ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on a book which has some troubling lessons for Brexit Britain.
There have been plenty of low points on the Brexit journey, many of them provided by what is laughably referred to as our frank, free and fearless press.
The Daily Telegraph, which I vaguely remember as solidly Conservative but also solidly sober, which at least had the right to be called ‘a newspaper’, has provided plenty. Can one even describe as a newspaper an organ of propaganda which describes the breakfast choice of UK Brexit negotiator David Frost – eggs, sausages, that kind of thing – as ‘patriotic’. I mean, do they even have sausages in Germany? Oh ja, lots of them, we even make jokes about Germans and their Wurst… as for eggs, I wonder if the hacks at the dumbed down Telegraph are aware of one of my favourite pieces of historical sporting trivia.
Q: Why, in tennis, do they use the word ‘love’ to describe nil, as in ’15-love?’
A: It is because the figure zero is shaped like an egg, egg in French is l’oeuf, and when the poshoes were first getting going in the ‘anyone for tennis?’ birth of the sport, nil became ‘l’oeuf’ which morphed into love.
Memo to editors of the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun, the Express, the Star (is it still going?) and to any unknown backbench Tory MP hoping to get a profile: Surely, when Wimbledon comes around in June, the time has come for a campaign to take back control of the language, smash ‘l’oeuf’ and have good old-fashioned, patriotic ‘nil’ coming out of the mouths of umpires.
What is there to love about a froggy egg? We need our own eggs, proper English eggs, so the French can stick their cheese-eating, surrender monkey ‘oeufs’ where le soleil ne brille pas.
Talking of French, and of David Frost, the Sun recently provided another low point, in a story about the format for the next phase of Brexit negotiations. Yes, that is Brexit as in ‘Get Brexit Done’, ‘oven ready’ and all that. It seems it was not ‘oven ready’ at all but very much on the rare side, saignant dare I say?
Sorry for these lapses into French, but I’m one of those unpatriotic people who thinks there is some merit in learning languages other than my mother tongue as a means of expanding horizons and opportunities. Silly me.
So the Sun was setting the scene for Frost’s patriotic breakfast and the talks which followed. Briefed by a UK official, it reported ‘the first big win’ on the negotiations, namely, wait for it, that the talks would be conducted mainly in English. This, these days, is what amounts to a ‘win’. Long gone the days when a win was going to mean trade deals signed, sealed and delivered and ready to boost the economy from the day we left. Cake and the eating of cake. No more. All lost. Le gateau n’existe pas. Il n’a jamais existé. A ‘win’ now is what you pocket when Michel Barnier walks into the room and says ‘good morning’, rather than ‘bonjour’. This, and blue passports which are actually black, seems to be pretty much it.
There are two main reasons why it makes sense to converse in English. The first is that most of the UK delegation, in common alas with most of the UK population, could not hold a serious detailed negotiation in anything but their own language, (David Davis and Liam Fox failed even in that), whereas most of the EU side speak flawless English and plenty of other languages besides. Added to which English has become the de facto language of the diplomatic world.
Doubtless anyone who thinks that eggs and sausages on a plate can be defined as ‘patriotic’ in a uniquely British way imagines the status of the English language stems directly from us being such a great and powerful country. Like the guy I met last year who genuinely believed that we were called ‘Great Britain’ because the rest of the world had voted to choose one country that could have that preface. I wonder if he thought they did the same for Yarmouth?
In truth, for all that kings and queens and empire, Shakespeare and Dickens and so many other British cultural icons have made English the language that others feel they have to learn, these days its pull is as much about the US as the UK.
It is a curious mix of arrogance and inferiority that leads someone to imagine it is a ‘win’ that complex matters should be discussed in a language pretty much everyone in the room can understand. The post-Brexit arrogance factor seems to rise in inverse proportion to the UK’s power and standing in the world.
Our decline was brought home to me on the day presidents Putin, Erdogan and Macron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel, were seeking to resolve the crisis in Syria. It was not simply that we were absent from the debate. It was that nobody even seemed to notice, or care, that we were. It is hard to imagine, in the eras of Thatcher and Blair, the UK totally ignored on such a vital issue. Brexit is both symptom and cause of self-inflicted irrelevance.
I have just read a book, put together by the Institut Montaigne – oops, sorry, there I go again with my unpatriotic French bollocks – called Le Monde des Nouveaux Autoritaires (The World of the New Authoritarians).
On the front cover, as you can see, there are little cartoon portraits of authoritarian leaders at the time the book was written, split into three groups inside.
‘Nationalist populists’ – Donald Trump of the US, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland (his dead brother Lech alongside him), Narendra Modi of India, Matteo Salvini of Italy.
‘Neo-authoritarians’ – Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, Viktor Orban of Hungary.
And then the real McCoys – Bashar Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Zayed of the UAE.
Putin provides something of a thread through all of them, in that they either admire him – Vlad the Authoritarians’ Authoritarian – or are close to him. Other common points – nationalism and xenophobia, and a rejection of international norms and institutions; a rejection of liberal values; centralising power; seeking to curb or control free media; undermining institutions of justice; undermining NGOs; setting the people against the elites (even while actually being the elite); a belief in the charismatic, strong man leader.
In the foreword, Michel Duclos, a special adviser at the Institut Montaigne, explains why, despite Boris Johnson undoubtedly ticking several of the boxes above, the British prime minister is ‘un absent de marque’.
I am hoping that my translation skills do justice to Duclos’ explanation of this notable absence.
‘He launched a new form of populism into the market, namely ‘snob populism’, which consists of expressing the prejudices of the vulgar with a posh accent – this does not qualify him for inclusion, at this stage at least, in our gallery.
‘Yet it is incontestable that Brexit is one of the elements of this ‘air du temps’ that we are trying to capture. The debate on the divorce between the EU and Great Britain has led in this country to an incredible devaluation of factual arguments and pragmatic reasoning – this devaluation is typical of the style of the new authoritarians, and to tell the truth it is unexpected in the Kingdom of Queen Elizabeth, more than in any other country. It was Michael Gove, one of the fathers of Brexit and an alumnus of Oxford like so many of this ‘beau monde’, who said: ‘we no longer believe in experts’. What is happening across the Channel today confirms that charlatanism is to the populists what propaganda is to the authoritarians.
‘There’s more: Boris Johnson and his coterie show how populism corrupts, and even risks destroying institutions. Who would have thought that a prime minister of Her Majesty would one day suspend parliament for five weeks, challenge a decision of the Supreme Court, openly contemplate not applying a law adopted by the Houses of Parliament? This in the country that created parliamentary democracy?’
Who indeed? And is it not a further sign of our decline that our so-called leader cannot even make it into the top league of populists, nationalists and authoritarians?