Eng­land turned the EU into a Monty Python sketch – now it’s stuck in one

Brexit is the out­come of a decades-long game of jour­nal­is­tic spoofery by Bri­tain’s me­dia

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Fin­tan O’Toole

In Fe­bru­ary 2016, just as the Brexit ref­er­en­dum de­bate was get­ting go­ing, the Evening Stan­dard colum­nist An­thony Hil­ton wrote that “I once asked Ru­pert Mur­doch why he was so op­posed to the Euro­pean Union. ‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Down­ing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brus­sels they take no no­tice.’ ”

At the time Mur­doch did not deny this but later that year, when his bid to take over all of Sky made his po­lit­i­cal power a sen­si­tive sub­ject, he in­sisted that: “I have never ut­tered those words. I have made it a prin­ci­ple all my life never to ask for any- thing from any prime min­is­ter.”

Hil­ton, in turn, stood by his story and said the re­marks were made in the early 1980s, when Hil­ton was city edi­tor of Mur­doch’s Times.

Proof will never be avail­able ei­ther way. But what is un­doubt­edly true is that, for the bil­lion­aire press barons used to wield­ing such im­mense in­flu­ence in Lon­don, Brus­sels is in­fu­ri­at­ingly im­per­vi­ous. The EU is largely in­dif­fer­ent to them.

That is one of the rea­sons they have pro­moted a re­lent­less cam­paign of lies about it. The other rea­son is sim­pler: Brus­sels is bor­ing. Most of what it does is pretty te­dious – if you want to sell pa­pers, mak­ing up luridly en­ter­tain­ing sto­ries is much more ef­fec­tive than re­port­ing the truth.

What we have to re­mem­ber, though, is the as­ton­ish­ing re­al­ity that this ly­ing is the bedrock of Brexit. Bri­tain could not have been brought to its cur­rent state had a ma­jor­ity of its cit­i­zens not been con­vinced of one “truth”: that the EU has been in­ter­fer­ing non-stop in ev­ery part of their daily lives, from the way they have sex to what they eat and drink, from what they wear to what hap­pens to them when they die.

If the con­se­quences were not so se­ri­ous, there would be a pure fas­ci­na­tion to this long-term pro­pa­ganda cam­paign. It is made up, not of one big lie, but of an end­less suc­ces­sion of lit­tle lies, each in it­self so ab­surd as to seem harm­less, yet cu­mu­la­tively amount­ing to a pro­found dis­tor­tion of pub­lic re­al­ity.

What was dis­torted was the English per­cep­tion of in­flu­ence. When Scots and Welsh peo­ple were asked in 2012 to iden­tity which layer of gov­ern­ment had most in­flu­ence over their lives, just 8 per cent and 7 per cent re­spec­tively cited the EU. This was very much typ­i­cal of re­sponses in re­gions through­out Europe from Bavaria to Brit­tany.

The great ex­cep­tion was Eng­land, where 31 per cent of peo­ple cited the EU as the most in­flu­en­tial layer of gov­ern­ment. Why? Be­cause the English have been lied to by most of their press and made to be­lieve that “Brus­sels” is a fac­tory for mad schemes to med­dle with their lives in ever more lu­di­crous ways.

What has made this ly­ing so ef­fec­tive, though, is that, viewed piece by piece, it is comic, ab­surd and amus­ing, a saucy sit­com in which the im­plied sound­track is a camp “ooh-er, Mis­sus!” and a mock­ney “would you Adam-and-Eve it?”

It is com­pet­i­tively in­ven­tive: the jour­nal­ists get great fun out of think­ing up the next ou­trage. And at its most vivid, it con­jures vis­ual im­ages that lodge in the brain.

For ex­am­ple, there is the Sun head­line of Oc­to­ber 19th, 1994: “EU to push for stan­dard con­dom size”; “Brus­sels is set to pro­duce a stan­dard Euro con­dom, whilst re­fus­ing to im­ple­ment the sub­sidiar­ity prin­ci­ple so that Mem­ber States can take into ac­count the dif­fer­ent na­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics of the male or­gan. The re­sul­tant com­pro­mise is sim­ply not large enough to house Bri­tish as­sets.”

There’s the pun­ning on “mem­ber states”, a bor­ing Europhrase turned into a ref­er­ence to the erect pe­nis, and an as­ser­tion that our blokes have big­ger mick­eys than the Euro­peans. But there’s also an in­vi­ta­tion to form in the mind a ridicu­lous im­age of the well-en­dowed An­glo-Saxon try­ing to fit him­self into a tiny con­ti­nen­tal-size con­dom.

Brus­sels leg­is­la­tion

Or: “Cir­cus per­former must walk tightrope in hard hat, says Brus­sels” (the Times, July 23rd, 2003): “A tightrope-walker says that his ca­reer has been placed in jeop­ardy by leg­is­la­tion orig­i­nat­ing in Brus­sels which dic­tates that he must wear a hard hat to per­form.”

Or: “EU’s plan to liquify corpses and pour them down the drain” (the Ex­press, July 8th, 2010).

Or: “Shake ’n back – EU tells women to hand in worn-out sex toys” (the Sun, Fe­bru­ary 4th 2004); “Red-faced women will have to hand in their clapped-out sex toys un­der a new EU law. They must take back old vi­bra­tors for re­cy­cling be­fore they can buy a new one.”

Or: “Get net­ted: we won’t play Ena Sharples, fish­er­men storm at Euro­prats” ( Daily Star, Oc­to­ber, 1992), the claim be­ing that the EU was forc­ing fish­er­men while work­ing at sea to wear hair­nets like that sported by the Coro­na­tion Street char­ac­ter.

Or: “Shell­fish (es­pe­cially mus­sels and oys­ters) must be given rest breaks and stress-re­liev­ing show­ers dur­ing jour­neys of over 50km” (the Times, Jan­uary 29th, 1996).

This is a dis­tinc­tive genre of English fic­tion – one of the tragedies of Brexit is that it will be­come re­dun­dant. It cov­ers a range of comic forms from sea­side post- cards (the con­doms and sex toys) to Pythonesque gen­der con­fu­sions (the butch fish­er­men in their hair­nets might as well be singing “I’m a lum­ber­jack and I’m okay”) to the de­li­ciously grotesque (those liq­ue­fied corpses) to Dadaist sur­re­al­ism (oys­ters be­ing given rest breaks).

But each of these vi­gnettes – and hun­dreds more – has a com­mon qual­ity: mem­o­ra­bil­ity. It cre­ates a vis­ual im­age that lodges in the brain. And it is the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of these im­ages that ex­presses it­self in ev­ery vox pop on Brexit from an English mar­ket town. These re­peated pan­tomimes have con­gealed into a his­tory play.

‘‘ What has made this ly­ing so ef­fec­tive, though, is that, viewed piece by piece, it is comic, ab­surd and amus­ing

When English peo­ple say they are sick of Brus­sels in­ter­fer­ence, it is these crazy lit­tle yarns that are weigh­ing on their minds.

It is hard to think of any­thing quite like this in his­tory, where per­ni­ciously ef­fec­tive pro­pa­ganda has come in the form of such ex­trav­a­gant daft­ness. It used to be claimed that Bri­tain’s des­tiny was shaped on the play­ing fields of Eton, but here we have a coun­try in thrall to a dif­fer­ent kind of sport, a game of know­ingly out­ra­geous men­dac­ity, a decades-long spoof­ing con­test in which jour­nal­ists – to serve the in­ter­ests of an elite of su­per-rich me­dia own­ers – dared each other to come up with the most out­landishly in­ge­nious fab­ri­ca­tion.

And this is also why Brexit has proved so hard to give a ra­tio­nal shape to. If you turn po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity into a Monty Python sketch, it is very hard to take it se­ri­ously again, even when you re­ally, re­ally need to.

If the con­se­quences were not so se­ri­ous, there would be a pure fas­ci­na­tion to this long-term pro­pa­ganda cam­paign by the English me­dia

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