A small piece of social history was enacted in the wings last week as the “Ottoman grandson”, to cite Turkish newspapers, held centre stage in London with his one-point government. Both events illustrated the extent to which England is moving away from its English moorings. In one, a hallowed 19th-century gentleman’s club compromised with improperly attired guests who would have been shown the door a few years ago. In the other, the great grandson in the male line (which determines identity in patriarchal Asia) of a Turkish journalist kissed hands as the 14th prime minister of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
When did the transition begin? Someone once claimed a silent revolution swept the country when hotel and restaurant menus quietly dropped the ‘s’ to advertise “bacon and egg” instead of “bacon and eggs”. Another explanation is that England joined the revolutionary ranks when Royal Mail postmen (I’ve never yet seen a postwoman) discarded navy blue uniforms for the white shorts and scarlet t-shirts that make them look like ageing beach boys. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s acerbic obiter dicta when Amartya Sen was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was that the English ceased to be English when they shed their traditional prejudices. So, when Sajid Javid, son of a Pakistan-born bus driver, who was home secretary under Theresa May, Britain’s second woman prime minister, and has now been reinvented as Boris Johnson’s chancellor of the exchequer, spoke of “the most successful multi-racial democracy in the world” he meant that contemporary reality has reduced the original to an imagined community.
The setting for the minor incident, more immediately revealing of changing times than the installation of a prime minister with the hallowed credentials of Eton, Balliol and the Bullingdon Club, was a club founded in the early 19th century “for gentlemen who had travelled out of the British Isles to a distance of at least five hundred miles from London in a direct line”. A flustered porter suddenly appeared in the morning room to whisper that one of my lunch guests had arrived but… Since he couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence, I went out to find my guest in an open-neck shirt hanging over his trousers and sockless feet in sandals. The porters were in a tizzy. Not so, however, the club official in impeccable striped trousers, waistcoat and black jacket whom they summoned in panic. When he couldn’t rustle up jacket and shoes of the right size for my friend, he hit on the novel solution of serving us a delicious cold lunch under the shade of a spreading century-old plane tree on the secluded lawn behind the club building. Being a hot and airless day, it was actually a tremendous improvement on the ornate white and gold first floor dining room with its enormous chandeliers, velvet draperies and oil paintings in massive frames. Few noticed the incident but another precedent may have been set.
We all know that dress codes are regularly and defiantly violated in India. They have instigated protests and processions in Calcutta, Delhi and Chennai. Chief ministers have vowed legal change and a political painter once threatened to raze a venerable club to the ground because it had thwarted his sartorial inventiveness. But those are usually deliberate exercises in elevating the self above the institution and drawing attention. My guests neither needed nor wanted publicity. Being not especially distinguished members of society’s highest stratum, one elderly couple I had invited wore shabby conventional clothes as befitted their age and position. The offender was somewhat younger and an achiever, a well-known and highly successful creative entrepreneur married to one of the governors of a leading college. But with the mercury sizzling in the thirties, he decided not to sacrifice comfort to propriety and was totally unfazed by the ruckus his decision had caused. If what he wore was a problem, it wasn’t his problem.
His kind, epitomized by the Facebook chairman, Mark Zuckerberg, has made informality its hallmark. His political equivalent, Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, who has been described as “logical, razor-sharp, directed and ideologically remorseless”, is equally casual. One sees pictures of him in a t-shirt or windcheater, a backpack slung over his shoulders. This is the new regime whose assumption of office was greeted with Labour charges that it had no electoral mandate and should hold a general election to acquire one, a Liberal Democratic no-confidence motion, dark mutterings in its own ranks and an abundance of gossip, rumour, scandal about the prime minister’s tempestuous private life and threats of imminent political civil war. Some of the stories concern Arron Banks, the mystery businessman who recalls Edward Heath’s comment about the unacceptable face of capitalism. According to a parliamentary committee, Banks “is believed to have donated £8.4 million to the Leave campaign, the largest political donation in British politics, but it is unclear from where he obtained that amount of money”. The report added, “He failed to satisfy us that his own donations had, in fact, come from sources within the UK.” As with Donald Trump’s election, there were whispers of a Russian connection.
Similar tales also cling to Grant Shapps whom Johnson has appointed transport minister. He is said to have run a get-rich-quick scheme under a false name, and was caught misleading the public about it. Last year he resigned from a role at a property website after allegations of a “secret pay deal” worth up to £700,000. As a shadow minister he is said to have taken donations from companies relevant to his portfolio, which, some argued, amounted to a conflict of interest. What may be more relevant is Shapps’s fervent support for a £14 million third runway at Heathrow airport which Johnson has always opposed with equal fervour, to the extent of dramatically promising to lie down in front of the bulldozers if anyone tried to build it. Reports have it he arranged a trip to Afghanistan to avoid voting for the project. Russell Lynch, the deputy city editor of the Evening Standard, probably predicts correctly when he writes, “An elegant U-turn is in the offing.”
Banks and Shapps aren’t the only controversial people in the new dispensation. Sarah Wollaston, formerly a Conservative member of parliament and now an Independent, calls Cummings’s appointment “shameful” and says he should not be given a pass to the House of Commons because he was found in contempt of Parliament over an inquiry into “foreign influence and voter manipulation” (the Russian hand again?) in the Brexit vote. But as the inspiration behind the 2016 referendum that delivered the vote to pull out of the European Union, Cummings enjoys the respect of most Brexiteers. The feeling doesn’t seem to be reciprocated. “So many of you guys were too busy shooting or skiing or chasing girls to do any actual work,” is his contemptuous dismissal of people on the same side of the fence. “You should be treated like a tumour and excised from the UK body politic.”
Nevertheless, the abrasive and scornful Cummings is indispensable for the single point of Johnson’s one-point programme even as he boisterously promises everything to everybody and even demands that Waitrose, the upmarket grocer, should open shop in India’s “massive static market”. Since the EU has repeatedly made it abundantly clear it will not revise the separation agreement reached with Theresa May and which the British Parliament has already rejected three times, Johnson’s “do-or-die” promise to leave on October 31 means crashing out without an agreement. As an astute strategist, Cummings might be able to facilitate that. But, of course, another elegant u-turn cannot be ruled out. As the club episode demonstrated, accommodation is New Britain’s key to survival.