THE TRUTH is that the world is laughing at the UK’s discomfiture over Brexit. The world will be mildly discommoded by whatever happens but it be will be amply compensated by the comedy of the UK’s stupidity made possible by ignorance of history and economics. For a long time much of the world really didn’t laugh at Britain – now it can, and does.
The role of Ireland in frustrating Brexit is particularly gratifying. According to the BBC, “what alarms so many Tories is that after centuries of troubled Anglo-Irish relations it is the smaller of the two islands which appears to be exercising greater power for the first time”. Good, that’s justice.
I’m relishing the Brexit difficulty that the English in particular are enduring after 850 years where Ireland was colonised, demonised, ridiculed or relegated to an afterthought, by its bigger neighbour. I can live with the temporary economic hit that we may take because latterly we’ve been doing fine, at least economically, anyway. Brexit also boosts our morale, making our own tawdry politics look relatively good – at least we don’t look nasty any more and this time it is not we who are in a parallel universe. I’m pleased with the irony that it’s an ex colony that’s inflicting the constitutional compromise on the UK: it might help English nationalists understand that if you inflict epochal constitutional prejudice on the neighbours there’s a price to be paid in dysfunctionality.
Culturally, the UK has offered so much: in particular to literature, the popular arts especially music, and to humour. From the 1960s, until recently, Britain led the world in humour based on self-awareness, self-criticism, open-mindedness and irony. Yet Brexit is treated as a humourless parody, its protagonists hapless and led by a frumpy and now-abject PM. When “strong and stable” Theresa May says “I’m a bloody difficult woman”, “I stand ready to finish the job”, or “I’ll give everything I’ve got” we recoil because she is so incompetent and, because she is po-faced, frankly we revel in her humiliations. When she dances like an insect, when she takes off across Europe begging shivering atavistic geopolitical rivals to unravel the deal she’s just agreed, and failing to understand that a backstop cannot be time-limited and that the EU won’t budge from it, when she gets locked in her car or the conference scenery collapses around her, I’m afraid the world does laugh. Some might say that Britain taught us to. It was the master of subversive comedy: and specifically targeted cravenness, hypocrisy and class hangups.
There was a time when Britain would have seen – not just that Brexit is bad but that it is funny. Mrs May is as uncharismatic as David Brent, her Ministers as principle-free as Jim Hacker or Hugh Abbot. Rees-Mogg recalls the Upper Class Twits from Monty Python, and Boris Johnson represents the swivel-eyed First World General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett from Black Adder. A swathe of British society seems to have taken its lead from Mind Your Language and Dad’s Army.
But Britain’s consolation is that its come-uppance is comedy not – whatever Angela Merkel said – tragedy as, while there may well be anagnorisis and catharsis, there is likely to be a happy ending to Brexit. This is because first the concept of Brexit is largely based on false premises and because second its upshot is so bad that politics will inevitably, however long it takes, reverse it. The counterfactuality of the Brexit arguments derives principally from failure to understand that the loathed constraints on national self-rule are imposed by globalism not the EU. The UK has been anomalously unlucky that its ruling classes don’t seem to understand that the Big Idea of the EU is the economic benefits of trade which dwarf simple structural fund payouts, that they believe that the EU is conspiring against the UK and that the current deal is one-sided when it is not, that they fantasise that European industry depends on its UK trade and that EU membership removes £350m weekly from the National Health Service, that they obsess over the obligation to pay £39bn, as if it were not simply due – a long-term vouched bill. And the UK has been anomalously unlucky in its leaders: witless mediocrities masquerading as Winston Churchills, lionised in the Express and Telegraph; indulged even by the BBC.
There is time for the misrepresentations to be forensically nailed and for the mediocrities to be replaced by politicians who are up to the imperatives of our times. All who in any way wish the UK well can take comfort in the general rule of history: countries tend to find equilibrium pursuing solutions that make them better off.
The reasons for the Brexit mistake are complex. England has a delinquent education system which fails to teach enough people, including its leaders, history or economics. These disciplines which feature as standard in the curricula of schools in every other country in Europe teach that the EU has helped avoid war in Europe for the first generation in 150 years, and that the customs union and single market have increased wealth through exploitations of comparative advantages and trade, not primarily through transfers of structural funds. The lethal ignorance of these truths when combined with a widespread residual sense of British exceptionalism, by which most mean English superiority, lit a UK anti-EU fire that would largely burn the UK itself. The upside here is that if an ignoble reconciliation with the EU extinguishes the fire it might also liquidate the arsonists too.
England needs to find a home at its political centre for its cleverest and most imaginative, moral and outward looking people. But there is a problem with the Little English. They’ve been educated for simplicity. They are suckers for homespun superannuated guff about getting on your bike and the University of Life and for aphorisms like “We have had enough of experts” and “Brexit means Brexit”.
The bulk of English people are tolerant, engaged, modern but a substantial minority tend to be closed and backward looking. Playwright Lucy Prebble has written that Brexit was a jostle for prefect fagged by racists. There were enough of them to generate a referendum majority in the teeth of reality.
So I welcome, in the most patronising way possible, the UK’s Brexit mistake and what it has precipitated. It ultimately augurs well. The inevitable failure of Brexit, even a Kumbaya May-Corbyn compromised soft Brexit, might take with it the entitled public schoolboys and the class system they feed on and sponsor, and the racists a divided and ill-equipped society generates. Theresa May is already on her way. It might also take with it the indulgence, by many who should know better, of the swaying and unrigorous Jeremy Corbyn. I hope the Brexit dénouement brings for Little England an overdue sense that England isn’t anything exceptionally enviable, at the moment.
I hope it promotes a new generation of leaders who understand that Brexit is complicated, that tolerance is the guts of good politics and who regret Brexit as unreasonable and unmodern.
However, even then England will need to dig deep again. It has shed much of its essence: an often decent, empirical common sense. England may shed the UK too as Scotland and Northern Ireland seek tailored constitutional solutions.
Only when the English understand the EU and Brexit, and digest the pain and humiliation of a generational mistake, will the UK again become whole whatever it then comprises.
Its indulgent neighbours wish the UK God Speed with this. But they’ll have to forgive us our sniggers. Because you can’t fight economics and history without risking tragedy. You are lucky if you fight economics and history and trigger only comedy.