The sale last week of a gold coin issued by Caratacus, the ancient British warrior who unsuccessfully resisted the Roman invasion, has got me thinking about the branding of doomed British regimes. The coin fetched £80,040 and depicts a naked Caratacus on a horse (also naked). That sounded a bit grim to me. The emperor Claudius, Caratacus’s ultimate vanquisher, never went tackle-out on the currency. Caratacus’s nudey display seems a bit try-hard, a bit Vladimir Putin, although even he tends to keep his trousers on.
To be fair, the image is more tasteful than the description makes it sound – you can’t really see Caratacus’s bottom or penis, though there is, to my eye at least, a suggestion of horse cock. But is this the product of restraint or merely the limitations of late iron age minting technology? Who knows what oiled and rippling hairy-balled vulgarity Caratacus might have commissioned if he’d had access to full-colour 3D printing? So it was probably for the best that this exhibitionist warrior culture was soon to benefit from the restraining influence of a vast pan-European bureaucracy.
Boris Johnson’s ramshackle administration, in contrast, is heading in the opposite direction and, frankly, if we could limit the damage he does to Britain to merely putting his winkle on all the 50ps, I think we should grab it with both hands. By which I mean, metaphorically grab that outcome, not physically take hold of his member. I can’t believe as much of that goes on as people say.
Recent events show Johnson’s government to be as relentlessly beset by problems of its own making as Caratacus was by legions. What the hell happened with Dominic Cummings? Johnson allowed the whole first lockdown to be fundamentally undermined in order to protect that supposed political genius. At a time when everyone was being told to suppress their instincts, Johnson defended the man purely on the basis that he was following his instincts. That’s like defending a murderer on the basis that he disliked the victim. And for what? So Cummings could stay in the job for a few more months and then get pushed out because the prime minister’s girlfriend had gone off him. Even if we assume malevolence, this doesn’t make sense.
And then, on the very day the prime minister was attempting to relaunch his new-look, marginally less shitty regime, it turns out he has to isolate for two weeks because he got a bit too close to another MP during a work breakfast. How did that happen? Who are these idiots? Sit further apart! Don’t share a toast rack! It is all so offensively inept.
But, for me, the profound inadequacy of the bunch running Britain at this crucial time comes across most clearly in their presentational choices. For example, the congratulatory tweet they sent when Joe Biden was declared winner of the presidential election. Much has already been said about the incomprehensible error meaning that ill-concealed fragments of a message congratulating Donald Trump were somehow perceivable within it, like the imprint of handwriting on the next page down in a notepad. I didn’t know that was possible in a tweet, but somehow Johnson has found staff hapless enough to make a previously undreamt-of type of blunder a reality.
What, in my view, exacerbates that mistake, but also makes the message almost poignant in its aspiration to be snazzy and on-brand, is the “10” at the bottom of it. It’s written in the same font as the “10” on the door of 10 Downing Street. So it’s like a sort of logo for the prime minister’s house, which they’ve obviously decided looks cool. Well, it doesn’t. It’s naff and effortful and flashy, like putting everything you write in Zapf Chancery when you first get a printer. It would be undignified even in some utopian alternate reality where the government had somehow retained the competence to issue messages that don’t accidentally have contradictory messages lightly written underneath them.
There was more of this adolescent brand-tinkering earlier in the year when they got the ministerial aeroplane repainted. It’s an RAF Voyager that’s been used for transporting royals and prime ministers since 2016 but, until June this year, it was military grey in colour with “Royal Air Force” written on it in a slightly darker grey. Now it’s Hollywood tooth-enamel white with a union jack tail fin and “United Kingdom” painted on the side in glittering gold.
Some people might say that’s an improvement: it’s now more clearly a British government plane and also it looks shiny and new, which must be better. Personally, I don’t want anyone with an opinion that wrong having any power. It’s a horrible change. The plane used to look confident and understated – everyone in the world would know that “Royal Air Force” meant the UK, but it wasn’t screaming it at them. Now it looks plasticky and desperate – a feeble Captain Britain to Air Force One’s Captain America.
The truth is I never thought Johnson would make a good prime minister but I didn’t expect him to be tasteless. The aesthetic of the British state is stylish and unusual: ostensibly a monarchy but with the real power resting behind a relatively normal-looking numbered door in a street. It’s more sophisticated than a president in a big white mansion. I expected Johnson to understand that, but when he tries to make the number 10 a corporate badge and pimps the Queen’s official air-ride, I realise that he actually doesn’t.
It makes me question his trademark crumpled and chaotic appearance. I thought it was a slightly-more-interesting-than-average image he’d adopted – a deliberate rejection of other politicians’ bland slickness. But now I’m not so sure. Perhaps he’s trying to look smart, but he can’t get it together. Maybe it’s not a conscious choice but another lapse of competence.
I dislike his politics but I was prepared to rate his artistic judgment. He seemed relatively talented when he was basically in showbusiness – I used to think it would be better if he’d stayed there. Now I’m not sure he isn’t equally terrible at everything.