GREAT Britain, you’re invited!
The photo above shows the seven meter high bronze sculpture Really Good by David Shrigley that currently occupies the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in Central London. Of course it shows a massive, phallic thumbs up, but for what? In the following all dates are this year unless otherwise stated.
Could there only be a hundred hours to go before we awaken from our collective nightmare? Maybe it doesn’t seem that bad after all, but such a short-cut to the sunshine seems totally impossible. Maybe the fear and loathing will only last a hundred days? Let’s face it we British will be extremely fortunate if that’s the case! It’s far more likely that the Brexit disaster movie will continue to run for a full hundred weeks longer – reel after reel, an Everest of reels! – or that we’re in the worse case scenario of this bizarre shadow-boxing-rerun of World War II and every other British War: Agincourt come back,we love you! If that’s the case then we’re in for the long-term and it could be almost six years, or maybe it could even keep going for another Hundred Years.
Almost every day I’ve been shocked anew when I read the news from the UK, although I’ve been following hard-core Brexitism since the campaign for the referendum about Britain’s to decide the nation’s future began – within the EU including all the compromises associated with that, or a nostalgic return to Splendid Isolation – and I’ve therefore become seriously desensitized to it. In spite of that process, I could have written a hundred stories about this form of GREAT Britain Your’re Invited!, punching-above-our-weight, let-the-British-lion-roar collective madness, but mucking in with the warmongers is something I forbade myself long ago.
Then I spotted something that as a cultural historian brought up with liberal and humane principles I couldn’t avoid commenting on, because it seemed crucial to understanding what’s happening in the UK now. Perhaps the most important force leading the country up to the cliff edge of hard Brexit with as yet unquantifiable consequence is what I call Brexitspeak: the aggressively nationalistic, manically utopian and stridently xenophobic discourse that now fills much of the British media. During my recent visit it seemed to be seeping into daily life on all sides through myriad cracks in the decaying edifice of the nation’s erstwhile political pragmatism. Even if the majority of people in Britain just want the whole mess to go away, a large number now want action of some (often unspecified) kind, there are some who want bags of EU swag and a few seem thirsty for blood. Yes, Back to blood! Let us unite against every single them on the Continent now!
My moment of gruesome revelation came when Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of H.M. government, said of the Brexit negotiations with the EU in an interview on Sky News on the 13th October, “The enemy, the opponents, are out there. They’re on the other side of the negotiating table.” It was Carl von Clausewitz, the author of On War, who famously observed that “war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means”, and diplomacy is fundamentally about negotiations. That one of the few circumspect figures in a cabinet dominated by vain and unprincipled opportunists with no respect for the facts should descend to this war-like tone is shocking in itself. However, what pushed him to do so makes plain just how dangerous British politics have become recently. We are on a slippery slope, it’s steep and it descends in the worst possible direction. Let me explain why that’s my conclusion.
Just the day before Hammond uttered those words – shortly afterwards he retracted them, replacing “the enemy” with “our friends and partners in the EU” – ex-Chancellor Nigel Lawson said of Hammond, “what he is doing is very close to sabotage,” and an editorial in The daily Mail newspaper called for Hammond’s dismissal for this very reason. Fear of that personal cliff edge towards which he was being pushed drove Hammond to adopt the language of the hard-core Brexiters, although previously he previously scorned their naivety. That’s a phenomenon I’m familiar with from journalistic history where it’s referred to as self-censorship. For example, in communist East Germany there was almost no direct censorship, rather the entire media ran on self-censorship by journalists and editors, and it dealt with more than 99% of the “problems”. This is precisely the kind of mechanism that has begun to get a grip on Britain, and for this reason I fear that Brexitspeak will soon be the dominant discourse of the entire land.
I didn’t choose that name for the new language of hate in my erstwhile homeland on a whim. It is derived from Newspeak, the ascendant language in the mega-state of Oceania in George Orwell’s novel 1984. After some research I’m convinced that the origin of Brexitspeak lies in the articles Boris Johnson wrote for The Daily Telegraph newspaper when he was their correspondent in Brussels between 1989 and 1994. Let me quote at some length what his French contemporary in Brussels Jean Quatremer had to say about this in The Guardian of 15th July, 2016.
“Johnson was the incarnation of the gutter-press dictum: never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Indeed, this is what a grinning Johnson often remarked to his foreign counterparts when they protested about his exaggerated stories…It was a game, a big laugh, especially as his fiercely anti-European newspaper lapped up the stories and gasped for more…Johnson managed to invent an entire newspaper genre: the Euromyth…Johnson created a school of EU reporting: the entire British press, to varying degrees, began peddling Euromyths.”
This is the reason that when the referendum campaign rolled began in early 2016 so many voters responded so strongly to the Leave campaign’s blatant lies: they’d read this language so many times before that when they heard it being bellowed at them it all rang true! When bullshit is repeated frequently and consistently enough it sounds like it can only be right. This opening out of Euromyths onto the street was the coming out of Brexitspeak’s as the ascendant language of the land. This wave was the force that swept Boris to become Foreign Minister of H.M. Government and will probably carry him to the premiership of the U.K. In that same article in The Guardian Quatremer describes Boris’s appointment to his present position as follows:
“It’s not every day that a country appoints as its global representative a known liar, a character for whom gross exaggeration, insult and racist innuendo seem utterly untroubling, a man apparently devoid of deep conviction about anything other than his own importance.”
But even this incisive scathing analysis is focussed primarily on the man himself and not his creation, on “Dr. Frankenstein” rather than his monster Brexitspeak, which is now a many-headed hydra infiltrating innumerable nooks and crannies of British culture. That mean my mother tongue is now fast becoming the equivalent of Oldspeak in Oceania, and this argument can therefore be easily dismissed by Brexiters as old-fashioned.
Perhaps it sounds as if I get some intellectual pleasure from writing all this, but I promise you that’s not the case. I’ve watched all these developments with a growing sense of foreboding, most of all because of the widespread conviction in my homeland that the U.K. is in control of the Brexit talks with the EU, can dictate the terms, and will therefore come out as the victor – 1415, 1814 and 1945 all rolled into one! – with considerable financial advantage and a greatly enhanced reputation around the world. To give those of you who aren’t familiar with utopian Berxitism let me quote Boris Johnson’s article My vision for a bold thriving Britain enabled by Brexit published in The Daily Telegraph on 15th September in which he said European integration was,
“ about trussing the nations together in a gigantic and ever-tightening cat’s cradle of red tape…we will take back control of roughly 350 million pounds per week…this is our chance to catch the wave of new technology and put Britain back in the lead…we have a glorious future…I believe we can be the greatest country on Earth.”
The truth is that we are one small country with just shy of 1% of the global population, but also with a major track record for colonial aggression and slaughtering foreign civilians in droves as we saw fit (just look at all the colonial wars Britain fought post 1945, never mind before), and an atomic arsenal that could rub out more of them by the millions. That was quite a dangerous bowl of punch beforehand, but combined with the grandiose delusions of the hard-core Brexiteers – behind which obviously lurks enormous self-doubt – that could literally become an explosive cocktail. All it would require is an authoritarian and xenophobic leader who whipped up popular hate against some kind(s) of them.
Fascism is the belief that there are simple solutions to complex problems, as long as Big Brother’s orders are followed unwaveringly and without hesitation regardless of the direct cost and collateral damage. On the 11th October Sky News reported that a Sky Data poll had just revealed that 74% of the British people support the H.M. Government’s position that if “necessary” the UK will leave the EU without a deal. This widespread mood makes it almost inevitable that no deal will be the result of the negotiations, which would create a deep rift between Great Brexit and “the Continent”, as it was already referred to during my childhood. Who will trust the UK after that? Who will lend them money or invest in their industries? Quo vadis pound sterling? And how many actual enemies will the UK have on the other side of what was once the negotiating table? Or elsewhere?
For hard-core Brexiters all this is just the predictable negativity of a sour remainer. For them only the most massive and phallic thumbs up is enough and David Shirgley has given it to them. Let’s face it, in their eyes anything less than this would treasonous, just like as it was for Big Brother in Oceania in 1984. How can the current drift towards fascism, confrontation and maybe even war be stopped? I wish I knew.
If you are wondering what all this has to do with wine, then let me conclude with another quote from Boris Johnson’s article My Vision. He also thinks that Brexit, “will mean a bigger market in the UK for everything from Italian cars to German wine.” Of course, that’s more Brexshit of the kind that has persuaded me to apply for German citizenship.