Tag Archives: Brexit

Brexit is a moment, but also an ancient tide

“Leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment, etc. – that have nothing to do with Europe”, Boris Johnson, February 2016.

But very soon after he said those words, opportunist Johnson saw that, by coming down in favour of Brexit, he could swim with that ancient British tide of xenophobia and maybe, in the process, further his ambition to be Prime Minister (something I have written about previously). This was at a time when his credibility and charisma still gleamed brightly and he was able to influence a significant slice of public opinion. He chose his moment carefully and, propelled by a following wind from the Tory press, he was appointed captain of the Good Ship Brexit. From his personal point-of-view, it was a masterful piece of politicking, one that Shakespeare‘s Brutus would have admired:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures”.

Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3, lines 218–224.

And yes, sure enough, just as Boris’s star moved into the ascendant, so the tide began to turn in favour of an exit from the EU. The arguments that Remainers listed, floated, ran up the flag pole and dredged up from highly-authoritative sources, failed to change the country’s inevitable course towards self-ejection from the organisation. It was as though Britain had put its collective fingers in its ears.

And maybe it had … maybe xenophobia is a fundamental character trait of the British. Winston Churchill, surely Boris’s greatest hero, once wrote: “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea” (though he changed his mind and ultimately became very pro-European).

And we can find much older literary references that illustrate this point. In particular, Oliver Goldsmith (right), in an essay “On National Prejudices“, first published in the British Magazine in August 1760, described his surprise at the anti-European sentiment that he found when entering into discussion with a group of “half a dozen gentlemen” that he met in a tavern, where

” … one of the gentlemen, cocking his hat, and assuming such an air of importance as if he had possessed all the merit of the English nation in his own person, declared that the Dutch were a parcel of avaricious wretches; the French a set of flattering sycophants; that the Germans were drunken sots, and beastly gluttons; and the Spaniards proud, haughty, and surly tyrants; but that in bravery, generosity, clemency, and in every other virtue, the English excelled all the world”.

Goldsmith turns away but the man is determined to get his opinion on the matter. The writer, who holds it for a maxim to “speak … [his] … own sentiments”, begs to differ:

“I therefore told him that, for my own part, I should not have ventured to talk in such a peremptory strain, unless I had made the tour of Europe, and examined the manners of these several nations with great care and accuracy: that, perhaps, a more impartial judge would not scruple to affirm that the Dutch were more frugal and industrious, the French more temperate and polite, the Germans more hardy and patient of labour and fatigue, and the Spaniards more staid and sedate, than the English; who, though undoubtedly brave and generous, were at the same time rash, headstrong, and impetuous; too apt to be elated with prosperity, and to despond in adversity”.

In this sceptred isle, failing to go with the flow is often seen as a cardinal sin in certain circles and Goldsmith’s riposte met with “a contemptuous sneer”, as

” … the patriotic gentleman observed […] that he was greatly surprised how some people could have the conscience to live in a country which they did not love, and to enjoy the protection of a government, to which in their hearts they were inveterate enemies”.

Exasperated, Goldsmith threw down his payment and retired to his lodgings, “reflecting on the absurd and ridiculous nature of national prejudice and prepossession”.

Gaffe-strewn though his recent careering may have been, Johnson knows a thing or two about certain currents that flow deep in the British psyche, and he may yet bubble up to the very crest of a Tory wave in times to come. He knows how to chart prejudice and turn it to his own advantage.

So amidst all the warnings that the country will either end up on the rocks or sail off into a glorious sunset, that deeply-held (by some) British distrust of Johnny Foreigner is a factor that shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

 

Source: The Independent, 21st February, 2016.

Image credit: Brutus – by Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Hot under the collar about the elective dictatorship?

“I’m feeling a bit strangled”, said Lord Hailsham. “Have you got any size 18s?”

“I’ll have a look, sir”, I said.

He wasn’t asking about shirts. In the late 1960s, it was still fairly commonplace for men to wear separate collars, attached to their shirts with collar studs. It was his collars that were proving to be the problem; but therein lay the great advantage of collarless shirts: rather than throw out a perfectly good shirt, one need only buy a new collar and the old tight, worn out or stained collar could be discarded. My father would routinely do without wearing a collar around the house, only attaching one when he went off to work or to meet family or friends.

I’d seen quite a few celebs strolling around my sales floor at the Army & Navy Stores on London’s Victoria Street during my Christmas holiday job as a student.

I recognised Quintin Hogg, or 2nd Viscount Hailsham as he’d become in 1950, straight away. (Actually he wasn’t a lord when I met him, as he’d renounced his peerage in the mid-‘sixties under the Peerage Act, in order to stand as an MP. He later returned to the House of Lords).

The quite eccentric Hailsham is remembered for a variety of reasons. But perhaps most of all we remember him for a phrase that redounds even to this day in discussions about government: “elective dictatorship“.

In a lecture in 1976, Hailsham suggested that governing parties held far too much power, such that they were able to – and often did – act in a dictatorial fashion, whether or not they had a large majority. Whilst there was an appearance of democracy through debate and whilst parliament appeared to be a forum in which opposing views could be aired and considered, in reality the governing party was at liberty to impose its will without any regard for the views of other parties.

So I’ve been wondering what he would make of the current situation in parliament. Not only have the Tories not got an overall majority; they are dependent on the attachment of a right-wing ‘collar’, in the shape of the DUP, in order to survive. Even so … whilst they are able to hold sway only by paying a £1bn bribe for this attachment, in theory they can dictate whatever policies they choose and enact legislation which takes no account of the views of electors who hold contrary opinions.

Yes, without a collar, a man’s shirt is incomplete. And without a majority, a government is unable to function smoothly. So the Tories clearly see paying way over the odds for a new collar as a price worth paying.

But even following the Conservative and Unionist Party‘s signing of the deal with the DUP, Prime Minister Theresa May must be feeling held in something of a stranglehold by her new Irish partners. The studs holding their partnership together may well become dislodged.

I fetched a tape measure from the drawer under the counter and slipped it around Hailsham’s neck. (Our political opinions might have been diametrically opposed, but I resisted the temptation to martyr myself in the cause of worker’s rights).

“Yes, I think a size 18 would be much more comfortable”, I said. Hailsham harrumphed and paid over the £1 2s 6d for the new collar.

In reality, it may not be the collar that brings about the downfall of Theresa May. There are many dissenting voices on all kinds of issues on her own back benches.

Whilst she may think she’s got the whole situation buttoned up for now, it probably won’t be long before things start to fall apart at the seams …

 

 

 

Picture credit: Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone Allan Warren.jpg by Allan warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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