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A plague on both your houses: Bring out your dead

Illustration by Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

WILL SELF kicks off his diary of the most tumultuous month of Brexit so far.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

‘A Plague O’Both Your Houses’.

This is the bitter refrain of Mercutio’s final speech in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, as he dies, a victim of the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets.

No wonder Mercutio’s epically pissed off: he’s lost his life, in part, because Romeo, rather than joining the internecine fray, has attempted to

calm things down – the fatal blow’s struck under cover of his attempt at truth and reconciliation.

I’m not really interested in teasing out analogies between these characters, and the ones caught up in the Brexit drama. We haven’t got time for that sort of malarkey: the hour is at hand, and if any more words are to be added to the many millions already expended on the crisis (and make no bones about it, from where and when I’m sitting, Brexit does constitute a full-blown political crisis), they must be – if not entirely germane – at least quite entertaining.

So: ‘A plague o’ both your houses…’ a plague on the Brexiteers, with their ideologically-driven route back to the future – and a plague on the Remainers, with their arrant and frankly nauseating hypocrisy. A plague on the hard right – which seeks, cynically, to put paid once and for all to the post-war social democratic settlement, and a plague on the hard left, which seeks, disingenuously, to usher in a socialist utopia wherein giant banners bearing the grizzled features of Comrade Jeremy will line every boulevard. As for the moderators on both sides of the ideological divide: a plague on them, too! They smoothed over all the cracks in our society with their pragmatic Polyfilla, but did nothing to mend them – and now the whole damn house is falling down about our ears. A plague on the north, which irresponsibly backed Brexit in order to damage the complacent south – and a plague on the south, which ignored the pillaging of its own hinterland, in favour of city-breaks and noshing grilled-fucking-chèvre. A plague on the rich, who, by definition care more for their own money than they do for others’ lives, and who ruthlessly defend the arbitrary nature of their own privileges – and a plague on the poor, who boil in the bag of their own resentments, looking for a solution to their problems by dragging others down, rather than raising themselves up.

And of course: a plague on the majority white community, who’ve failed to adequately confront their own racism, so allowed the genies of bigotry and hatred to once more determine our politics – and a plague on the black and ethnic minority communities, for not making common cause with the EU citizens living and working in the UK, but instead attempting to clamber up the necrotic backside of soi-disant ‘Commonwealth’. Oh, and a plague on the old, who won’t let go of the ship of state’s tiller until it’s pried from their cold dead hands – and a plague on the young, who want to grab hold of it only in order steer straight into the eye of the storm, such is their ignorance.

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I could, I’m sure you realise, go on – because the plague I’d like to visit on everyone in this benighted land isn’t only a punishment aimed at you because of this or that group you identify with – I’d also like you to suffer personally, because of who you are. Yes, I don’t want you reading this and thinking: fine, I get his point, but I’m exempt because I don’t define myself in terms of any crude binaries.

But you’re here, right? And you either pay your taxes, or you don’t – you either vote, or you don’t. You’re taking up space on this island, aren’t you? And I shouldn’t really have to paraphrase John Donne yet again on your miserable behalf, and remind you that no woman or man is an island, therefore excused from engaging with what’s going on. So, while I do indeed call down a plague on all these antagonistic factions, I reserve my purest and most poisonous contempt for anyone who thinks they can simply step aside from this colossal balls-up.

So: ‘A Plague O’ Both Your Houses’ is the title of this piece – and my espoused method should be, I thought, to try and alienate and enrage everyone who reads this piece, whatever their identity or their views on Brexit. But why? Perhaps, because I imagined all this ire, equally distributed, could act something like the ‘shaped charge’, which when detonated forced the uranium in the first atomic bomb into a critical mass. Perhaps, by arousing all these countervailing pressures I could somehow effect… what? A sort of stasis, maybe, as all this contumely of contending individuals and parties somehow cancelled each other out? And what might result from this, if not a magical reversal of the whole miserable business set in train by that pink-faced and criminally complacent blunderer.

And admit it, why don’t you, Leavers and Remainers both: waking in the morning from troubled dreams, you sometimes forget what has happened. Then, when you do recall, you try – for a split second – to run reality’s film in reverse, so that all those millions of voters walk backwards into the polling booths, grope in the boxes, remove their voting slips, unfold them, and erase their crosses.

(A small anecdotal digression: a friend who dallies on the fringes of the Cotswold Set was at a lunch attended by the former prime minister. After the assembled Boden-clad nabobs had noshed their fill of the Waitrose-sourced vittles, Call-me-Dave spread himself out in an armchair, where, a little in his cups, he began to bemoan his Blairesque fate. Whereupon some claret-complexioned scion of the landed interest bent over him – placing their incarnadine faces in such close proximity onlookers feared a critical claret mass – and said this: ‘Not even my fucking golf club changes its rules on the basis of a majority vote.’)

It also occurs to me that by weaponising these 40,000 words, my covert design was not dissimilar to the current prime minister’s: as of now, she’s effectively done nothing since the declaration of the referendum’s results – nothing, that is, except arouse the fury of all partisans by a failure to come up with a deal that satisfies any of them. Quite possibly my own objective was, similarly, to be the last Samurai standing after this scene of bewildering, blurred and highly-choreographed political-rhetorical violence.

Certainly, it’s hard not to see the prime minister’s behaviour in this light: the Stoics believed that a sense of freedom and autonomy is simply the coincidence of what we want with the course of action determined for us by forces beyond our control. In Theresa May’s case she’d have us believe there’s a strange coincidence between what she wants – to remain primus inter pares unto the sodding grave – and her higher calling, to save Britain from the Beast-of-entropy that’s slouching towards Maidenhead: Things fall apart… The centre cannot hold…

The characterisation of May most baldly stated by John Crace, for day-after-tedious-day in his sketches for the Guardian, is that she’s some species of tin-woman – rather than an Iron Lady – heartless, and driven by her establishmentarian conditioning. While not gainsaying that May’s Joanna-no-mates in the oppressively social Tory party, in my view this does her a grave disservice: this is no unfeeling automaton, but a bona fide English hypocrite, with all the fine sensitivities such a status entail.

Reluctantly or not, she voted Remain – so, in common with the majority of the elected political class, she’s actively assisting in the largest constitutional change this nation has seen since the Act of Union, without believing it’s the right thing to do. Pure conviction politics – if, by this, is meant a true alignment between the beliefs of the tribunes and the people – began to course out of the Mother of Parliaments and into the Westminster gutters on the morning of June 24, 2016; now all that’s left is the soapy sludge of such hypocrisy, and a few querying pubic hairs.

Of course, as countless hack monkeys chained to innumerable computer keyboards have been observing ever since: the holes were long-since knocked in the very hull of our democracy – if, indeed, it was ever watertight to begin with. I’m interested in feeling the shape and extent of these holes – just as someone with a toothache can’t prevent themselves from exploring the cavity with the tip of their tongue – but I don’t want to make what follows all about this: the bumpy road towards Brexit. The oft-repeated trope that those who don’t remember their own history are condemned to repeat it may have some force, and I certainly believe part of the reason why we’re in danger of replacing a civic nationalism with some sort of ethnic one lies in a willed ignorance about the realities of our situation, but no timeline – no narrative – can capture the sheer existential bewilderment that gripped Britain along with that rosy-fingered midsummer dawn.

There were no Homeric heroes to greet it: just the three uneasy Brexiteers, Johnson, Gove and Fox, blinking in the bright light of their own cupidity – they’d promised Britain a miracle, although none of them either knows the mind of God, or could reasonably pose as Our Saviour. At least, not while eyeing up each other’s backs for somewhere convenient to insert the dagger. And Johnson has the brass neck to bang on about solutions to knife crime, even after his political bestie planted one right between his shoulder blades. No: what happened on that dawn – when rather than it being bliss to be alive, most of us just wanted to get pissed – was that the minority who always understand the twofold truth about politics: no one knows what the future holds, and no one has a plan to meet this contingency – at one fell vote became a majority.

Yes, the referendum was a victory for genuine scepticism over pie-eyed inductionism: the data no longer supported the drawing of any large-scale predictions about the future, and ever since the former sultans of swing have been wandering around the Westminster village buck-fucking-naked.

So, under such extraordinary circumstances why set out to rile everyone up? Especially when you’re all so very riled up to begin with? I came to political consciousness during the years of Butskellist consensus in the 1960s and 70s, but like many late baby-boomers, my seminal political moment was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. I was a few months too young to actually make my mark, but I remember staring pie-eyed at the screen, after a long night of pilsner and amphetamine, to hear her promise that where there had been discord, she – with her bouffant hairdo standing proxy for a halo – would bring harmony. Cue laughter so hollow we ironically imploded – then, and now, too.

I don’t believe our politics has necessarily grown any nastier than it was in 1979 – or 1879 for that matter. The inception of the new digital and – crucially – bi-directional social mediums has brought with it a new awareness of the cesspit of rage and despair lying beneath the smooth public surface. Everyone in public life has always been hated – it’s just that now they all know about it, while a condition of engaging in public debate is that you be prepared to suck this ichor up on a regular basis. And yes: Warhol was right – this is the future in which everyone is either world-famous for 15 minutes, or at least re-tweeted by 15 people. The sense of exposure people experience when they’ve virtually over-shared is analogous to how it feels to be actually notorious – so, now we have millions of ego-inflated paranoiacs wandering the streets.

Then there’s the manipulation of all these tiny frightened minds by nudges and alerts, directing them to further confirm their prejudices by watching this clip or absorbing that meme. Is the web enabling a deeper and more comprehensive manipulation of public opinion than the old analogue media? Only, I think, in this respect: because the web thrives on images, and it can disseminate these universally and instantaneously to those with poor literacy, it’s become possible to mobilise a constituency that heretofore hasn’t had a significant impact on British politics. I refer, of course, to the chronically fucking stupid.

• Will Self’s special edition of The New European is in shops now, and is also available to buy from our online shop.

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