The Little Island that Could
Brexit – silly, sappy, snappy word – is not a fact, not an event. It’s a condition. It’s the new weather. Brexitosis is what it is. One would rather just groan, or scream, or swear, or feel seasick about the whole thing. All we know is there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s in the future, and it’s in the past, it’s both something that happened yonks ago (maybe hard feelings left over from 1066, or the Field of the Cloth of Gold, or Malplaquet), and something that is promised still to happen. Hence our peculiar helplessness and strickenness. You can’t fix it in the past, and you can’t fix it in the future. It’s like coming round after an operation – when they took out the wrong organ, and then went and left some of their ironmongery in you, for good measure – and swearing, not like a trooper (I don’t think troopers even swear), but like a patient.
None of the major players is having a good Brexit. (As indeed there is no good Brexit. The underwhelming Corbyn now scores worse than May, which takes some doing. Or in his case, no doing.) Only the experts and the commentators. We live for the cartoons, because we’re living in a cartoon. Everything is one toilet, one stinking corpse, one unending Zeno-esque funeral pageant for one undead ghoul in leopardskin fuck-me pumps on the cliffs of Dover. If the country had any sense, it would put itself under the command of Colonel Steve Bell.
The British – or rather the English – the clever old English have devised a Sonderweg of their very own. Their shot at ‘separate development’. We have Limey exceptionalism. Capitalism in one country. The little island that could. We – they, we, you, who knows – can look forward to a future of dandelion and burdock, Tunnocks wafers, salt and vinegar crisps, sherbet fountains. Bovril. Camp coffee. Moth-eaten sweaters. A hundred and one ways with a parsnip. But the morale, the spirit, the nation! Magnifique!
The British de-accessioning that began globally soon after the First World War continues. Once, it was an external process, now it is internal. It’s a galloping, seemingly unstoppable condition. We’re not giving away far-flung possessions any more, not de-accessioning, we’re sticking fingers in our eyes, ripping open our mouths, pulling off our ears and our genitals, giving away fingers and toes, arms and legs, heads, trunks. Perhaps this will cost them – us, you – Scotland and the North of Ireland. The car industry, if there is one. Pharmaceuticals. Financial ‘services’. The Scilly Isles. The Isle of Man. Cornwall. Wales. England is rumping itself, it’s done it before, it will be Joseph of Arimathea’s mystical fortress of Tintagel, a little pocket in the Forest of Dean (all hail, great shade of Dennis Potter) or in the marshes of Ely (salaam, Boadicea). Rutland.
If it’s vassalage they – we, you – ’re afraid of, then I can offer you the choice between the American aircraft carrier of yore, or a Chinese artificial island founded on slow-release poison. Vape your chlorinated chicken and then go frack in your garden. Says Voltaire. Meanwhile, little specialisms flake away to abroad, areas of tremendous expertise, gain-bringing or future-oriented collaborations, things of immense subtlety and delicacy, established by decades of thought, imagination and law, all gone or going. What do they – we, you – think will be left? Inward investment? Here? Don’t make me laugh.
I’m German. I came to England in 1961 and grew up here. Apart from two years in America, my entire education and upbringing was here, twelve years at school, six years at university. Then freelancing in London, since the 1980s. Does that make me what – a dreamer? DACA? Or just persona non grata? ‘Der hässlische Deutsche’ is an expression from the First World War, the ugly German; well, thanks for showing me the ugly Englishman. Nice of you. I don’t want to special plead. I don’t want anything for myself that isn’t extended to a Polish builder, a Bulgarian student, a Danish nurse, a Portuguese web designer. If it’s no go for them, it’s no go for me either.
The EU is not so much about trade – though it is that as well – as it is about freedom and peace. An extension of ‘we’, not a curtailing of it. Solidarity. Common purpose. Of a region. Are we – you, they, we – so different? So incomparably better? It’s about being a force for good in the world, a place slightly less rivalrous, less unfair, less short-sighted, less bristling with arms, less overrun by special interests than the places around it. In its weakness is its strength. Its divergence is its coherence.
At best, at very best, Brexit is a perfect irrelevance. Either it has nothing to do with our – their, your – actual problems, or it will make them worse. Austerity, inequality, lack of foresight, lack of common purpose, democratic accountability. Our difficulties are planetary and grave; for a nation to claim it has – or in Britain’s case, is – the answer, is simply dishonest. A cage or a card or a wall is not the point. Do you trust the Home Office not to cock this up as well? Take a bow, Baron Windrush. Gag on your nationhood app, now free to Android users. The world is converging. It is mixing, has mixed, and will continue to mix. This isn’t a great time for nation states. It’s hard to think of one that’s doing well. Not even Canada. Maybe Ireland? Maybe New Zealand?
The standards, laws, rights, protections and improvements of the last forty years have come from Europe. Whence the strange English faith in the selfless probity, wisdom and insightfulness of their ruling class? What’s this fantasy about being on the outside and retaining one’s influence and one’s freedom to act independently? With one flat-topped aircraft-carrier. So coolly unattached and so desirable, and always nyet? The world needs more internationalism, not less. More co-operation, not less. Remember the ozone hole? Something fixed it, possibly. We fixed it. Now the oceans are full of plastic. Our chemicals are in the air and soil and ground water everywhere.
As a species, we are a record success. To the detriment of all other species, and our own. A few billionaires – 26 of them – own half of everything. (They’ll be wanting a species of their own before long, all to themselves.) The frogs are full of progesterone. Somewhere, everywhere, there is the last this, the last that. Before long, the last naturalist. Almost every country one can think of is being led in exactly the wrong direction by exactly the wrong people. It may not be unprecedented, but it certainly feels unprecedented. Unpresidented. Brazil? Italy? Poland? Russia? Turkey? Australia? India? The Philippines? The great (small) unmentionable? I could go on.
Brexit is mean and stupid. It started off as a very few people’s practical joke at, they say, the LSE, was turned into a conspiracy by a cabal of subsequently thoroughly discredited (and some of them never credited in the first place) politicians with their hands at each other’s throats, then became a locked-in nightmare for an entire country and area of the globe. Worldwide, who else apart from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and the late Steve Bannon thinks it’s a good idea? Shouldn’t that worry you – them, us? Have your misanthropic Brexit, and then – what – a tourist industry?
A mendacious faux patriotism has been promoted: now it’s the scoundrel’s first port of call. It isn’t compatible with English friendliness abroad or solidarity at home. Is Brexit going to happen in some soft form, in some mild way – or ‘be delivered’, in Mayspeak – on 29 March, or later, after some bitterly contested picayune postponement, and we – you, they, we – say, ‘it’s all right, we don’t really mean it, we still kind of like you’? I don’t think so. What would be the point of such an unassertive, doesn’t-matter-anyway kind of assertion? Why not bring on the full English? ‘It’s not,’ as America’s last president used to say (an expression sounding now desperate in its pathos and utter goneness: heartbreaking), ‘who we’ – you, they – ‘are.’