Alastair Campbell: In pursuit of a delusion, we carve our irrelevance

PUBLISHED: 12:48 08 September 2017 | UPDATED: 12:48 08 September 2017

The TV duel between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz

The TV duel between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz

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Modern Germany has a very different political and media culture to our own, and some of that was on display in Sunday’s ‘TV-Duell’ between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her SDP challenger Martin Schulz.

For a start, lest any German elector was unaware of its importance, the debate was broadcast live across four main channels. The four presenters, one from each channel, two men, two women, were free of Paxmanesque histrionics or Humphreys’ hectoring interruptions, the candidates likewise. This was a serious country having a serious debate. It was earnest, wide-ranging, polite, respectful; not dull, but not hugely exciting either. There were moments when I felt if their media and ours could meet somewhere in the middle, the public would be well served.

To follow our media right now – The New European included, given Britain’s proposed exit from the European Union is what gave rise to us – you would think there was really only one big political story in town, namely Brexit. To hear our breathless TV and radio reporters, day after day, round the clock, Brexit is front and centre stage at all times. With last week’s third round between Brexit Secretary David Davis and Europe chief negotiator Michel Barnier behind us, the two-way merchants continue to tell us endlessly what the various factions of the UK government and Opposition think, and what ‘Europe’ thinks too.

Brexit is indeed a hugely significant happening, the media right to try to cover the twists and turns, especially when so much is unclear and uncertain. But we are kidding ourselves – something of a theme when it comes to the Brexit tale – if we imagine it is causing quite the convulsions across the rest of the EU that it is here.

There was one fleeting mention of Britain in the 90-minute German election debate, and that was when Chancellor Merkel listed countries which had recently been hit by terrorism. When I tweeted that we appeared not to be on their agenda for the evening, those (many) Brexiteers who can take no criticism of their cause, and allow nothing to intrude into their delusions that all is going well in Brexitland, responded in the main with these two points: one, why would we figure in a German election debate? Two, related to that, they asked which other foreign countries came up, the question clearly assuming the answer would be next to none.

From memory, and a few scribbled notes – the US, China, Russia, Japan, Turkey, Hungary, France, Canada, Australia, Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan all figured. The western Balkans got a mention. This was no insular German-only debate, far from it.

Yet one of the arguments made by the Brexiteers, both during the campaign of lies, and since, as lies have given way to delusions, is that ‘they need us as much as we need them’. If this were so, with negotiations which seem to be going nowhere, with an economic cliff-edge looming, a TV debate as serious and as long as this one, in the home of Europe’s biggest economy, currently led by Europe’s most powerful leader, would surely have Brexit on the agenda? Indeed, interviewed by Channel 4 News after the Davis-Barnier talks, Tory MP Vicky Ford robotically repeated that the breakdown was inevitable because there would be no progress on Brexit until the German elections were over. So front and centre in German politics, yes? No. Not a word. Not a breath. Not a syllable.

When the car industry came up, I thought, ‘ah, here we go, this is where they will mention the significance of the UK market, and the need therefore to ensure daß die Briten ihren Kuchen haben und essen können.* But no, the debate came and went, and of Brexit, and their need to make sure we could still get their Mercs and VWs, or else face economic oblivion, not a whisper.

Donald Trump, like the big, dark shadow that he is across the world right now, got a question all of his own, which would have pleased him, even if the answers would not. Schulz was one-word clear – Nein – that the US President was not the right man to be leading the West’s response to the Korean crisis. Merkel gave a more diplomatic version of the same thing, with time also to remind us of the comment she made when Trump was elected, that we should work together according to common values. Both stressed the need for European unity.

And then, to this watching Brit at least, came what was perhaps the single most shocking, and saddening, moment of the whole evening, as she listed the leaders other than Trump with whom she would be discussing Korea in the coming days. She and French President Emmanuel Macron had already spoken. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, was next up. She would confer with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, President Xi of China, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-In. So all the main players in the region… all the Big Five at the United Nations… bar one. Theresa May, for all her talk of “Global Britain”, is not even on the radar.

Sure, until Trump tweeted that he was going to cut trade ties with any countries that did business with North Korea – er, China, Donald? – the BBC dutifully put May’s dismay at Kim Jong-un’s latest stunt at the top of their coverage. But I suspect they were the only major media organisation anywhere in the world to do so.

So what, cry the Brextremists? We want to stand alone. We don’t want to be dependent on other countries for our strength and our success. But we are. Much of our strength in the world comes from our history, but that is never enough. It also comes, in this interconnected world, from our alliances with others. It comes from our leaders having the power, the authority, the character, to be inside the heads of other leaders so that when they come to make big decisions whose impact goes beyond their own borders, they are at least asking, and genuinely worrying about the answer. “…I wonder what Margaret would say… I wonder what Tony would say”, just as they, Thatcher and Blair, used to reflect on what their French, German, American and other counterparts would be thinking.

Today… “I wonder what Donald/Vladimir/Angela would say”. That is a big part of the job of leadership of a major world power.

Do Trump, Putin, Xi and the rest sit there and ask “I wonder what Theresa would say?” Merkel gave us the answer on Sunday evening. As for foreign ministers, they often have Boris Johnson front of mind, but not in a way that helps UK diplomacy, unless measured by a laugh-ometer, such as the one that rose when David Davis described the EU team, rather than his own – him, May, Johnson and Liam Fox, with Jacob Rees-Mogg as their new intellectual bag-carrier – as “silly”.

Of the many tragedies of Brexit, this growing, fast-developing diplomatic irrelevance is one of the most serious. In the pursuit of a delusion, we are carving out our own irrelevance in the world, and there will be consequences down the track. The Permanent Five at the UN? Let’s see how long that survives the post-Brexit new world order.

Whenever I suggest that Brexit is a symptom of national decline, which I believe it is, in come the Brexit bots and delusionists, asking, as one did on Sunday evening: “Why do you hate this country so much?” It is precisely because I love this country so much that I feel so sad, and so anxious, about the decline we are inflicting upon ourselves. And it is a sign of how twisted and distorted the Brexit debate has become, and the damage it has already done to our political culture, that patriotism is defined by the Brextremists as supporting our exit from the EU, whatever the details, whatever the consequences, whatever the costs.

It is all of a piece with May sending her whips out no longer to argue the case for the massive changes now being rushed through Parliament, but to warn MPs that unless they support her, on whatever it is she is asking for, then they are gifting the next election to Labour. They no longer bother claiming that Brexit is going to be good for the UK, and will deliver on all the lies told during the campaign. They are even having to dial down on the notion that they have to do it to satisfy “the will of the people”, given the people stuck up two fingers to the vision of Hard Brexit she put forward at her botched election, since when after a short wobble, the delusions of adequacy appear to have returned. No, the only argument now for this Brexit madness is that we have to deliver it, with her at the helm, or else Jeremy Corbyn is in Downing Street. Yet again, national policy is being decided by the short-term survival interests of a Tory leader incapable of uniting party or country.

Back to Frau Merkel. Her debate with Schulz started with a long section on her handling of the refugee crisis, which at the time saw her popularity fall. Now, as then, she stuck to her guns and argued from the point of important principles in which she believed, and which had always guided her politics. May should try it. That way, as Merkel has shown through four elections, lies the kind of respect and authority her UK counterpart has only in her dreams and delusions.

* that the British can have their cake and eat it

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