Who knows what was going through Theresa May’s mind when she decided to make her big speech about Britain’s future relationship in Florence?
Maybe it was the thought of standing in the shadow of the Medici, a ruthless family of medieval power brokers who used any means possible to claw their way to the top, whether through bribery, corruption and violence, or as it’s been more recently described, Liam Fox’s preferred trade policy after Brexit.
The Medici were notorious for exploiting ‘amici degli amici’, the idea that ‘if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’, a concept Mrs. May was keen to stress for the benefit of the watching EU-27. The only problem with this is that whilst the EU is easing out the incurable knots of Brexit contradiction with hot stones and soothing oils, Britain wants to massage the EU’s back in the same way that throwing someone out of a fourth floor window massages their back when they slam into the ground.
E.M. Forster wrote ‘Room With A View’ about a young woman in Florence, caught between having to choose narrow-minded and complacent English attitudes or the liberal, cosmopolitan freedom of Europe. But if this was on Mrs. May’s mind, I couldn’t tell. Then again, Forster was a humanist who tried to show how people of different backgrounds and experience can be brought together. That’s not really an argument popular with the Leave campaign. Tory Brexiteers seem far more comfortable with the sentiments of a different English writer, Evelyn Waugh. Instead of a speech, Mrs. May could have simply read a quote from Waugh’s character, Sebastian, which sums up the Tory backbench vision of Britain‘s future outside the EU.
“If it could only be like this always, always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe and Aloysius in good temper”
There you have it. Brideshead or Brexshit Revisited. Not coming to a future near you any time soon because, as Sebastian finds out, nostalgia is no substitute for facing up to the realities of the present.
Of course, there is a character called Florence in the children’s TV show, ‘The Magic Roundabout’, which seems quite apt since Britain has been going round in circles in a surreal daze ever since the Referendum.
I find the idea that all of this could be resolved by a giant red ball on a spring landing in Brussels and announcing ‘time for bed’ weirdly comforting. Because, let’s face it, Zebedee could hardly be a less capable negotiator than David Davis.
Or maybe there wasn’t anything on Theresa’s mind. That would be fitting too. A mindless politician making a mindless speech about a mindless policy.
Politicians and their spin doctors obsess about the ‘optics’ of situations. So it was unfortunate that just as Mrs. May was extending the warm hand of friendship to EU citizens, she was also asking her cold, dead hand of prejudice and xenophobia to force UK banks to check 70 million current accounts in order to catch approximately half a dozen illegal immigrants. What are our EU neighbours to think about the ‘optics’ of this offer? It’s like when the wild-eyed guy on the bus who is talking to himself, and may have peed on his seat, moves up a little to make room for you. You think to yourself ‘I’ll pass’.
And it’s not as if we don’t need them to come. Britain needs migrants. British businesses love migrants. Not, as Nigel Farage lies, because it gives them the excuse to pay their workers in pease pudding and tallow, but because without them, there would be no one to do the work. Right now, the future direction of the British economy is being set by a bitter pensioner called Reg, who hates everyone from Europe except Jana, the Czech girl who cleans his house twice a week and is happy to give him hand relief on a Friday if he coughs up a little extra cash for the weekend.
It seems clear that there is no possible way these issues can be reconciled. Britain has been failed by David Cameron, the most foolish and selfish Prime Minister in our history. To avoid the breakup of the Conservative party, he polarized the nation and risked a political and economic project that benefits 350 million people and has helped to keep peace in Europe for seventy years. Cameron is like an incompetent hero trying to save the day by driving the bomb with the ticking timer away from the school and into the heart of the nuclear power station next door.
While we wait for it to explode, here’s a joke: what do an Eton mess and Brexit have in common? They are both squidgy, bitter puddings made from overripe old fruits, way past their best.
Britain has also been failed by Leave politicians and campaigners who have never been honest about what Brexit would mean and what it would take to achieve it. Theresa May says ‘Brexit means Brexit‘ like you might mutter 12-digit combination codes for a safe you don’t know how to open. The main reason she had to make her Florence speech was because her government hasn’t any idea how to achieve Brexit without turning the UK into one of those snakes you see on YouTube eating itself. Right now, we’re roughly at the half way point where the snake can suddenly see where its arse is supposed to be and is thinking ‘Hmm, something not quite right here’.
In the end, Theresa May’s Florentine speech was little more than a plea for more time, the same plea made by medieval alchemists to their rich patrons – the one that stopped them having their feet dangled in the fire when they couldn’t turn base metal into gold. Maybe with a bit more time we’ll figure out how to make the impossible happen but since this isn’t the Middle Ages, despite the best efforts of Jacob Rees-Mogg, I don’t think the transition period will make any difference to the British dilemma.
Let’s face it, ‘transition period’ in this instance is really just a fancy way of saying “Help!” in all the twenty three other languages of the EU that most British people can’t speak and don‘t want to learn. I’m not saying other EU governments have completely lost patience, but instead of being cool Britannia, we’ve turned into that drunken oaf dancing on the table in the night club on holiday. The one who put his Union Jack underpants over his head when people started ignoring him. The one who’s about to get taken outside and battered by the bouncers.
We’re begging the rest of the EU to give us an extra couple of years to revise for the exams basically because we couldn’t be arsed to prepare properly, and yet we know full well that the fundamental mistake was thinking we could bluff Economics and International Trade Relations to begin with. Why didn’t we stick to Latin? Te futueo et caballum tuum.
Image © Chris Ridell / The Guardian
Britain has become schizoid. Everyone agrees that we don’t want to be worse off. Everyone agrees that we don’t want to have less trade, less power, less influence, less money, less sex. But all the mounting evidence suggests that this is exactly what is going to happen. Well maybe not the last one. They do say libido increases in the face of a catastrophe. I don’t know how politicians like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage show their faces considering all their hollow words. If I were to promise someone a kidney and then, after making them wait for eighteen months, come back with a pint of blood instead, I think I’d struggle to maintain my credibility. And yet even now, these mendacious politicians continue to pollute the airwaves with their nonsense, aided and abetted by the right wing press and self-interested tycoons who preach about ’the will of the ordinary people’ whilst neglecting ordinary people’s pension funds.
And then there’s the BBC, our public service broadcasting service which has strapped the public interest to a barrel and thrown it over the edge of the White Cliffs of Dover whilst staging a gala performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the Ode to Joy on the cliff tops It’s called balance, apparently.
The TV Licence costs £61 for person in the UK. But helped along by the BBC’s supine and completely ineffective reporting of Brexit issues prior to the Referendum, the Chancellor expects to have to borrow an additional £58 billion – at least. It’s typical of the absurdity of so many arguments for leaving the EU that we‘re going to be at least £1,000 worse off for every man, woman and child but people still complain about their TV Licence fee.
Michael Heseltine says Brexit won’t happen; I hope he’s right. It would be the ultimately irony if a man who built a career around staging pointless walkouts is proved to be correct about the ineffectiveness of pointless walkouts. Brexiteers say you cannot go back on the will of the British people, to which I say: ‘Yes, you can’. It’s called democracy. There’s a crucial difference between democracy and a dictatorship. In a democracy, people get to change their minds all the time. Tyrants boast about ruling for a thousand years but that’s only because they can murder everyone who disagrees with them. You can’t murder people in a democracy unless you work for the housing department in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
So, don’t like your phone? Change it. Don’t like your car. Buy a new one. Hate your boyfriend? Download Tinder. People change their minds about really unimportant, pointless, trivial stuff every day. Why can’t we change our minds about something really important like the future of the country? Do you think any politician, of any stripe, would be elected if people weren’t thinking ‘Give it your best shot and if it all goes pear-shaped, I’ll see you in five years’. Obviously, this does not apply to Donald Trump or the people who voted for him. I never thought the end of days was a manifesto promise that would find much favour with voters, but you live and learn.
More optimistic Leavers say that the British will be able to make a success of Brexit because we are a creative and resilient nation that thinks on its feet and is able to make the best of any situation. But those are exactly the kind of character traits that define somebody who gets bored easily. Others say we are stoic and adaptable and that somehow things will be alright in the end. And those are exactly the kind of character traits that define a less-than-enthusiastic lemming, that’s reluctantly running towards the cliff with the others in the absence of having anything better to do. Oh well.
In the end, maybe the reason why none of this will actually come to pass is because everyone will just wake up one morning, see Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage on television and collectively just say “Oh for God’s sake, will you please just sod off and leave us in peace.”
Personally, I still wonder if Brexit will be undone because all the people who voted for it will have died by the time anyone has worked out how to implement it. This clearly puts Tory Brexiteers on the horns of a terrible dilemma. They need all those pensioners to stay alive for as long as possible to give them an electoral majority in any future vote or referendum on a Brexit deal, but this is the exact opposite of what Tory NHS policy is intended to achieve. Their lack of support amongst the 18-25’s is a problem because young people don’t like Brexit and young people live longer. You can saddle them with student debt, deny them housing benefit, pay them crap wages, basically give them no hope for the future and still the bastards won’t die. And then they create a song about Jeremy-bloody-Corbyn. You know what the trouble is with young people today? Durability.
So, are we any further forward after the Florence speech? I don’t think so. Brexit is like a suicide death cult formed by the John Betjeman Fan Club or a committee of depressed, retired librarians. Everyone is standing in the middle of the room, holding hands, about to bite down on the pill, wondering if they’re the only ones thinking this is a really terrible idea. Let me be very un-British like and break ranks to say “Yes, it is”. And it’s okay to admit you’ve made a mistake. Now will you please stop messing with the cyanide tablet, put the kettle on and have another slice of cake.
Footnote – Describing Waugh, Philip Larkin wrote that to receive a letter from him, “one would have to have a nursery nickname and be a member of White’s, a Roman Catholic, a high-born lady or an Old Etonian novelist.” I could be wrong but don’t really see Evelyn Waugh as a supporter of the EU.