The triumph of hysteria

No senior Tory in England nowadays would dare to wear a jersey like the one sported by Margaret Thatcher above.

When I was a child, in the 1970s, had you told told me that, by the time I was middle-aged, we would live in a world where sane people would stand up in public, and, with a straight face, (i) announce that women have penises, and (ii) insist that leaving the world’s largest trading association is a smart move, I’d have struggled to believe you.

Who said this:

It’s your job, the job of business, to gear yourselves up to take the opportunities which a single market of nearly 320 million people will offer.

Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people.

Bigger than Japan. Bigger than the United States. On your doorstep. And with the Channel Tunnel to give you direct access to it.

It’s not a dream. It’s not a vision. It’s not some bureaucrat’s plan. It’s for real. 

Our national failure to make the most of the opportunities when we joined the Community was part of a much more general failure.

In those days, Britain was in the forefront of those resisting change, in fighting to preserve the barriers.

Some in Britain still see it that way, but they are getting fewer and fewer. 

Above all, it means a positive attitude of mind: a decision to go all out to make a success of the single market.

The foregoing words were uttered by none other than Tory hero, Margaret Thatcher, in 1988. Link <here>.

Many Irish people, not without good reason, were not fans of Thatcher. But whatever about her attitude to Ireland, in relation to mainland Europe, and to trade, it is instructive to compare her with today’s Tories. There are two major differences:

  1. Thatcher was a hard worker. She read the briefing papers; she put in the hours. Today’s Tories are a pack of lazy bastards who never do any work.
  2. Thatcher was intelligent, and rational. Culturally, she was no Europhile, but she knew a good business opportunity when she saw it. As far as she was concerned, the single market was mere common sense.

Recently, a senior English Tory, Tobias Ellwood, dared to revive Thatcher’s ideas by floating the rational idea that, whatever about Britain leaving the actual EU, re-joining the single market would not offend against the Brexit doctrine, but would make a lot of economic sense.

He argued that exports to Europe had shrunk by £20bn, with fishers and farmers facing particular hardship, and the issue of the Brexit protocol remained unresolved. “All these challenges would disappear if we dare to advance our Brexit model by rejoining the EU single market (the Norway model),” he wrote.

Predictably, he’s been excoriated.

One expects that pigshit-mob-pitchforks response to reason nowadays, of course, but let’s not forget that, viewed even in the context of the last few decades, the abuse being heaped upon Mr. Ellwood is unusual.

Britain is, or claims to be, a mercantile country. It beggars belief that a proposal merely to have more free trade with its neighbours should trigger so much rage and spittle.

It’s a far cry from what Lord Palmerston once remarked:

Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

That’s sound advice. It’s advice that any country, or any business person, or any person, should take to heart. The tiresome, hyperbolic perma-outrage which fuels Brexit is of course dumb bullshit, but it is also a negation of the wisdom in Lord Palmerston’s remark.

Post-Brexit (if indeed anything is ever really “post” Brexit”, British politics is still mired in a silly ideological phase, wherein raw emotions, humbug and bulging populist veins (from the usual bullshitters) take precedence over rational self-interest.

The genius of Britain’s pre-Brexit polity was that it was characterised by a kind of genteel cynicism.  Rational to a fault, the Brits used to be capable of shooting at you last week – and then offering you tea the next week, if it was in their economic interest to do so.

I respected that flexibility.  It sprang from a culture of rationality.  It always reassured me to think that, when the chips were down, the Brits always knew which side their bread was buttered on.  As a small country, it was reassuring to know that, ultimately, one’s large neighbour was level headed – that they were a country with which a deal could (in private) be done. That culture of amoral pragmatism also served as a bulwark against extremism / political faddism / tin-pottery.

How things have changed.

Brexit is an ongoing, slow-motion, balls-up.  If Britain had any sense, it’d be falling over itself to be in the single market, like Thatcher was.

Regrettably, Britain in 2022 is in the grip of a bizarre upside-down form of cultural-political mania, a polity wherein one must pretend that fiction is fact, all for the sake of an ideology called Brexit.

A former Irish ambassador to the UK, <writing in the Irish Times recently>, noted that:

In the years leading up to the referendum, one of the key arguments of Brexit advocates was that the United Kingdom had long been unable to defend its national interests effectively in Brussels. The British public was constantly told that their country was being dictated to by
EU bureaucrats or by France or by Germany, or by whoever the chosen fictional bully of the day happened to be. Several years before the referendum, a senior Conservative frontbencher was so casually critical of the UK’s negotiating effectiveness in Brussels, during a visit to the Irish Embassy, that I felt obliged to point out to him how exceptionally admired and effective his country’s European negotiators actually were.

The only national capital that had come to underestimate British influence in shaping the European Union, both in its overall direction and in its detailed policies, was London itself. How this inversion of reality came to be so widely accepted was not entirely mysterious. At its heart was the growing failure of many at political level in the UK to understand the nature of European negotiations which, as in any negotiating process, required give and take. The fact that British ministers and diplomats, in reality, so often won the argument in Brussels was insufficient to counter the false and relentless domestic narrative that compromise was a form of surrender rather than a necessary way of advancing interests. This failure of comprehension, ultimately devastating for British long-term interests, was propelled by mendacious and now well-documented journalism that created, for domestic public consumption, an infantile fictional version of European negotiations and of Britain’s role within them.

Needless to say, not everyone in the UK bought into this false narrative. Many British officials and politicians have always understood, and indeed still understand, the EU as well as anyone. Their ability as negotiators was second to none. The tragedy is that their wisdom and experience has been set aside, at least for the moment, in the shaping of British relations with the EU.

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