For those of us who have spent almost two decades yearning for a return of Chris Morris’s The Day Today, there is arguably some comfort in the fact that for a fair chunk of that time, the actual news has been doing a more than adequate job in its place. If you’re under the age of 30, there’s precious little chance you’ll be able to see the actual UK as what it really is these days, which is an extremely well crafted tribute to a cult TV show from 1994.
How else to explain it really? Well, there is an explanation, and it’s one word long and about five years or so ago it didn’t actually exist. The word, naturally, is Brexit, and it has sent us all so unequivocally crackers that the only psychological coping strategy is to stop caring.
Around about this time last year, when there was a deadly pandemic doing the rounds, there was much disgust at the mass national clearout of the supermarket shelves. The panic buying, the hoarding of pasta and toilet paper. These days, the shelves are looking arguably worse than they were back then, but nobody really seems to care. They can’t cope with caring. We’ve been through too much. Reality is too torturous to contemplate. It’s better to just ignore it.
Better to ignore the actual, detailed plans that are in place to get the army to start delivering food to supermarkets, because there’s a shortage of 90,000 HGV drivers. This shortage is invariably blamed on Brexit and Covid, even though, when asked, every industry association wastes no time at all in making clear it’s nothing to do with Covid and absolutely everything to do with Brexit.
On Monday afternoon, the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers had meetings with the government over how it might fill its 14,000 vacancies, in which it pleaded its preferred solutions, which is to allow prison inmates to come to abattoirs on day release. This, again, is a direct consequence of Brexit.
Now, there may be many upsides to providing prisoners with useful jobs of work. That prisons cost huge amounts of cash to run, and contain within them very large numbers of fit, healthy young men doing almost nothing economically productive, is a problem all societies have sought to solve for a very long time, but none of the solutions ever seem to work.
The government, which in this case is the Home Office, consistently replies to these requests by, in this case, telling the meat industry they must fill their shortfall from the UK market, which they have tried to do, but can’t.
This sort of black sky thinking made an appearance four years ago when Chris Grayling breezily announced that if there were food shortages they’d just be solved by British farmers “growing more” and considered the matter dealt with. These are the consequences of having ideologues and high-functioning imbeciles in charge. In their heads, huge complex problems can just be solved by their worldview. I see your problem, and in return I give you this, my opinion, and now everything is fine. Except it’s not.
But we’ll muddle on like this for the time being, because there’s nothing else that can be done. Brexit, after all, has always been mainly a mood. Its problems, like the Northern Ireland border, can just be lied, and procrastinated away. You don’t need to solve a problem if you can quieten it down for a bit with a headline.
When you can, for example, announce Ian Botham as your new trade envoy to Australia. People have been somewhat up in arms about this since the news was announced on Monday morning. There’s precious little reason to panic. The first thing to understand is that these trade envoys don’t actually do anything. Prince Andrew was one for quite a long time, though he had to stand down, ooh 10 years ago, over questions about his friendship with the convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Still, at least that dealt with it.
Naturally, it’s not sufficiently weird and backward enough that a supposedly 21st-century country gives jobs for life in the actual legislature to retired cricket players in return for being prominent supporters of government policy – in this case, Brexit.
When Ian Botham was appointed to the House of Lords in October last year, he even said himself that he would get involved “when they are debating something I know about – like sport or the countryside. Not much point if it’s a trade deal with Japan.”
There’s not much point caring, or even pointing out the oddity, in appointing a retired cricketer whose only public comments since becoming a peer involve stating his complete lack of knowledge about trade deals as a government trade envoy. Because it doesn’t matter. Ian Botham’s role as trade envoy to Australia does not extend beyond giving some people something to talk about for a little while, which it has certainly done.
And it only pulls back the looking glass that little bit further, widening the aperture through which a once vaguely normal country can even further disappear.
But still, here we are. We’ve got Ian Botham in Australia, sorting out the finer points of the deal for the import of hormone-injected beef. And when it gets here, it’ll be packed up by prisoners on day release then driven to the supermarket in an army truck, a gloriously mad triptych for a nation that’s fully lost it and absolutely isn’t going to regain it in the very long, mad years ahead.
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