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T here can be few people who have not at some stage in their lives felt that they had been “taken for a ride” or conned. Yet that, I think, will be the dawning realisation of a fair proportion of the 37% of the electorate who – without, in most cases, having the faintest idea of the implications – voted on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union.
Now, usually, if one is conned, it is over some relatively minor matter in the great scheme of things, and one learns one’s lesson. But when a significant part of a country is taken for a ride, it cannot be dismissed as a trivial matter from which it can easily recover.
Such, I believe, is the condition of the UK at the moment. I read all this stuff about “Teflon Johnson” – a prime minister upon whom the sun never sets and to whom no accusation sticks, however justified. And I know that the Brexiters are having a “cloth of gold” day, loving the fact that the understandable obsession with the Plague is obscuring the damage being caused by Brexit – damage which is not obscure to the thousands of small and medium-sized businesses whose very future is at stake, many of which are having to set up operations within – guess what – the EU’s single market.
Neither will it be at all obscure, when the Covid restrictions are eventually eased, to a whole generation of young people who have grown up enjoying the freedom to travel, take Erasmus scholarships and work anywhere in the EU.
At times of national crisis, it pays to listen to the great playwrights. Writing in the New Statesman, David Hare makes the point that the real culprits in the Brexit fiasco are not the “red wall” victims of an austerity-induced discontent wrongly attributed to our membership of the EU. No: they are comfortably off members of an influential elite. Hare writes: “The people who were desperate to pull Britain away from its geographical moorings were as likely to be found in Knightsbridge as in Hartlepool. The leader of the UK Independence party, Nigel Farage, who put the fear of God into the Conservative party, was a stockbroker. His principal cheerleaders were press owners, paid-up members of an elite who all lived abroad: Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and the Barclay brothers.”At a time when he pays lip service to carers, the man we have to call prime minister is a don’t-carer
They certainly put the fear of God into David Cameron, with his ill-judged referendum – and, of course, vaulting ambition persuaded influential politicians such as Johnson and Gove to go along for the ride. Then there were the deluded but all-too-effective oddballs (his own word) such as “Eyetest” Cummings, who argued that Brexit would be good for the UK’s science base. Unfortunately, the reverse is proving to be the case. Someone for whom I have rather more respect than the egregious Cummings is Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute and a Nobel laureate. He says: “Some of the cuts we’ve been hearing about would be catastrophic, even existential.”
Just as health and other essential workers have come up trumps during the plague, so Britain’s scientists have risen to the fore in the impressively rapid development of vaccines. It should never be forgotten that Johnson recently declared: “The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.” Luckily, Johnson has his enemies within the present, largely godforsaken, Conservative-Brexit party and this remark was immediately leaked. Oh, just a joke, said his friends. No, your honour: I submit that this was the true Johnson. At a time when he pays lip service to carers, the man we have to call prime minister is a don’t-carer.
Wait a minute: Johnson’s press secretary says the PM “does believe in the wider principles of integrity and honesty”. Of course! Cockneys have a term for his sort: he’s a wide boy.
Everyone knows that it was the NHS and our scientists who came to the rescue, not greed or capitalism. Moreover, there is nothing Britain did to develop the vaccine that we could not have done within the EU. Indeed, knowing as I do how much British influence in Brussels was appreciated by other member states, I suspect that if we had remained inside the union we should have acted as a beneficent influence, preventing them from getting into such a tangle over vaccines.
In his novel The Three Clerks, Anthony Trollope wrote of the 19th-century prime minister Sir Robert Peel: “Posterity will point at him as a politician without a policy, as a statesman without a principle, as a worshipper at the altar of expediency, to whom neither vows sworn to friends nor declarations made to his country, were in any way binding.’
Remind you of anyone? But Peel conducted several spectacular U-turns, not least on the corn laws and Catholic emancipation. If only Johnson were to do a U-turn on Brexit and, like Peel, put country before party.