Brexit is less people’s revolution and more mid-life crisis
Instead of ending its loveless marriage with Europe, Britain still sleeps on couch
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson: Britain is not leaving Europe over an unelected elite that bullies smaller nations – it is leaving because it misses being the bully. Photograph: Alastair Grant
There are perfectly reasonable reasons to leave the EU, but these are not why Britain wants out. Norway has rejected membership in multiple referendums, and no one considers it a rogue state. Whitehall could have a Norway-style deal in the morning, but instead it seeks a fantastical arrangement whereby it cuts the nagging Euro-wife loose, mounts its Harley Davidson and glides into the horizon. It’s no coincidence that Brexit’s poster boys are mostly middle-aged men estranged from their spouses. This is less a people’s revolution and more a mid-life crisis, limping towards its inevitable, pathetic conclusion.
It’s a testament to the boorish, toxic personas of Boris Johnson et al that something fundamentally mundane – membership of a supranational trading bloc – threatens to rip British society apart. It is even more remarkable that their naked self-interest has made shadowy technocrats in Brussels appear almost likeable.
It was November 2010 when Ireland’s minister for finance – gasping in the chokehold of the banking crisis – received a letter from Jean-Claude Trichet, then president of the European Central Bank. Elected by no one, Trichet outlined the doomsday consequences Ireland would face if it did not immediately agree to his terms. Backed into a corner, the Irish taxpayer was lumped with an astonishing €67.5 billion debt to prop up a failed European financial system. In delivering a trumped-up bill that he knew Ireland would be too embarrassed/frightened to dispute, Trichet effectively behaved like the mob boss of some Eastern European strip club.
Ireland’s economic calamity can ultimately be blamed on the hubris of its leaders. If this narrative conjures images of a Greek tragedy, then the endless, meaningless suffering of Greece could be reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. The same year Ireland took its poisoned chalice, Greece received the first of three bailout packages. When the full extent of the EU’s rapacious austerity programme became apparent, the Greeks voted by referendum to reject it in 2015. The crisis faced by EU officials was now no longer just financial but existential – would they uphold the values of human dignity on which the union was founded, or implement the Darwinian policies demanded by the free market? The tenacity with which they pulverised the Greek negotiators was breathtaking. The referendum result was ignored, and the humiliated Greeks agreed to even harsher terms than before.
There is an alternative reality where Corbyn leads a Brexit-lite based on socialist principles
“Brutal” is how Jeremy Corbyn described the debacle in 2016. He is a lifelong Eurosceptic, and there is an alternative reality where Corbyn leads a Brexit-lite based on socialist principles. Debt forgiveness, democratic accountability, climate control – these are just some of the areas on which Corbyn could campaign for reform. There is yet another universe where Corbyn opts to leave. Here the democratic will of the people is respected while keeping the UK in the customs union, protecting both manufacturing jobs and peace in Ireland. With this new collaborative, conciliatory approach, Remainers and Leavers find common ground and heal Britain. Corbyn and Jacob Rees Mogg cycle together to Stonehenge, drop mushrooms and lay under the stars. Rees Mogg realises that nationalities are a social construct, that we are all just stardust floating in a timeless, cosmic dance.
Britain as bully
In our reality, this outcome is less likely than Arlene Foster joining Glasgow Celtic. Britain is not leaving Europe over an unelected elite that bullies smaller nations – it is leaving because it misses being the bully. For many the British empire was a high point in human civilisation, when an island of buccaneers colonised the known world and plundered its resources. The democratic deficit that went with British rule was of little concern to the overlords in London – in their minds the natives were fundamentally too deficient to govern themselves. Famine from Bengal to Bunratty followed, exacerbated by an indifferent ruling class who prioritised the maintenance of its broken system over the wellbeing of its subjects.
The democratic deficit that went with British rule was of little concern to the overlords in London
Britain yearns for its youth, when its full head of hair billowed in the winds astride gunboats and slave ships. It seeks to turn the clock back before the realities of the 20th century forced it to settle down and embrace things like compromise, before its power receded like its hairline. Unfortunately, British hegemony is like Boris Johnson’s virility – mercifully confined to the past.
It is three years since Britain announced its intentions to end its loveless marriage with Europe. Yet as the Brexiteers await a Harley Davidson Brexit that will never be delivered, the UK is still sleeping on the downstairs couch like the sad mess that it is. Having had time to accept the split, Europe is tired and wishes Britain would just go.
Peter Flanagan is writer and comedian based in London