Many years ago, when I worked as a TEFL teacher, we used visual images to teach nationalities to beginner students. These pictures weren’t subtle. The Frenchman wore a striped jumper and a beret. The Spaniard dressed like a bullfighter. The standard image of the Englishman was a commuter in a pin-striped suit and a bowler hat reading the Times. It was a rather limited and one-dimensional version of Englishness even then, but no matter where they came from my students always knew which nationality it referred to.
Because this was how many people imagined the English: stiff upper lip primness, common sense, a certain sense of superiority that was somehow vaguely comical, a quaint and endearing eccentricity.
There is very little that is quaint or endearing about the astonishing spectacle of national self-destruction that is unfolding in front of our eyes. Hardly a day passes without another reminder that the UK has entered a new political dimension in which delusions of grandeur, magical thinking and ideological fantasy have replaced anything that we once thought had any connection to the real world.
These tendencies reach across the political spectrum. You can find them in George Galloway, doing the full UKIP/Churchill thing on Arron Banks’s Westmonster website (sorry not linking to this) and reminding Europeans that WE saved them during WWII and that ‘If not for us not a single European politician would hold office anywhere unless as a Quisling collaborator of the German Reich.’ For the Churchillian war-child Galloway this means that ‘ when I hear a “Schnell” or an “Achtung” from the Junkers (sic) of this world I don’t consider it music in my ears.’
Let no one spoil this demagogic rant by telling Galloway that Jean-Claude Juncker comes from Luxembourg not Germany. For Galloway, anyone who has anything to do with the EU is close enough to Nazis to make no difference, and anyone who says otherwise, like Churchill’s opponents, belongs to what he calls ‘the gang of appeasers and fifth columnists within the British elite.’
Such idiocy, as we have been depressingly reminded again over the last eighteen months, is not confined to the fringes. Take Boris Johnson’s latest fatuous suggestion comparing the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland to the congestion zone between Westminster and Camden that he introduced as mayor, when he ‘anesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people traveling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks.’
Many people have pointed out that it will not be so easy to ‘anesthetically and invisibly’ bypass Irish history or a conflict that cost 3,000 lives. It’s a bleak testament to the current state of things that such arguments even need to be made, or that a self-aggrandising buffoon like Johnson has any influence on anything at all. But his oafish presence in the corridors of power is a symptom of a detachment from reality that only seems to grow wider as old John Brexit slouches incoherently towards Neverland.
For eighteen months now the May government has been asking for things it cannot have, promising things it cannot deliver, bluffing, posturing, and pursuing things that cannot be achieved, even as its own impact assessments predict that the country will be worse off in every single Brexit scenario. Yet when civil servants point out the damage that the country is likely to inflict on itself, they are dismissed as traitors, quislings, closet Eurocrats or members of the ‘pro-European elite’.
Humankind cannot bear very much reality, wrote TS Eliot, and Brexiters cannot bear any reality at all that conflicts with their fantasy of a global buccaneering Britain, freed of EU red tape and the unwanted immigrants that the country depends on, able to proudly smoke in pubs once again, singing Rule Britannia as we surge toward a brave new world that we now know will not be a ‘Mad Max-style’ dystopia.
In fact a country that allows its politics to be driven by ideological fantasies and straw man constructs is likely to find itself closer to dystopia than its opposite. And on Monday, Jeremy Corbyn once again demonstrated that the left is no less prone to magical thinking than the Rees-Mogg/Nadine Dorries crowd.
Corbyn’s speech was hailed by his fans as a ‘ bold Brexit vision’, because his fan base will never say anything different about anything he says. But his speech was littered with reminders of why His Majesty’s Opposition has presented very little opposition whatsoever to the Brexit process, and has largely fallen over itself in its eager desire to bring the debacle even closer.
Thus there was a leftwing version of the ‘£350 million for the NHS’ pledge in Corbyn’s promise to ‘use funds returned from Brussels after Brexit to invest in our public services and the jobs of the future, not tax cuts for the richest.’ While insisting that there should be ‘no scapegoating of migrants’, Corbyn promised that ‘Our immigration system will change and freedom of movement will as a statement of fact end when we leave the European Union.’
So migrants won’t be scapegoated, but immigration will be. And freedom of movement – one of the great progressive achievements of the European Union – will end in order ‘ To stop employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions’.
Never mind that there is very little evidence to suggest any such thing. When Corbyn last mentioned this ‘importation’, it was in relation to the construction industry, which has a skills shortage and where wages are actually rising. Corbyn may have made more emollient noises than the Maybot, but he still insists that he won’t accept a ‘ deal that left Britain as a passive recipient of rules decided elsewhere by others’ even though the EU has always made it quite clear that it will not accept cherry-picking deals that allow the UK to continue to enjoy privileged market access without the obligations of membership. Despite this, Corbyn is optimistic about the outcome because:
‘There will be some who will tell you that Brexit is a disaster for this country and some who will tell you that Brexit will create a land of milk and honey. The truth is more down to earth and it’s in our hands. Brexit is what we make of it together, the priorities and choices we make in the negotiations.’
Not really. Because whatever priorities and choices we decide upon, the UK is negotiating within a very limited set of parameters and is almost certain to find itself worse-off than it was before. Yet neither the government nor the opposition want to admit this. Mesmerised by their own narrow party or personal career interests, wide-eyed and prostrate before ‘the will of the people’, they offer only fantasies and pipedreams in an attempt to square circles that cannot be connected.
Sooner or later the consequences of this political cowardice and dereliction of duty will become impossible to ignore, and when that happens things may get far uglier than many of us once thought possible. Because there are historic mistakes that cannot easily be undone.
For now, the millions of us who are unwilling passengers on this runaway train can merely sit while it heads towards the buffers, hostages to a political nightmare that we seem incapable of waking up from. And now the nearest thing to the Englishman in the bowler hat and pin-striped suit is John Major, a politician once regarded as the equivalent to watching paint dry.
Yet Major is now the one calmly talking calm common sense to a country that doesn’t want to hear it. And no one will be surprised that the gimlet-eyed zealots driving the train with the accelerator pushed down have now started calling him a ‘traitor’ too.