Monday 16 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'This is not the time to turn against our English friends'

Brexit is a uniquely modern tragedy involving, among other things, celebrity culture, the internet and random bad luck, writes Brendan O'Connor

Clown prince: The rise of Boris Johnson has given the UK a celebrity leader devoid of conviction and any ideology beyond self-promotion. Photo: Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/PA Wire
Clown prince: The rise of Boris Johnson has given the UK a celebrity leader devoid of conviction and any ideology beyond self-promotion. Photo: Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/PA Wire

We have always watched all of this with a kind of horrified fascination. And as strange as it seems to admit it now, there were times when it seemed like a game. There were times when the arcane ceremony of the UK parliament seemed like vaguely amusing theatre. But now we are all rapidly becoming experts in these ancient complicated rules of British democracy. Because now there is a sense that they could be our only hope.

There was a time when John Bercow, this pompous little bull of a man, seemed like a figure of fun, a stereotype of small-man syndrome. And now Bercow, issuing outrage from his Turkish holiday, has become the man who could save us.

There would have been a time when Jacob Rees-Mogg, himself a kind of caricature to us, citing William Lenthall, the speaker of the House of Commons from 1640-1653, would have seemed like a laughable twit. But now when Rees-Mogg says, "the speaker by convention and longstanding tradition has no tongue with which to speak or eyes with which to see, other than which is directed by the House", we ponder the ramifications of it.

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Whether we care to admit it or not there was a time, until very recently, when we thought that the stakes weren't so high.

There was a time when we took the competence of democracy for granted, when we assumed that there were rational adults on all sides who would ultimately do the right thing.

We assumed too that political instability was a thing that happened in other parts of the world, in more emotional cultures than ours. We certainly thought sense would prevail in the UK. For all that we might have disagreed with Britain on some things down the years, we took it for granted as being one of the most stable democracies in the world.

While we must try not to succumb to the panic and hysteria that has taken hold in many quarters now, it's hard not to feel one strong emotion about all this. And that is sadness.

Right now, looking at our nearest neighbours, at a country with which we are so inextricably bound by ties of blood, by culture, by sport, by language, by proximity, by common interests, by friendship, it is hard not to feel terribly sad for them. It is not easy to watch friends tear themselves apart like this.

Of course it's made even harder by how much it will affect us - but even putting that aside, it's terribly sad to see this once great country have a nervous breakdown.

It feels like a perfect storm for Britain, tragedy heaped on tragedy. We went to bed on the night of June 23, 2016 confident that this Brexit nonsense would itself be put to bed overnight. And we woke up to a new world, with the arc of history disrupted beyond belief.

Central to this rupture were agents of chaos, Dominic Cummings being the main protagonist. Armed with data and the internet and the best in targeted, emotional advertising, Cummings and co - ignoring the vast swathe of voters on both sides of the argument - were able to skew history by scientifically targeting the tiny margin they needed.

To understand the full tragedy of this you should watch the Cambridge Analytica documentary The Great Hack. Its thesis is that both Brexit and Trump were examples of history being changed by the manipulation, the bombarding of a small number of voters.

The tragedy was exacerbated by the shocking lack of leadership in the UK.

And here too there have been a host of almost random factors at play. Never mind that Europe should have engaged properly with David Cameron and the UK about reform. Would Theresa May have become leader if Andrea Leadsom hadn't made an unfortunate comment suggesting that because she was a mother, she had more of a stake in society that May?

In the age of outrage and offence and identity politics and culture wars, this faux pas saw off Leadsom's leadership bid. Of course, it's perhaps doubtful that Leadsom would have won anyway - but that comment and the response was just another one of these weird factors that gave us Theresa May.

May had greatness thrust upon her and she couldn't handle it. That May was the best the most successful party in the once great Britain could throw up, to lead them through one of the most challenging periods in their history, added to the tragedy.

When May inevitably failed, foolishly holding an election she was ill-equipped to fight and slowly turning in on herself more and more after that, the tragedy was compounded.

After May, the best the UK could do was a clownish buffoon, devoid of conviction and any ideology beyond self-promotion. If May became leader partly thanks to the age of offence, Boris Johnson became leader because of the age of celebrity.

His sensible opponents might as well have just been saying rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, blah, blah, blah. Boris was entertaining. Boris was exciting. He electrified the room, we were told. And a Tory party jaded by the torpor of May, decided they craved energy and excitement, someone who would do something. It was unclear at that point what Boris would do, and where exactly he stood on anything. But any action would be better than none they figured. They were bored, and Boris was the antidote to that boredom.

The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the alternatives are no better than Boris either. In another scientific skewering of the democratic process, the hard left have taken control of Labour and given it a Marxist leader, surrounded by Marxist apparatchiks, a leadership that is out of tune with most of Labour's elected representatives and vast swathes of the party's supporters.

If he is unacceptable to many Labour supporters, Corbyn is not at all acceptable to other opposition parties or to rebel Tories. Yet he is one of the only hopes for Britain to now pull back from the brink. The great white hope, this man who can't even decide where he stands on Brexit.

It's hard to watch them do this to themselves, with seemingly no one sensible in a position to shout stop. A time that called for the best of British has brought out the worst in them. One of the great tragedies of our lifetimes has snowballed through a combination of: random events, the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time, data, the internet, and the culture of outrage and celebrity. It is, you'd have to say, a very modern tragedy.

It feels like a time of madness now. The clown from Have I Got News For You bestrides the world stage like some sort of mad colossus. The crash-out Brexit that seemed like a mental outcome we all knew couldn't happen is now the most likely option. But it is a time of sadness too, where history seems broken.

But things can heal fast. And what will be important in fixing history now is to move on from the casual Anglophobia that has taken root in this country.

As much as we are victims of Brexit, we must remember now too that this is a tragedy that is happening to our friends and neighbours, and it is a tragedy most of them would not have chosen.

Sunday Independent

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