One thing about political reality – in the end you can’t avoid it. You can try, as Theresa May and her weird little Brexit government have been doing for the last eight months or so. You can beat your rhetorical chest and bare your teeth. You can threaten this and promise that. You can utter expressions like ‘truly Global Britain’ and ‘we are a great trading nation’ like mantras and hope that millions of people – or at least enough of them to deliver Tory votes – will utter them too.
You can tell the nation that we will have our cake and eat it, because that is what great trading nations do. You can run off a cliff and keep going at your own momentum for a few steps. But in the end, just like Roadrunner and Tom the cartoon cat, you will fall, because countries can’t walk on air any more than cartoon characters can.
For Cruella de May and her Brexit-skinning crazy gang, that moment arrived last Monday when Donald Tusk announced the EU’s negotiating deadlines. Unlike so many statements that have come out of Cruella’s mouth – to say nothing of those that have come from some of her more outlandish ministers – these guidelines were founded in a very objective concept of reality, rather than the entirely subjective version that we Brits have got used for the last ten months.
As a result the government’s delusions were quietly and effortlessly dismantled. Free trade agreements will not allow the same privileges as single market membership. There will be no cherry picking. The UK will not be able to make deals with individual EU member-states. The UK will be expected to resolve its outstanding financial commitments before negotiations begin. The UK will not enjoy the same benefits in its future relations with the EU as member states. Any free trade agreement will have to contain safeguards ‘ against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, fiscal, social and environmental dumping.’
All this was written in the kind of calm reasoned tone you might use to try and talk down someone standing on a high bridge about to commit suicide. Most of it should have been obvious to any British politicians who were prepared to consider what was legal and what was possible in the forthcoming negotiations. Unfortunately such politicians have been in short supply lately. And this is the problem with jingoistic arrogance: it makes it difficult, if not impossible to make realistic assessments about the national interest or even consider what your opponents are thinking and planning. That’s why you are likely to miss little gems like this one, that also propped up in the guidelines:
‘After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.’
No one should be surprised that Cruella and her team didn’t see that one coming, since they have blatantly ignored all the more obvious things that they should have seen coming. And no one should be surprised that, faced with Spain’s diplomatic coup, they are responding with the same arrogant and aggressive bluster that has been spewing out of their mouths ever since this ghastly process began.
For reasons that are not exactly clear, the first verbal shot was fired by Lord ‘something of the night’ Howard, who assured Channel 4 News that Theresa May was prepared to go to war over Gibraltar. Just let that sink in. Howard said that this country would be willing to go to war with a European country that is still technically its ally, and which has some 800,000 Brits living there, if Spain were to do anything contrary to the wishes of Gibraltar’s population, such as insist on co-sovereignty.
Howard describes this as an ‘EU land grab,’ when in fact it’s just another example of the galumphing flatfootedness of Cruella and her team, who really don’t see any iceberg until they hit it. Howard has noticed that ‘ 35 years ago this week another woman Prime Minister sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country.’
I love that ‘another Spanish-speaking country’, don’t you? Reason enough in itself to go to war, Howard seems to feel. For him, the Falklands isn’t just a coincidence – it has the whiff of imperial destiny. And he isn’t the only one. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has also said that Britain would ‘go all the way’ to ‘protect Gibraltar’. Boris Johnson – always a good call whenever you need a fatuous stupid statement from anyone – says that British support for Gibraltar will be ‘implacable and rock-like’.
It would be easy to dismiss all this as yet more crowdpleasing Blimpish loose talk from politicians who don’t seem to know any other kind. That would be bad enough. You don’t need to read Machiavelli to know that it probably isn’t a good idea to go into complex negotiations from which you need a good result babbling about gunboats and war with one of the countries you’re going to be negotiating with.
But there is also another even more disturbing way of looking at this latest fleck-spittled outpouring of indignation towards Johnny Foreigner. When Thatcher took the country to war in the Falklands her government was in deep trouble politically, the economy was failing and her polls were dropping. She gambled on war and won, and the jingoistic bubble that she inflated gave her the political power to take on the miners.
The situation that May and co are in is so much worse, even if the polls and the politics don’t reflect it yet. They are leading the country towards economic disaster. They have promised things that are impossible, and the things that are possible they have no intention of delivering. They are already out of their depth and seem to have no idea what they’re doing or what to do.
In these circumstances we can’t be surprised to hear them talk of war. Because Brexit means never having to say you’re sorry. It means that you never admit that what you promised was dishonest, impossible and politically and economically nonsensical. What you do, when things go wrong, is blame other people: the ‘traitors’ at home; ‘Remoaners’; the ‘EU bullies’ – and now, ‘another Spanish-speaking country’ that thinks it can get the jump on Global Britain when its back is turned.
Such talk brings back warm and pleasant memories: of the Burmese ‘shoe question’; of Palmerston bombing Athens after a British merchant was attacked by a Greek mob; of the Opium Wars…and for a certain type of Tory, it brings back memories of the Falklands and conjures up enticing visions of a united country of patriotic, flagwaving crowds watching our brave boys depart and the sun never setting etc, etc.
All this war chatter took place in a week in which a school here in my new home of Sheffield has just suggested that parents pay £33 each half term to keep their school going. That’s the kind of government this is. It won’t even pay to educate its own children but will go ‘all the way’ over Gibraltar. We should never forget that, when they get their rhetorical sabres out.
And if the likes of Theresa May, Fallon and Johnson have the temerity to even think about taking us to war over this, we should show these lunatics what treason really is, and give them so much of it that they will never be stupid enough to consider such a possibility.