Donald Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again has been enthusiastically adopted in a British context by UKIP and deployed in a modified form by Conservatives. But why should we be wary of this seemingly uplifting phrase?
Calls for National Greatness are Nothing New
Last week I blogged about the origins of the autocratic libertarian ideology of Donald Trump and Theresa May. In many respects their political kinship reflects the Thatcher/Reagan consensus of the 1980s but in a much more dangerous form. In fact the phrase Make Britain Great Again has a long history, one which coincidentally involves Britain’s first female Prime Minister. It was used prominently by the Conservative Party in the 1950 General Election, notable for the first time Margaret Roberts stood for election as MP. They lost, though Roberts was to make her name famous as Margaret Thatcher.
Similarly, in the United States the idea that one person or family could ‘Make America Great Again’ long predates Trump. In fact neoconservatives such as David Brooks had been calling for it since the 1990s. Here is what he wrote in the Weekly Standard an outright neoconservative mouthpiece in 1997:
The national mission can be carried out only by individuals and families — not by collectives, as in socialism and communism. Instead, individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness.
It is important to note that Brooks also mistrusted democracy, believing that it would destroy a sense of grand ambition and noble purpose unless accompanied by an aggressive imperialist foreign policy. He disdained what he called a concern with ‘radical egalitarianism’ with its concern for compassion and caring. Surprisingly, it did not actually matter how this greatness was to be achieved, (provided that it was not advancement of the individual):
It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.
National Greatness at the Expense of Rights and Compassion
Whether consciously or not, Theresa May has adopted the assertion of Brooks that it does not matter what comprises the ‘great task’. This is what allows May, who opposed Brexit to enthusiastically embrace a Hard Brexit in pursuit of this shot at ‘greatness’. Likewise this great national crusade comes at the expense of private concerns, of the promotion of a caring and compassionate society or fuzzy, woolly things such as rights!
I have never held a gun, let alone fired one. I share this with the vast majority of British people, lucky to be born in the second half of the 20th Century when being sent to war in a mass army was a thing of the past. At the same time I am no idealistic dreamer and am fully aware that we live in a world full of dangers (albeit some of which we create!), appreciating that there are men and women who make sacrifices for our country. Because I have never been in the forces I cannot fully understand the life of a serviceman/woman, but I am quite capable of questioning the motives of a British establishment which commits them to action. In particular there is a serious issue with a royal family which treats the armed forces both as a mean of personal glorification and a job creation scheme.
One of the inspirational aspects of the past few months for me has been meeting members of the Veterans for Peace movement (I particularly valued their presence at Levellers Day and Gus Hales has written a personal account). A number of my recent blogs (here for example) have involved the way contemporary monarchy encourages many people in Britain to uncritically accept it as part of their identity. For servicemen and women the pressure must be overwhelming with the taking of the oath of loyalty and the justification of fighting for King/Queen and Country. To mentally reject that identity and question whether military power is in the interests of the British people themselves takes real will power.
While limiting the problem of the glorification of war to the monarchy risks missing a large part of the story, it is still a good place to start. The fact that for three or four hundred years following the Norman Conquest English monarchs were in reality successful warlords means that monarchy and militarism were interlinked from the start. Although by the eighteenth century the time was long past when a king personally led an army, monarchs lost none of their zeal for sending troops into battle for power and glory. For example in 1781 when it was patently clear to politicians that the war in North America was lost and British troops should be withdrawn, George III (pictured above) insisted on continuing with hostilities, With an increasingly rebellious House of Commons, Prime Minister Lord North was left with no option but to tell the King where to go! Today, George III’s ancestors show similar disdain for servicemen. At any state occasion members of the Royal family can be seen ridiculously strutting around in uniforms of high military rank bedecked with ribbons and medals.
As this Telegraph article makes clear, many of these are invented or handed out by the queen presumably with the intention of making an impression on us. There can be no other reason why you would give Prince Philip the Order of Merit when it is limited to 24 individuals and otherwise has been held by such luminaries as Bertrand Russell (himself a pacifist!). Look more closely and you will see almost all of these preening people displaying medals such as the Queens Silver Jubilee medal and Golden Jubilee medal given ‘for service’. Interestingly these very medals have frequently been denied or withheld from actual servicemen/women of long standing as this blog illustrates.