Monday 30 July 2018

Drifting ships

I can’t remember exactly when (although I think it was towards the end of the 1970s) but many years ago Atholl Cameron from the SNP spoke at a Plaid event and told us a story about a cruise she’d been on in the Mediterranean.  The engines on the British ship broke down and the ship was waiting for an engineer to come on board to make repairs.  There was also another problem on board, as a result of which the kitchens were unable to prepare hot food for the travellers.  The passengers were sitting in the dining room stoically eating cold food in a drifting ship in the middle of the sea, and a fellow diner, from England, said, “Doesn’t it make you proud to be British?”.  Atholl’s cutting response was that she’d have been a great deal prouder if the ship was underway and they were eating a cooked meal.
The memory was prompted by the prime minister’s claim last week in relation to possible stockpiling of food and medicines that we should all feel reassured that the government was taking the necessary steps to protect us from the worst-case outcome of Brexit.  In truth, I’d feel much more reassured, and have rather more confidence in the government, if they hadn’t taken us to a position where they seriously need even to consider stockpiling food and medicines.  It tells us something, though, about Theresa May’s concept of Britishness.  Like the English passenger on that cruise ship, she sees virtue in the ability to respond to adversity with stoicism and resignation, to find a way of somehow muddling through.  For those who think that way, there is something profoundly un-British about having a concept and a fall-back plan before starting in order to avoid getting into such a situation in the first place – that’s the sort of thing that only Europeans do.  It helps to explain the gulf in understanding between the two sides and how we’ve got to where we are.
The interesting part of the decision, since rescinded, to release information gradually over the summer about the status of preparations for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is that it was apparently taken to placate Brexiteers, by publicly demonstrating to Barnier that the UK was ready to simply walk away.  It was a cunning plan of Baldrickian proportions, but it appears not to have occurred to the devisers of the plan that telling the world about the preparations being undertaken might just have an impact on the domestic audience as well, by highlighting the scale of the potential problems.  The expectation was that we would all display that famous British stoicism and take pride in the way that our ‘proud island nation’ was preparing to respond to those beastly Europeans.  Instead of which it seems that those responsible for drip-feeding the details to the public have now realised that it’s more likely that the public would panic and never vote Conservative again.  As a ‘senior source’ told the Sunday Times (paywall), “People will shit themselves and think they want a new referendum or think the Tory party shouldn’t govern again”.
The rather patronising suggestion that people might only ‘think’ they want another referendum (with its implicit assumption that ‘we know they don’t really’), like the rest of this not-so-cunning plan, reveals, yet again, the extent to which the Brexiteers’ world view is mired in an idealised past in which people did and thought as they were told, and blind patriotism and deference to their ‘betters’ were enough to allow the government of the day to get away with almost anything.  But blind patriotism doesn’t keep a ship moving through the sea; neither can it turn Brexit into a triumph.

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