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11 June 2022

Why is Boris Johnson’s government determined to send us back in time?

Blue passports, grammar schools, imperial measurements – the aim isn’t to fix the country, but to remind the over-50s of their youth.

By Jonn Elledge

In the 2006 BBC TV series Life on Mars the Manchester police detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. Lost in a world in which men are men and casual bigotry is encouraged, he asks, in the opening credits to every episode: “Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?”

Disappointingly for those of us who enjoyed the show, the answer from the writing team turned out to be, “We don’t know either!” To be fair to them, though, they could never have foreseen a fourth option: perhaps Sam Tyler had woken up in the world a future Conservative government would be intent on creating.

It started with Brexit, of course. The government has repeatedly touted the return of Britain’s “iconic blue passports” as a benefit of leaving the European Union, even though there was absolutely nothing in EU rules that made burgundy ones compulsory in the first place. It also never stopped to ask “iconic to who?” – but since the switch in colour had been made by the Thatcher government in 1988, meaning you’d have to have been born before the early 1970s to have even held a blue one, the answer is pretty clear.

The entire Brexit project, of course, could be seen as an attempt to reset Britain’s position in the world and its relations with its neighbours to the status quo ante they occupied before it joined the European Community in 1973. But such a thing was never possible, and the decision to focus on the colour of passports instead gives the game away. Real progress is too difficult: let’s target older voters with aesthetic change instead. (Let’s not even mention the infuriating fact that the blue passports are actually black.)

Unless, of course, aesthetics really were the point of the exercise. That would certainly explain the recent decision to launch a consultation on bringing back imperial measurements, something else which the European Union never actually banned and which have instead largely fallen by the wayside because they’re a complete pain in the arse.

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[See also: Why the Tories love grammar schools]

The metric system uses prefixes – centi, kilo and so on – that tell you immediately which scale you’re working on. It provides a system of units which translate neatly into one another (a litre is a cube with sides of 10cm, a hectare is a square 100m on each side, and so on) and where everything is helpfully divisible by ten.

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The imperial system doesn’t do any of that. Instead, it offers a nightmarish series of measurements in which there are 112 pounds to the hundredweight, 34.68 cubic inches to the point, and you’re constantly trying to remember whether the number of yards to the chain is eight, 12 or 16. (It’s 22.) Nonetheless, that system was around during the older generation’s youth, while the metric system is French, and so back to imperial measurements we shall go. The official consultation provides for an option in which we only use imperial measurements, even though most of us don’t understand them, while entirely ignoring the possibility of only using the metric ones that we do.

Even grammar schools make more sense from this nostalgia perspective. OK, unlike passport colours or debates about how we should define the length of a stick there is a policy argument to be had there, rather than merely an aesthetic one. All the same, though, comprehensive education was introduced in 1965, which means that for those born before the late 1950s grammar schools and selective education were as much a part of the cultural wallpaper as blue (black) passports and the crown symbol on the side of their pint. This government’s enthusiasm for them surely can’t be a coincidence.

In the wake of Monday’s narrow vote of confidence in Boris Johnson, the ever entertaining politics professor Matthew Goodwin called for the Prime Minister to launch (something else designed to appeal to the sensibilities of the over 50s, this) a “policy blitzkrieg”: “Slash tax. Launch All Out War on cost of living. Reform institutions.” The problem, though, is that each of these proposals risks dividing the Conservative Party or its electoral coalition against itself. Slashing tax upsets those who care about sound money; fixing the cost of living might mean interfering in the operation of the free market. All those policies are going to cost money and political capital that this government has no desire to spend.

And so time and again, instead of trying to fix any of our real problems, Johnson’s government does something else: it reaches for policies that may look nonsensical to anyone under 50 but which will at least remind its base of the time when they were young. Not merely through culture war and Brexit but through policy itself, our government is determined to ram us back into 1973.

Life on Mars began 16 years ago. If they made it now with the same time gap, I recently realised with a jolt, it would be set in 1989. Time flies quicker than you think, and nostalgia will get all of us in the end.

Nostalgia, though, is a terrible recipe for government, and the Tories’ attempt to recreate their voters’ youth will do nothing to prepare this country for the future. They’re just sending us back in time.

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