Bill Jamieson: Why we think Brexit is the worst political storm ever

Waves crash over sea walls in Blackpool as Storm Eleanor hits (Picture: PA)
Waves crash over sea walls in Blackpool as Storm Eleanor hits (Picture: PA)
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Political storms, like meteorological ones, have come and gone for years but we always seem to think the current one is the worst, writes Bill Jamieson.

Storm Eleanor be blowed! For the fifth time this winter, my morning duties have involved chasing round the garden for far-flung dustbin lids and the scattered detritus of the recycling bins. There’s been the overturned plant pots to put right and the bent, wind-battered spinnacles to straighten.

Paltry damage you may scoff. But then there’s the nightly torture of the noise. The wind gets in under the slates, rattles them against each other and then bangs them down before the next assault. And all the time the wind is screaming and howling through nearby pine trees: surely only a matter of time before one of them splinters and is brought crashing down onto our beds.

Our weather was never like this. This is freak. This is different. This is new. I ransacked my memory. That has to be worst since, well… How fitting, how spookily appropriate, we have weather to match our national fortunes. Have we not endured a year of raging rows, extreme event alerts, awesome Brexit cliff-hangers and a tottering Westminster administration at risk of being uprooted and the Government brought crashing down about our ears? Does not Laura Kuenssberg warn us nightly on the BBC of some new enveloping crisis, a fresh storm that threatens to blow the Prime Minister out of Downing Street? Almost every night there’s a new scare.

Barely a day passes without some new dark premonition of our fate. And seldom in UK politics has so much seemed in such constant peril and so little looking secure.

But is this all so strange or unique? When was the last time we enjoyed a calm and uneventful winter?

What tricks are played on the mind through the dark and stormy nights of our national imagination. For there has rarely been such a thing as a winter without weather – or a political era unfolding without extreme event.

My ‘festive reading’ (sic) so far this year has included an account of the traumas of the Irish home rule bills of the 1880s and 1890s that threatened to bring down the government at every turn – all uncannily similar to the parliamentary troubles over Brexit. And if the extremities of “catastrophe” and “disaster” – words deployed almost daily to describe what lies in store with Brexit – how did we cope with the debacle of the Norway campaign in May 1940, the feeble performances of Neville Chamberlain and the unlikely rise to the premiership of the minister most responsible for the military shambles at Narvik, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill?

Nicholas Shakespeare’s Six Minutes in May provides a compelling account of the debacle and its stormy aftermath, compared to which the current ‘Brexit crisis’ seems uncannily tame. These are extraordinary circumstances, you may think, freak episodes in an otherwise placid evolution of our representative democracy.

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An absolutely fair summation – once we set aside the First World War, the 1926 General Strike, the 1929 Crash, the onset of the Great Depression, the National government, the abdication crisis, the second world war, the Suez debacle, the fall of Anthony Eden, the Profumo scandal, the 1973-74 three-day week, the 1979 Winter of Discontent, the Falklands war, the 1980-81 recession, the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, the Iraq war, the banking crisis, the debt-and-deficit crisis, the London bombings, the Scottish independence referendum, the EU referendum vote, the resignation of David Cameron and the hung parliament of 2017: all minor blips, exceptions to the rule, storms in teacups?

The fact is that our history, like the weather, is prone to extreme events. There is no uneventful winter, just as there is no politics without storms. Our political history may be said to have largely proceeded from the recovery from one crisis to the onset of the next. Indeed, it is by these events that our national chapters and eras are defined.

It is certainly true that the process of withdrawal from the European Union is an event without parallel and one whose complexities were under-estimated. Totally different though the long and bitter process of Irish independence was, it is difficult not to be struck by the parliamentary parallels. Governments rose and foundered on this issue. William Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill in 1886 appeared to offer an amicable solution amid growing bitterness and division but was defeated after a split in the Liberal Party.

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The Second Home Rule, introduced in 1893, also offered a route out of the impasse, but was defeated in the House of Lords. The Third Home Rule Bill of 1912 was enacted in 1914 – and suspended with the onset of the First World War. Then came the Easter Rising, and the fourth Home Rule Bill of 1921. Deep divisions persisted for decades.

It is an unsettling antitode to the view that our parliamentary system of government always works as a healing balm on our divisions. And few such divisions have proved more intractable than those over identity and sovereignty – the hard, irreducible core at the heart of the division over Brexit.

Churchill has been widely acclaimed for bringing the country together – no Prime Minister has so united the country before or since. But that is not at all how it appeared in the febrile days of May 1940 when few in the Chamberlain administration or in the Armed Forces had a kind word to say about him. His emergence as war leader was arguably the most unlikely outcome.

In early 1940, Britain embarked on woefully ill-prepared expeditions to secure the port of Narvik to halt the export of Swedish iron ore to Germany and to prevent Norway’s occupation. Churchill overrode military opinion, bullied members of the War Cabinet into a hasty, ad hoc operation that ceded the strategic advantage to the Germans and led to Chamberlain’s resignation.

General Sir William Ironside, chief of the Imperial General Staff, described him as a desperate man who seemed to be more of a liability than an asset, a view that other British commanders came to embrace amid Churchill’s constant changes of mind.

Said Ironside at the time: “We cannot have a man trying to supervise all military arrangements as if he were a company commander running a small operation to cross a bridge.”

In the subsequent stormy debate in the Commons, blame was diverted from Churchill and pointed at Chamberlain. “So a debate on the mismanagement of the Norwegian campaign,” wrote the historian Gordon Corrigan, “brought to power the man who had been mostly responsible for that mismanagement.”

But it was the storm that brought forth the man. And such extremes are part and parcel of our condition. Let’s look on our storms as a natural given – the political as well as the weather. Storm Eleanor has indeed been severe. Terrible. Ferocious. Scary. Why, it’s been definitely the worst storm since, hmm… last year?