The Fast Show, which ran on BBC television from 1994 to 1997 – the last few years of Ken Clarke’s chancellorship – has been voted the second-best television sketch show ever, after Monty Python.
What we are now witnessing is the Slow Show – this excruciating, drawn-out process of Brexit, which shows every sign of eventually proving the most dangerous and self-defeating political tragicomedy of our age.
Towards the end of his memoirs, Kind of Blue, Clarke writes: “I have been repeatedly asked whether I could remember any madder period of political life in the United Kingdom during my career. I have pondered this … but the answer is obviously ‘no’.”
He goes on: “David [Cameron]’s chancer-like gamble, taken for tactical internal party-management reasons, turned out to be the worst political mistake made by any British prime minister in my lifetime.”
Last week Clarke, who is a giant among the current breed of politicians, was the only Tory to vote against the motion to trigger Brexit by the end of March. Clarke believes, as I do, that the government has no strategy, and that leading Brexiters do not agree among themselves. They have pushed the prime minister into a position where she is finding it difficult to cope.
In the past fortnight we have been treated to news that David Davis (whose role in this farce is to play Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) appears to have no problem with the thought of paying a price for retaining some of the current advantages of EU membership, and that Boris Johnson is flexible on migration, at least on some occasions. Yet many of the people who were misled by the Brexit propaganda, indeed by the Brexiters’ outright lies, during the referendum campaign reportedly voted to stop payments to the EU and reduce migration from the EU – migration, by the way, which in every year since we joined the union in 1973 has been less than inward migration from outside the EU.
The political analyst John Curtice calculates that three-quarters of Labour supporters voted Remain. Yet most of the parliamentary Labour party voted last week, with every Tory except Ken Clarke, to trigger article 50 by the end of March. In keeping with the farcical undertones of the way Brexit has divided the nation, both the government and the Labour party claimed victory over the vote.
Labour, deeply concerned about the threat from Ukip in the north, may be playing a long game. When the seriousness of the prospective damage from Brexit becomes more apparent – almost certainly hitting the very people who felt “left out” and ignored by the so-called “metropolitan elite” – Labour may summon the courage to be more forthright about the folly of Brexit.
In which context I was particularly struck last week by an interview in the Times with the playwright Michael Frayn. He told his interviewer, Andrew Billen (like himself, a former Observer man), that Boris Johnson had said during the campaign: “There’s not going to be another war in Europe if we pull out.” Frayn added: “Well, I agree. We can be absolutely confident that there won’t be – but why can we be confident? Because of the painfully slowly constructed structure of agreements and treaties that have been set up in Europe to preserve the peace.”
For, let us face it, this is not just about economics, and voting to make our country poorer while Brexiters fantasise about the freedom to trade with non-EU nations with whom we already trade. The EU was set up primarily to unite a continent that had been tearing itself apart for centuries. And there are now uncomfortable echoes of the 1930s in the rise of extremist parties in mainland Europe.
The last thing that the Europeans we are supposed to be “negotiating with” are prepared to do is let Britain off lightly: they are rightly terrified about a domino effect. It is “Brexit or nothing”. Yet in the fantasy land of current British politics, Brexiters and others are kidding themselves into believing that the others do not mean what they say. All this stuff about “soft Brexits” and “medium Brexits” is pie in the sky. I can hear Paul Whitehouse, in a revival of The Fast Show, asking: “How do you like your Brexit, madam? Rare or medium – or perhaps well done?”
The fact is that at present, by being members of the EU but not of the seriously troubled eurozone, Britain has the best of both worlds. Too many people are caving in to the view that, in a non-binding referendum, “the people have spoken”.
Yes: despite the objections of some readers, I repeat that only 37% of the adult population voted for Brexit, and only 28% of the entire population. And to those who say the latter figure is misleading, because it includes children ineligible to vote, I commend a recent letter in the New European from Mr Warwick Hillman.
He points out that if we leave the EU in March 2019 – the government’s “plan” – some 2 million of the 2016 referendum electorate will have died, being replaced on the electoral roll by a similar number of 18- 20-year-olds.
He concludes, devastatingly, that given the known voting preferences of each group, “at some point in the negotiating process we shall acquire a majority wanting to remain. In this context, does not a repeat referendum in advance of any act of leaving become a democratic imperative?”
Mr Hillman adds that he will be 74 in March.
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