Le Monde // February 13 2019 // newspaper & online
The Great Brexit Disaster
By digging into the past, the British have been manipulated by shameless politicians, denounces the English writer Benjamin Myers in a piece for Le Monde
This week my local BBC news channel ran a story about ‘the Brexit Box’, a 15kg “emergency food store” featuring some tins of distinctly non-English foods such as chicken tikka and bolognaise, a water filter and a firestarter. Retail price is £385 and, as the entrepreneur behind it beamed, they are selling thirty boxes a day. If nothing else, the Brexit Box serves as a perfect symbol for the confusion and comedic absurdity that is the current mood of this nation.
Britain’s planned exit from the European Union is a disaster of unprecedented proportions. Some of us knew it was going to be bad. None us predicted it was going to be this bad.
In the two years that have passed since the government finally relented to pressures from malevolent far-right forces and granted a simple referendum of the question ‘Remain or Leave?’, British society has fractured in all directions, at all levels of society. Wherever we go the word ‘Brexit’ echoes, lingering like a bad smell.
The latest governmental rejection of Prime Minister’s Theresa May’s Brexit deal and a subsequent vote of no confidence that she only just managed to win by a tiny margin (if she had lost she would have been forced to resign her position, leaving this sinking ship without even a clueless captain) would be comical were not people’s jobs, businesses and entire futures at stake. In decades to come it will make a great film starring a cast of amateur clowns, ancient puppets and braying farm animals. And probably Hugh Grant.
The referendum itself is a contentious issue, with the ‘Leave’ campaign vocally promising several unobtainable goals, most notably an extra £350 million to spend on opening a new hospital every week, while finances for such campaigns are still under investigation. The ‘Remain’ campaign was weak and lacked direction, and let down by an opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, who has always been a Eurosceptic.
But that is all in the past now, and today the UK is teetering upon a precipice. What do we see? Nothing but absolute darkness.
There are only two reasons why the British voted to leave the EU. Firstly, many have succumbed to the daily demonization of ‘others’ (foreigners, Muslims, those seeking asylum, the ‘fat cat bureaucrats of Brussels’) that has been the trickle-down effect of the events of September 11th 2001. This has been played out in the right-leaning tabloid newspapers who still exert a strong media influence. Secondly, the collapse of the banks in 2008 and the economic crash that followed. Fear and poverty, that is why people want to leave the EU. Fear and poverty.
Also the British are a strangely nostalgic breed. We dream of days we never knew; of victories we never experienced. We look at our past through the wrong end of the telescope, and it has become distorted. We overlook the cruelties of the British Empire and still talk about winning a World Cup 53 years ago as if it were yesterday. Even our nostalgia is not as good as it used to be. An island nation, we fear attack, and consistently turn inwards.
The biggest shock is that the traditional British values of politeness and fair-play that have always been a source of pride are now relegated to history. The gloves are off now, and the in-fighting taking place in the corridors of Westminster is scrappy and pathetic, as various politicians attempt to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power. Make no mistake: many of the leading Leave campaigners have their eye on the top prize of Prime Minister once the dust has finally settled and we’re reduced to drinking rainwater.
The biggest culprit is Boris Johnson, a bullying careerist who changes his strategy to suit what he thinks is the mood of the nation and who hides behind a mask of bumbling ineptitude. He has as much integrity as England has good wineries. Alongside him is Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party and now a radio talk show host of no political standing – a man described as “a pound shop fascist” – and one of the very few Brits that Donald Trump likes and views as an intellectual equal (they have dined on McDonalds together; Big Mac for Donald, nuggets for Nige). Many other feverish egos have allowed to run wild while we have been distracted by Youtube videos of cats in tumble-dryers, but why give them the credit?
It goes without saying however that all the architects of this disaster are privately educated men of a certain age and background. Theresa May, who has always wanted the UK to remain in Europe, came into power after the referendum and serves only as an exhausted nanny to these simpering man-babies.
Left or right, Leave or Remain, no-one in the UK is happy today. We are angry, yes, but we are also apathetic. Not for the British the direct action protest of our French siblings who take to the streets with fire in their bellies and clear goals in mind. There are no road blockades or farmers dumping slurry on Downing Street here. Instead, everyone has become a sort of sofa-bound pundit, endlessly launching half-baked opinions out into the digital ether or doing their very best to avoid raising the topic at family gatherings in case we spoil a nice Sunday lunch of overcooked roast beef and tasteless Spotted Dick.
In two months the UK will break contract and walk away from a valued and progressive partnership that has seen peacetime in Europe. There is no plan in place – for trade deals, import/export tariffs, border laws, immigration. The huge amounts of European funding that help finance our culture industry and scientific research are currently being withdrawn.
Most Brits are essentially decent and just want a quiet life, but none of us are getting it. Instead we can only sit back and commit slow collective suicide like an old and very confused bulldog gorging on mouldy old tins of chicken tikka, one reluctant gulp after another.
Vive la Europe. Viva la anywhere-but-here.
Degradation by Benjamin Myers is published by Editions Du Seuil.