Fintan O’Toole: The bad ship Brexit needs a skilful mutiny

HMS Brexit moored between Cape Disappointment, Delusion Point and Exasperation Bay

In a speech at the Democratic Unionist Party conference in Belfast, former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson said that the Brexit draft deal was a mistake. Video: DUP


One thing you can say for the whole Brexit story is that it is not like buying a piece of furniture in Ikea. You don’t have to construct the sardonic commentary yourself.

It comes with all the satirical metaphors fully assembled and ready for use. What could be more convenient than the Royal Mail’s postage stamp, issued in June, with a still from Dad’s Army of Clive Dunn’s Lance Corporal Jones, mouth agape, glasses askew and the slogan“Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic!”?

You don’t even have to say, “Alexa, order me a mordantly derisive Brexit image.” It literally comes through your letterbox.

And now comes Michael Palin’s new book, Erebus: The Story of a Ship. It is about one of two vessels that featured in the most tragicomic episode of heroic failure in British history before Brexit, John Franklin’s doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1848.

Franklin was, as Stephanie Barczewski puts it in her superbly illuminating history, Heroic Failure and the British, “a failure on a monumental scale, but he nonetheless became one of the greatest Victorian heroes”.

The horribly farcical outcome of Franklin’s blithely optimistic voyage was not just that he and his men were lost but that enormous amounts of effort and money were expended trying to find them. By 1854 the admiralty had spent £600,000 (hundreds of millions in today’s values) looking for Franklin. “Some of the rescue expeditions,” as Barczewski wryly notes, “themselves had to be rescued.”

As a metaphor for Brexit, Franklin’s voyage offered itself on a plate in September 2016 when, shortly after the referendum, his flagship, HMS Terror, suddenly emerged out of the Arctic wastes.

But now Palin’s book on Franklin’s other ship, the Erebus, offers an even more apt image. Writing of the ship’s approach to Antarctica on its previous voyages under James Ross, Palin is struck by “how many of the names given to physical features mirrored the mental states of those who named them.

Apart from Danger Islets, there is Cape Longing, Cape Disappointment, Delusion Point and Exasperation Bay … ” Yet again, the metaphor arrives as part of Brexit’s self-satirising service. No need for fiddly Allen keys.

Three ports

Now that the deal is done (though very much undusted), HMS Brexit has drifted past Cape Longing. The pure yearning for an escape from the ordinary and unheroic present tense of British history has evaporated.

There is no way back to that state of uncomplicated desire. But the expedition has now arrived simultaneously at Cape Disappointment, Delusion Point and Exasperation Bay – respectively Theresa May’s deal, no deal and the demand for a second referendum.

Cape Disappointment is the deal that May concluded with the European Union on Sunday. It is not the worst place to land – the ground is solid and the place is perfectly habitable.

But as a destination, it is deeply disappointing: a rather grey suburb of the downtown EU, too close to be its own location, too distant to be at the heart of things. The problem with it is not that it is particularly horrible but that it just doesn’t seem worth the voyage. Why bother going all that way to end up in a worse spot than you were in already?

Delusion Point is where the hard Brexiteers – the DUP, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Davis, Dominic Raab, and the rest of the motley crew – have stranded themselves.

It is, at this point, a wilful self-delusion. They stand on their bleak headland and, peering through the icy fog, insist that they can see the blessed isles of a sun-drenched Global Britain just over the horizon.

If everybody will just go back and start again at Cape Longing, if they will all just believe hard enough in the destiny that awaits them, the Northwest Passage to freedom and prosperity will open up like the Red Sea did for Moses.

Exasperation Bay

And everybody else has sailed into Exasperation Bay. There is an increasing sense of furious disbelief: how the hell did we end up here, stuck between the disappointed and the deluded?

How did we end up with a choice between May’s second-class EU membership and the chaos of a no-deal Brexit? And: when will this all end? Are we really going to set our course for another decade of tedious negotiations and destabilising uncertainties? Can we not rethink this whole voyage before we reach the point of no return?

With an expedition as crazy as this one, it remains impossible to say where it will all finish. But a tentative guess is that the zealots will remain marooned on Delusion Point and become increasingly irrelevant.

They have proved themselves to be cowardly and incompetent – they had power but lacked the guts and skill to use it. So the real struggle will be between the disappointed and the exasperated.

The disappointed have history on their side: the British entered the EU in 1973 with an air of gloomy resignation, so perhaps they will leave in the same mood, settling on Cape Disappointment because they have nowhere else to go.

But there is still time for exasperation to be a force powerful enough to fill the sails and point the way back to sanity. What’s needed is a properly led mutiny.

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