TODAY’S embattled traditionalists are a pragmatic breed, feet firmly on the ground. But there’s still room for an occasional flight of fancy. In flight-mode, however, beguiling ‘what if’ questions can arise, cruelly raising hopes. One, I find, is this: what if an elite group of patriots – let’s call it a revived Council of State – were formed, tasked with bringing Britain back from the brink? Of course, it’s a hopelessly romantic notion, not least for assuming that at this late hour the old country can be saved. But accepting the many caveats, let’s indulge ourselves.
The original Council of State (1649-1660) was established by Parliament, shortly after Charles I and his head parted company. Before author and reader follow suit, you don’t need to be a Roundhead sympathiser to acknowledge the council’s attraction. Here’s the point: it was a small body (with a quorum of nine) of respected, competent men, invested with executive authority in all domestic and foreign affairs, at a time of (to put it mildly) national crisis.
True, in wartime the old Privy Council performed a similar role, and in governments of national unity the Cabinet still does. But the revolutionary standing of the Council of State, partly reflected in its military flavour (several members were army officers), seems to equip it better for meeting the country’s present existential threats.
One could go in two general directions with this wistful digression. In one, a ‘Right-wing’ counter-coup has (hopefully peacefully) already taken place, and the council is an officially sanctioned body, responsible for cementing victory. In the other, it’s an unofficial, clandestine group, fomenting the conditions for that coup. Let’s opt, in the current climate, for the slightly less treasonable first scenario, although there would doubtless be overlaps.
What would a modern-day Council of State look like? Naturally, its remit – and the corresponding portfolios of its members – would be of key importance. But let’s start with its greatest strength: it would be free of career politicians. The nation’s sharpest minds would be appointed, proven redoubts of wisdom within communications, industry, the academy, the armed forces, and so on.
Ideally, none would have been heavily involved in politics before, certainly not fresh from university. Doers as well as thinkers, they would offer their services – their loyalty – selflessly, not for financial gain or self-aggrandisement. Seats at the table might even be found for a few paternalistic, mildly eccentric toffs.
Do such people still exist? In ‘Global Britain’, can they? Numbers are dwindling, but there must surely remain thirty such Englishmen, and I dare say closer to three thousand. Pooling their unrivalled talents for the sake of national recovery, could they yet pull off this unlikely rescue-job?
As for priorities, we know the script. Aside from an initial focus on security, the media would be high up on the list: the BBC would go, or be re-staffed. Tough immigration laws would be enforced, and hate-speech statutes abolished. Longer-term, school curricula would be redesigned, emphasising Britain’s benign influence on the world. The public sector would be shorn of overpaid, incompetent managers, and a giant bonfire of the quangos would reduce even a newly reinvigorated Guy Fawkes Night to a sideshow. All of this, of course, presupposes a profound shift towards small ‘c’ conservatism in public opinion, and the goodwill of the majority. We don’t particularly want a return to the Rule of the Major-Generals (1655-57); at least, not if we can help it.
It seems we’re scarcely in a position to call the constitutional shots. But as part of this curious new phenomenon, the marginalised majority, we’re entitled to flirt with ideas of alternative forms of government. Indeed, I would argue we’re duty-bound to do so. Invoking institutional ghosts of England’s civil-war past probably isn’t the best way to go about it. But I suppose if nothing else, it serves as a reminder, by turns chastening and reassuring, that we’ve been down this road – or something similar – before.