As this story is released, the UK’s transitional deal with the EU will end, and we will step out, blinking and dazed, into a strange and unfamiliar world. For many of us, first the EEC and then the EU has been a low background thrum in our lives since childhood. The United Kingdom joined the EEC a couple of months before my third birthday, and confirmed our continued membership a little over two years later, just as I was about to start school.
All through my school life, as we learned metres alongside feet and inches, there was a sense that the world we were joining was a bigger, more open one, one free of some of the enmities that had, all too recently, been the source of so much death and suffering. My parents were born during the war, but barely even knew it, though they did remember the rationing after. My grandparents, like so many others, were less fortunate. They did fight. And I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have fancied doing it again, nor forcing us to. That was the whole point, after all.
As students, we mingled with others across Europe who came into our colleges and departments, then into our workplaces, and in turn we (in honesty, too few of us) spent time with them, in years out, exchanges and jobs, learning a little more about each other as we went, making the world seem just that little bit smaller, just that little more, well, freundlich. We cheered when the Berlin Fall fell, and when the likes of Ceaucescu fell with it, we welcomed these countries to a wider family: a mostly peaceful, prosperous, and certainly outward-looking family.
As as time went on, some of us began to feel not just British, but European. We felt part of something bigger and better; something inclusive, and rational: a force for sanity. But of course, some people weren’t happy. This pluralistic, cosmopolitan Europe didn’t sit with them because, DAMN IT, Britain is different. Britain is special! This was the Britain of Chruchill, and Two World Wars and One World Cup (doo-dah!). So they spent their time waving the flag, and talking about our relationship with Europe in a very different way. They told us how we were under the yoke of European oppresion, when mostly, the decisions being made were mostly driven by our leaders, and for our convenience anyway. All of this was of course helped along by the likes of a young Brussels correspondent, filing his half-arsed word-soup copy with tales of how bendy bananas could be. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, given his track record of being a prodigiously bare-faced liar, but still he was employed, and he cultivated the image that would elevate him to high office. There were plenty willing to help the young Alexander Boris de Pfleffel Johnson to go on peddling the myth of British Exceptionalism, so the lies went on.
Even as late as 2015, most people didn’t think of our membership of the EU as the central issue facing the country(1). But, what’s a complacent, dish-faced avatar (who happened to lead the Conservative Party) to do to distract a country ravaged by his programme of ideological hack-and-slash austerity, with a rabid anti-European faction in his own party, to do? Why! Call a referendum that most people didn’t want, and whose complex issues most people didn’t really understand, of course! So by June 2016, the localised tribalism inside the Conservative Party, like mercury leeching into a river, had seeped out and poisoned the entire country. We had buses plastered with lies, and half truths and misinformation peddled as facts by frog-eyed demagogues, pocketing cash from dubious sources to do it as they went.
We all know what happened then. The liars managed to convince enough people for long enough for them to have their Pyhrric “victory”. Now, like plutonium in the soil, the culture is poisoned for generations to come. Political discourse is polarised, dominated by liars and bullshitters, and supported by a media that is either cowed by fear of reprisal (like the BBC), or complicit. So the lies go on, unchecked and unchallenged too often. And even when they are challenged, those who do are too often drowned out by a torrent of ignorance and inchoate opinions, founded on misinformation. Why? Because the lies are profitable. The lies make money. Who cares about truth when engagement is where the action’s at? Our friends and our allies have looked on, despairing, and disbelieving that a nation that had long prided itself on its rationality and good sense had, quite frankly, gone mad. We have become the very thing we’d prided outselves could never happen to us: a rogue state.
And so, yesterday, on 30 December 2020, Keir Starmer, the so-called Leader of the Opposistion, trooped his MPs into the division lobbies to side with the most transparently incompetent and corrupt government in living memory, and then tried to say that, “the divisions are over”. The Scots are livid and actively mutinous, many in Northern Ireland feel little better. Millions of people still feel betrayed. Lots of people are about to discover that they have been thrown under the bus to serve the interests of a few. But the kleptocracy will just try to shift the blame somewhere else, and lurch on to the next clusterfuck.
On the same day that happened the UK recorded 50000 COVID-19 cases, and another 918 people died as a result of it. The same day where the Secretary of State for Education was still trying to order schools to open after the holiday, even in the face of a more infectious mutation of the virus, and the imposition of (supposedly) more stringent controls. Bur no one can quite undertand why infection rates are risng again. It’s such a mystery. On the same day, that same shambling, bare-faced liar who’d years ago peddled the myth of the straight bananas tried to tell us that all of this this was a great step forward, and that things would be much sunnier for now on. This was the same man who posed, with an inane wonky smirk plastered over his face, and thumbs aloft, last December, to tell us that “2020 was going to be a great one for Britain”. That picture really has not aged well.
You would think, at such a time that the comfort and alliance of friends would be all-important. But no. We have spent four and a half years alienating our closest allies and trading partners, and for what? What have we got in return for the shouting and posturing?
- Well, some very wealthy people now have some increased opacity in their tax affairs
- Some Russians will doubtless be able to launder their money a little more efficiently
- Some hedge fund managers will have made a killing
- And the Conservative Party will be expecting some donations for services rendered.
But for the rest of us the road ahead is a little rockier, a little less well lit. But here’s the thing: I still feel kinship with those across the water. In fact, far more kinship with lots of the people I see around me here, wrapping themselves in a flag, and telling themselves the story of how different Britain is, and how we’ll get by, when just a few short years ago we were being told we’d thrive. The management of expectations has been going on for a while, revised ever more slowly downward to ensure that the majority of people will happily get used to settling for less. Like a frog in a saucepan, but this time being gradually frozen instead of boiled.
In the 1970s we were known as the “sick man of Europe”, limping along after the 1960s, after devaluation, and the discovery that our economy was creaking and not ready to cope with the onrushing modern age. Today, we are the literal sick man of Europe, with more infections and more deaths than anyone else. We truly are world beating. Be proud. Look on our works, ye mighty, and weep! For we are Britain! Land of the negotiable (for a fee)!
The EU will survive without us. Indeed, it may even be free of the obstacle to progress we had become. We may, in our perverse way, have actually done them a favour. We’ll watch it from the outside, like a ragged street urchin hungrily eyeing the cake in the confectioner’s window, loudly declaiming, while their stomach grumbles, how much they hate cake, actually. I’ll miss feeling being part of that bigger whole, but the flag-waving arsehats who’ve created this unholy wasteland they’ve condemned us to will never stop me feeling European, and I’ll never stop telling them so, just like they never shut up.
So, au revoir and bon chance, EU. Γεια σας, and auf wierdersehen. For now.