to keep even the most rotten hierarchies in place, and the saga grinds on. This is the essence of the very British mess that we seem unable to escape.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist