Fintan O'Toole: Brexit was only supposed to blow the bloody doors off

The last moments of ‘The Italian Job’ are a perfect metaphor for the UK in 2018

Ask most English people for their favourite line from a movie, and they’ll do Michael Caine’s Cockney bark from The Italian Job when his sidekick has just accidentally blown a security van to smithereens by remote control: “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

It was the line that Michael Gove's wife, Sarah Vine, thought of when she woke him on the morning after the Brexit referendum to inform him that Leave had won: "'You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off,' I said, in my best (ie not very good) Michael Caine Italian Job accent. In other words, you've really torn it now."

It helped, of course, that Caine himself is an enthusiastic Brexiteer, a multimillionaire who declares that it would be better for Britons to be poor and free than rich and enslaved. As Gove told the Sun: “I love Michael Caine. He’s the kind of expert I like.”

The odd thing is that the line is more truthful than so much of the subsequent official rhetoric about Brexit. In the film, it is about screwing up. Caine delivers it to Michael Standing’s cloth-capped Arthur, the epitome of English overconfidence. We have just seen Arthur confidently press the button to trigger the explosion with a big gormless grin. And we watch his expression turn to stupid embarrassment as the van is blasted into oblivion. It is Arthur, not Michael Caine, who is really the kind of expert the Brexiteers like.


General rage

But for many of those who voted Leave, the intention surely was only to blow the bloody doors off. The referendum was an opportunity to vent a general rage at the Establishment, much of it justified. It was a free flying kick at the well-upholstered bums. But instead of being a controlled explosion of anger, it has sent the whole vehicle of state skywards. Brexit just has too much gelignite packed into it – its destructive energy goes much further and deeper than most people can really have intended.

And perhaps, while there is still time, people in England might look to a different metaphor from The Italian Job. If the explosion scene seemed to sum up the giddy mood in 2016, the end of the movie is perfect for Britain’s precarious position in 2018.

After the successful heist, the getaway driver loses control on winding mountain roads of the bus into which the gold bullion has been loaded. The back of the bus is left teetering over a cliff and the gold slides towards the rear doors.

Two-minute cameo

The final moments of the movie are Brexit 2018 in a two-minute cameo. We see the stacks of gold bars with a Union Jack planted on top of them – the fabulous future of the post-Brexit trading empire. But as Michael Caine’s Croker attempts to reach the gold, its full weight slips further towards the back, threatening to tip the bus off the cliff and into the abyss below. The members of the crew that has pulled off the audacious heist (the Brexit mob) have to stay at the far side of the bus to act as a counterweight – otherwise the whole thing plunges off. They dare not move either forwards or backwards.

The doors have been blown off and everyone can see the shambles inside the great machinery of state

Caine turns around to them and delivers the final line: “Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea.” But these often-quoted words are not in fact his last utterances. As the closing music swells up we hear his great idea: “Uh, uh...”

There is no great idea. In 2009, the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK ran a competition asking members of the public to come up with solutions to The Italian Job dilemma. The winner came up with a very complex suggestion that involved, among other things, deflating the tyres and draining the fuel tanks.

But as other members of the public were quick to point out, if the tyres are deflated and there is no fuel in the tanks, you can’t drive the bus away with the gold in it. In truth, the gang either has to abandon its dreams of riches or plunge to its death.

Impossible choice

Which brings us to The English Job of 2018. The British government is currently like Croker’s gang – immobilised by an impossible choice while their grand project teeters over the abyss. They can keep moving towards the fool’s gold of hard Brexit, but if they do their economy will go over the cliff. Or they can keep the bus from falling by moving away from their dreams towards the far end.

Maybe they can deflate the rhetorical tyres and drain the tank of the fantasies that have propelled them to this point – but then they will have to walk away empty handed and give up on the whole heist.

There is only one possible great idea: to ask the people whether they really wanted to explode their economy and their polity or was the aim just to blow the bloody doors off. If the second of these options was the real point, it’s been well made by now. The doors have been blown off and everyone can see the shambles inside the great machinery of state.