Second letter from London
Nothing is abetted by a nationalist England separated by customs barriers from its nearest friends
For a brief few weeks after the election, the weather in Britain wore the calm of exhaustion. We looked out for glimmers of light, a first daffodil, signs that the exit from the EU would be friendly. Humans need optimism. Surely Boris Johnson would now show himself the socially liberal, inclusive politician, hardly a little Englander, we had known from his days as London Mayor? Surely the Labour Party leadership contest would be easy and an energetic opposition speedily restored. Alas, stormy weather returned all too quickly to these battered isles, complete with blustery winds and hurtling branches.
The departure from the EU – which the novelist Ian McEwan termed the ‘most pointless, masochistic ambition ever dreamed of in the history of these islands’ - was less than gracious. Little heed was paid to a majority who had voted against leaving, but whose votes didn’t up to a majority of MP’s. We experienced it as a moment of great sadness, let alone anxiety about a rudderless future that looked only into the past. If the head of the EU could quote George Eliot, no counter quote from Cervantes or Leopardi, Flaubert or Thomas Mann came from our Eton-educated Prime Minister from whom we might at least have expected a little Greek or Latin.
Negotiations about the terms of divorce began with Johnson’s bullish rejection of any alignment with EU regulations and an insistence that we would come up with our own. The Trump-like tone, while satisfying his nationalist base and the likes of Farage, gives Johnson the eventual option of blaming the EU for any failure his government meets on the economic front and in ending austerity.
The Huawei decision confused things. Amidst opposition, even from its own ranks, the government opted for limited investment by the Chinese 5G company. This is in line with the EU’s advice rather than with the complete ban demanded by Trump, often touted as the primary partner in a quick and smooth future trade deal.
Then Johnson, in a ‘let’s imitate Trump’ moment, flung a brick at the press. He announced he would pick and choose which journalists would be allowed into briefings, barring those he judged to be hostile. The gasp of disbelief, even from Tory-loyal papers who had backed Brexit, was audible up and down the country. (Eighty percent of the British Press is owned by private proprietors, largely conservative). The Daily Mail, that bastion of middle England Brexiters, came out with the assertion that such selection made a mockery of the free press – a great British invention!
It’s hard not to think that the pick-and-choose-your-journalists policy emanated from Johnson’s closest advisor the ever-arrogant Dominic Cummings, who seems to rule the Prime Minister’s policies as well as his tactics and has far greater sway over him for the moment than any of his ministers. Like Johnson or Trump, Cummings doesn’t like close scrutiny of policy and any expert assessment of where it may lead. But given the government’s huge majority, and a currently weak opposition, the press is the only vocal questioner of policy there might be.
Johnson, himself till recently a journalist after all, pulled back, as if he really hadn’t meant to say that only selected journalists would be allowed into briefings. Given how many other of Cummings purported grand plans have recently failed, it may be that the man who master-minded the ‘vote leave’ campaign, the man who believes in ‘creative destruction’, may himself soon be in for a de-selection.
That doesn’t, however, resolve the question of the future of our great public broadcaster, the BBC, which all political parties choose to hate at various moments for what they see as biased reporting. The BBC tries to keep its news even-handed. But it has been in the firing line not only over its output but also over the licence fee with supports it and which it is a criminal offence for people who have a television or radio not to pay. Losing the BBC would leave Britain poorer, turning it into even a smaller island at the mercy of its great English language competitor, America. What will happen in a divided Northern Ireland if the Irish in the south end up with a Sinn Fein led government, or indeed if the Scottish National Party press on for an independence referendum, is anyone’s guess, but nothing is abetted by a nationalist England separated by customs barriers from its nearest friends.
Meanwhile, the arts, literature and the universities worry over the loss of simple visa-less links with the rest of Europe, the fate of Europeans living here, the end of the Erasmus programme and many long-term joint projects and exchanges. Stormy weather indeed.
Yet, since we really do share at least some of our weather with the continent, many of us are convinced that our histories and imaginations are inextricably intertwined. A procedural separation from the EU, will not stop Britons from being European. There may be fog on the Channel but the continent, to negate the old joke, is not cut off.
Lisa Appignanesi’s latest book is 'Everyday Madness'.