Notes From the Margins…

The Strange Tale of the Disappearing Country

  • September 22, 2019
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I’ve been abroad in the Pyrenees for nearly three weeks now and it was, as it always is these days, a huge relief to be away from these septic isles.  Of course you don’t forget them.  Nowadays, you take Brexit with you in your mental baggage, even if you never meant to pack it.  It’s the political equivalent of Don DeLillo’s Airborne Toxic Event.   It hovers over your country like a black cloud and a harbinger of worse things to come.

It shapes the way you look at your country, and the perplexed and faintly horrified expressions on the faces of almost any foreigner who asks you about it make it clear that it shapes the way others see it too.

In the age of social media it’s also impossible to ignore what is happening, without switching off completely, which for better or worse I’m unable to do.   We left two days after Boris Johnson ‘prorogued’ parliament, in a brazen constitutional sleight-of-hand whose true purpose was obvious to anyone who wasn’t lying about it.

From where I was – a remote farm in the Cerdagne near the Spanish border – I listened to the extraordinary torrent of barefaced lies emanating from the Johnson team and the government’s social media propagandists, which insisted that sending parliament home had nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit and it was just that every new government had to present its proposals to the Queen, etc, etc.

All this was rancid Trumpist garbage and it smelt like rancid Trumpist garbage, wafting up from a body politic that has been corrupted and poisoned by Brexit – or which has had its poisons brought to the surface by Brexit.

There were a few cracks of light: when the Tory rebels finally showed some backbone and joined with other MPs in voting against the destructive lunacy of No Deal; when Corbyn neatly avoided falling into Johnson’s trap and refused to accept a general election that would have made No Deal inevitable; when parliament forced the government to publish its Yellowhammer report, which revealed that the government had lied yet again.

All this seemed promising.  Parliament, it seemed, was remembering that it was a parliament and that it was not obliged to blindly follow the dictats of an arrogant and overwheening executive claiming to take its authority from the ‘will of the people’.

There were moments of satisfying schadenfreude, in watching Johnson challenged again and again whenever he went out to ‘meet’ the ‘ordinary people’ he claims to represent.  In every single public situation, Johnson has proven himself to be shockingly inadequate, whether squirming like a toddler with ADD during his press conference with Varadkar, babbling Nigel Molesworth insults in parliament, or running away from a press conference in Luxembourg because 75 of his own countrymen and women had gathered to heckle him.

Tomorrow may provide another of those moments, if the Supreme Court judges rule against the government’s prorogration.  But whatever the result of their deliberations, there is little sign of any immediate way out of this nightmare and schadenfreude cannot compensate for the grim reality of a country that has been paralysed, divided and poisoned by Brexit and by the horrific forces that it has unleashed.

Last week Brexit ‘protesters’ screamed insults at Shami Chakrabarti and Gina Miller outside the Supreme Court and sang songs calling for traitors to be strung up on lampposts.  Yesterday a 50-year-old man in Manchester was knocked out cold when he intervened to defend an Asian teenager who was being kicked in the head and told to ‘speak fucking English.’



Britain First have joined vigilantes ‘patrolling’ Dover and Kent to ‘protect’ the country from migrants.  This weekend the army announced that it will be setting up a camp in Swindon as an ‘urban training exercise’ to prepare for ‘civil unrest’, that locals should expect to see soldiers carrying firearms, and that other unspecified camps will be forthcoming.

All this because of a referendum over whether to leave or remain in the European Union, which failed to allow any further discussion or consultation on what leaving meant in practice and how it could be achieved; a referendum steeped in  anti-immigration rhetoric that has become a vector for  racism, xenophobia,  and chauvinistic  English nationalism that our politicians have mostly failed to acknowledge – and that I have not heard a single Leaver anywhere acknowledge.

Beyond the daily drumbeat of Brexit extremism, a government of reactionaries, chancers, and ideological zealots that has already begun the destruction of its own party and attempted to con the British public into believing that it has a negotiating strategy when it has nothing at all, is set on a confrontation with parliament that threatens to pull apart the mechanisms and institutions that define a (flawed) British democracy and replace them nothing but itself – and the ‘will’ that it claims to represent.

All this in pursuit of a dream of ‘freedom’ that has more to do with a Cargo Cult than a rational political project, that will benefit no one except the hedgefund managers who financed Johnson’s campaign, and the asset strippers who are already swooping on the UK.

That is bad enough, but what is really terrifying is that this same government is still leading the polls, when it should be dozens of points below zero.  Incredibly, Johnson is seen by a significant section of the electorate as the man to ‘get Brexit done.’  No good pointing out that if No Deal happens, it will end nothing and solve nothing and that a ‘clean break’ is no such thing.  No good explaining that people will go without medicines and may even die in the event of No Deal.

No good telling people that EU citizens will be cast into a legal no mans land and that more than one million Brits will be too.  There is little evidence that many Leavers ever cared about them.

Too many Brexiters either dismiss such claims as ‘Project Fear’ or they simply don’t care any more about ‘our people’ than they do about any other people.   For these voters it doesn’t matter that the PM is a charlatan, who doesn’t feel obliged to pay even lip service to the truth.  It doesn’t matter if parliament – the ‘swamp’ – goes under, that the army may be in the streets in peacetime, that the poor will be poorer, that the union will break up, that the country will be even more humiliated and diminished than it already is.

Only Brexit matters, because Brexit means Brexit and We Voted to Leave.   So please don’t ask me to ‘respect’ this.   Please don’t expect me to believe that somehow all this is happening because the British people love ‘democracy.’

What we are witnessing is far darker than that, far nastier, and far more destructive, I can’t help feeling that the destruction still has some way to go.

One day Brexit may become an insult for future generations, and a reminder of how easily even the most seemingly sophisticated countries can succumb to their own delusions of grandeur and exchange any notion of the common good or pragmatic self-interest for political fantasies.

But right now that day seems a long way off,  and I can’t help wishing that I was back in the Pyrenees, with the mountains and horses.  But most of all I can’t help wishing that we had politicians who were able to show courage and leadership, and that we could find a common way forward to bring back some semblance of common sense and decency, repair the political and social damage of the past decade, and allow us to begin the very real work that we all need to do to make this country worthy of admiration and respect instead of the pitiful laughing stock that it has become.


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  1. Hoipolloi Cassidy

    22nd Sep 2019 - 10:58 am

    ABC [Anything But Corbyn] ?

    Just curious…

    • Matt

      22nd Sep 2019 - 11:51 am

      Not me. I don’t think much of the Corbyn team’s positioning on Brexit, but few Labour politicians have been much better.

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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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