Notes From the Margins…

“Running Around Like Idiots”: Britain’s Brexit Crisis

  • July 19, 2019
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“The weight of this sad time we must obey/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” declares Goneril’s husband the Duke of Albany at the end of King Lear, as the body of the old king is taken away.  Given the carnage, corruption, madness, vanity and greed that has preceded this observation, Albany’s attempt to reach a morally uplifting conclusion comes over as a little banal and inadequate.

The same could be said of Nick Robinson’s recommendation, at the end of last night’s Panorama on Britain’s Brexit Crisis, that our politicians should stop talking about “having our cake and eating it” and that ” What our politicians owe us now is honesty, about that, and the challenges ahead.”

The problem with Robinson’s advice is not that it isn’t true.  It’s just that this observation, like Albany’s, does not encapsulate the sheer awfulness of what his own programme has just laid bare.  Because Britain’s Brexit Crisis makes it clear that what has taken place these last three years is a genuine political tragedy – without the poetry – that is in large part due to a collection of politicians who would be more suited for an episode of The Thick of It or a Brian Rix farce than anything remotely Shakespearean.

Robinson is too polite – and perhaps too chummy with some of the Tory politicians involved in this debacle to actually say this – but others have no such reservations.  The former vice-president of the European Commission Franz Timmermans describes his amazement on finding out that early on in the negotiating process that the Brexiters and the British government had no “Harry Potter-like book with all the tricks” to bring to the negotiations, in words that will ring out through the ages:

“And then I saw the first public utterances by David Davis and I saw him not coming, negotiating, grandstanding elsewhere. Oh my God they haven’t got a plan.  They haven’t got a plan. That was really shocking for me actually, because then the damage if you don’t have a plan…It’s like Lance Corporal Jones, you know.  ‘Don’t panic!  Don’t panic!’ Running around like idiots.  Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, but it’s about time we became a bit harsh.”

It is, and few people who watched last night’s programme are likely to disagree with this assessment.   David Davis is first seen walking up to Downing Street to become the new Brexit Secretary, with the kind of smug smile that you might find on a cat presented with a bucketful of Dreamies.

Even in retrospect, Davis is all bluff and bluster, laced with nonsense and jokey bitterness.    At one point he accuses the EU of adopting a “strategy, which is to use time against us”, because Michel Barnier kept insisting that the clock was ticking following the triggering of Article 50 in the spring of 2017.

The fact that it was Davis’ own government, with the support of his party and the Labour opposition, that committed the country to a two-year timeline when it had no consensus on how to leave the European Union or how to do it,  does not even begin to enter into Davis’ assessment of the EU’s dark machinations.

At another point Davis accuses Michel Barnier of a “set-up” because the EU’s chief negotiator turned up to negotiations with a file of papers outlining the EU’s negotiating strategy, whereas Davis turned up without anything at all, which made him look as though he was “winging it”.  Davis is aggrieved that this made him look bad, but too dishonest to admit that the reason he looked bad was because he was in fact, winging it.

Davis and his advisers also appear to have been jealous of Barnier’s polish and expertise, and one of his officials sniggers at how he and his colleagues had Barnier sit in a chair so that he wouldn’t “look good.”   If this sounds childish, it’s because these politicians are shockingly childish, and had nothing much to offer except their childishness, their ambition, their fanaticism, and their complete lack of understanding of what the EU was and what leaving it would mean.

Faced with the yawning discrepancy between what they said would happen and what actually could happen, the more extreme Brexiters, like Davis, Raab and Johnson simply resort to blaming the failure to leave on the EU, or the absence of “confidence” and “belief”.

This is only to be expected.  It’s an unspoken rule of all Brexiters that they never responsible for anything.

But the tragedy/farce that we are trapped in,  is also in part due to politicians who privately recognized that leaving the EU could not be achieved without inflicting serious harm on the country, who knew that there was no plan or strategy, and yet rejected the expertise of officials who might have helped them, and replaced them with clowns like Davis, Johnson and Raab.

Referring to the decision to trigger Article 50, Philip Hammond says ” With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that was wrong” and that Britain should have decided what kind of Brexit it wanted before beginning the process.

Really, you should not need hindsight to realise this, and the fact that Hammond thought otherwise says so much about how we got into this mess.   Britain’s Brexit Crisis is filled with similarly jawdropping revelations, in which the amateurishness, bad faith, lack of preparation and inflated expectations of our politicians contrasted with the expertise and professionalism of EU politicians who understood what Brexit meant better than the Brexiters themselves.

Faced with accusations that the EU set out to “punish” and “humiliate” Britain, Barnier declares that Brexit has “no added value” and describes it as  “negative negotiation” and a “lose lose game for everybody.”

This is what it is, but don’t expect any of those who set us on this path to admit it.  Britain’s Brexit Crisis is a useful reminder of how we got here.  So watch it and weep.

And instead of the Duke of Albany or Nick Robinson, or even Corporal Jones, we might to better to remember the Fool’s words to the mad King Lear who has given away his kingdoms and found himself alone on the heath: “I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool!/And yet I would not be thee, nuncle/Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides and left nothing i’ th’ middle.”

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2 Comments

  1. Mark

    19th Jul 2019 - 3:52 pm

    Matt, the documentary was indeed a good documentary. But the time has come the walrus said to sort this matter out and get on with other things. Right or wrong more people votes to leave than to remain. If the government ignores the will of the people what will it ignore next, an election result perhaps!!

  2. Guano

    30th Jul 2019 - 5:10 pm

    Brexit has failed. It has failed because of the idiocy of its proponents (who spent 20 years complaining about the EU but had not agreed among themselves how to leave it) and because of the idiocy of the Conservative Government (that interpreted Brexit as meaning being wholly outside the CU, SM and CJEU but had no answer to the problem of the Irish Border that was created by this interpretation). I sometimes wonder whether the idiocy was deliberate: perhaps the referendum campaign was meant to be lost, as a low-cost way of stirring up resentments; perhaps the choice of red-lines by May was deliberate so as to self-sabotage the process.

    I don’t think that Johnson cares whether the UK crashes out of the EU or if it stays in the EU: he just wants to play the victim (even though he was a member of the Government that agreed to the EU’s proposals for Phase 1 of negotiations that included a solution to the issue of the Irish Border and has not managed to find a solution for this issue). What is most important at this time is to pin the blame for whatever happens on Vote Leave and the Tories, and not the EU or anyone else.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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