To take delight in a neighbour’s mess is an ugly feeling that will not lead you to heaven. Yet it is rather difficult for us French not to feel towards you English that evil inclination for which only the Germans have been able to find the appropriate word, “schadenfreude”, and which the rest of us have to laboriously translate as “a perverse and unspeakable joy at the misfortune of others.”
The English – not the British as a whole, but a very large proportion of the English – wanted to leave us in 2016 after having moved heaven and earth to join us in 1973. Now, as they sink to the bottom again as they did in the 1970s, the polls show that they are discovering that they were happier with us after all.
How could this nation of people, whom our history textbooks usually describe as “pragmatists”, prove to be more naive and ideological than all Europeans combined, and even more naive than the French, who are usually so quick to get carried away by any revolutionary nonsense? How could these brilliant inventors of parliamentary democracy be fooled by Boris Johnson, who came to power like a sect guru by feeding them euphoria pills? It’s a mystery.
When the British emerge from their black hole, they will be able to say that they have at least served to produce for future anthropologists a perfect sample of populism. They will have shown how easy it is to blind a rational people with delusional slogans and to damage a seemingly solid democracy by leaving it groggy, facing the damage of its sad passions and its illusory euphoria.
“Post coitum omne animal triste est,” wrote an ancient scholar. That translates as, “After coitus, every animal is sad.” That ancient scholar added “sive gallus et mulier” (“except the cockerel and the woman”) but that’s another story.
Boris Johnson, who likes to declaim his Latin in public, knows all about things like this. He was the instigator of British Brexit coitus.
Post-coitum, getting back to reality is a painful trip. It’s been almost seven years since you British voted for “independence” and over two years since you actually took it back, on January 1, 2021, after years of crooked attempts to have your cake and eat it. These botched Brexit deals confirmed (if proof were needed) that most people had no idea what they wanted when they voted to Leave.
Nothing is going well anywhere in the world these days, but we can see that in the UK everything is going worse than in the EU. Crippling bureaucracy, falling foreign trade, collapsing healthcare, impoverishment, strikes. Since 2016, investment has increased in every other G7 country except the UK.
According to the UK government’s economic forecasting body, Brexit alone has cost the country 4% of GDP. But never mind; the free trade agreement with Australia is making you 0.08%. Big deal! Go on, blame Covid and the war in Ukraine for that!
How could anyone have believed for a moment that Britain turning its back on the world’s largest market right on its border could strengthen its economy and its soft power in a world where only the great powers have a word? As Cinderella found out (and it’s probably written in the manual of populism, but only in small print at the bottom of the final page), pumpkins are not carriages.
After the Brexiteers, a new British breed was born: the “Bregreters”. Those who regret Brexit are now 56% according to YouGov. We sympathise with those who voted Remain, those who voted Leave – 30% of whom now want a closer relationship with Europe, and only a third of whom still regard Brexit as a success – have no other merit than to satisfy our schadenfreude.
More worrying is that with Brexit, a new breed of politicians has been born too. Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak (number five in the list of Downing Street lame ducks crippled by Brexit coitus since 2016) and also his Labour opponent Keir Starmer are both afflicted by the same symptom of populist post-coitum: fear of reality, fear of the words to say it.
Both have made Brexit a forbidden word to blame for the country’s derailment. Sunak, because he couldn’t deny his political religion and the God who made him. Starmer, because he fears upsetting Labour’s Europhobes, including the left-behinds in the northern Red Wall who got charmed by the sirens of ‘Leave’.
The act of self-mutilation that Tory governments have imposed on their country by their lies for almost a decade, however, opens up a boulevard for the Labour leader to be elected by 2025. That Keir Starmer doesn’t even have the courage to stand up for his principles and denounce Brexit for what it is, is a very bad start for a future world leader. Surely, a prime minister elected on a taboo can only perpetuate and further root the populism he claims to fight?
Marion van Renterghem is an award-winning French reporter and columnist. A French version of this article originally appeared in L’Express