WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT TALKING ABOUT BREXIT
Twitchy-fingered, polarizing social media, intemperate radio phone-ins, splenetic Tabloid headlines… and now the House of Commons: these arenas have become notorious for hyperbole, intolerance and confrontation when the subject turns to Brexit. But what of the more erudite and balanced quality press, founded on liberal values such as thoughtful, fair and respectful debate?
Below are quotes I have accumulated over the last three years exclusively (virtually) from officially commissioned contributors to The Guardian and The Observer newspapers (plus a couple of invited guests on the BBC). These are not the opinions of adversarial politicians (apart from two) or amateur letter writers but highly educated, literate professionals with access to research, the facility to check facts, a journalistic training to weigh evidence and editors to help them choose their words carefully.
I present you with “Brexit – in their own words.”
1 BREXIT AS MENTAL ILLNESS
The Guardian published a psychiatric diagnosis of the Leave voter by Michele Gelfand entitled “Here’s the science behind Brexit and Trump’s rise” explaining its aetiology through behavioural psychology, as one might an aberrant disorder.
In the same paper, Mike Arthur the American documentary film maker put Brexit down to living in the irrational “age of unreason” when people “applaud blind faith and are sceptical about overwhelming observable evidence.” British Guardian columnist Tim Lott echoes this with a rhetorical question “When did our country lose grip of its senses?” describing Britain today as a “neurotic, angry, irrational country”.
Novelist, John Le Carre goes down the madness road in the Observer and describes Brexit through his fictional hero as “sheer bloody lunacy”, following up in the Guardian in his own voice with a more composed but equally unambiguous “Brexit is totally irrational”. According to Gaby Hinsliffe another Guardian columnist, Leave supporters “are beyond reasoning with”. Jonathan Freedland also in The Guardian’s insert The Journal offers the generic diagnosis ““Leaving Europe for the tender mercies of Donald Trump is insane.” In the same paper Matthew D’Ancona prefers a more colloquial synonym lamenting Brexit as “populist madness”. Rafael Behr condemns all pro-Leave arguments as irrational, as “the populist anti-expert rhetoric of the 2016 Referendum”
Another Guardian columnist, John Harris continues down the mental ill health route and in one column mentions “the serial lunacies of Brexit”, in another he refers to being “in the midst of the current madness” before nailing down a more specific diagnosis, labelling Brexit “an act of self-harm.” Fintan O’Toole, again in The Guardian agrees describing Brexit as “sadomasochism” built on “a very British neurosis.” With a later article of his subtitled “Brexiters are deluded…” Novelist, Ian McEwan echoes the former with the introduction to his article in the same paper “Brexit, the most pointless masochistic ambition in our country’s history” (although the Suez invasion and the Charge of the Light Brigade both might fancy a tip at that title). TV Screenwriter Mark Gattis in the same paper goes deeper into the pathology of violence against oneself denouncing Brexit as “like slitting your own throat”. Stewart Lee endorses the suicidal intent in the title of his book “March of the Lemmings: Brexit in Print and Performance 2016-2019” While Guardian regular columnist Rafael Behr sees schizophrenia as more apt, referring to “the crippling delusions that fogged Brexiter judgement”. Filmmaker Krysty Wilson-Cairns described Brexit to Guardian interviewer Catherine Shoad as “sheer madness and folly”.
Others such as novelist, Samantha Harvey diagnosed themselves as suffering from the “senselessness” of post-Referendum politics and even wrote a book about her “Chronic Post-Brexit Insomnia.” While Rafael Behr compared his ignoring the warning signs of his pending heartache with the failure of the pro-European campaign to anticipate the growing Leave vote in the run-up to the Referendum and added, albeit self-mockingly “…Brexit broke my heart”.
2 BREXIT AS THE APOCALYPSE
Not only is there a consensus among these liberal commentators that the motive for supporting Brexit was a form of self-destructive mental ill health, there is a similar consensus around the consequences of Brexit too.
“Our departure from the European Union in any form is a national tragedy” Guardian columnist, Martin Kettle warns grimly. Simon Jenkins in the same paper looks into his crystal ball and tells us Brexit will “lead us to a dystopia”. Guardian regular, Zoe Williams is convinced Brexit will result in “a catastrophic recession”. But such prophesying of catastrophe is relatively reserved compared to her editorial stablemate Jonathan Freedland’s Miltonic “Though four years of Trump would be a nightmare, Brexit would haunt us for generations. Satan had the last laugh and saddled us with both.”
In the Observer veteran journalist Will Hutton passes up mythological analogies for historical ones in an article entitled “Brexit is our generation’s Dunkirk but this time there will be no salvation.” (Might the Imperial War Museum replace “The Blitz Experience” and install “The Brexit Experience”?). And Polly Toynbee also in The Guardian appropriated the lexicon of Dunkirk when she portrayed the House of Lords trying to amend the Withdrawal Bill as “trying to save the nation in its day of peril”. Elsewhere in that publication she clamoured re. Brexit “the UK is in mortal danger”. The painter Cecily Brown prefaces her exhibition of paintings at Blenheim Palace with talk of “a nation in turmoil”, “a broken country” “not the England I knew” conjuring images of war, revolution or devastation.
Lord Adonis continues the comparison with the Nazi threat with his comment in the Guardian “we got it wrong on appeasement and I think we’re in serious danger of getting it wrong in the way that we leave the EU.” Similar call backs to the horrors of World War Two are conjured by Timothy Garton Ash in the same paper with “A humiliating Brexit would lead a descent into Weimar Britain”. Martin Kettle agreed, also in The Guardian “Brexit Britain and Weimar Germany are perilously alike” implying that Leave voters have opened the door to a return to 30’s totalitarianism war and genocide. Philip Pullman in The Observer raised the spectre of Adolf Hitler himself when he said of the EU Referendum that it was “a terrible thing, a terrible mistake. Parliament is now not sovereign any more. It’s the will of the people that’s apparently sovereign, and this is terribly dangerous because the will of the people can easily be manipulated, as we saw in Germany.Dictators love referendums.” David Lammy MP also compared Brexiters (specifically the European Research Group) to Nazis on BBC 1’s Andrew Marr show. While political comedian/commentator Kate Smurthwaite on BBC Radio 5 claimed “the people who voted Brexit murdered Jo Cox”. Not actual Nazis in her view, just murderers.
All of which renders Simon Jenkins use of “the hooligan Brexiters” somewhat charitable. Maybe because he was at a Film Festival in Berlin when he spoke but director Stephen Frears did not mention the war, instead opining “I come from a country so stupid we want to leave Europe. I apologise for the trouble we’ve caused.
3 BREXIT EVERYWHERE
Stephen Frears expressed that judgement while accepting an award on behalf of the movie “Lady Macbeth.” And in fact numerous other commentators in the Guardian and Observer have seen Brexit haunting more corners of contemporary culture than Banquo, or the ghouls in the library in “Ghostbusters”.
Rafael Behr drew comparisons between Theresa May’s refusal to go back on her stubborn commitment to finalise a Brexit deal, and the blood-soaked serial killer, “Macbeth” who is similarly wedded to seeing a nasty business through to the end, “in blood stepp’d in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er, Behr quotes.
More prosaically the Guardian Leader (Editor-in-Chief Katherine Viner) commenting on the 50th anniversary of “Dad’s Army” in the Brexit era condemns the TV classic as being “nostalgia at its worse”. Daniel Leigh in the same paper revisits the Cold War movie classic “The Third Man” in which he now sees “a cold premonition of no-deal Britain… no deal provides a solution by dropping a bomb on ourselves.” Brexit as (nuclear) Apocalypse.
Katy Shaw, Professor of Contemporary Writings at Northumbria University sees Brexit in contemporary literature: “poetry as a form is being used to critically discuss events like Grenfell, the Manchester bombing and Brexit”. The carnage of a deadly tower block fire, a terrorist massacre at a teenage pop concert… and voting to pull out of a trade agreement all bundled together.
Barney Ronay sees Brexit in football in his article on why Maurizio Sarri was unpopular with Chelsea fans, condemning: “English anti-intellectualism, the English insularity that still sees it as a form of disgrace to take lessons or ask favours from abroad.” (Ronay does not mention that fellow Italian, Gian-Franco Zola has been voted favourite player of all time by those same Chelsea fans nor that Portuguese Jose Mourinho is their favourite manager.)
The Guardian’s David Conn also sees it in football asserting that the negative depiction of UEFA by Manchester City Football Club following its decision to sanction the club for breaching financial rules “has parallels with the toxic Brexit campaign… actual facts struggle for recognition, while misinformation and sweeping allegations are easier to digest”. Even though the owners and Chairman are not actually British but from Abu Dhabi.
Emma Smith sees Brexit in theatre, denouncing Brexit advocates, in her book “This is Shakespeare” as “a dramatis personae of variously wounded, self-deluded, malign or unheroic characters worthy of a Shakespearean cast: villains and fools – Theresa May, a Polonius who finds herself unexpectedly on the throne; Jacob Rees-Mogg as a hedge fund Bolingbroke; Michael Gove as a wheedling Cassius.”
Harriet Gibsone previewing a children’s fantasy film about knights in armour, “The Kid who would be King” in the Guardian, and finds Brexit in cinema: “the film invites more sober parallels to contemporary Britain. The stakes are high: if its child protagonists can fight off evil, they will unite “a nation divided” and thwart men inflicted by “greed, entitlement and vengefulness”. But Brexit analogies were unintentional.” Brexit as evil.
Xan Brooks interviewing Danny Boyle over his Beatles nostalgia romcom “Yesterday” asserts it is: “a high concept comedy about cultural amnesia and a wonderful Britain that might have been. I tell Boyle I think it might be a Brexit movie in disguise”.
Krysty Wilson-Cairns screenwriter of Sam Mendes WW1 drama 1917 volunteered the connection saying the soldiers in the movie were “fighting for a free and united Europe. And somehow that’s under threat again, out of sheer madness and folly and political gain.”
And Coco Khan in the Guardian Magazine sees it in the English countryside. Reporting on a day out rambling: “Put the cold, wet and Brexit voters to one side and the great outdoors are a beautiful gift.”
Perhaps the most telling summary is in another film review. This time from Phil Hoad in The Guardian who concludes the documentary “Postcards from the 48%” presents an “unarguable case for trying to overturn Brexit”.
Meaning the time for talking is over. Those who wish to discuss the relative merits and demerits of distinct versions of Brexit from hardest No Deal to softest membership of the European Economic Area; or the legitimacy of competing mandates from Referendum to General Election, Parliamentary votes to Prime Ministerial edicts to Court rulings; or whether the very notion of a “national interest” is even possible in a country so riven by regional and class inequality, must desist.
The key word is “unarguable”. As soon as someone claims that… you know there is going to be an argument.
Even in October 2020 these tropes persist in The Guardian like cosmic background radiation 14bn years after the Big Bang, with a casually but precisely landed aside, unillustrated, by Polly Toynbee in her article on the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, that “Britons dismiss foreigners”. (I presume she means “other” Britons and not herself.)