The nation is deeply divided. We can, it seems, talk of almost nothing else. Passions could scarcely be higher. No court or parliament can block or postpone it. Hexit is happening. That’s right. Hexit. Humphrys is leaving the Today programme after 30 years. On learning the news, one of more than seven million loyal listeners revealed his outrage and sense of loss, tweeting: ‘Who will I shout at on the radio in future?!’ My friend and companion in the Today studio Justin Webb replied with his characteristic charm. ‘Oh, that’s simple. Nick Robinson.’ I have been warned.
John is famously irascible. His on-air harrumphing has often been preceded by off-air howls of outrage about interview briefs which he deems to be sloppy (‘It’s NOT Lord Michael Howard. It’s just Lord Howard’), unclear (‘What on earth does any of that mean?!’) or over long (‘How can you give me a nine- page brief for a four-minute item?’). On joining the programme I soon learned to escape to the canteen for coffee, porridge and the space to think. I came to understand that what lies behind all the sound and fury is a simple fact. John cares passionately about the programme. Whether he’s talking to a politician, a priest or a painter, he approaches it with the same energy, curiosity and challenge. He never sounds weary, jaundiced or bored. If they’re still saying that about me in 2046 — when I’m due to complete my three decades on Today — I’ll be delighted.
Shouting is, I fear, what our democracy is in danger of being reduced to. Politicians are fighting for attention and are desperate to have what they say shared or liked online. Social media transforms our national conversation into a three-letter word — OMG, LOL or WTF. So it is that the highly complex question of our future relationship with the EU is reduced to ‘Do or Die’ by Boris Johnson and ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ by Jo Swinson. Both understand that the cruder the message and the more it offends their opponents the more it will be noticed by those who don’t follow the detail. Jeremy Corbyn has spent three years trying to avoid a policy that can be summed up in anything less than a paragraph with a series of complex sub-clauses. He’s desperate to hold onto both Remain and Leave voters. He does now finally seem to have plumped for another referendum and a policy that might be summed up as ‘You decide’. Wags may be tempted to add ‘because we can’t’.
It may, of course, be the Supreme Court which gets to decide the future course of our politics. A staggering four million tuned in to watch proceedings live. Record numbers are tuning in to BBC Parliament too. Those of us gripped should be aware that many have long since grown weary and bored with the minutiae of Brexit. Whisper who dares: not all will follow — let alone understand — the arguments about the justiciability of the advice given by the Privy Council to prorogue Parliament. Explaining that is the job of the BBC. I fear though, that the more our politics is reduced to debates about obscure parliamentary procedures, the more incomprehensible and enraging our democracy will become for ordinary citizens. We should be wary of turning ourselves into the new Italy, with prime ministers that come and go, elections in most years and leaders who all too often find themselves in court accused of lying.
Not that everything in Italian politics is without merit. I’ve just spent a glorious weekend in Venice where I re-visited the Doge’s Palace for the first time in many years. My eye was caught by the bocche di leone — the lion-mouth letterboxes — through which 16th-century Venetians could post anonymous denunciations of crimes and misdemeanours to the Doges’ lackeys. So much more elegant than online trolling, ratting to the whips or, indeed, denouncing your former friends in prime ministerial memoirs.
It was inevitable that when David Cameron emerged from his self-imposed exile to promote his book he would face personal attacks. However, the claim in the Guardian (since retracted) that he had experienced only ‘privileged pain’ was grotesque. Soon after he became Tory leader I was tipped off that our families were staying in the same tiny Devon resort. We and our wives met for a drink. We soon realised that we’d been holidaying in the same place with our families for years. How, I wondered, had we not bumped into each other — on the beach, or in the village pub or the nice seafood restaurant? Too much sand; too many stairs; no lift or ramp for Ivan’s wheelchair came the answers. The next day Cameron called to say that he wasn’t going to be able to deliver a speech he was due to make nearby which I’d agreed to cover. He was driving his severely disabled son many miles to the nearest big hospital after a bad night. His pain was all too real.
It feels right that the former prime minister —the man to blame/thank for the mess we’re in/our chance to reclaim our freedom (delete where applicable) — is John Humphrys’s last big interview on Today. On my last day presenting the programme with John he had a rare lapse of concentration and forgot to read his next script. After a slightly awkward pause I read it for him. He thanked me, smiled and added: ‘The joy of cocking up on the radio is that it’s the other presenter who looks like a dickhead.’ I’ll miss him. No, really. What’s more, I suspect even those who’ve shouted at their radios will miss him too.
Nick Robinson is presenter of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.