Horseracing taught Pete Martin not to dabble in the a tricky business and there’s more to Brexit than meets the eye.
Out of friendship, I once (foolishly) invested in a horse racing stables. As we trudged round the race tracks of northern England, my friends and I watched our horses hobble home. We had a lot of laughs, and a load of drinks. But even our befuddled brains could see that this was probably a bad bet.
Despite his name, our trainer, Mr A Crook, was a fine upstanding fellow. When we were minded to buy a horse, he would always describe the next beast in his trademark term as “a good ‘orse”. Take, for example, the time we ‘invested’ in a horse called Dr Strangelove. It was reputed to have been owned by the Aga Khan and then by the popera diva Sarah Brightman.
On a bright morning up on the gallops, the thoroughbred would breeze past its stablemates. Shivering on a wet Wednesday at Catterick was, however, beneath its dignity. Dr Strangelove had an odd aversion for running at speed against horses of inferior breeding – and would slope home as slowly as a former Arab stallion could. Nonetheless, our trainer’s oft-stated view was that any horse could win a race: you just had to find a race that was bad enough. We tested this theory to destruction all over the northern circuit.
High on the horsepoop of hope, you’d dream of winning. You’d lose when you expected to lose. You’d also lose when you expected to win. You’d come last when you’d hoped to be placed. And still rarely, against all expectations, you’d win when you hadn’t even bothered to back your own deadbeat horse.
Frankly, though some among us fancied themselves as racing experts, we had no idea what was going on. And yet, it was impossible to avoid the nagging feeling that some other people did actually know what was going on.
So, counting our capital in laughter and our losses in ledgers, we finally had to admit that the equus caballus was posthumous, and there was nothing left worth flogging. It was a perfect example of the classic management maxim: never get involved in a business you don’t understand. But, right now, it will serve as an analogy for the state of British politics.
Who knows what’s going on? There seems to be no race bad enough that this lame, knackered nag called Brexit could win. If a horse fell at as many hurdles, it would have to be put down.
Sure, it’s all fun and games until real money and livelihoods are at stake. The idea of Brexit could be taken out on the gallops and, far from the realities of the race track, might even look like something a mug would put money on.
It was also given more than a fair crack of the whip in our media. Running up to the EU referendum, Nigel Farage – unplaced in seven outings as a UK Member of Parliament – was a favourite on Question Time. He was invited to trot out his far-right agenda in ten of the 15 English-based episodes of the BBC’s flagship political programme. He’s this century’s joint record holder with over 30 appearances – the same number as former Chancellor Ken Clarke who has a 35-year career in mainstream politics. Given Farage’s unfancied form in UK politics, that’s quite remarkable.
So, now we’ve come to the point where the things begin to read like a Dick Francis novel. Did you know that Farage had a ‘secret’ meeting with Julian Assange, the Wikileaks leader and self-imposed exile at the Ecuadorian Embassy? Hilariously, a member of the public spotted Farage sneaking in, and tweeted it. The normally voluble Farage avoided explaining his association with Assange until eventually saying it had been organised by LBC radio, where he is a presenter. Arguably, Wikileaks has no allegiance to anything other than ‘speaking-truth-to-power’. But Assange seems an odd character. Even if not in Putin’s pay, any kind of manure-spreading can prove useful to the Kremlin’s agenda. By publishing of Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails, Wikileaks was also hugely helpful to Trump who may also have compromised connections with Russia.
So, the ‘Bad Boys of Brexit’ syndicate found themselves oddly entangled in a dark web of ultra-nationalism, kleptocracy and the mischievous misuse of data and new media.
At first, Leave.EU backer Aaron Banks admitted to just ‘one boozy lunch’ with the Russian government. Probing by The Observer, The Times and The New York Times revealed that the Leave.EU campaign team met Russian officials as many as 11 times. At the fourth meeting, Banks was offered investments in Russian gold mining.
The Electoral Commission also found it hard to get the full story from both Leave.EU and the official VoteLeave campaign, but uncovered enough skulduggery to set maximum fines and report both groups to the police.
Lest we forget the Scottish angle, there’s also £430,000 of unexplained (perhaps foreign) funding which flowed from an obscure Scottish Conservative association to the DUP in Belfast to be spent on political campaigning in England.
These are all serious questions. Yet there was a time in the UK when far-right politics were considered a joke. In 2006 during an LBC interview, David Cameron – the man who got us into this mess – could airily dismiss UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly”.
It’s easily forgotten that there has always been a dark underbelly of reactionary attitudes in Britain. In the early 1920s, it didn’t seem to be a huge goose-step for Sir Oswald Mosely to mutate from Tory to left-wing toff to blackshirt fascist. Perhaps it was a more innocent time. Mosely married his mistress Nancy Mitford at Joseph Goebbels’s house, with Hermann Goering as the best man, disappointed that their friend Adolf Hitler couldn’t attend.
In the pre-war years, the rise of British reactionaries was broken up by the direct action of trade unionists. But far-right ideology was largely made taboo in Britain by World War II and, in the aftermath, by the full revelation of its ruthless cynicism and lethal inhumanity.
Today, the far-right remains unabashed in its appeals to dangerous prejudice, and in its contempt for democratic rules. As events have proven, the EU referendum was always too complex an issue to be put to the public as a simple two-horse race. Like a nobbled non-runner, The Truth is beginning to come round – too late for this pointless, rotten race to be re-run. But it would be useful to find out finally what’s going on.
Now seems like a good time to call a proper steward’s inquiry.