I have been struck recently – somewhat belatedly, I admit – by a curious aspect of the campaign to leave the European Union: a refusal to take seriously things that are demonstrably serious, creating an air of almost hysterical frivolity in the tradition of ‘Up Yours Delors’, ‘Allo ‘Allo and the Carry On films. A consistent theme in the rhetoric of Leave campaigners, for example, has been to compare the European Union to a totalitarian state or occupying power. For Jeremy Hunt, it was the USSR; For others, it was the Third Reich; and most recently, they have invoked the Chinese crackdown on the democracy protests in Hong Kong. The political and moral irresponsibility of such comparisons is only matched by the disrespect for those who have lived, or are still living, under real political oppression. But of course, it’s a figure of speech, an exaggeration, a joke. Where’s your sense of humour?
‘Who Do You Think You’re Kidding, Mr Juncker?’
Another comparison trundled out ad nauseam is the Second World War, the Blitz, Dunkirk… We heard it from Theresa May in her negotiations with the EU last April, prompting the Danish PM to whistle ‘We’ll Meet Again’. Back in 2017, Michael Howard even suggested that Britain would be prepared to go to war with Spain over Gibraltar. Those who wish to remain in the EU have been branded traitors, and just last week, Boris Johnson accused MPs seeking to avoid a no-deal Brexit of ‘collaboration’ with the EU. Collaboration? We are not – yet – at war with our European neighbours, as far as I know.
Here again, the lack of proportion and self-awareness would be astounding had we not been drip-fed this nonsense for decades. Few people who actually experienced the horrors of the Second World War wanted to relive them; even half a century later, many could not bring themselves to talk about it.
The sabre-rattling reached a new decibel level in an article by Rod Liddle in The Times last week, arguing that ‘a peaceful, easy life hasn’t made us happy,’ and that war ‘increases social cohesion and integration’. Liddle is of course a professional wind-up merchant, and it wouldn’t do to take him too seriously, but he shrewdly tapped into a strain in the Leaver mentality, which might best be summed up by Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ Not all the Doctor’s contemporaries would have agreed; John Scott of Amwell certainly didn’t.
Oh! What a Lovely War
But perhaps we have grown bored with 75 years of peace and prosperity, and forgotten how lucky we are. It has happened before. Until now, the longest interval of peace in Europe was from 1871 to 1914, when the imperial rivalries of Britain and France, Russia and Germany were fought out in far-off places at the expense of far-off people. It seems inconceivable now, in the knowledge of the catastrophe that followed, but towards the end of that period, people started to tire of peace and yearn for war. Politicians, the press and artists such as the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti began to argue that society had grown decadent, and that war would be cleansing, heroic and regenerative. As the title of a pamphlet published by Marinetti in 1909 put it, war is ‘the world’s only hygiene’.
Melodramatic stuff, but there is a strong element of narcissism, self-regard and self-pity to the current national psychodrama. ‘There seems to be an ingrown psychological thing about it,’ the writer Lawrence Durrell noted in an interview with the Paris Review as long ago as 1959. ‘You can see it reflected even in quite primitive ways like this market business now – the European Common Market. It’s purely psychological, the feeling that we are too damned superior to join this bunch of continentals in anything they do.’
We don’t seem to have advanced much since then. The idea that we could be an ordinary, decent, middle-ranking country on amicable terms with our neighbours, sitting on boring committees painstakingly working out the humdrum details of food standards, workers’ rights, fishing quotas, Regional Development Grants and the Common Agricultural Policy – let alone the huge challenge of climate change – is just not grand, glamorous or exciting enough for the Leaver ego.
Carry On England
Instead, ever since the referendum campaign, Leavers have called for a return to Britain’s ‘buccaneering spirit’. Let us think for a moment what this actually means. The Collins English Dictionary defines a buccaneer as ‘a pirate, esp. one who preyed on the Spanish colonies and shipping in America and the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries’. Buccaneering, then, is simply a romantic word for demanding money with menaces. Is this how a supposedly civilised country ought to conduct itself in the modern world? Even taken metaphorically, it glorifies a predatory mode of doing business that would not meet any current standards of ethics and corporate governance.
But then it’s not meant to be serious. Just like the Irish border isn’t serious, the shortage of medicines isn’t serious, the haemhorrage of capital and skilled workers isn’t serious, the spike in hate crimes isn’t serious. British pluck will see us though. Chin up, what ho!
Of course, some of the actors in this farce are serious – deadly serious. For Vladimir Putin, Steve Bannon, Arron Banks and the financial speculators who have already made fortunes short-selling the falling pound and the shares of struggling British businesses, this is a cold, calculated exercise in self-interest. But what characterises their cheerleaders and puppets, the little men like Nigel Farage, Mark Francois and yes, Boris ‘Bananas’ Johnson, is the fundamental lack of seriousness of their Carry-On vision of history. But they will not be the ones to suffer the consequences of their jolly japes.