brexit: forward to the past?
No-one can complain that the Britain of the Brexiteers is oppressed by the “tyranny of facts”. When it comes to convincing people, Brexiteer emotion wins every time. And when it comes to emotion there is none more insidious than nostalgia for a world that never existed. Back to the imagined past has worked a charm both here and in the USA. You would think we were re-fighting the Second World War not negotiating with fellow Europeans sympathetic to our plight and bemused by a respected nation reduced to ridiculousness.
I have to confess that, as a Londoner, I am much attracted to an imagined bygone world: the sight of cricket on the village green, Anglican ladies cycling to church, noble oaks dotting the landscape, acorns and shiny conkers on the ground. I’ll pass on the warm beer. I have always believed that this world is to be discovered somewhere in between South London’s ever expanding suburbia and the coastal area around the South Downs before the Channel. It all flies by too quickly on Eurostar. Not so when you travel by car to visit West Sussex and Hampshire.
I was with two Wodehouse lovers on a Wodehouse heritage hunt last weekend. If anyone conjures up a delightful world that never was it is P.G. Wodehouse. He gave us Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, the Drones’ Club, Blandings, the Earl of Emswoth, Galahad Threepwood, Gussie Fink-Nottle, together making British ineptitude and fecklessness, mainly of the upper class, something to laugh at, enjoy and relish. David Croft and Jimmy Perry who scripted Dad’s Army also created an imaginary world that we recognize as comforting and distinctly British. The comedy may be more historically situated and with a sharper edge; as Captain Mainwaring likes to say: “There’s a war on you know”. But no-one dies, no homes are destroyed, and the platoon survives for next week’s fun. An imaginary Britain at imaginary war muddling through.
Inventive and imaginative as he was, Wodehouse didn’t go far for some of the names of his characters. Emsworth is a pretty little town just into Hampshire on the edge of one of three fingers that the sea pushes inland along this part of the coast. On another finger of the sea lies Bosham which lent its name to Viscount Bosham, the Earl of Emsworth’s heir. Wodehouse in his twenties lived in one of Emsworth’s prettier suburban roads in a house called Threepwood Cottage. We peered at the frontage with its small, faded blue plaque. The reality was a long way, and a lot different, from the Earl of Emsworth’s literary abode, Blandings Castle, set in Shropshire.
Wodehouse moved to France in 1934 and seems to have been startled out of his imaginary world by the arrival of the Nazis in 1940 who promptly detained him for a year. Whilst in detention he stupidly did some jolly broadcasts for the Nazis. On his release he went into permanent exile in the USA. So any posthumous pride in Emsworth at their great comic writer was diminished. And, of course, following Wodehouse in 1940, the coming reality of the post-BREXIT world will startle many Brexiteers out of their imaginary world and much diminish the influence of its political leadership.
But other opportunities open up for Brexiteer MPs. They could, though, audition for roles in the next televised Wodehouse stories – Jacob Rees-Mogg should try out Jeeves, he’s smooth and confident enough with a solution to every problem -Theresa May might make a scary Aunt Agatha. Forlorn-and-Failing Grayling brings a natural ineptitude to the small screen so perhaps Gussie Fink-Nottle though his relationship to newts is unknown.
Boris Johnson ought not to be given the chance, as he’s already a self-made fiction. To a large section of the public he plays the role of insouciant posh-boy whose antics and scrapes we laugh at, and wonder how on earth he managed to become our Foreign Secretary. Whoops, he’s succeeded in increasing the sentence on an innocent British subject in jail in Iran. And he’s survived it. How does he manage it? It’s the rake’s progress. The fact is the rakes progress quite fast if they can open the door to a comforting imagined world. Boris Johnson’s shambling chauvinism particularly appeals to the Tory grassroots and so he presents a nasty threat. Bertie was always afraid of Spode, the leader of the Black Shorts, and quite right too. Don’t ring us, we’ll ring you.
But back to actual Wodehouseland. I wondered if in the 1920s there were so many pleasant cafes in these, Wodehouse’s, stomping grounds? A cold, howling wind was coming in off the sea and we were grateful to find a warm and snug eating place. The conversation drifted to BREXIT despite our best intentions; like the Earl of Emsworth drawn to his pig you might say.
Britain seems now to be divided into those who think facts are real and that policies should be evidence-based, and those who shoe-horn reality into an emotional dream world based on a fanciful past. They inhabit a world in which BREXIT will return us to an era as imaginary as the one crafted by Wodehouse. As Orwell wrote: “he who controls the past controls the future, he who controls the present controls the past”.
We asked the friendly waitress if she knew anything about P.G. Wodehouse. “No”, she said. “He doesn’t come in here”.
Even this anglophile foreigner can understand and sympathise with the imagery you create. But there is another and not much discussed aspect of Brexit which revolves around the abdication of power. On three occasions when GB abdicated its position of power, the run up to WW1, appeasement and the run up to WW2, and I would suggest now the cost both to itself and Europe has been high. The UK came out of the financial crisis in a position of relative strength versus its European partners, concerns over the Euro and Greece were of secondary importance and both its soft and hard power were having a real global impact. Europe was dividing along ideological and geographical fault lines. Free movement of labour was no longer an ideologically nor economically universally acceptable policy across the EU. Northern Europe, with an uncanny resemblance to some of the drivers that lead to the creation in the 15th century of what became known as the Hanseatic League, was beginning to build a consensus driven by economic pragmatism and fiscal prudence creating a significant obstacle to the French inspired ideology of increased federalism. These countries, with Germany’s tacit support, were looking for leadership to the UK. This would restore the UK to its historical position at the heart of Europe holding the balance of power and bring with it a level of prestige and influence over events both in Europe and beyond not seen for generations.This is the real tragedy of Brexit; a self inflicted abdication of power. And for those skeptics who ignore the lessons of history, there is no better illustration than the short lived accolades given to Professor Francis Fukuyama’s book ‘The End Of History and the Last Man’ in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War; if there was one lesson both he and thinking people have learned it is that history repeats itself. It is a painful irony that the world which the Brexiters you describe so aptly in your excellent and thought provoking article long to recreate was precisely within their grasp had they but the clarity to seize it.As is often the case the Greeks had a word for this; hubris.
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