Readers of a certain age may remember a former prime minister giving a misty-eyed speech referencing “old maids cycling to communion” and other similarly nostalgic totems (warm beer, cricket on the village green, you know the drill).
It was a narrow, and much lampooned, vision of an England that never really existed, except perhaps in the minds of a certain type of romantic poet.
But as his party steadily traipsed further and further into an imaginary Brexit wonderland that prime minister, Sir John Major, took the red pill and embraced reality. More than most, he knew just how deep the rabbit hole went.
He’s been making the point ever since, and with increasing stridency, most recently in a pre-recorded lecture at Middle Temple in which he starkly warned Brexit will be “even more brutal than expected”.
And so it will be, as those of us with even a limited understanding of trade flows, tariffs, supply chains and customs procedures have been trying to explain for months, years in fact.
“We need to be cruelly honest with ourselves,” Major said, outlining hard reality to a Britain that has been swaddled in lies, and may not yet have the appetite to break out from them.
“Complacency and nostalgia are the certain routes to national decline.”
Predictably, the brickbats were swiftly flying after he was done.
“We’re NOT a power. UK ‘second rank nation’,” one tabloid said, outraged that a former prime minister should be saying what’s been obvious for years. A former Tory prime minister at that. Where were the flags, where was the faux patriotism?
They were set aside in favour of facts: how could it be otherwise if you consider Britain’s position in a world dominated by huge nations like the United States, China, India and the other populous powers growing in their slipstreams.
Britain has, as Major pointed out, less than 1 per cent of the world’s population and no amount of bombast, blustering and threat is going to change that fact. You can only ignore facts for so long before they bite you in the ass.
As part of the world’s biggest trading bloc, and a leading part at that, it didn’t matter so much. Now out in the cold, and cursed with a leader whose schtick is looking desperately dated with America having decisively cast the inspiration for it aside, Britain is going to have to wake up sooner or later.
It would be better for it to be sooner. But for that to happen Boris Johnson would need to play against type and set aside the mindset Major identified as having characterised his failed negotiating approach with the European Union.
The deal Johnson ought to do (and claims is still possible) will inevitably stop very short of the nirvana he and his friends promised. But at least it would spare us the spectacle of ministers breaking international law, as the Internal Markets Bill seeks to allow them to do in the event of no deal.
Sir John also joined the ranks of those appalled and aghast at the government’s willingness to tear up the agreements it has entered into. A deal wouldn’t quite render the point moot because Johnson has stripped Britain of moral authority and goodwill. Its soft power will be softer than it was. But it would at least help as another battle involving a union, this time the one involving the four home nations, is joined. Sir John wasn’t just fighting old wars. He touched upon that independence battle too.
Johnson’s popularity has been waning in England. He’s never had any in Scotland or in large parts of Northern Ireland, where his patronising bombast goes down like sour beer, not warm beer, and where cycling maids are inclined to raise their middle fingers in his direction when he starts to speak.
Sir John, a convinced Unionist, has a neat solution: offer Scotland (where the danger is must acute) a referendum on the principle of separation first but require it to be ratified by a second one on the divorce settlement, after its negotiation, so voters could see what they were getting.
This is exactly what Johnson and his Tories denied the British people, who might have reconsidered their decision as regards the EU had they been given the chance. It stands scant chance of becoming reality.
But let’s say it did. As Johnson’s misrule continues, who’s to say Scotland would say no second time round even if presented with a fairly spartan deal? And would anyone really blame it?
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