Joyce McMillan: Brexit rhetoric insults a generation
In the unfolding story of Britain’s exit from the European Union, this has, at last, been a week of clarification; the only problem is that the clearer view that has begun to emerge, on various levels, is one to make any self-respecting Remain voter crawl back into bed, pull up the covers, and hope that the whole business - like the inauguration of the EU-hating President Trump, just across the Atlantic - may somehow prove to be nothing more than a bad dream.
The economic and political clarification that came with Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech on Tuesday was certainly depressing enough. Britain, it seems, will leave the European single market, but will somehow find a way of trading with it as freely as if we were still in it. We will leave the Customs Union, but still have a customs-free common travel area between the UK and Ireland, while somehow gaining full control of inward migration from the EU, of which Ireland remains a member. And if the EU tries in any way to make our trade deal less advantageous than that of a full member, the UK will walk away, shouting over its shoulder that we don’t need any trade deal anyway, and that EU countries are clearly not our friends any more.
This may be a mere negotiating position, of course, albeit an unpleasant and extreme one; but it is still difficult not to gape in amazement at the sheer, unprincipled opportunism of a Prime Minister who was campaigning for a remain vote just seven months ago, and who is now apparently pursuing a policy - and adopting a tone towards the nations of the European Union - barely distinguishable from that of Ukip.
Yet if Theresa May’s speech did something to clarify the UK government’s hard-right initial negotiating position, what was even more chilling was the minor explosion of war-mongering language that followed, from some members of her cabinet. For years, I have been reading left-wing analyses of the British establishment psyche which suggested that the country had failed to adjust to the loss of Empire, or to move on from its finest hour in 1940, when it briefly stood alone against the Third Reich; I had always thought those analyses overstated, or perhaps applicable only to those overheated individuals who write the front page headlines in one or two well-known British newspapers.
This week, though, within a few hours of Mrs May’s speech - and apparently high on a toxic brew of rampant retro nationalism - two senior members of her cabinet were on the airwaves using language that likened our current situation to the great anti-Nazi struggle of the 1940s. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is of course a well-known buffoon, although perhaps a little young, at only 52, to be displaying the kind of Biggles complex reflected in his comment that President Hollande sounded like a prison camp guard, when he suggested that Britain should pay a price for leaving the EU.
Much more shocking, though, was the language of the Brexit Secretary David Davis, who - when confronted with some evidence of the likely economic cost of Brexit to the British people - actually uttered the words: “We survived World War Two, we can survive this.” In other words, he likened the unilateral, entirely unprovoked damage associated with Britain’s Brexit decision - made on the basis of a pack of lies about the economic advantages of Brexit, and an ill-informed spasm of ugly xenophobia against EU migrants - to the huge unified effort the British people made between 1939 and 1945 to defeat a genocidal tyrant who had begun to annex countries across Europe.
This comparison represents such a breathtaking insult to the generation who suffered, fought, died in that conflict that it sickens the heart to hear it. And once again, it exposes the levels of sheer nationalistic and nostalgic unreason that are now driving UK politics, as politicians of a certain age, presiding over the reactionary mess that is Brexit, flatter themselves with the illusion that they at last are taking part in their own D-Day moment, and ranging themselves alongside the Second World War heroes of whom they read in their childhood.
Of course, we can comfort ourselves with the hope that most Britons no longer share this particular backward-looking neurosis, in which conflict with the nations of Europe somehow seems more “natural”, and more invigorating, than the long attempt to build new forms of co-operation from which we are now shamefully disengaging ourselves. No one under 45 can even remember a time when the EU was not taken for granted, with all the accompanying rights and freedoms which are now about to be wrenched away from that Remain-voting generation; and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, a clear majority of voters no longer want any truck with this resurgent emotional attachment to the days of war-war, rather than jaw-jaw.
Even if the UK hangs together for now, though, what’s clear is that the collapse of the centre-left at UK level, and then of the old Tory centre right, has left almost half of Britain’s voters completely voiceless in the Brexit process, condemned to watch a Tory party that could barely win 37 per cent of votes in 2015 now lead us not only out of the EU, but into the kind of hard Brexit that was never on any ballot paper, and - contrary to the Prime Minister’s contention this week - was explicitly ruled out by many Leave campaigners.
Yet until some grassroots political earthquake reaches Westminster, and forces a purposeful pro-European re-alignment of the centre and left, the Theresa May government will sail on largely unopposed, on a tide of xenophobic rhetoric orchestrated by Britain’s most notorious newspapers. And 16 million Britons will look on in despair, as a peaceful and inclusive European future that once seemed almost certain is thrown away; to the sound of triumphant laughter from the reactionary millionaires who orchestrated the Leave campaign, and of the strains of the Dambusters’ March played on a loop down the corridors of Westminster, while the best legacy of that wartime generation is finally consigned to history.