Notes from a Banana Republic Meritocracy

Perhaps you’ve noticed Great Britain has burned through two prime ministers, three chancellors, four mental breakdowns, five psychiatric interventions, and six doses of electroconvulsive therapy in just seven weeks.

Things can only get worse. As I type, the clever people are glossing the finishing touches on Rishi Sunak, LinkedIn’s representative on Earth, before his coronation as our new prime minister. After losing against Liz Truss last month, Rishi has “won” against nobody in a leadership election in which nobody voted. The joys of meritocracy.

Yes, this soirée amidst the hell realms is like when you’ve imbibed too many mushrooms. The walls dance on your chest, relaying in 4k every embarrassment stored in your mangled, treacherous brain. The horror ebbs and flows. The horror relents. It’s over! I’m back to normal. Thank . . . What? No!—it’s not over! It’s getting worse. Worse. How can this possibly be worse? Stop saying the word “worse,” you’re making things . . . worse. What’s the opposite of worse? Is it “serene”? Serene sounds like “severe.” Severe is worse than worse! Please make it stop.

How did we get here, you might wonder. How is the mother of representative democracy writhing around on the kitchen linoleum, screaming about the demons hissing in the fridge?

Well, we did something very offensive to the Clever People who’ve run the country for the last four decades. In American English, we told them they suck.

What Happened to Boris

In May 2021, Boris Johnson, the man who got Brexit done, won by a frightful margin a seat called Hartlepool. Hartlepool is one of those old Labour Party “Red Wall” heartland seats in which they used to weigh rather than count the Labour votes. In what Americans call a “special election,” Boris ransacked Hartlepool, adding the seat to the burgeoning column of old Labour seats conquered in 2019’s massive 80-seat-majority-winning general election.

Voters in places like Hartlepool—seats where “Tory” just four years ago was a potent euphemism for a pejorative rhyming with “Jeremy Hunt”—had abandoned Labour. Oh, and this unthinkable win came after a once-in-a-century pandemic that claimed 150,000 lives, presided over by an 11-year-old Conservative government.

To put this in terms that will resonate better with Americans: Boris winning Hartlepool was akin to Donald Trump winning Los Angeles.

After Hartlepool, anyone with working vocal cords, and those without them, accepted that Boris and his Red Tories would govern for a generation. The Red Tories had just won the most emphatic election victory since I was swimming competitively and with evident success around a testicle. They’d found the electoral sweet spot: culturally conservative and economically sane.

And there was more where that came from. Another 40 Red Wall seats would soon succumb to Boris at the next election and consign Labor and the Clever People—the institutions, academia, the broadcast media, etc.—to utter irrelevance. Boris the Great. He came. He guffawed. He conquered.

Or so it seemed.

You see, it looked as if Boris had broken the ancestral compact between traditional Labour voters and votes for Labour.

With his promise to “level-up” a country lopsided toward London and to finish off Brexit, Boris had the temerity to suggest the last 40 years of economic, cultural, spiritual, and social decline presided over by the Clever People, was not good enough. Worse yet, he sided with the losers in the unfashionable lump of the country attached to London.

Not so fast. Great Britain is a meritocracy. By “meritocracy,” the Clever People mean a country run by people like them for people like them.

Meritocracy Is as Meritocracy Does

Nothing was more psychologically injurious to the winners of meritocracy than Brexit. Against the counsel of their betters, the “losers” of the meritocracy voted in 2016 to leave the European Union. Since then, the meritocrats have tried anything and everything to reverse the largest democratic mandate in British history. They did this in the name of “democracy.”

The irony: meritocrats are not too keen on elections—the purest reflection of meritocracy—in which the losers provide the wrong answer.

The problem with meritocracy is that meritocracy involves human nature.

If you believe that your talents and abilities explain your successes entirely, then you too should likewise believe your talents and abilities explain your failures entirely. Of course, man is incapable of such lofty ideals. We privatize our successes, and we socialize our failures.

The monstrous algorithm of meritocracy filters reality into an echo chamber. The winners hear only confirmations of their winning.

The meritocrats possess not so much their divine right to rule but the divine rule that they’re right.

Finally tired of forced applause for productions that worsen in quality by the year, the captive audience started launching rotten tomatoes at the Clever People on the stage. Rather than ask, “Why are these people throwing tomatoes at us?” they instead drew the curtains. “These backward hayseeds are too stupid to appreciate our brilliance! Let them drive Ubers. Let them eat Netflix.”

The awkward reality of meritocracy is that it works only with the consent of the losers in the audience. The hard luck for the Clever People was that those people David Goodhart calls “Somewheres” (because they identify with and remain in the places where they were born) wanted a piece of the pie for which they do most of the baking.

The “Anywheres” (or the cosmopolitan Clever People) who market the pie, slice up the pie, dream up loathsome soundbites for describing the pie, and devour most of the pie while demanding those who baked the pie savor the crumbs, refused to acknowledge the provenance of the pie.

Boris wanted to level-up the pie. Boris had to go.

Death by Cake, Then Lettuce

But how? Boris, the Teflon Toff, defies Newtonian laws of political gravity. Boris has an unearthly ability to connect with voters who rage with conviction that all politicians—except Boris—are lying, conniving failed celebrities in it solely for themselves.

Ironically, it wasn’t pie that killed Boris, but cake.

First, the Clever People tried wallpaper. Seriously. During the Hartlepool campaign, the media obsessed with Aspergic glee over the provenance of wallpaper in Boris’ parliamentary abode. That failed. Nobody cared.

Then came the breathless campaign called “Partygate.” The Clever People, always impartial when it suits their agenda, had photographic evidence that Boris had broken the lockdown rules in place during the pandemic. Alas, Kay Burley of Sky News also broke those rules. But that didn’t matter.

For nine months, every waking hour was consumed with scandal after scandal. Boris partied, they said, while you, the people we care so much about, were locked up at home. Families of those who succumbed to the virus featured permanently on the news. Emotive broadcast journalists did what they do best: third-rate drama. (Reader, broadcast journalists are failed celebrities. The Romans were right about these thespian sorts.)

Indeed, the reality didn’t quite match the lurid fantasy. Boris had some cake with some people with whom he’d spent the day working—much like Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer, who enjoyed a curry and a beer with colleagues after the day’s work. Curiously, the media said next to nothing about that. But that was different.

This slither of British history is too loathsome and too laborious for one man to illustrate in full. In summary: Boris survived Partygate. Then came “Pinchergate.” What happened? A lawmaker under Boris’ leadership allegedly got handsy.

Sensing yet another stitch-up, Boris floundered in dignifying the media’s latest wheeze. Panicked by a slight decline in the polls, Conservative lawmakers revolted. After the most tumultuous drama in parliamentary history, then-chancellor Rishi Sunak resigned. Mass resignations followed. Then Boris resigned.

During this brief history of a banana republic, the meritocrats chanted a telling mantra: “If Boris goes, Brexit goes.”

Oh, forgive me. I almost forgot about Liz Truss! Do accept my humble apologies.

After Boris resigned, a host of lawmakers ran for the top job. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss scraped and slithered and slimed their way into the final two. Rishi was ready, as his campaign slogan attested. Too ready if you ask me. Within a matter of hours, Rishi dropped a Hollywood-standard montage about how bloody great and how bloody ordinary an ex-banker married to a tax-avoidant billionaire could bloody well be. Oh, this too-perfect video? Found it down the back of the sofa, mate. What are the odds, etc.

Given the choice between smugness personified and an Instagram Thatcher in Liz Truss, Tory members chose Truss for the top job.

Prime Minister Truss, bless her, lasted as long as the lifespan of the average housefly: 45 days. Flattered by a two-week official mourning of the late Queen Elizabeth II, the Truss era soon unraveled.

A committed free marketeer in the adolescent “cut taxes” sense, Truss offered her Market God a libertarian budget as a blood sacrifice. The irony: the Market God rejected her offering.

Disaster ensued. Soon, Jeremy Hunt took over as chancellor. Like a sadistic child with a spider in his palm, the technocratic “adult in the room” Hunt pulled off the legs of Liz Truss’ budget and premiership as she looked on.

Meanwhile, the Daily Star dressed a lettuce in a blond wig. “Will this lettuce last longer than Liz Truss?” the paper asked. The plucky little iceberg lettuce didn’t wilt a leaf. And so, Liz Truss last week resigned.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The only lenitive to this bottomless brunch of bullshit is concealed within the denials of Trussian libertarians: that wasn’t real libertarianism, they cry. Real libertarianism has never been tried.

Meritocrats Try Again

With Truss gone, the meritocrats still had a major problem. To ordinary people, Rishi Sunak is about as trustworthy as the sight of a grinning Bill Cosby handing them a suspiciously cloudy cocktail.

Last week, the Conservatives announced their latest leadership election. This time, hopefuls would have to muster the nominations of 100 lawmakers—a sky-scraping bar—to even make the interview. Of course, if only one hopeful clustered together that figure, that hopeful would win the lot. (No prizes, reader, for guessing where this is going.)

Boris Johnson stormed back from his Caribbean jaunt to get his old job back. Rishi delayed his announcement for “fear of looking too eager.” Nothing says, “I’m desperate,” quite like saying, “I’m not desperate!”

Here was a choice. Well, sort of. They’re not that stupid. On the menu was Rishi Sunak, or Sunak, Rishi.  Oh, Boris and Penny Mordaunt were also on the menu. But when I asked the waiter, who for some reason wore a “Ready for Rishi” campaign badge, he said, “We are sold out of Boris and Penny, sir. But there’s plenty more on the menu. How about the British Indian special? Clever People magazine called it ‘a dependable yet deceiving little dish.’”

I chose the better option: hunger strike.

Of course, the big fear for the meritocrats was a fight between Boris and Rishi, one in which the losers in the audience would have a say.

Over the weekend, polls in the Red Wall and beyond confirmed that the Tories would do twice as well under Boris than under Rishi. Perhaps, to the meritocrats, that’s the point for the Clever People. “Those people, the Lower Orders, will get what we, the Clever Ones, impose upon them. And they’ll like it, too.”

Despite having 102 nominations confirmed Monday morning, Boris on Sunday night dropped out of the race. The meritocracy shrieked in ecstasy. As impartial as ever, a state-funded broadcaster confessed her glee! BBC presenter Martine Croxall couldn’t quite contain herself.

After the news broke that Boris had dropped out, Croxall gushed: “Am I allowed to be this gleeful? Well, I am!” The impartial Clever Person then giggled and scoffed at the quaint idea that a state-funded broadcaster is bound by anachronisms like “impartiality.” Don’t these killjoys realize this is the greatest day since June 22, 2016, when we were winning the battle to remain in the European Union? To the meritocrats, nothing is more meretricious than merit.

After the most loathsome few months in recent British history, we audience members must now sit quietly, like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” for the next rendition of “Meritocracy: Sunak’s Story.”

It’s an inspirational fable about a plucky, out-of-touch rich kid married to a tax-dodging billionaire, who after losing a fair fight gets handed the keys to the greatest castle in the land. The story of Rishi Sunak is a true tale of triumph against tall treacherous odds.

No doubt, the kids will love it. Kids, if you want to be prime minister one day, then take inspiration from Rishi Sunak, the little billionaire that could.

All you have to do is work very hard . . . at knowing the right people.

About Christopher Gage

Christopher Gage is a British political journalist and a founding member of the Gentlemen of the Swig. Subscribe to his Substack, "Oxford Sour."

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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