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What to make of "Brexit"

  • Tom Sackville

People observing the UK from afar may think we Brits have finally moved on from eccentric and quirky to full-dress bonkers.

True, the country is split down the middle on Brexit, largely along a North-South axis, with two wings of the governing party and even the Cabinet facing in diametrically opposite directions.

There are ever more dire predictions of our running out of drugs and medical devices, foreign doctors and nurses heading for the hills leaving our hospitals unmanageable, and lines of trucks bringing vital “just in time” spare parts queuing up along the motorways from Paris to London. Opinion varies hugely to what extent this actually happen, often depending on the attitude of the person concerned to the wider issue.

 But if I may be so bold, I would like to offer a (strictly personal) opinion, that all this is rather predictable, given our history. Over centuries, Britain has never joined in with its continental neighbours in their various Europe-wide arrangements, other than in national emergencies. De Gaulle, the archetypal French patriot, had spent the war in exile in London. He knew us, that we were fiercely proud of our governmental and judicial institutions, and we would never be comfortable ceding control of our affairs to (now 27) other nations. He told us so loudly, and even for a time managed to block our entry, but we did not listen.

A period of political mediocrity and national self-doubt in the 60’s and 70’s, epitomised by the deeply conflicted Edward Heath, led us to buy our way in to what was then called the EEC (European Economic Committee), supposedly a harmless trading arrangement. But it became ever clearer that its founders’ real vision was something more, full scale political union, with an anthem, flag, Parliament, Supreme Court, even an army: in short a United States of Europe in all but name, big enough to challenge America.

Over the years resentment steadily grew. The older generation in particular were determined that we find some means to break free, while most younger people took the opposite view, especially scared of the loss of their freedom to work and travel continent wide. A discreet bush war raged, civil enough, but with the power to unseat leaders, bring down governments and in too many cases, divide friends and families.

Fast forward to a young and arrogant Prime Minister, so confident of his own ability to convince the masses of the need to stay in Europe, thus finally putting to bed the conflicts within his own party, that he blithely promised a Referendum on membership. As we now know to our cost, he (David Cameron) narrowly lost, resigned precipitately in shame at his own hubris, and following a botched leadership contest handed over the reins to a person who proceeded to show herself devoid of tactical skills or the usual attributes required for crisis leadership.

To be fair, its not entirely Mrs Mays’s fault that two years on we are still in the mire. Membership of the EU was set up as a lobster pot: easy to swim in to, but the only way out leading to a vat of boiling water. Moreover on our own side, the scales were tilted: support for “leave” focused on the less educated and influential. Meanwhile most of the Establishment,  journalists, massed ranks of the BBC, academics, senior professionals and civil servants were solidly for “remain”, to the extent of colluding with those across the water to stall potential agreement, and hopefully (in the words of the song) call the calling off off.

Moreover, Brussels lives in terror that others members might join the exodus: there is a need to ensure that Brexit = Pain. But they should realise that playing too long a game could lead to the default position which accompanies the absence of agreement, a disorderly “no deal” exit, their worst fear, bringing a sudden end to UK funding, all kinds of trade problems and economic damage on all sides.

How is this going down at home? The media are having a great time, along with those employed to relocate head offices to Ireland. Normal people, while split, are meanwhile getting mightily fed up, increasingly contemptuous of their politicians, and longing to get back to more important considerations, such as the weather, the deficiencies of the England football and cricket teams, and how to get a decent cup of tea.



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