icon bookmark-bicon bookmarkicon cameraicon checkicon chevron downicon chevron lefticon chevron righticon chevron upicon closeicon v-compressicon downloadicon editicon v-expandicon fbicon fileicon filtericon flag ruicon full chevron downicon full chevron lefticon full chevron righticon full chevron upicon gpicon insicon mailicon moveicon-musicicon mutedicon nomutedicon okicon v-pauseicon v-playicon searchicon shareicon sign inicon sign upicon stepbackicon stepforicon swipe downicon tagicon tagsicon tgicon trashicon twicon vkicon yticon wticon fm

Britannia used to rule the waves, now it attacks defenceless people in tiny boats to deflect from its own sinking status

Andrew Dickens
Andrew Dickens

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.

Britannia used to rule the waves, now it attacks defenceless people in tiny boats to deflect from its own sinking status
The British once had the greatest navy in the world. Now we’re making a big deal of ‘defending’ ourselves from an imaginary ‘invasion’ of refugees in order to distract from our embarrassing collapse into economic and moral ruin.

“Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”

If you’re not aware, these are the opening lines from the chorus of Rule, Britannia! – a popular patriotic ditty from the 18th century still sung with vigour today, most notably at the Last Night of the Proms.

For the 18th century, it’s a banger and certainly one to get the patriotic juices flowing. It’s an anthem that stirs thoughts of Britain’s great maritime past, from Drake’s defeat of the Spanish Armada via Cook’s voyages of discovery, some very successful piracy, and Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, to the heroics of World War II and a treasure chest full of Olympic sailing medals. This small island nation has defended its borders (while invading a few others) without breach for nearly 1,000 years due in no small part to our naval prowess. In short, historically, we’re really good at sea.

Which makes this week’s big UK news story all the more embarrassing as our government and media made this small island nation look like it has a small island mentality.

What is that news? The biggest recession in the country’s history and the G7's worst-performing economy? Nope. How about the steady increase in recorded Covid-19 cases? Nah. The big news is… little boats of refugees are crossing the English channel. 

The government has done what it always does – it’s caused a distraction from its own failings by blaming an ‘other.’ Sometimes that ‘other’ can defend itself, like China or Russia, but when you’re metaphorically in deep water, the government’s favourite thing to do is point at desperate, defenceless people literally in deep water and blame them for all the problems they've caused. It’s not so much dog-whistle xenophobia as loudly shouting, “Attack the foreigners, Fido!”

And the press has been a willing pooch. 

Going by British media coverage, you’d think it was the D-Day landings in reverse: a fleet of lazy or criminal ‘others’ coming to "take our benefits." The mainstream media – BBC and all – have formed an actual flotilla in the Channel, waiting like fishermen for the little dinghies carrying the refugees, before pursuing them with all the fevered passion of Captain Ahab going after Moby Dick, just with bland questions being hurled at the prey instead of harpoons, clicks and likes their haul. 

The language is of an “invasion” by people with nothing but the clothes on their back. The government even appointed a ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ to protect our shores. I can only assume that it’s the threat that’s supposed to be clandestine and not the commander, seeing as he’s been named and photographed with the home secretary, which isn’t very clandestine. 

Is this what we’re frightened of now? German U-boats (properly clandestine, them) and the might of the Spanish Armada were one thing, but heavens protect us from marauding dentists and gardeners hitting Margate beach armed with orange life vests and sorrowful tales of their homes being destroyed. 

Britannia Rules the waves, as long as there’s no actual threat in them.

Put aside the rights, wrongs and in-betweens of a country accepting refugees from a Middle East hellhole that it helped create. Forget the fact that no evidence or statistics back up the fears around asylum seekers, that the UK takes far fewer than some smaller European countries and that, far from wanting to “destroy our way of life,” refugees are more enthusiastic about the UK than its own residents.

Forget, too, the humanitarian aspect, which made cabinet ministers so sensitive that they got upset when some ice cream called them out over it. And that we could probably do with some fresh blood around here, having lost record numbers of people to Covid-19 (sorry, we’re not supposed to mention that).

Forget all that. That’s another debate. What’s important here is that the big guys (the government and the media) are using the little guys to divert our attention away from how it’s failed its own people and, well, it’s all a bit pathetic.

Picking on the ‘other’ is the oldest trick in the book and yet it works, which is probably why it’s still in the book. According to a YouGov poll, half of Britons have "little or no sympathy" for the refugees crossing the Channel. (It’s amazing how short-lived the All Lives Matter slogan was.) It’s an attitude born of several factors. We have an island mentality and a military and colonial past that gives some people a sense of superiority and entitlement that’s very hard to shake (or justify).

It’s also due to a narrative built by successive governments pandering to right-wing extremes because tragic Little Englander elitists like Nigel Farage whipped up a significant number of votes by hating on foreigners after the 2008 economic crash – and those governments fancied having those votes. Even the Labour Party has a forest of splinters in its collective backside from leaping on, off and over the fence on immigration trying to read the electorate.

But it’s mainly due to the fact that we’ve had years and years of an absolute clown show in Number 10, with the current troupe, led by Bozo, possibly the most likely to see the car fully collapse underneath it. And so they’ve consistently pointed at the ‘others,’ blaming them for all our problems, as the tent burns in the distance. This has been gleefully echoed by the media who, in the same way as the government wants votes, want sales and clicks and think this is an easy way to get them. Which, sadly, it is.

This is what Britannia has become: an establishment of incompetent bullies picking on the little guy and blaming him for all the ways that it’s made our homegrown little guys’ lives suck. 

Now, as we drift in our own crappy little dinghy through the Strait of Believing Everything We Read towards increasingly jagged economic rocks and the iceberg of Brexit beyond, still pointing and shouting at some poor soul trying to leg it from war or famine, I can only imagine the great captains and admirals of the past turning in Davy Jones’ locker – and it gives me a sinking feeling.

Also on rt.com Police stop RT interview with asylum seeker as we investigate the controversy of migrants living in hotels all around the UK

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Podcasts