When Jonathan Swift wanted to mock the immeasurable superficiality of British politics, he imagined it as a contest between the Big--Endians and the Little-Endians. That is, between those who believed fervently that the only way to open a boiled egg is at the pointier end; and those certain that the only proper way to attack it was from the larger, more rounded end.
But that was in the 1720s and Swift was joking. Not in his most extravagantly cynical fantasies, I dare venture, could our greatest satirist have conceived that 300 years on a British prime minister would be chosen on the basis of the following question: ‘Do you think that it was injudicious and horrid and career-ending of female candidate B to mention in an interview that she had kids, knowing that female candidate A did not?’ And that apparently the only reasonable answer would be: ‘Yes!’
I followed the debate (mainly via Twitter) from a villa in Sicily. Being abroad can give you a perspective sometimes lacking when you’re too close to the fray. And what I saw, I must say, left me as planet-struck as by anything I have ever witnessed in the decades I have spent spectating on the festering roach-pit that is Westminster.
Most especially what disgusted me was the behaviour of the commentarati: the people (you had just one job, FFS) charged with holding our political class to account. Not all of them (props to Louise Mensch and a handful of others); just most of them, including more than a few who’d taken the right side on the Brexit. I watched, amazed, as they piled in with their tuppenny ha’pennies’ worth on this most pressing of issues. ‘Oh definitely she meant it. Listen to the audio!’ ‘What? She’s trying to defend herself? How very dare she?’ ‘Kill the witch! Burn her!’ etc.
‘Get a grip!’ I wanted to say to these pontificating twonks, some of whose opinions I had previously trusted. ‘Do you not think maybe there are more pressing criteria to be judging Britain’s future leadership on? Like: the composition of the next cabinet; how likely they are to effect the full Brexit voted for by nearly 17,500,000 people; how alive they are to the underlying causes of that massive grassroots statement of discontent with the metropolitan elite’s status quo?’
But, apparently that wasn’t the sophisticated view. No: we had had our peasants’ revolt; we’d got as far as London; we’d made our point. Now, it was about time the natural order was restored, with the ringleaders of that suddenly unfashionable cause — Gove, Leadsom, the firebrand Nigel ‘John Ball’ Farage — being put to death, as is proper on these occasions, and life going much as before.
Revolutions are all very well: but God, you don’t want to rock the boat do you? This is my take-home message of the events of the last few weeks. We Brexiteers won the battle that no one expected us to win. But boy, did we just lose the war.
Sure our new insect overlord Theresa May has declared that Brexit means Brexit. But that in turn could mean anything. Associate membership (a bastard non-status that one of the few commentators who really understands the EU, Mary Ellen Synon, was warning the Bruges Group several months before the referendum was precisely the fudge we should most dread and fear)? Entry into a European Economic Area and acceptance of free movement of peoples, putting us on terms even less favourable than tiny Switzerland’s? Desperate, panicked acceptance of whatever rancid sops the EU deigns to toss us in return for access to that matchlessly wondrous entity the Single Market?
Imagine how we’ll feel when, belatedly, we discover that ‘access to the Single Market’ was never some binary choice between trade or no trade, but just another Remain marketing con which has been accepted unanimously as a good thing because no one did their homework.
This will happen a lot post this extraordinary coup by the losing Remain faction. We’re now back pretty much where we were before the EU referendum started — in the hands of an administration which will do all it possibly can to frustrate everything Brexiteers were hoping to achieve. Theresa May will be like continuation Cameron, who in turn was continuation Heath: an endless series of disappointments and missed opportunities.
I don’t want to sound like a Remainiac: please, let me never become that twisted or bitter. But I have to admit I now have a pretty excellent idea how they feel. Partly, I’m numb with shock. Yes, of course, I knew that the establishment would fight hard to protect its self-interest and we got a taste of it with Project Fear and Project Lie. But its viciousness and determination during the referendum campaign was as nothing to its behaviour once it had theoretically ‘lost’.
What I feel most, though, is sadness. For a lot of us Brexiteers, leaving the EU was just the beginning of a people’s revolution against that remote, entrenched, largely unaccountable elite. Not a war on ‘capitalism’, as the left so wilfully misrepresents it, but definitely an assault on cronyism, on ‘too big to fail’, on central-bank manipulation, on the misuse of immigration to create growth at the expense of GDP per capita and quality of life, on the screwing over of the many by the few. Now a once-in-a-generation opportunity has been snatched from the grasp of us amateurs by professionals so ruthless we’re like Cub Scouts who’ve just met the SS Leibstandarte.
Still, material for a few more columns, I guess.