“Have you never seen a prime minister ride the underground before?” says Gary Oldman dressed as Churchill, in that film based on British politics in the early 1940s. Mr Oldman is fortunate to have joined a carriage-full of young but otherwise diverse Londoners who are unanimously on his side in the burning European question of the day. Somewhere in the grim darkness of the far future, to borrow a phrase from the Warhammer catalogue, a young actress (as yet unborn) is joining that time’s idea of a representative group from “the early twenty-twenties” (tidier, if we relocate The Brexit Saga to the beginning of a decade), to ask a similar question.
You know the shoes she’ll be wearing. The whole outfit, probably. If it’s Mr Corbyn not Mrs May who gets the based-on-history treatment, you know the cap he’ll be wearing. You can make a stab at guessing the ethnic, gender, et cetera, mix of the people she/he will meet. At some other point in the drama, there’ll be an encounter with an American actor - but we’ll stop there. I’m not thinking about that. Or about any of it, actually. I’m thinking about a glaring absence. Like Gary Oldman in 1940, that young (old?) actress (actor?) of the future will commune with her (his?) constituents absolutely free of any interference from the people who absolutely would be there - the official bodyguards.
Back in Gary Oldman’s 1940, the answer to his question would have been “No. Because it doesn’t happen.” Today, and in at least the foreseeable (ha ha) future, the answer has to be, “Frequently, on screen, but in real life, they only ever travel behind the smoked-glass windows of armoured limousines, in convoys along closed roads, with motorcycle outriders, so we never see them at all.”
And they never see us. That distance, between them and us, is filled in that way by the security services, for understandable reasons. It doesn’t contribute to the smooth working of what a layman might understand by the term “democracy”, or indeed “liberal democracy”, or come to think of it, “open government”, but never mind. We understand. If our leaders were allowed to walk freely among us, we might kill them. That’s the assumption. And it’s valid. Which makes it even worse. Security protects leaders from the people who elected them, and sometimes, it fails. Insert your own examples here. The division between leaders and led, in today’s open democracies, is as wide as it’s ever been.
That iceberg you’re not seeing is today’s metaphor. It represents the state. The visible 10 per cent is made up of bulky individuals who don’t seem interested in what the leader is saying (plus motorcycles, etc.), but just imagine the other 90 per cent. The term “deep state” means something sinister, so let’s call this the hidden state. No, the behind-the-scenes state. Imagine the scale of the logistical exercise required to move this week’s prime minister from A to B. Even routine short trips - it’s in the manual that they can’t be allowed to become routine, so the route has to be varied and that variation has to be communicated to all concerned. That alone is a big exercise; imagine the whole thing. So many people. So much work. All necessary. And moving on from this focus on security and movement, imagine the size of the overall behind-the-scenes state.
It’s not sinister. It’s not malign. It’s just enormous. Which means that it has space within it for the whole variety of human nature, motivation, altruism, self-interest, activism, laziness, drive, common sense, wrong-headedness, doubt, conviction, religious belief, atheism. In the UK, government doesn’t shut down because budget talks are deadlocked, or because … can’t think of another ‘because’. In the UK, government doesn’t stop for anything. It rolls on. That vast edifice of state control, management, administration, protection just keeps on happening, through changes of government - even through revolutions, if the victors don’t want chaos. And it’s driven by human nature, all those diverse crowds of people with their own reasons for turning up to work. [I'm avoiding the term "bureaucrat" because I'm imagining everybody from front-line (sic) NHS staff to permanent (sic) secretaries. The people who don't get "honours" automatically, and those who do.]
As I say, nothing wrong with it. Never mind democracy; you need that many people to keep any modern state going. You need cadres of experienced administrators more than you need newly appointed government ministers, actually. But one of the enduring myths of our time, and of history, is that an individual will come, who will save us from what went before (I’m trying to avoid the religious echo here). Don’t think so. Given the size and complexity of the state and the thickness of the bulletproof glass between a new Prime Minister and the rest of us, I suspect that government works on a kind of reverse-butterfly effect. The new PM stands up and says, “Let There Be Light!” and the blown bulb in my living room gives out a faint “pfzt!”.
Or perhaps - full steam ahead on the metaphors - the manifesto promises to revolutionise transport in this country, and after the election, the A30’s coned off while a yellow-jacketed workforce fill in some potholes. Yellow-jacketed, yeah, right, got that reference. I don’t know. The “levers of power” in this country are less like light switches and more like those intricate structures of dominoes and carefully balanced spoons, glasses, fulcrums and levers that you see sometimes on Facebook delivering a small silver ball to an egg-cup. Except that Facebook never shows you the failures and the trial runs. Government tries hard, no doubt, and the machinery works, but I’m afraid we seem to have misplaced your silver ball, minister.
That crowd waiting for the young actress (or her replacement) on the tube train will be unanimously in favour of however this current crisis ends. They’ll believe that the solution was (will be) achieved by the selfless efforts of whoever steps in through the carriage door. That’s the myth we need, to get us through this chaos. Shall we just sit back and wait for it to arrive?
There's a genre, isn't there, steampunk? Combining steam engines with early technology. No, wait, looking it up. "A genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology". Okay, and - cor! - On the same (first) results page, "Steampunk Plastic Bone Black Corselet". That young lady isn't wearing any - never mind. Staying on the subject - I wonder if the future isn't playing a trick on us. If the next-but-one genre - the next-but-one reality, actually - won't turn out to be some form of "punk" that combines "advanced" (cue uncontrollable laughter) technology with mechanical devices that allow us to use our hands for something more than just tapping a screen.
Instead of steam-driven whatever, we find ourselves, for example, changing the [typewriter] ribbon on our laptop, turning the key in the back of our app to wind it up, buying the big rotary-dial accessory that comes with the next-but-several model of our mobile phone. I love the fact - to digress - that opera, ballet, National Theatre productions, et cetera, are now broadcast to cinemas, and also the fact that you can buy seats - effectively, car seats - to sit in as you play your driving-based (or other) video game. I get quite exercised by the notion that innovation is just a matter of finding the next screen-based thing. It isn't.
We forecast the future in straight lines, and then live it in a tangle of scribbled zigzags. I suppose it might be clockwork-punk, or just mechanical punk. Motor cars go back to being mechanical, instead of computer-run, so you can just reach in under the bonnet and fix them. Writing goes back to being writing, with paper, pens, Tippex and ribbons. Notes can be scribbled. Young ladies get to pull on cosy thermal undergarments over their plastic bone black corselets. We get to use our opposable thumbs and pick up tools again.
As I say, I do have a second piece to put below the picture, in the usual way, but I'm going to hold it back because I'm not happy with it. Maybe next week. Assuming I can find a typewriter.