When Brexit is mentioned nowadays (every two minutes), it is very difficult not to suffer a Laurel and Hardy moment – “fine mess you got me into”. It was, and is, one of the world’s greatest displays of incoherent magical thinking. It is, and will continue to be, an unmitigated disaster.
How on earth did things come to this? Although the choice of culprits is almost embarrassingly rich, the English media would seem to be the most obvious place to start. The British fourth estate has always leaned towards rabid conservatism, but since Murdoch started to take it over around 1970, it has become more and more like a tea party media. His stable of newspapers now includes the biggest selling rag, The Sun, the centuries old doyen, The London Times, and even The Sunday Times. The E.U. saved us from us – from a European version of Fox News by preventing Murdoch’s takeover of BskyB – but in the process, made a virulent enemy of him. The other conservative news outlets always ranged from appalling to quite good, but always with heavily biased opinion columns. Twenty or so years ago I had to be rescued from a hilarity attack in the local shop when I spotted a Daily Mail banner headline. It proclaimed that “EUROPE DESTROYS 1000 YEARS OF BRITISH HISTORY.” The story was that the E.U. Bureaucracy insisted that market traders in Britain display the weight of their sales in kilos and grams, as well as in their own imperial measure of pounds and ounces. The Mail does not do irony, so it didn’t occur to them that the British system was named, for the entirety of that 1000 years, the avoirdupois system. The most influential broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph, is good at news but its opinion pieces are positively medieval. When we lived in London in the 1970s, they were annoyed that Irish judges insisted on following Irish law concerning extradition and the Irish government refused to allow hot pursuit of the I.R.A. by British forces across our border. In response to this supposedly outrageous behaviour, they managed two editorials in the same month that suggested, in the first one, that Ireland should remember that Great Britain had the option of total warfare, and in the second, that they had the option of repatriating all Irish people from Britain. Ireland at the time had a navy comprising two fisheries protection vessels, an Air Force of three tiny unarmed training jets and a couple of helicopters. We also had a small army, much of it on regular loan to the U.N. At the same time Britain was a world power with its own nuclear weapons. To repatriate us wholesale would have required the mother of all bureaucratic exercises to identify us – including some of the paper’s own staff.
Needless to say, the Murdoch stable of newspapers, plus The Mail, The Express and The Telegraph have been spitting vitriol about the E.U., most of it untrue, for the last fifty years. Interestingly, Scotland and the North of Ireland voted against Brexit and those same newspapers do not have much penetration in these markets.
This media turned large numbers of voters toward ultra-nationalism: they did not like immigrants, hated Europe and, despite the evidence, continued to believe in the genetic superiority of Britons – well English anyway. Exactly like the Republican Party in America, this nationalism began to tear the Conservative Party asunder. Under this pressure and under a long succession of incompetent leaders, they ran faster and faster toward the zany right. The result was to leave them entirely bereft of competent ministers, diplomats, negotiators and leaders. This was not the ideal way to begin negotiating Brexit. They kept repeating, ad nauseum, their red lines and how easy these exit negotiations were going to be. The result of these repetitious inanities led them to appoint a whole series of Brexit ministers and negotiators who were risibly incompetent. The only target appeared to be “get Brexit done at any cost”. Unfortunately, whilst all this was progressing, the main opposition, the Labour Party, were so indecisive that they ended up on neither side.
The most depressing element is what they have inflicted upon their own youth. In essence, they have turned these two islands into a narrow internment camp for youthful Britons. Even in a fast-globalising world it is difficult to see how they can work anywhere else. The exceptions to these rules will themselves be aggravating: the very highly qualified will continue to be able to travel for work and those who are second or third generation immigrants can avail of a European passport (if Ireland had to count all passport holders in its census, we would be overpopulated). However, young musicians will not be able to cut their teeth in English music hungry venues in The E.U. Even the Erasmus program to allow students to do part of their degree in Europe is being ended, to be replaced by a pie-in-the-sky globalised daydream. The end result will be either a very angry, or very dull, young population.
Surprisingly, the biggest worry for the Irish in all of this is not the economy. God alone knows whether it will be our ruination or to our advantage (we have no inside information because even the Irish do not yet have a direct line to God). No, the most painful aspect of it all is being deprived of the dubious but enjoyable pleasure of schadenfreude. The “we told you so” superiority. Why? Because we all have dearly beloved British friends and relatives that it affects, both here and there. We are also deeply enamoured of English Literature (even the bits that are really Scottish or Welsh), and their science, arts, sports and tolerance. Many of us also deeply love the physical place itself. To take pleasure from the absurdities of Brexit would be a denial of part of our own emotional nature and the pain of our fellow tribes.
Luckily, there is a deep vein of ridiculousness inherent in the whole event that is ideal for the British sense of humour. The outrage engendered by the idea that the British might have to join the slower queue at passport controls in Europe. “Aliens! That can’t be us”. Truckers having their beloved ham sandwiches confiscated on arrival in Europe. The realisation that regaining their sovereign fishing waters means they no longer have a market for most of their catch. Even the embarrassment of having abused Brussels’ red tape for half a century only to now find that they do not have the skill to write their own. The deselection of the most talented Tory politicians by the tiny remnant of old fogeys who remain as voting members of the party. Added to this is a complete inability amongst Brexiters to understand the difference between being a member and not – “I have to get my dog vaccinated for rabies just to go to France. This is silly and cruel; our status and regulations are exactly the same”.
Speaking as just one European, I have no wish for my Union to deploy an entire division of bureaucrats to continually monitor which of their major and minor rules the British change. Such changes have nothing to do with our regulations. Nor should we be expected to negotiate every time we or they change rules. The recently appointed Brexit Czar, Lord Frost is, unfortunately, a type of conservative English leader with which we in Ireland have centuries of experience. No diplomatic or negotiation skills, no manners, just an arrogance that insists that the British position is always the correct one. I do not want to be too hard on him but – because of the example he sets – I am eagerly awaiting the elevation of Nigel Farage to the peerage.
Perhaps the most symptomatic story to describe the nature of the current government in London, is that of their intention to pass a bill in Parliament changing unilaterally the North of Ireland Protocol, an international agreement they had signed just a few weeks previously. Then the dratted Americans ruined it by electing an Irish American in place of Trump. An Irish American moreover with strong emotional ties to his ancestors’ home place. All change – “withdraw the Bill”. This deprived us of the pleasure of watching them explain to a bench of very senior British judges that although they knew the Bill was illegal, it was narrowly so. A senior cabinet minister had already, unbelievably, stated this position in the House of Commons. Better perhaps than common or garden perfidy and more amusing. They continue to blame European intransigence for difficulties caused by the protocol that they themselves negotiated and signed.
They are like an elderly swimmer, who was an Olympic swimmer in their youth, having to take the plunge in impossible circumstances because they had boasted that they would. Unable to admit that the water has become frigid, that they can see the storm coming, that they have not got the expected company and the lifeguard, their Trump card, has gone missing. All that is left to the rest of us is to bear stoically with the endless accusations that it is our fault and pray for them.
What have they already achieved? They are losing the trust of their allies because of their arrogant approach to treaties and agreements. They are ridding themselves of immigrants as fast as they can, forgetting the value and rich diversity they bring, and that they need a great number of them. They are reduced to boasting of trade deals that are just carbon copies of the ones they already had within Europe and doubling down on their mythical position as an influential world power at the same time as they reduce their aid programmes and increase their military spending. Supply lines are in chaos and although the City of London will not collapse, its influence is dribbling away. Even the signature issue of regaining their sovereign waters has been a disaster, with fishing communities deserting those same waters because they no longer have a market for the bulk of their catch.
There is always hope. The Brexiters may realise eventually that they are no longer a serious player on the world stage and that sovereignty is an old-fashioned word with very little real benefit. They might settle into Brexit – develop a simpler and better life, and become an exemplar of how to live properly in times of climate crisis. They might even find time to improve their cricket.