Monday 21 October 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Humiliating the British is grist to the Brexiteers' mill'

The cartoon farce of Britain's parliament is all very entertaining, but is our disdain really helpful, asks Brendan O'Connor

BRITS HAVING LAST LAUGH: We might find it is a dangerous narrative that underestimates Theresa May and UK. Photo: Reuters
BRITS HAVING LAST LAUGH: We might find it is a dangerous narrative that underestimates Theresa May and UK. Photo: Reuters
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

There was a certain smugness in settling in for the evening last week to watch the UK parliamentary drama. The juxtaposition of the veneer of ancient, formal, solemn ritual with the farcical reality was compelling. Such pomposity about such chaos.

I knew these guys. On the college debating circuit back in the day, I met plenty of their kind. Legal types, like the European Research Group guys. They debated for places with names like Middle Temple, and they enjoyed the pomp and ceremony of it all. The Irish style of debating was about winning the argument and getting a few laughs. For these guys, Oxbridge types, it was more about the drama. They loved the drama, the pomposity, jumping up and down making points of order in Bercovian bellows, shouting things like "shame" from the audience. They loved it, all the shouting and the drama. All great sport. They were nice chaps most of them. Decent fellows. Of course in my naivete it never struck me that these bumptious, almost childlike chaps, for whom most things seemed a bit of a lark, were being groomed to run the empire one day. It never struck me either that their quaint ways of carrying on around debating was how they would actually govern.

Of course, I'm not telling you anything you haven't observed. It has become a trope with us now. We are finally having our revenge for hundreds of years of being regarded as the child in the complex relationship we share with our neighbours. And now suddenly, we are the adult, and they the child. The child that doesn't know what's good for it. Overstimulated, running around in circles, tears of frustration, doesn't know what it wants, won't be told.

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And last week was a high point for us. We in the chattering classes trooped home every evening, and having got grown-up Brexit news from the sensible troika of Fiona Mitchell, Tony Connelly and Tommie Gorman, we then settled in to Sky News to be delighted and appalled by the omnishambles as it played out. Some weird form of masochism had us all glued to it for hours as it went around in circles with its Harry Potterish, almost Dickensian cast of characters. The stout shouty Bercow in his element as the boss of the orphanage, the central-casting villain Rees-Mogg, Slugworth if he was drawn by a Victorian cartoonist. Even Theresa May, who when drawn by the cartoonist, would have a perpetual drip at the end of her nose, had an actual drip on the end of her nose, and was croaking like a frog. Each time she said the 'E' as she started saying 'EU' in her deep growl, you half expected her to say 'ET phone home'.

No wonder then that kicking them and condescending to them has become a national sport for us. It has even made us feel good about our own parliament. The narrative on our own parliament before all this kicked off had been that it was a joke. New politics wasn't working, was the line, and the whole thing was an embarrassing mess that was demeaning politics. Suddenly now, our own gang are masterful statesmen and women, restrained and responsible.

We might find it is a dangerous narrative that underestimates Theresa May and the UK. She may seem weak now, and many of the Brexiteers may look like cartoon buffoons, but these people didn't get where they are today by being idiots - not complete idiots anyway. We may disagree with many of their opinions, and yes, the whole Brexit process is a shambles, and they seem pathetic at this point, and powerless.

But then, what are we to make of their tariff plans, as revealed last Wednesday morning? The UK government essentially sent out a message last Wednesday morning, saying, "OK guys. If this is how you want to play it, we will do what we want." And while the proposed tariff regime may not be legal, it is the intent of it that we should look at. It was Britain saying, 'We will screw the Irish beef industry, we will mess with the hundreds of thousands of jobs in the German motor industry, and most importantly, we will give you what you want. We will not implement a border on the island of Ireland. In fact, you guys are going to have to be the ones to do it.' So under that tariff plan, or some variation of it, it was Leo Varadkar, and Donald Tusk and Co who would be putting up a hard border in Ireland.

May and her government were essentially reminding us all that if the UK is cut loose, defending Europe's frontiers, or even maintaining their integrity, would not be the UK's problem any more. There were presumably other messages there too, like to the DUP, about how a backstop that will hopefully never happen, might not be the worst outcome. Indeed, while everything could have changed by the time you read this, as I write there is some hope the DUP have had some manners put in them.

Another dangerous narrative that took hold as the week progressed was that if the UK wanted a long extension on Article 50 they would have to either have another referendum or come back with a plan for a softer Brexit. This was the culmination of days of noise from Brussels, suggesting that they wouldn't be making it easy for the UK to get an extension. The narrative was that Europe does not want to be infected by the toxicity of the UK, if the UK was to come back in for an extended period. We also heard a lot of suggestions that Europe was tired of Brexit now, had more pressing problems to deal with, and that it was up to the Brits to sort it out amongst themselves now. Europe is done with the whole mess. Sick of it. No more now.

That is all very understandable, and it is frustrating to see the UK in this seemingly intractable position where a parliament split three or four ways becomes paralysed. But does it really help to treat the UK with such disdain, with such impatience, with such hostility? Europe acting like this is actually feeding into the mentality that gave us Brexit. It is grist to the mill of the extreme Brexiteers who won't back May's deal regardless of backstops, because they want to be free. If you have a bunch of people who have issues about their sovereignty, is it really a good idea to start lording it over them and debasing them, when they are already on their knees? It just feeds into the Brextremists' narrative about Europe.

I'm not saying the British didn't inflict all this on themselves, and that they are not making a balls of it. But cornering and humiliating people like this usually serves to make them more dangerous.

Giving people "a ladder to climb down" has been the new cliche of the last few days. While it's difficult to give someone what they want if they can't agree what they want, there are better strategies than upping the stakes all the time.

Right now there is still some hope she can get her deal through this week but if not, maybe Europe, and not just the UK, should have a rethink. We've given the UK plenty of the stick, maybe it's time now for a bit of carrot, and maybe even a ladder.

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