20 January 2019

The Smell of Brexit

Written by Published in Lifestyle

Why is Brexit causing such panic and incredulity among Europe’s political classes? Some conspiracy theorists blame Russia for our predicament, but it would only be fair to admit that it is also a peculiarly British saga

As leader of a country recently targeted by Russian cybercriminals, President Macron probably knows the extent to which dark money influenced the referendum result. Judging by the full sequence of events, whoever was behind the plot had extensive knowledge of the logic behind British pantomime. In a deranged plan to bring down the western alliance, the evil Mr Putin is centre stage, laughing behind his hand and briefing a small army of ‘Carry On’ characters including Aaron Banks, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Their fiendish mission was none other than to mess with the minds of disgruntled floating voters. Most of those targeted were crinkly white folks who wanted to re-claim the past. After their indoctrination, however, they turned into zombies who would cluster in English fields to watch fruit as it rotted, rather than see it picked by low-paid foreigners. It is not yet clear who paid Cambridge Analytica to run the scam, but we do know that many secret radicalising sessions took place at a number of infamous Wetherspoons Training Camps.

As children, we were proud to be English because it was synonymous with decency and fair play. We just wanted the chance to teach tyrants a lesson.

Don't get me wrong, I am old enough to remember when being English meant being different from or, as we used to say, ‘better than', every other nation in the world. As children, we were proud to be English because it was synonymous with decency and fair play. We just wanted the chance to teach tyrants a lesson. Courage also meant standing up for the right to self-harm, even when outsiders looked baffled, or concerned. It is no accident that the term ‘the full English' refers to a dangerously high cholesterol breakfast made from the finest industrial fats and imported dairy products. Whereas it is often said that the French ‘live to eat', many elderly Brits still see food as a joyless, but necessary fact of life (i.e. as in ‘breakfast means breakfast'). Whereas other Europeans honour the start of a meal with their equivalent to bon appetite, my dear father would say, “let battle commence”. Today, they have made being English much more difficult. The trouble started when sociologists started asking patriots to define their identity. Before then, it never occurred to us that we needed one. This was certainly true for the ruling classes, and for those who were fluent in the very English dialects of hectoring and, or, grovelling.

Whereas it is often said that the French ‘live to eat', many elderly Brits still see food as a joyless, but necessary fact of life (i.e. as in ‘breakfast means breakfast'). Whereas other Europeans honour the start of a meal with their equivalent to bon appetite, my dear father would say, “let battle commence”.

This idea may need some elucidation. How can Englishness be so exquisitely ambivalent that it incorporates ‘hectoring' and ‘grovelling' at the same time? Actually, it is quite simple. Over the last thousand years, we have skilfully learned to conceal our vindictiveness beneath a veneer of well-mannered duplicity. We can blame the hectoring side on the Normans, who gave us laws permitting ‘ownership without responsibility' and a democracy based on adversarial, rather than consensual politics. Significantly, the word ‘debate' derives from the French ‘debatement', meaning ‘to beat down'. As a fervent part-time feminist I am proud to report that some of the greatest exponents of hectoring (e.g. speaking loudly to foreigners) have been women. Baroness Thatcher is famous for inventing the ‘handbag' (verb) and Theresa May will always be known as "that bloody difficult woman" (noun, neuter). However, diplomats found that it is sometimes expedient to ‘beat down' one's opponent in a persuasively genteel manner, perhaps by appealing to their patriotic instincts, rather than annoying them with evidence-based ‘facts', or vulgar practicalities.

I have to admit that, in the Brexit context, ‘grovelling' has become unthinkable, although Mr. Macron recently reminded British politicians that they will eventually have to get around to it. In its noblest form, it exists as a heartfelt expression of regret for one's actions. Sadly, this tradition is kept alive by actors, rather than by leading politicians. Younger readers might like to check out old films in which a jolly decent English chap uses the old word ‘sorry'. Performances by David Niven, Hugh Grant, or Hugh Laurie come to mind, here. Even though a few of our prime ministers have come close to mastering the hallowed ritual, it is rarely performed in public. This is a pity. Tony Blair and David Cameron both managed to cultivate an emotional hesitancy in the voice. Indeed, Mr. Blair's hand wringing gestures were superb. Unfortunately, neither men managed to ‘follow through', at least, not in the verbal sense.

Over the last thousand years, we have skilfully learned to conceal our vindictiveness beneath a veneer of well-mannered duplicity.

In the middle ground between hectoring and grovelling we can discern the much admired English concept of 'fair play', especially when it is enacted on what we call a 'level playing field'. Indeed, these principles are enshrined in the quintessentially British rules of ‘BBC balance' that are pure, simple, and transparent. Whenever a political debate is broadcast, each notable opinion must be weighed in advance, so that editors can pit it against a diametrically opposite opinion, irrespective of its credibility. Let us, for argument's sake, use the topic of climate change as a hypothetical example. If one were to bring in some boffin to represent the global scientific consensus on ‘hothouse Earth’ and the accelerating rate of extinctions, BBC executives would be duty bound to ensure ‘balance' by introducing counter-arguments from an old-school economist, professional fossil fuel lobbyist, or flat Earth expert.

We may look like a green and pleasant land from the air, but in terms of global finance Britain is like the Tardis. It exists as a dazzling constellation of quasi-autonomous enclaves that include the City of London and an indeterminate number of legally ambiguous, offshore tax havens. Whatever happens with Brexit, these assets will continue to nurture Little England PLC. They will enable us to continue punching above our weight on the high seas for ever.

Britain is a fair and tolerant nation, but it is also sensitive and proud, which is why we don't like to be told off by a bunch of meddling eco-lawyers in Europe. We may not be as big as other European countries but we have our fingers in every financial pie you can think of. We are the sixth richest country in the world. OK, we might be near the bottom of the child poverty league tables, but we rank number three for our overseas aid donations, so f**k you.

Perhaps it is something about the indeterminacy of the British weather that gave us such a flair for ambivalence. Usually, only brainy quantum scientists, or a mathematical genius such as Lewis Carroll, can grasp the concept of ‘having one's cake and eating it'. Here, we can learn much from the genius of Henry 8th, whose cunning ‘Rexit' from Europe in 1532 enabled him to foster a uniquely English Church that still unites Christians on both sides of most fences. Not only did he take back control from a bunch of unelected Italians, he also lined his pockets most handsomely. On a personal level he also managed to do all this while pursuing an active and vigorous home life as husband, musician and father. What a guy.

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