Published March 31, 2022
Bertie Wooster has lost his brooch. Well, not his brooch but the one his Aunt Agatha has asked him to bring down from London to Steeple Bumpleigh as a birthday present for his ex-fiancée, Florence Craye. And he hasn’t really lost it, though as the lights go up we find him believing that he has — and he will actually lose it a few minutes later, necessitating the dispatch of Jeeves to London to buy a replacement. Now the only person in the world who terrifies Bertie more than Florence Craye is his Aunt Agatha, which explains his state of agitation at losing the brooch and his profound relief when Florence’s younger brother, the pestiferous Boy Scout Edwin, returns it to him — though, as I say, he is not to keep it long. Thus Bertie confides in the reader:
If I had not recovered this blighted trinket, I should never have heard the last of it. The thing would have marked an epoch. World-shaking events would have been referred to as having happened ‘about the time Bertie lost that brooch’ or ‘just after Bertie made such an idiot of himself over Florence’s birthday present.’ Aunt Agatha is like an elephant — not so much to look at, for in appearance she resembles more a well-bred vulture, but because she never forgets.
This passage is typical of the comic writing of Sir Pelham (“Plum”) Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G. of that ilk on the title pages of the many books he wrote — approximately one for each of his 93 years — during the first three quarters of the last century. Like our esteemed editor, I am a big fan of these books and of none more than Joy in the Morning — which I believe just pips by a short head The Code of the Woosters as the best of the Bertie-and-Jeeves novels. Many similar passages to the one quoted above are to be found in J. in the M. A later spot of trouble inspires Bertie to mention to Jeeves that “Hell’s foundations have been quivering.” Then, when he is persuaded (as always against his better judgment) to stage an attempted burglary at the house of his uncle by marriage, he explains to Jeeves, “this is no careless saunter on which you find me engaged, Jeeves, but an enterprise whose consequences may well stagger humanity.”
Such a style of writing is the Wodehousian version of the mock-heroic, or ironically playing with a distorted sense of the due proportionality of things, which has long been a favorite of the British and a sign, I like to think, of a people who have reached that elevated state of civilization in which it is possible to laugh at themselves. We know that they are laughing at themselves and not just at Bertie because they are culturally predisposed to their own idiosyncratic sense of proportion, as when, in another context (“Jeeves and the Impending Doom” in Very Good, Jeeves of 1930), Jeeves answers Bertie’s panicky question: “What do ties matter, Jeeves, at a time like this?” by calmly asserting, “There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter.”
But if this admirable cultural trait was once peculiarly British, it is so no longer. Or so you would suppose from the unseemly Parliamentary struggle in January and early February over whether or not Boris Johnson, the prime minister, attended a birthday party, and possibly consumed a bit of birthday cake, on the premises or within the messuages (as Bertie Wooster would say) of Number Ten Downing Street, at a time when his government was officially prohibiting such socializing. On the assumption that he had done something of the sort, and/or lied about it by saying that he had supposed it to be a “work event,” rather than a party, the former Tory minister and member for Haltemprice and Howden, David Davis — a man who once himself aspired to the leadership of his party —stood up in Parliament to quote the words of Oliver Cromwell to the Rump Parliament in 1653: “You have sat here too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, go.”
What made the quotation particularly piquant was that it had also been used by the Labour MP Leo Amery to Neville Chamberlain at the time of the fall of Norway to the Nazis in May of 1940. And Chamberlain had, of course, gone, thus making way for Churchill to succeed him as prime minister. The Norwegian disaster was, you will agree, what Bertie calls a worldshaking event, figuratively if not literally, and in that it was entirely unlike the temporary — or, indeed, the permanent — loss of the brooch. Likewise, the resignation of Chamberlain and his replacement by Churchill could certainly be said to have “marked an epoch,” at least as epochs go these days. I leave it to you to decide whether Mr Davis’s application of these memorable words to the consumption — or not — of a bit of birthday cake by the prime minister suggests a sense of measure and proportion more like Leo Amery’s or Bertie Wooster’s.
True, there were some traces of the old British style of self-irony in the press. Lord Skidelsky, the biographer of J.M. Keynes, wrote in a letter to The Times: “It is a sign of the triviality of public life today that David Davis should think the historic words ‘In the name of God, go’ suitable as a summons for Boris Johnson to quit. Leo Amery’s words of May 7, 1940 . . . came as Germany unleashed its armed might on Norway; the present iteration displays only mock indignation at a supposedly illicit garden party at No 10.” Spot on, Lord S! But I would go further. It’s relatively easy to find “mock indignation” in David Davis, a disgruntled former minister with a reputation, rather like Bertie Wooster’s, for quixotry. I think, however, that the mock indignation was not just his but that of the British media which made “Partygate” or “Cakegate” (some prefer one, some the other) a scandal in the first place — and, moreover, of the British political culture which, like its American counterpart, lives in awe of the media’s power.
The sense of proportion of the media and political cultures of both countries has been permanently skewed by the scandal-craze which was born 50 years ago on the cis-Atlantic side when the media and the Democratic party, then not quite so closely identified as they are now, got together to drive President Richard Nixon from office over what presidential spokesman Ron Ziegler called a “third-rate burglary.” At the time there were a few voices to be heard, detached from the media hysteria and wondering if the proportionality between the importance of the office held by the president of the United States, commonly styled the leader of the free world, and the comparative triviality of his alleged misdeeds was, perhaps, insufficiently recognized by the media.
Half a century on, it would be a scandal in itself to maintain that scandal, no matter how trivial, was inappropriate and self-destructive as a weapon of partisan political warfare. Is it even imaginable that the media would voluntarily surrender their most effective tool for removing roadblocks to their own political agenda? With Mr Johnson as with the ill-fated President Nixon before him, their mantra has been that “no one is above the law,” which is just silly when you think about it. Those who decide where and how and upon whom and how severely the law is to be applied and enforced have always been and must always be to some degree above the law, as are the media themselves when they publish classified or confidential information, as they routinely do with impunity.
Nor is such impunity limited to the politically and culturally well-placed. Nowadays any foreigner who can manage to penetrate the USA’s porous southern border is above the law, and publicly proclaimed to be so by the Democratic authorities in our numerous “sanctuary cities.” Radical prosecutors in many of those same cities have lately taken to putting those who commit certain kinds of misdemeanor offenses above the law as well — perhaps with the example in mind of the still unpunished leaders of the riots which swept the country in 2020. Every day seems to bring new evidence that President Biden and members of his family have long been treated, both by the media and by law enforcement, as being above the law, as of course were the FBI, Hillary Clinton and the Obama Justice Department in concocting the dud scandal of Russiagate as a weapon against Donald Trump — unless John Durham should have anything further to say on the subject.
No, I’m guessing that most people are pretty well aware by now that the noble ideal of no one’s being above the law has become a joke, if it wasn’t always a joke. But if so, why aren’t they laughing when the media turn all sanctimonious in the interest of the not so noble cause of turning Boris Johnson out of office? I believe the answer is that people are also pretty well aware that these media scandals are nearly always pretexts for some larger and deeper sense of anger and resentment, and of the desire for revenge.
It seems more than likely, for instance, that the Democratic establishment in New York saw in the ostensible cause of the resignation of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who only a few months before had been the Emmy-winning golden boy of the party, a convenient way of ridding themselves of someone who had become an embarrassment for quite different reasons. His clumsy sexual advances were merely personal flaws; his disastrous and deadly policy of confining elderly Covid-19 sufferers in nursing homes could have reflected badly on the party.
Even in Nixon’s day lots of people — and not only his dwindling band of supporters — understood that the Watergate break-in and subsequent “cover-up” were not the real reason the media and the Democrats were determined to purge him from the body politic. They had hated him since the time, more than 20 years earlier, when he served on the House Un-American Activities Committee and was instrumental in putting the Soviet spy Alger Hiss behind bars. The combination of his anti-communism and his social gaucherie had kept him forever alien to the American ruling class, as it then was, and his subsequent conduct of the Vietnam War, inherited from his predecessor, raised that hatred to a white hot heat. No one seemed to mind very much when his defeated opponent in the 1972 election, taking a cue from his own hippie legions, compared him to Adolf Hitler.
With Boris, too, it is no secret that the remaining “Remainers” in the Conservative party would like nothing better than a chance for payback for what they see as his betrayal of the Cameron government, of which he was a part, over Brexit. And just as Nixon helped to make himself vulnerable with fellow conservatives who might otherwise have supported him in his time of trouble by turning left when in office — for example with the opening to China, wage and price controls and the then-new imperative for environmental regulation — so Boris has alienated many of his fellow Brexiteers and Thatcherite conservatives by kow-towing to the Green lobby and committing his government to the insane goal of “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050 — regulation in support of which and a consequent spike in energy prices are already well on the way to impoverishing the country and destroying the Tory reputation for competent and economical government.
You will have gathered that, if I were a Tory MP just now, I would be among those disposed to criticize, if not necessarily to oust, the Tory leader — and not only over ‘net-zero’ either. He has also, I’m sorry to say, broken a manifesto promise not to raise taxes, has been ineffective in stemming the rising tide of immigration and has been much too timid in confronting the EU over the Irish border and other issues. And yet I can’t help hoping that he pulls through — by the time you read this you will probably know if he has done so or not — if only to show that the media’s cynical and politically tendentious scandal-mongering is not quite the unstoppable force that it sometimes appears to be.
But there’s also another and more important reason to root for Boris. The media alone, at least the establishment media, no longer have the power to create a worldshaking scandal like Cakegate. They rely for the support of their agenda on a largely invisible army of new Puritans, in and out of government, who are no more capable of laughing at themselves than they are of putting themselves in the place of those they religiously persecute and wish to cancel for their heterodox opinions. These are the same people to whom Mr Johnson’s government appealed to rat out their neighbors for violating the draconian Covid restrictions of which he himself has now fallen foul — one reason why his resignation seems to many to be only poetic justice.
Nor are the new Puritans just a bunch of ad hoc vigilantes called into existence by the pandemic and the ill-judged measures taken to defeat it. They are also the largely anonymous Twitter mob behind the cancel culture which has taken such a hold on Britain, as on America, over the last five years. They are the masked Antifa and BLM shock troops of the 2020 riots and the student radicals who topple statues, shout down speakers and demand the dismissal of faculty or administrators with whom they don’t agree. They are the cabal of junior officers at the Atlantic or The New York Times of which the nominal editors and publishers live in mortal terror (see “Revolutionism redux, Part II” in The New Criterion of October, 2019). And they are also, we must suppose, as omnipresent in the British civil service as they are in the U.S. State Department.
Writing in the (London) Daily Telegraph at the beginning of February, Sherelle Jacobs contends that, “The hunt for a smoking gun” in the Boris birthday cake scandal, “has missed a far more devastating bombshell.” The “bombshell,” according to Ms Jacobs, is the fact that the PM secretly did not believe in the lockdown that he championed. The political consequences of this revelation should not be downplayed by Johnson’s supporters. It is potential dynamite because it preys on an underlying fear of the electorate: that the Tories are fake. New Labour faced a fatal reckoning for arrogantly attempting to foist its world view on the public while brooking no dissent. Johnson’s Government has been caught out going one further – foisting a world view in which it did not even believe. The whiff of phoniness hangs over a PM once celebrated for his freshness.
With all due respect to her, I think Ms Jacobs has got this slightly wrong. I agree with her about the bombshell part — at least that it ought to be one that Mr Johnson and, presumably, others in his government, did not really believe in the measures they were imposing on people. But what that indicates to me is not that the Tories are fake; it’s that they, like so many university administrations and newspaper and magazine editors and big media companies and big corporations around the world, are in thrall to the moral blackmail of the new Puritans and terrified of the consequences of daring to defy them and their favorite “experts,” as backed by the media and its ever-loving scandal machine.
It took Protestant Christianity hundreds of years to create and inculcate in ordinary people the idea of the kind of middle-class respectability and decency that Bertie Wooster was always at odds with and that, only a few years earlier, it had been social death (and sometimes literal death) for anyone to defy. The media in alliance with the political left have accomplished something similar in under half a century. That’s why I find it rather reassuring than damning that Boris doesn’t actually believe the new religion of masks and lockdowns, vaccine mandates and social distancing — any more than, perhaps (do I dare to suppose it?), he really believes in the economically ruinous doctrines of the global-warmists he is otherwise so zealous to support. So long as he only goes along with these agenda because of the loaded threat of scandal and disgrace pointed at his head, there must be hope for his eventual liberation and, with it, the liberation of all of us from the new Puritan hegemony.
James Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.