British public has chance to see off caricature figures of Brexit debate
European elections offer opportunity to boost case for people’s vote on Brexit
Some of the most insightful reporting into Britain’s Brexit contortions is found in the non-UK press. A German news magazine reported that Jacob Rees-Mogg was a serious candidate to become the next British prime minister. They then described him as “das lebendes Fossil,” the living fossil. The New York Times ran a large section on the person they called “Failing Grayling,” the most extraordinary survivor of this British government, Transport secretary Chris Grayling. This is a man who (among other astonishing achievements) gave a ferry contract to a company with no ferries and then had to pay Eurotunnel £33 million (€38.2 million) in compensation for not offering them a chance to bid. No doubt a book entitled “Chris Grayling’s Reign of Error” could become a comic best-seller.
The Irish Times’s own Fintan O’Toole has been characteristically brilliant and incisive. My in-laws hail from Co Kerry, and a family friend drew my attention to an RTÉ children’s programme. It explained Brexit in words understandable to six- and seven-year-olds. When I watched the programme I wondered why such a clear exposition had not been shown to the British cabinet and the so-called European Research Group in which Rees-Mogg plays a starring role. It would at least have offered them some facts.
Then I listened to RTÉ radio where Nigel Farage was explaining to an Irish audience how Ireland was going to leave the European Union. The presenter calmly endured this Brit-splaining and replied politely that Ireland was not about the leave the EU and approval of the EU had gone up since the British Brexit debacle.
Now of course ever since Shaw’s play John Bull’s Other Island, Irish writers have found comedy gold by revealing that a few of my British compatriots believe they can explain Ireland better to Irishmen and women than anyone who actually lives in Ireland. A friend who is a British journalist in Venezuela told me that during a break in the rioting in Caracas he was asked by some Venezuelans to explain what on earth was going on in Britain. But things have now ceased to be even mildly amusing.
The current Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley appeared baffled that unionists and nationalists do not vote for each other’s parties. The former foreign secretary Boris Johnson declaimed that the “Irish Border” was not really different from that between Westminster and Islington. Other Brexit advocates claim some yet to be discovered “technology” would solve all our border problems. And while all this unfolds we have seen the murder of Lyra McKee in Derry.
Having spectated on this mixture of incompetence, arrogance and pigheadedness at Westminster for the past two years I finally snapped at the spectacle of the prime minister (for now) Theresa May going like Oliver Twist in the poorhouse to other EU leaders to ask for more time to sort out the mess she herself created. British politics – sometimes disliked but usually respected – is now a worldwide laughing stock. I decided to do something. Anything. I joined Change UK to help end the Brexit self-harm and bring about a people’s vote with Remain on the ballot. Change UK was formed by MPs from the Conservative and Labour parties who are as sick as I am at the state we’re in. Brexit has sucked the life out of us. It was based on false promises and cannot be delivered. No one will now be happy with any kind of Brexit, and the arguments will last years into the future.
There is some good news. Throughout Britain a new generation has been politicised by Brexit. No one born in the 21st century had a chance to vote in 2016, but a million more young people can vote now. Many of us realise that Farage and the salesmen of Brexit are dragging this country towards a kind of Trumpland, where lying is normalised. There is revulsion at the language of the Brexit Party activists, portraying their fellow citizens as traitors, quislings, enemies of the people, claiming a great “betrayal” – the divisive language with shades of Germany in the 1930s.
Farage’s own performances have paradoxically been helpful to the Remain cause. He wishes to reorganise Britain but could not manage to organise a march from Sunderland to London. When it rained he got in a car and left. Farage talks the talk. He literally does not walk the walk.
I am hopeful that at last the cast of Spitting Image puppets that has dominated British politics in the Brexit debate, the Farages, Johnsons and Moggs, will ultimately be seen off by a people’s vote. That’s why they are so stridently opposed to it. They really only like to speak of “democracy” when it suits them. In the European elections – often ignored by British voters – this time we are hoping for a record high turnout. A big vote for Remain parties, particularly Change UK, will boost the case for a people’s vote, and put some steel into those Labour and Conservative MPs prepared to put their country above their party. One other piece of good news. In the past two years Brexit has exposed the deep fault lines in the British two-party system. It’s cracking up. I won’t weep for this relic of the 20th century if we can help change it to make it fit for the 21st.
Gavin Esler is the former presenter of Newsnight on BBC Two and is standing in London for the Change UK party voteforchange.uk