Notes From the Margins…

The Exterminating Brexit

  • April 02, 2019
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In Luis Buñuel’s surrealist masterpiece The Exterminating Angel, a group of bourgeois party-goers go out to dinner only to find out for some mysterious reason that they can’t leave. No one is actually stopping them, it’s just that the guests can’t seem to get out of the house.

Is it a spell?  Is it collective hysteria or herd instinct?  No one knows, and Bunuel doesn’t explain.  Instead he amuses himself – and us – by stripping away the veneer of civilisation and gentility from his aristocratic guests.

Gradually they become more and more desperate.  One elderly guest dies of a heart attack.  A couple commits suicide. The other guests fight as they get hungrier and thirstier.  Cannibalism becomes an option.

A Jewish mystic reads from the Kabbalah in an attempt to get them out by magic.  The guests consider sacrificing the person who invited them.

Finally one of the guests notices that they are all sitting or standing in the positions they arrived in.  She talks them back to the events that followed their arrival at the party, until they realise that all they have to do is walk out through the door they all entered.

Does any of this sound familiar?  You know it does.  Because for the best part of three years 67 million people have been trapped in a political nightmare called Brexit, and last night’s antics have proved that we are no closer to getting out of it than Buñuel’s guests.

No one should be at all surprised that parliament once again failed to agree on the various options that it proposed; that a government which long ago lost any credibility is now trying to present a plan to parliament that has already been voted down three times;  that the Labour opposition yesterday appeared to oppose Nick Boles’s Common Market 2.0 plan in the morning and then whipped to support it in the afternoon.

We are all trapped in this party that began in June 2016, when the electorate narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a fit of pique, without any idea what it was leaving or what the consequences would be or what leaving actually meant.

But parliament’s own particular wild party has its origins in January 2017, when MPs voted by a massive majority to trigger Article 50, thereby committing the government to a two-year ticking clock timetable without any consensus about what was desirable or achievable.

This was political crack – mixed with nitrous oxide – for Brexiters, as one delighted Tory MP told the Telegraph before voting ‘ I am about to have the best moment in my life since my wedding night’.

God help his wife, because that vote was a disastrous failure of governance that we are all paying for.  The Tories bear primary responsibility of course, as they do for this entire horrorshow.  Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieves, Nick Boles and all the other ‘moderate’ rebels who have since opposed the government all voted with the government.

And so did the majority of Labour MPs, after Corbyn imposed a three-line whip.  Only 114 MPs voted against it – including the totality of the SNP and 52 Labour rebels.

Afterwards leading Brexiters, including Johnson and Davis crowed about the ‘historic moment’ and the glorious prospects now unfolding etc, etc.

Corbyn was also at pains to point out that ‘Labour MPs voted more than three to one in favour of triggering Article 50. Now the battle of the week ahead is to shape Brexit negotiations to put jobs, living standards and accountability centre stage.’

This was in fact the reverse of what parliament should have done.  Even if you believe that parliament was obliged to ‘respect the referendum’, to have committed the country to a time-limited negotiating process without a coherent plan was at best flippant and shallow, and at worse a gross dereliction of duty.

An arrogant, tone-deaf government stacked with mediocrities and Brexit zealots never even attempted to do this.  It sought from the beginning to wrest the Brexit process from parliamentary scrutiny and parliament, for the most part, was happy to oblige.  114 MPs voted against triggering Article 50, warning that it risked rushing the country into a Hard Brexit.   One MP shouted ‘suicide’ when the vote was passed in the government’s favour.

The events of the last few weeks have made it clear that these MPs were right.  Cross-party consultations and discussions; indicative votes; debates about what what compromises are desirable and which ones are achievable – all of this should have taken place before the clock started ticking.

Instead both the government and the opposition looked at Brexit entirely from the narrow perspective of their own party interests, and did what suited them.  The result is the barely-believable spectacle of a government begging the EU for extensions, while parliament struggles to make up policy in the corridors of Westminster or writes out options on the back of a fag packet, and all the time a bloc of 27 countries has managed to agree on exactly what it wants with barely any disagreement between them.

Meanwhile the country drifts towards the calamity of a no deal Brexit, while politicians talk of an election that is unlikely to resolve anything at all,  and fascists, demagogues and chancers stalk the streets waving union jacks and ranting about coups and revolutions.

Inside parliament, our elected ‘guests’ are still trying to work out how to get out of the building and go home. But unlike Buñuel’s partygoers they don’t need to read from the Kabbalah or sacrifice their host.

They too can go back out the way they came in.  They could revoke Article 50 or ask for a long extension.

The door is open.  They could have the guts and the common sense to walk out of it.  Because somewhere out there is a country that desperately needs so many things fixing, and this nightmare is not doing a single thing to help with any of them, and in a way, all of us need to leave this party, go home, and start again.

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1 Comment

  1. Mark

    2nd Apr 2019 - 9:54 pm

    Matt,
    Democracy should be supreme otherwise chaos rules. More people in more areas in more constituencies for both parties votes to leave. You cant keep saying like the irish and danes did you got the vote wrong. Vote again and give a different result.

    What will happen on the next issue??

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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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