I’m very much enjoying our neo-Victorian government. I’ve been pushing Boris for PM for over a year: I said on BBC Question Time that Theresa May should resign, and one lady gasped. I said Boris should replace her and the audience booed. Well, they must feel very silly now. Not only is the big man in charge but Jacob Rees-Mogg, a weapons-grade Catholic, is running the House of Commons. Like a king.
In fact, JRM is already in hot water for having issued an etiquette guide to his staff that bans certain words and phrases (got, lot, yourself, ascertain and equal) and insists that men without titles be addressed as “esquire”. He also wants his employees to use imperial measurements. Cue a Lefty Twitter panic. It was easy to assume that what JRM wants Boris wants, and so the Government will be invading India next Thursday afternoon to reimpose the imperial ounce.
Actually, manners are nice and etiquette is useful: it helps us to navigate social situations. Ultra posh people don’t use it. They talk in cockney slang and refer to each other as “squire”. It’s the rest of us who need a shared set of rules to make sure we’re treating each other as we’d like to be treated ourselves, and this is a fact of nature you’ll find in every society, civilised or not. I’m sure even the cannibals have a code of good manners, such as “If you’ve got a house guest, don’t eat them.” If there was a problem with JRM’s list, it’s that some of the guidance was a bit out of date. Who puts two spaces after a full stop nowadays?
Never mind. The joy of JRM is that, like Boris, his Victorianness speaks to something we’ve been lacking for a long time: a love of Britain. Love of our history, love of our language, love, too, of our inventiveness. The Victorians are misunderstood as straight-laced conservatives, and when one speaks of their politics there’s this odd assumption that all Victorian politicians were intensely relaxed about the poverty and sickness in their midst. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was an age of conquest – of other countries, yes, but a conquest also of disease, exploitation and illiteracy, all pushed forward by a fascination for science.
Last week, Boris spoke in Manchester about space travel and genetics while standing in front of an engine designed by the Victorian inventor George Stephenson. That right there is the sweet spot of conservatism: it achieves progress while rooting us in a familiar past. That way, change doesn’t frighten us so much because it’s been put into a context that we feel comfortable with.
As with choo-choo trains, so with Brexit. The Government is threatening to embark on one of the most destabilising missions we could ever undertake, namely, leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement. How does it sell it? By talking about future opportunities (free trade, deregulation) at the same time as invoking the triumphs of the past. Blitz spirit, Winston Churchill, “we’ll fight them on the beaches …”
It’s maddening to Remainers and sickening to the Left, but this cultural sensitivity is what has made the Conservatives such an enduring force. They have never once defied the tides of history or turned the clock back or, really, prevented any change from happening. But by using the right language – by calling us “esquire” – they’ve made us feel a bit better about stuff that’s well beyond our control. Boris looks and sounds like a prime minister from the past, and the past was glorious, so maybe the future won’t be so bad after all?
I spent a few days in Arundel, Sussex, which has a remarkable neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral that looms over the town like Dracula’s castle. Equally unlikely is the nearby English Martyrs Church at Goring-by-Sea, which resembles a bingo hall on the outside but inside is the scene of an artistic miracle. Sometime in the late 1980s a parishioner went to Rome and saw the Sistine Chapel, and he returned with the mad idea of recreating it on the ceiling of this unassuming church. Even madder, the Church said: “All right then.” The result is faithful, beautiful and overwhelming. Quite moving, in fact. The artist, Gary Bevans, was a sign-writer. He says that he didn’t paint anything, he just “held the brush”.
Arundel is a reminder that once you get out of London, many parts of this country haven’t changed for 30 years – thank heavens. My friend and I visited a marvellous print and map shop in the high street. The man behind the counter told me he’d had an argument with his mother and she threw her Zimmer frame at him. “Oh dear,” I said. I bought two 19th-century prints of monkeys.
Later we went to Bosham, a harbour village. Children swung on ropes over the silvery water. Everything was very lovely and we both agreed we were lucky to be alive.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor