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MICHAEL WHITE: Where’s our Winnie when we need him?

Michael White asks what would Winnie do? - Credit: Archant

On a week when more reminders of the past left us fearing for the future MICHAEL WHITE asks what would Winnie do?

Lord Carrington, last of the Tory toffs to grace the top end of a cabinet table, died the other day at 99.

So did Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum (96), a teenage Battle of Britain pilot, and the redoubtable Mary Ellis (101), who was described as a ‘Spitfire pilot’ but actually delivered military aircraft of every size and kind. Early in his long, eventful life, tank commander Carrington got an MC for holding a vital bridge into Germany in 1944. But they were all heroes in their different ways.

Hard to imagine now in softer, self-indulgent times, but it’s not much of a stretch to say that the British people were stoical heroes too, though the Spirit of Dunkirk and the Blitz was harder to rekindle when the terrifying V1 and V2 rockets – V for Hitler’s Vengeance – rained down on war-weary Londoners at 3,000mph as the war’s end loomed four years later. We read less about that.

Does it matter to the turbulent Brexit debate that barely a week now passes without another warrior death being reported in reverential tones? I think it does, not least because, obviously but unintentionally, it feeds the Brexit narrative. Such stirring obituaries evoke warm, nostalgic feelings of Britain defying Hitler’s war machine from the fortress cliffs of Dover. ‘Very well then, alone,’ as David Low’s cartoon put it in the perilous summer of 1940.

From Hitler and the Kaiser to Jean-Claude Juncker is not much of a jump if you’ve been fed a diet of cheap but popular war stories in the Daily Express for decades, pumped up recently by big budget films, the lacklustre CGI triumph that was Dunkirk and Gary Oldman’s Darkest Hour on the London Underground. Churchill on the Tube, let alone consulting ordinary commuters about his plans? Sentimental tosh!

From Sir Winston Churchill to Sir Winston Johnson requires a bolder leap of the imagination, though it has obviously occurred to Churchill’s biographer. Expect Boris to move against May in the autumn, over-excited Tory pundits predict. Don’t bet on it. This week’s Boris joke about burkas looking like letter boxes, though deployed to provide cover for an essentially liberal point, pushed the Great Resigner off the ladder and down a couple of snakes (again).

Like the Spitfire, a graceful but misleadingly chivalric symbol of modern warfare, the legacy of what Studs Terkel called ‘the good war’ is both an inspiration and a curse. An inspiration because patriotic solidarity and ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ courage towards shared danger is always admirable. A curse because such feelings can be hijacked and made to serve resurgent, zero-sum nationalism (‘America First’ anyone?), the toxic brew Britain fought against in 1914-18 and 1939-45.

That in turn risks plunging us back into the very maelstrom our parents and grandparents sacrificed so much to resist. Trade wars leading to beggar-my-neighbour economic depression and eventually to shooting wars between rising and declining global powers? That sounds familiar. Are we doomed to forget what our ancestors learned the hard way or to draw perverse conclusions from their achievements now that most of them are dead?

Yes, I know that Team Brexit will protest that I have it exactly wrong: the danger of resurgent nationalism arises directly from the EU’s attempts to suppress national identity, they say. It is a reaction to a well-meaning (cries of ‘No’) attempt to prevent further European wars by replacing the democratic expression of popular parliamentary government with a bureaucratic and remote supra-national authority, cunningly based in little ol’ Belgium which never invaded anyone.

Growing evidence during the twin crises over immigration and the euro suggest they have a point.

At a dinner years ago I listened to the saintly Chris Patten deplore Britain’s lack of confidence in declining to join the euro. ‘Surely, it’s just the opposite,’ I murmured to a Labour peer seated next to me who shared my doubts about the single currency. ‘Correct,’ he said. But confidence is not the same as recklessness. Cautious Churchill showed that. So did cautious Thatcher until near the end. Aware of the EU’s failings, my peer pal and I both voted Remain in 2016 too. So would Thatcher have done, some intimates insist. After all, the single market was her achievement as much as anyone’s.

‘How is it that most of the EU27 have far right populist parties, but plucky (‘Very well then, alone’) Britain doesn’t,’ a Daily Mail pundit asked himself the other day? The obvious answer to that is two-fold. Britain does have extremist fringe parties too. No, not you UKIP, you’re elderly and harmless in a paramilitary sense, a bit like Jake O’Mogg, the Dublin asset manager, or Nigel Farage. Neither of them would be handy in a pub brawl, despite the rough company they sometimes court.

But the English Defence League (EDL) and failed predecessors like the National Front/BNP would not be harmless if persistent elite failure gave them half a chance. Attention-seeking Tommy Yaxley-Robinson and his money-spinning agit-prop operation aren’t harmless. Nor are fringe Trot revolutionaries or Islamist nihilists, even before Trump evangelist, Steve Bannon, spreads his franchise across Europe.

The rot that currently paralyses both our major established parties is point No.2. Who needs extremist populist parties when Labour and the Tories are exhausted enough to have their strings pulled by shadowy operatives with sinister friends and dark Tory money? Look west at the craven Vichy mentality of much of the Republican party, captured by Trumpismo. Look at the hapless political responses of the Democrats, look south and east of Dover for similar disarray.

What is needed to steady the ship is some economic luck, which includes the avoidance of a no-deal Brexit. When Liam Fox and the Bank of England’s Mark Carney agree that one is now increasingly likely it is a warning we should take at face value rather than assume is part of a concerted effort to persuade the EU27 that we really are prepared to walk away. Even emollient Jeremy Hunt suggested as much on his recent trip to Japan (whoops, I mean China).

Complacent financial markets, which had already priced in last week’s symbolic 0.25% interest rate rise, took fright over no-deal talk and hammered sterling. That will raise import prices while making British assets – railways, for example, or football clubs – even cheaper for foreigners to buy. They seem to have got enough houses.

As Brexiters never tire of pointing out, the economy is staggering along better than some Remainers predicted. It turns out to be a slow bleed in which those who voted Brexit – or Trump – because they were hurting most are still hurting most. Bad economics, most conspicuously by greedy banks, caused the 2008-9 crash, but it is politics that have not recovered from the collateral damage the crash caused, via deficit-reducing austerity.

As the FT’s Geordie columnist, Sebastian Payne, put it in a heartfelt column, Theresa May’s only memorable speech was her No.10 debut in 2016 when she promised to tackle ‘burning injustices’ affecting millions of lives. But Brexit absorbs all Whitehall’s energy so that little has been achieved and ministers are reported to have been told to avoid the phrase. It ought to be an open goal for Labour, but Corbyn-led Labour is too busy scoring own goals over anti-Semitism and blaming others.

Back in 1940 – the Darkest Hour film didn’t examine the real politics very well – the vital piece of political leadership was provided when Clem Attlee’s Labour Party combined with moderate Tories to back Churchill – warts and all – to lead the coalition, despite his role in the fast-collapsing campaign to prevent Hitler occupying Norway. Evelyn Waugh hated Churchill’s bombast, but George Orwell, the other great literary voice of the time, got the point. Churchill was a warlord, as the Tory ‘stuffed shirts’ were not.

No sign of Churchillian leadership in 2018 (a more consensual Attlee might be better). But Norway is back on the agenda. Of the many Brexit developments of the past two steamy weeks the re-emergence of the Norway option for post-2019 Britain’s core – or transitional – relationship with the EU27 may prove to be the most significant by virtue of the breadth of support it is attracting as Michel Barnier’s digital clock ticks silently towards March 29.

As usual in the hall of mirrors that is the Brexit process, not everyone means the same thing when they invoke Norway’s relationship with the EU as an acceptable form of compromise, to cut the Gordian Knot and command a cross-party Commons majority, behind which the Lords would prudently fall into line. The explicit assumption here is that May’s Chequers plan – with its Irish fall-back and its promise to collect third party customs dues for Brussels – cannot pass the Commons.

If I understand correctly, veteran Brexiteer, Christopher Booker, demoted in his Sunday Telegraph column for his scornful attacks on ignorant Brexit blowhards, has advocated continued membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) under the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) pillar with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The trio are members of the single market, as Switzerland, the fourth EFTA member is not. It has its own complex bilateral arrangements with the EU.

Oh, do keep up. But don’t laugh. Michael Gove has been going around telling all sorts of people that a Norway deal might do for the transition while Britain sorts out the long-term relationship it wants – or can get – with Europe and the wider world (cue for: ‘where 90% of future growth will come’). As you will have noticed, people are starting to call this a ‘blind Brexit’, one in which we close our eyes and jump, not off Lord Lawson’s cliff but on to a Norwegian duvet.

How can MPs vote down something so vague when the alternative, a no-deal Brexit that has Britain existing on the patchy network of World Trade Organisation (WTO) principles – the ones that don’t include aircraft – are widely thought to be too risky? How can you insist on a People’s Vote referendum when the post-Brexit future remains so unclear? But we’d be legally out of the EU and able sort through the fine print later. That seems to be Gove’s thinking. Remember, this column’s first rule is: Gove is Always the Rascal to Watch.

Pretty scary, you may think. But May’s trip to see Emmanuel Macron at his Fort de Brégançon summer retreat doesn’t seem to have yielded much, nor Dominic Raab’s to Brussels, or any other ministerial forays to try and soften Barnier’s rigid mandate. Perhaps they noticed that YouGov poll which suggested a majority of voters now favour a second referendum on the final formula. Do they think it would reverse the June 23 verdict? They might. None of us is immune from wishful groupthink.

But is Norway an overnight Airbnb or columnist Booker’s final destination? Gove implies the former. David Davis still hankers for a Canada+ goods-only deal. The City, worried about passporting rights and mutual recognition of its products, pesters ministers who are finally taking seriously the concerns of Britain’s principal world-beating sector. Offstage there are reports that the technocrats on both sides – all too aware of the risks to both – are making sensible progress. But grandstanding self-harming politics by gesture are not confined to Westminster and Whitehall, are they? Meanwhile Deutsche Bank moves half its euro derivative market staff from London to Frankfurt (how many? The FT didn’t say).

Former Labour foreign secretary, Lord David Owen, who has always seen himself in the Churchillian mould (he is a much more substantial and suitable candidate than Boris, but 80), is also a Norway man who thinks his hour has come. But in a Sunday Times article published after MPs and peers went to the beach, he made clear that Norway is a stepping stone, there to allow time to negotiate a Canada-style trade agreement with the EU no later than the agreed ‘transition’ date of December 31, 2020.

Owen objects to the Chequers (‘fudge of the century’) plan because, he says, it would keep the UK inside the single market and EEA – all EU members belong – but under the EU pillar, not EFTA’s. Unlike the Norway three that would mean staying inside the fishing (CFP) and agriculture (CAP) regimes and subject to the European court (ECJ). Plus the £39 billion divorce bill we offered to pay in return for a deal we currently don’t seem to be getting. We should think again about that, says Dr Death.

Paradoxically, Owen also says how real the Norway trio’s sovereignty is under the shelter of the EFTA pillar. Just look at the way Norway handled its soft crab dispute with Baltic fishermen. It seized and fined trawlers licensed by the European Commission and when asked to take the dispute to the EFTA court (which parallels and takes note of ECJ rulings) bluntly refused to do so. I love nuggets like that. Sorry that we missed it, David.

What Owen seems to be saying here is that there are alternatives between May’s Chequers fudge – or an amended version of it – and falling back on WTO terms: the Norway single market (but not customs union) model, which the PM so rashly rejected at the start of all this, is a viable and pre-existing option, always provided they’d let us back in (I suspect they would). Details matter and there would be trade-offs between the various options upon which I hope cleverer public officials than most UK cabinet ministers are working on their seaside laptops between swims.

It can’t be said too often that the EU has more to lose here than its leaders often assert in public, that it has existential problems of its own – weakening eurozone growth and migrants landing on Spanish beaches – that are more of a threat than Brexit. Angela Merkel weakens daily and Macron the Mighty has taken a serious hit to his authority over the Élysée’s bizarre handling of the Alexandre Benalla affair.

Jean Bizet, chairman of the French Senate’s Europe committee and a Barnier ally, is saying Paris should be more flexible – at least on migration – to avoid ‘collective mutual suicide’ of a no-deal. There are plenty of signs that pragmatism may yet prevail over ‘punish the Brits’ dogma on both sides and Macron’s drive to steal the City’s crown. Anyone who knows French labour laws or the myriad horrors of its retail banking sector may doubt he will succeed. And as Brexit’s Bernard Jenkin was left protesting on Monday’s edition of Radio 4’s Today, those Spanish farmers need to sell us lettuce (if they have any left after the fierce summer).

‘Keep buggering on,’ was a favoured motto of Churchill’s. Try anything until you find a solution that works. In its darkest hour he even offered union with France to keep it in the war against Hitler.

He also insisted that French troops were taken off the Dunkirk beaches in equal numbers. That wasn’t in the movie either, it didn’t fit the myth any more than de Gaulle’s post-war porkies about the scale of French resistance were actually true. We needed our empire and the US to prevail. They needed us to help liberate them.

Stirring national narratives are fine, but becoming prisoners of them is not.

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