As Remainers face calls to end divisions of the past and unite with their former adversaries, LIZ GERARD is having none of it.
The Union Flags are fluttering along the Mall. Government buildings are awash with red, white and blue. The Downing Street counter ticks off the seconds to the grand light display. The Faragists are ready to party. Finally, the clock (not that one) strikes 11 and Britain is an independent sovereign nation again.
And so the ‘healing’ begins.
It is time, after nearly four years of rancour and vitriol, for the country to unite. We must put the divisions behind us and move forward to our great and glorious, peaceful and prosperous future together. The prime minister (who does like a bit of alliteration) says so.
These exhortations are, of course, simply new iterations of phrases long branded on our hearts: “You lost, get over it”, “stop talking the country down”, “whingeing Remoaners should shut up”.
So, as the Royal Mint rains revamped commemorative coins on a largely regretful nation, it’s not surprising that Remainers should feel aggrieved and depressed. Mark Francois may not have got his way over the Big Ben bongs (in spite of all the Brexit bob-bunging – what’s going to happen to that money, by the way?) but, as Michael Heseltine said, it feels as though Boris Johnson is trying to rub our noses in it.
What did we expect? Like it or not, this is a monumental moment in British history. It may prove to be a calamitous one, a shameful one, an embarrassing one – who knows? But momentous it certainly is.
Did we really think that it could pass unmarked? That we could slink away from our closest neighbours and staunchest allies like a cowardly two-timer sneaking off to a new lover in the middle of the night? Of course there had to be a divorce party of sorts. Of course dear Nigel had to have what we all fervently hope will be his farewell bash in Parliament Square. Meanwhile, the partner so publicly dumped after putting up with our unreasonable behaviour for 40 years will quietly fold away the flag we left behind, trying to show a little dignity amid the disappointment, dismay and disbelief.
It may not be the “fantastic moment” hailed by Johnson when he signed the Withdrawal Agreement into law. It certainly will not “bring to an end” the arguments. But let them have their celebration. Give them the benefit of the doubt and believe, for now, that their elation is borne of their hopes for the future rather than malicious delight in having crushed us, the gainsayers. If we are right, they will suffer enough when the hangover hits. If we are wrong, then they’ll have deserved it. It truly is time to move on.
But to unite? That is something else entirely. Is it possible? Is it even desirable?
Having just voted to leave the EU because we didn’t like being told what to do, are we now to become a nation of yes-men?
What’s wrong with diversity of opinion and outlook? We don’t all support the same football team, like the same food, have the same taste in clothes. Why should we now become politically homogenous? We’ve chosen this government and are stuck with it for five years. Short of taking to the streets – which is unlikely – we are powerless to influence how the country is run, so what difference does it make, in practical terms, if we disagree with each other?
We aren’t re-fighting the Second World War. We don’t have to worry about walls having ears. Potential trading partners in Europe and beyond are perfectly capable of reading our newspapers, watching our television programmes, following our social media accounts without any need for subterfuge. We are all constantly telling the world what we’re thinking. A pretence that the country suddenly speaks with one voice and platitudes on a 50p piece will convince nobody that 16 million-plus voters have had a Damascene conversion and are now all on board with this folly.
There are societies – Japan, perhaps, is one – where people do try to work towards a common goal, where, once they have a job and security for their families, they put their efforts into achieving more for the country than for themselves. Ours doesn’t work like that.
Ours is built on individuality and self-interest. We strive always to better ourselves, to buy a bigger house, anicer car. And to that end we vote with our wallets.
We resent rather than recognise the need for taxation and while we’ll happily chip in a tenner for a child with cancer to go to Disneyland, we won’t necessarily pay an extra penny in the pound to secure that same child better hospital treatment.
We boast that our little islands are the fifth biggest economy in the world, yet we snipe and gripe about sending 0.07% of that wealth to poorer countries that need our help. We don’t just question how the money is spent (quite reasonable); we question whether it should be spent at all. Keep it all here! It’s ours!
And it’s not as though we were a spectacularly united nation before that campaign in 2016. We’ve been divided – by class, by race, by geography, by income, by politics, by generation – for centuries. That’s not to say it’s a good thing, or even acceptable. But it isn’t new. Brexit was just a new source of division.
Johnson may think he can heal the Brexit wounds, but what about the others? How is he going to help the have-nots while he is beholden to the have-a-lots? He’s spoken about the NHS and policing, and hinted at social care, but what about food banks and homelessness, getting the trains to run on time? It’s going to be enough of a stretch paying for the promises he has made, let alone the ones conspicuously absent. The billion, trillion, zillion trees he’s going to plant to save the planet are not, sadly, likely to include the magic money variety. Nor is there going to be a Boris Brexit boom, whatever his supporters in the press may say.
Ah yes, the press. The Brexity newspapers, too, are calling for unity, for the country to “get behind Boris”. But what is their definition of unity? It certainly doesn’t include “the left”, a vague catch-all for anyone remotely pro-European, empathetic to others less advantaged, concerned about climate change, or – dare I say it? – vegan. Beardy, sandal-wearing Guardianistas remain as beyond the pale as ever they were. It’s fine to tar Remainers with the same woke brush, but an outrage to suggest that any (not all) Leavers are thick or racist.
And what about those new friends on the council estates? How long will the Mail and Express stand by them in this obligatory show of national unity? Hmmm. My bet is that once the scapegoated European fruit-pickers have packed their bags, the poor saps who were duped into voting to send them on their way will take their place. Not in the fields, of course – Brits are too good for that sort of menial labour – but on the front pages, as “benefit cheats” and “the unacceptable faces of the welfare state”.
Back in Westminster, though, Johnson will surely reap the Brexit reward of a united Tory party? That was, after all, the true objective of this whole enterprise. He’s got his landslide majority. He doesn’t need the DUP or the ERG. He doesn’t have to listen to Francois. He can rid his cabinet of incompetent Spartans. He can lead a well-rounded government of talents from all wings of the party. He can be the One Nation Tory he professes to be and shepherd rich and poor alike to those promised sunlit uplands.
Except in his quest for power he jettisoned the moderates, the rational, the wise, the experienced, the talented. There may be raw ability in the new intake, but that will take time to develop and nurture. Meanwhile, there are already cracks in the ‘united’ party: over HS2, immigration, Heathrow, Huawei. Johnson is already being described, disparagingly, as “Brexit Hezza” – and we haven’t Brexited yet.
Those cracks will doubtless widen as we get down to the details of trade negotiations, defence budgets, social policy. As Remainers knew all along, Europe was a convenient whipping boy for domestic ills. Now they’ll have to find someone else to blame. Squabbling will resume as normal.
We have a prime minister, a notorious liar, cheat and scoundrel, supported by billionaires and vested interests, in pursuit of a chimera. We are not and never have been (in times of peace) a united country. Our eclecticism is what, if anything, makes us special.
He could have been special, too. Boris Johnson is motivated by vanity, ambition, but not – I suspect – by the prospect of personal financial enrichment. I don’t think he’s a greedy man. He just wants history books to describe him as a great leader.
He knew, as everyone knew, that the country was crying out for an end to this nightmare. He interpreted that as a desire to “get Brexit done” and, fair play to him, secured a mandate for just that. But he also knows that mandate came courtesy of our voting system rather than the will of the people, and that more than half the country thinks that Brexit is a bad idea.
If he had chosen that other article, the one in favour of staying in the EU; if he had supported Cameron’s Remain campaign with the gusto he put into Leave, he would still be living in the house he lives in today. He’d be presiding over a richer and less divided nation. He would be able to afford to spend on the domestic agenda he claims to espouse.
What’s more he could have come closer to his oft-cited childhood ambition. An engaged UK would have bossed Europe. We have the best military, the best scientists, the best teccies. We should have been there shoulder to shoulder with France and Germany, forging a powerhouse to match the US, China and Russia. World King? Maybe not. Continent King? Certainly.
Instead he is the holed ship’s captain charged with steering a leaky life raft into the mid-Atlantic, hoping the man on the distant coast will come to his rescue.
When that Downing Street countdown reaches 00.00 this Friday, it may not be only Remainers who are rueful of what might have been.