Dani Garavelli: You have been watching… the UK sitcom

A float at a recent protest against Brexit sends up members of the Tory Cabinet. Picture: Oli Scarff/Getty
A float at a recent protest against Brexit sends up members of the Tory Cabinet. Picture: Oli Scarff/Getty
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From time to time my youngest likes to expound on his theory of the universe. It goes something like this: we are all avatars in a cosmic computer game, being propelled around an infinite screen at the whim of some unseen force who has taken possession of the master controller. We keep on running – taking out other players, levelling up where we can – but eventually, at a predestined time, our luck runs out and we fall lifeless to the ground. It’s a bit nihilistic for one so young, though, in its acceptance of an interventionist Deity, not so very different from Catholicism.

While his scenario is plausible enough in its own way, those of us not addicted to the X-Box may have another take. Rather, we are all extras in a wackadoodle sitcom created by a fledgling writer who has just stumbled on the Theatre of the Absurd. The sitcom – let’s call it Creep Show – is a mash-up of ’Allo ’Allo and The Young Ones, with a bit of Ubu Roi thrown in to keep the intellectuals happy. Set in current day UK, grotesque national stereotypes and caricatures of greed realise their lust for wanton destruction; like Vyv smashing up everything in sight with a baseball bat after Neil asks: “Have we got a video?”

Unfortunately, we are way past the series’ heyday, when the anarchic antics felt daring and catchlines like as “Brexit means Brexit” or “Boris is Boris” were still enough to raise a wry smile. No, we are now five seasons in. The franchise has long since jumped the shark; the premise is tired, the plot increasingly implausible and it’s hard to believe the axe hasn’t fallen. The supporting cast (those occupying the Opposition benches) appear to have allowed themselves to be written out of the action. Yet its limelight-hogging stars continue to upstage each other in increasingly desperate attempts to dominate the screen.

This week’s episode was particularly lame. It opened with a showdown between David – “You can’t muck about in the Territorial Army” – Davis and Theresa – lock up your puppies – May over the issue of the “backstop” (or “stop-gap”) the EU requires to square the circle of a soft border and the need to protect Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. Davis had been hamming it up, threatening to resign if no time limit was imposed on May’s “plan”, which is effectively to keep the UK in the Customs Union until an invisible border can be constructed. So May dutifully (and arbitrarily) wrote down December 2021, and even though everyone knew the whole exercise was a travesty, Davis claimed a victory and agreed to stay on.

Just as viewers were bracing themselves for the next plot development – EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s inevitable thumbs-down to the plan – up popped Boris Johnson – a cut and shut of Dads’ Army’s Private Frazer and Corporal Jones – to tell us we were doomed, but also warn us not to panic. “It’s all going to be all right in the end,” he reassured Conservative activists as if he were an experienced pilot steering his plane through a spot of turbulence instead of a crazed hijacker ploughing it into a cliff.

Johnson too appeared to be wearying of the burlesque he helped create; he was enviously eyeing a rival sitcom across the Atlantic which he feared was getting better ratings. If only May could be a bit more like Donald Trump, he mused. Now, there’s an actor who knows how to deliver empty lines with aplomb and bring an unexpected twist to every press conference.

“He would go in bloody hard, there’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere,” Johnson said, adding, with characteristic self-deprecation, that what might, to others, have appeared to be the ravings of a man in the grip of a seizure, was actually “a very good thought”.

The problem with this never-ending farce is that there are no hilarious consequences, at least not for the bit players caught in its tailspin. The cavalier behaviour of a group of complacent bourgeois buffoons has sent us spiralling into chaos and any laughter that’s left is hollow.

Last week, a civil servants’ Doomsday scenario of what would happen if the UK left the EU without a deal was leaked. It conjured up a post-apocalyptic landscape with the ports paralysed, trading at a standstill and food and medicine in short supply. And yet our “leaders” keep on squabbling amongst themselves like spoiled brats in a Victorian playroom. And why wouldn’t they? Cushioned by privilege, they will always have literal and metaphorical bunkers to which they can retreat when everything turns to shit.

Only a toxic level of insulation from the lives of others could explain Johnson’s dismissal of the Irish border problem as “millennium bug stuff” and his belief that fussing over Brexit’s possible impact on the Good Friday Agreement was “allowing the tail to wag the dog”.

While he diminishes a conflict that took 3,600 lives, other people continue to suffer people as a result of his party’s policies. Last week, it emerged almost 1,000 deportation flights to the Caribbean were booked before the Windrush scandal broke. Such removals have now been halted, but there are many more immigrants who live in fear of their status being challenged.

In Scotland, the latest victim of the UK’s hostile environment policy – yet another sop to right-wingers – is 10-year-old orphan Giorgi Kakava, who has lived in Glasgow since he was three and fled his Georgian home with his late mother to escape violent gangsters. May has now agreed to review his case, but only after campaigners here created a stooshie.

May’s Holyrood counterpart, Ruth Davidson, likes to engage in her own peculiar brand of Scottish exceptionalism, presenting her MPs and MSPs as cut from a different, more velvety cloth than those down south. But then – in our own wee bout of absurdism – Ross Thomson raised his head above the parapet and the game was a bogey. The MP for Aberdeen South wrote a letter complaining about the Scottish Government’s anti-racism video We Are Scotland. In it, he accused the SNP of the “blatant politicisation of the civil service” for the video; as if it wasn’t a necessary riposte to the anti-immigration rhetoric his colleagues down south have been spouting; as if the Conservatives weren’t responsible for fuelling resentment in once cohesive communities. Luckily, Mark Meechan, otherwise known as Count Dankula – yes, he of Nazi pug dog fame – put in a cameo appearance to give Thomson his vote of confidence.

At the SNP party conference yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon called for immigration powers to be devolved, saying the Westminster government wasn’t acting in the best interests of the country. That’s so true, on so many levels. If only we could wrest control of the script and write ourselves a different narrative.