Nice continent you’ve got here…

Not content with using the livelihoods of four million Europeans living in the UK as a bargaining chip, Theresa May appears to have upped the ante and decided to threaten withdrawal of security co-operation with the EU as a negotiating stance in her Article 50 letter. It brings to mind an image of an inept gangster, wandering through the EU, saying in loaded terms and a dodgy fake Italian accent: “Nice-a continent you got-a here. Would-a be a shame if anything were to happen to it…” [“Accidentally” pushes Luxembourg off a cliff.]

Just as with her refusal to guarantee the position of EU citizens in the UK, Theresa May was attempting the posture that she is negotiating from a position of strength. The threat has also spectacularly backfired: partly because, of course, we are not negotiating from a position of strength at all: the EU will offer us terms and we will accept them or face the economic suicide of trading solely under WTO rules; and partly because it is a staggeringly callous threat to make: to endanger not just the livelihoods but the actual lives of the entire EU—and of course her own citizens, as a withdrawal of co-operation would be mutually imperilling.

For the record, here is the relevant passage of the Article 50 letter:

The United Kingdom wants to agree with the European Union a deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security cooperation. To achieve this, we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.

If, however, we leave the European Union without an agreement the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms. In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.

David Davis has been rolled out to claim that this was not a threat, but the Sun certainly thought it was, triumphantly declaring YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIVES—the Sun, it would appear, approves of threatening the lives of Europeans, though imagine the raging indignation they would have manufactured should the threat have been the other way round.

Here’s the thing though. That certainly looks like trade-with-menaces. It certainly sounds like Donna May is accidentally-not-accidentally nudging Luxembourg towards that cliff-edge. If that wasn’t the intention—and given the nine months that the government has had to draft the letter—then one despairs at the skill of our negotiators, carelessly making assertions that read, for all the world, like a direct threat. If a simple six-page letter can contain such a thoughtlessly worded passage, what hope for the detail of the negotiations? And what hope for the many, many further negotiations that Great Global Britain will have to make?

An awkward conversation

“Hi, this is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Could I speak to the Foreign Secretary please?”

“Ah, yes. Ah. That would be me. Boris. Fluster, fluster, affable grunt.”

“Boris Johnson?”

“Um, yes. The very same.”

“Boris Johnson, the journalist who first came to national attention for being sacked from The Times for making up quotes?”

“Yes, well, um, fluster, fluster. These things happen. But I’m very affable, and so let’s just forget about that, shall we? Thoroughly honest chap now.”

“But weren’t you also sacked by Michael Howard for lying about one of your many affairs?”

“Um, well. You know. Matters of sex. Keep it private and all. Not in the public interest.”

“Speaking of sex, didn’t you write a poem about me having sex with a goat?”

“Well, um, you know, defence of freedom of speech and all that.”

“Well you didn’t seem so keen on freedom of speech when you discussed with your friend Darius Guppy—a convicted fraudster and self-confessed ‘potential psychopath’—having a journalist beaten up for taking too close an interest in his dodgy dealings.”

“Ah, well, bluster, bluster, that was all a very long time ago…”

“Ah.” [Long pause.] ”So, do you think that freedom of speech extends to politicians blatantly lying to their voters? Because your fellow Brexit campaigner Penny Maudant repeatedly stated on the Andrew Marr show that there was nothing the UK could do to stop us, Turkey, joining the European Union despite the fact that the Treaty of Europe clearly states that accession to the union must be approved by all member states, and you condoned this and repeated the inference that Turkey’s accession was a certainty.”

“Well, um, I’m sure there’s some explanation which, if I fluster charmingly and affably you’ll think I’ve made when I’ve actually said nothing.”

“I’m afraid I don’t see your charm, Mr Johnson, nor your aff. Perhaps it’s just an English thing. Maybe you could clarify something for me. We’re not in the commonwealth, so I was wondering, do we count as piccaninnies or not?”

“Ah, um. Well. How about if I just flick about my blond hair amusingly?”

“I think we’re probably not, because wasn’t your great grandfather Turkish?”

“Um, well, yes the old boy was now you come to mention it.”

“And didn’t you once make a documentary lauding Turkey’s desire to join the EU?”

“Well now, yes. But, you know. Things change. Um. Realpolitik and all that.”

“You mean you thought you could get to be PM if you hung all your principles, your colleagues, in fact your entire country out to dry?”

“Oh, now, I say …”

“I don’t think I want to talk to you any more, Mr Johnson. I think you’re dishonest, dishonourable, bigotted, and solely interested in your own advancement. I think you’re a really nasty piece of work, in fact. I mean, you’re not in my league, that’s true. But for a British politician, you really are a quite a shite. So. I wanted to negotiate our post-Brexit trade deal. Perhaps you could put me through to Dr Liam Fox, I understand he is the Secretary of State for International Trade.”

“Phew, yes. That’s me off the hook.”

[A pause.]

“Hello?”

“Hello, am I speaking to Dr Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade?”

“Um, well, he’s not available at the moment. This is a highly experienced trade negotiation consultant acting for him.”

“Ah. Could I have your name please?”

“Why, yes. It’s Adam Werrity.”

“Ah. And exactly how long have you been a highly experienced trade negotiation consultant?”

“Oh, since Wednesday.”

[Click.]

June 23rd was the day that Whig history ate itself

I haven’t blogged much about Brexit, partly because I’ve been busy, and partly because there seemed to be little I could say that had not already been said. Sure, I could have poured scorn upon the assorted narcissists, neo-nazis, and nasties who conned the country into this disaster. I could have reflected upon the irony that David Cameron—for whom an insinuation of a lack of patriotism is an easy, cheap hit upon a man who dares to not like the medieval hangover that is the monarchy—will doubtless be wearing a proper suit and doing up his tie when he sings the national anthem of the United Kingdom for the last time, as that very union that he hung out to dry in order to mop up a few votes from UKIP is dissolved. I could have ruminated upon the extraordinary duplicity and ego of Boris Johnson—that Brexiter who had us all running in fear from 80 million Turks, yet who not that long ago was ardently advocating their joining the EU, and to whom the achievement of that expansion, far from being a reincarnation of Third Reich or Napoleonic domination as he more recently claimed, would be a glorious unification of the East and West Roman Empires. Or, perhaps, I could have dallied a little over the backstabbing Michael Gove, whose impersonation of a human being is quite passable on good days, but who appears to have skipped Basic Human Interactions 101 (as well as instruction in simple co-ordinative feats such as drinking a glass of water or clapping), making him stunningly blind to the fact that the double-crossing of a double-crosser is not usually seen to cancel itself out. I might even, if I had the stomach, have pondered a little upon the human pile of excrement that is the loathsome Nigel Farage, that neo-fascist schoolboy barely grown up, spinning his campaign of hatred and racism for years on end only, upon achieving his aim, to up and run as fast as he can when he realizes the scale of the clusterfuck that he has unleashed upon the country.

But I shan’t waste my time with this hideous brigade of liars and fantasists, mainly because I can’t spell parallepsis. Instead I shall offer one slight observation which I believe is relatively novel, and I haven’t seen anywhere else: that June 23rd was the day that Whig history ate itself, and that if nothing else good can be rescued from this unnecessary and unworkable mess, it is at least this.

The Whig interpretation of history is a historiographic stance, an interpretation of British history, that presents the events that have transpired on this particular lump of rock as consisting of a slow and incremental progress towards better governance and greater liberty. It is a deeply ingrained narrative, one which dominates our schooling and our public discourse, and one that is utterly, utterly wrong.

Whig history starts at 1066—the last undeniable major upheaval—and claims that, from that point onwards, we have, in a good conservative fashion, inched our way bit by bit towards our (apparent) current glory. All other upheavals are minimized or ignored: what schoolboy learns of the Anarchy, the twenty year civil war between Henry I’s only legitimate child and her usurping cousin? The Barons’ Wars and the Peasants Revolt are footnoted, the stunning rejection of Rome by a previously devout Catholic (“Defender of the Faith” does not refer, as the idiotic Prince Charles seems to think, to the Church of England—it was a title granted by the Pope to Henry VIII for a theological tract opposing the Reformation and upholding Rome) gets reduced to the ins and outs of his marital bed and a money-grab for monastic gold. The subsequent bloody conflicts are largely smoothed away: the violent re-entrenchment of Catholicism under Mary is presented hindsightedly as guaranteed to fail, despite the fact that in her five years of rule she was highly successful in her progress towards the restoration of the faith, and that it was only the fact that she bore no children and the extraordinary coincidence that her right-hand man—Archbishop Reginald Pole—died the same day as her that stopped her project in its tracks.  Similarly written out as an aberration is the interregnum: necessarily Cromwell is portrayed as a hideous maniac (who hears of the Putney Debates?) and the Restoration of the monarchy is a glorious (and inevitable) return of the proper way of things. The 1688 Dutch invasion and overthrow of the King is presented as a invited takeover of power, purely on the grounds that some quislings in Parliament were in cahoots with it. England has been a kingdom, a kingdom within a union, a republic, even a papal fief. The Magna Carta was not a progressive constitutional reform, it was a peace treaty in a civil war (and one that was reneged upon almost as soon as the ink was dry upon it), the Great Reform Act was not a considered movement towards more representative democracy, it was forced by radical uprising—who hears of the Peterloo Massacre? Women’s suffrage was, similarly, forced upon a previously wholly unwilling government in the aftermath of the First World War.

Whig history takes the anarchic, radical, violent history of this country and smooths it away, soothingly telling us that England, and then the UK, is stable, it is well-behaved. History moves slowly and gently, and always progressively. As such, this interpretation is the tool of conservatism: it says that the British way is the slow, gradual way. Not for us revolutions and uprisings, we are the tortoise to the hare of radicalism. And it is still used: Michael Gove, when he was education secretary and had yet to discover a taste for sharp knives, rewrote the history syllabus expressly to have it taught in chronological order, with a clear “narrative of British progress.” I am not asserting active conspiracy here, of course: simply that those who run the country tend to have come up through a schooling which promotes this view, they find it meshes nicely with their political aims, and so it becomes convenient to believe it and to promote it yet further.

But, finally, their commitment to this view is what has caused them to come unstuck. Why did David Cameron take such a wildly irresponsible gamble on the future of the country? Because he never believed that we did this kind of thing. Why did Boris Johnson put all his pro-European ardour aside to campaign for Out? Because he wanted Cameron destabilized and unseated, and it never occurred to him that we might actually do what he was campaigning for. Why did none of the fuckers have a fucking plan: the Brexiters for what they purportedly wanted to happen, or the government because any responsible regime plans for all foreseeable circumstances? Because none of them thought it would happen, because those kind of things don’t happen here. Because they bought their own fork-tongued narrative of history, sat complacently upon it, and have now been bitten in the arse. The only leaders who really considered Brexit a possibility are the true bigots and maniacs—à la Farage— who have turned tail and run from the catastrophic consequences. Even they were Whigs to a certain extent: they could not believe that this would be catastrophic. Michael Gove, another True Believer, famously derided the massed ranks of “experts” who warned of disaster: how could there be? We don’t do disaster. They believed that change, being slow and gradual, could simply be reeled back: that we could easily turn the clock back a hundred years or so to Empire, glory, and dark people in their proper place. Finding that is not the case, they have scarpered.

So, welcome to Brexit Britain. We are economically screwed, probably on our way to constitutional collapse, a rainy little nowhere island viewed by the rest of the world with suspicion and derision. But at least we won’t have to put up with this silly, self-justifying narrative of establishment conservatism. A thin sliver of hope lies in the fact that maybe, just maybe, having put this nonsense aside, we may find room for the true, progressive, leftist radicalism that will be essential to preventing the poorest and worst off in society—those who have been fucked by thirty years of neo-liberal economics and were conned into believing that their destitution was the fault of foreign powers and not successive callous and indifferent UK governments—from suffering yet further as the fallout of this monstrously deceitful campaign continues.