Brexit and a dan­ger­ous ‘blitz spirit’

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - Matthew d’An­cona

As 2018 limped to a close, se­nior gov­ern­ment min­is­ters were back on pa­rade to re­mind us how glo­ri­ous Brexit is go­ing to be – lest we had al­lowed our­selves to for­get what mar­vels lie ahead. In the Sun­day Tele­graph, Gavin Wil­liamson, the de­fence sec­re­tary, de­clared that Britain, far from re­treat­ing into in­di­gent in­tro­spec­tion, will be­come a “true global player” after 29 March 2019, with mil­i­tary bases all over the world. In the Mail on Sun­day, mean­while, Jeremy Hunt, the for­eign sec­re­tary, in­voked the eco­nomic suc­cess Sin­ga­pore has en­joyed since in­de­pen­dence in 1965 as a blue­print “for us as we make our post-Brexit fu­ture”.

Like Wil­liamson, Hunt sug­gests that the rest of the world is on ten­ter­hooks, long­ing for Britain to as­sume a bullish new role once lib­er­ated from the tyranny of Brus­sels: “We may no longer be a su­per­power but we are still very much a global power … I have been con­stantly struck by how much more other coun­tries re­spect us than we seem to re­spect our­selves.”

Along­side this new year’s out­burst of min­is­te­rial bravado, se­nior gov­ern­ment sources are brief­ing with in­creased con­fi­dence that, be­hind the scenes, Theresa May is win­ning the bat­tle to per­suade MPs to vote for her 585-page deal in the week of 14 Jan­uary.

Well, maybe. And then again, maybe not: the num­bers cer­tainly aren’t there yet in the whips’ tally. Which is why the as­ser­tion that Brexit is go­ing to make Britain great again runs par­al­lel with a very dif­fer­ent, coun­ter­part nar­ra­tive: namely, that we shall crash out of the Euro­pean Union with­out a deal, it will in­deed be trau­matic, but – by God – we can take it. This sur­faced in Au­gust when the prime min­is­ter seized des­per­ately upon a re­mark by Roberto Azevêdo, the di­rec­tor gen­eral of the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, that a no-deal Brexit would not be the “end of the world”.

The tech­no­cratic ver­sion of this not-quite-theapoc­a­lypse rhetoric is the prom­ise of a “man­aged

no-deal”. Even be­fore his res­ig­na­tion as Brexit sec­re­tary, Do­minic Raab was sternly in­sis­tent that the UK was more than equal to the “chal­lenges”. Penny Mor­daunt, at the De­part­ment for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment, has spo­ken of a “man­aged glide path” out of the EU, while An­drea Lead­som, the leader of the House of Com­mons, has el­e­vated a no-deal exit from fi­asco to the sta­tus of “al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tion”. In Au­gust, Hunt said that, while he did not favour exit with­out an agree­ment, Britain “would sur­vive and pros­per”.

Against this back­drop we have learned more and more in re­cent weeks of what a no-deal out­come would en­tail – and none of it is good. The mass pur­chase of fridges by the NHS to keep med­i­cal sup­plies vi­able; ad­vice to Bri­tons to “vary their di­ets” in the event of food short­ages; plans to de­ploy 3,500 troops on the streets: how “man­aged” does all of this re­ally sound to you?

The puz­zle is why the ob­vi­ous dis­as­ter of a no-deal exit holds an al­lure for cer­tain politi­cians and, in­deed, some vot­ers. And the an­swer, I think, lies in a strange but pow­er­ful yearn­ing for the pri­va­tions of Britain’s past. As one se­nior Tory put it to me re­cently: “It would be a test. But we can do it. Britain al­ways finds a way.”

This is nos­tal­gia in its most toxic form: the long­ing for an imag­ined his­tory that has been fil­tered through folk­lore, film and pop­u­lar cul­ture to ex­er­cise an en­tirely bogus ap­peal. In­cred­i­bly, there are still those who fetishise what they call the “blitz spirit” and frag­mented mem­o­ries of the 1946 Britain Can Make It ex­hi­bi­tion at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum. You might think that there is some­thing pretty shoddy about a crav­ing for col­lec­tive hard­ship, at a time when rough sleep­ers are al­ready dy­ing on the streets and uni­ver­sal credit claimants liv­ing in ab­ject poverty. It is an in­sult, too, to those who in­vol­un­tar­ily lived through the hell of the sec­ond world war and the sac­ri­fices of its af­ter­math.

Yet this psy­cho­log­i­cal strand is def­i­nitely present in the Brex­i­teer sub­con­scious. From time to time, it is even ex­plicit. Wit­ness the tweet posted last month by Ant Mid­dle­ton, the for­mer spe­cial forces soldier and in­struc­tor on Chan­nel 4’s TV show SAS: Who Dares Wins: “A ‘no deal’ for our coun­try would ac­tu­ally be a bless­ing in dis­guise. It would force us into hard­ship and suf­fer­ing which would unite & bring us to­gether, bring­ing back Bri­tish val­ues of loy­alty and a sense of com­mu­nity! Ex­treme change is needed!”

While I am sure that Mid­dle­ton him­self has the ideal skill-set for a no-deal Britain, I think it would do him no harm to read Lord of the Flies be­fore 29 March. More to the point: im­pa­tience is the gov­ern­ing emo­tion of our time. How do the hard Brex­i­teers imag­ine that a na­tion ac­cus­tomed to De­liv­eroo, Ama­zon, Uber and in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion would re­ally re­spond to the sud­den sovereignty of de­lay? There are fewer than three months left till Brexit. We are told, si­mul­ta­ne­ously and in open con­tra­dic­tion, that it will usher in a new Jerusalem or rekin­dle the blitz spirit. The one thing of which you can be cer­tain is that it will do nei­ther •

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