Just when one thought that the epidemic of Brexit Derangement Syndrome (BDS) had peaked, Sir Max Hastings shows every sign of being laid low by the malady. At least that is the impression I get from a slightly absurd article by the historian and former editor of the Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard in today’s Times. The piece is a handy repository of the mistaken thinking of Remainer Tories.
Sir Max begins by stating the obvious: that it is a good thing that contemptuous nomenclature for foreigners (jerries, wops and frogs) has gone out of fashion since the Second World War. He then claims ‘that one of the ugliest aspects of Brexit is that it has generated a resurgence of casual abuse of foreigners, and of Europeans in particular’. Beyond quoting Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissing Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourger president of the European Commission, as a ‘pound-shop Bismarck’, Sir Max offers scant evidence for his assertion. He says that Tory MP Claire Perry claims that some Conservative backbenchers have used language that ‘evokes jihadis’ such as ‘Begone you evil Europeans’. Sir Max does not mention to his readers that fact that Ms Perry campaigned for Remain nor the context in which these remarks were made. The archaic expression ‘begone’ suggests levity to me.
He goes on to say: ‘The vulgar abuse directed at the red EU passport and triumphalism about restoration of the old blue British one would have embarrassed a 19th-century jingo.’
That particular sentence made me wonder if Sir Max had written the piece at high speed, for a few moments’ consideration about what the Victorians might have thought about their country – and the waves around it – being ruled in effect by a committee in Belgium shows it to be a rather silly statement. However, BDS does induce fanciful rhetoric.
He expresses disappointment with Jeremy Hunt for comparing the EU to the Soviet Union because Mr Hunt was ‘considered sensible’. Sir Max is probably correct that Mr Hunt was just showboating as an aspirant Tory leader. It is a shame he did not add that one of the problems this government has had in dealing with Brexit is that the vote and the constitutional crisis that followed it has always been for them a play-within-a-play, in this case a boring farce about who was going to be the next leader of the weak and two-faced Tory Party.
Then Sir Max majestically steers his pen out on to the high, rolling fields of cliché and exaggeration. He claims that xenophobia has become ‘respectable and admirable’ among the Tory rank-and-file, adding: ‘Boris Johnson is by no means the only figure who seeks to rouse the spirit of 1940, of plucky little Britain and a bulldog prime minister broadcasting scorn and defiance from the white cliffs of Dover towards repugnant or cowed continentals.’
I don’t know any Brexit supporters who talk like that. Do you?
To see Euroscepticism as xenophobia is the kind of adolescent exaggeration one expects from the Left, not from someone nominally on the centre Right. Sir Max says we should hang our heads in shame because foreigners who were long resident in Britain have decided to leave. After Brexit, he concludes, ‘we shall stand in desperate need of goodwill from neighbouring nations which today a dismaying number of people deem it acceptable, or even brave and clever, to insult’.
Since Sir Max insists on dragging the Second World War into this argument, I have to say his piece put me in mind of Noel Coward’s satirical 1943 song Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans, a favourite of Winston Churchill’s – and banned by the BBC evidently because people who did not understand its intent were enraged by it, though you have to wonder what the BBC’s real motive was, given Coward’s reasons for writing it ‘as a satire directed against a small minority of excessive humanitarians, who, in my opinion, were taking a rather too tolerant view of our enemies’. The BBC in those days being, in the words of one of its employees, George Orwell, ‘something half way between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum’.
But I digress. Die-hard Remainers would be far less irritating if they were prepared to admit error on their own side and were a little more open about the shortcomings of Brussels. For instance, during the long years leading up to the Brexit conflagration Britain was subjected to huge waves of immigration through the EU. This policy was begun by New Labour as part of its policy ‘to rub the Right’s nose in Diversity’ and was continued with enthusiasm by the Conservatives (driven on by organisations such as the CBI, which of course is funded by the EU). The public was never asked about this in any meaningful way. It was just done, and anyone who raised concerns, particularly among the poorest who felt the impact most, was dismissed as racist or ‘swivel-eyed’. Nor were they asked about the various treaties signed with the EU over the past 25 years.
Many areas of this country, particularly in London, are now in effect foreign. In the area of South London where I live I hear more European accents in the streets than English ones. Did Sir Max and other Remainer Tories not think that eventually such a high volume of people pouring into a country which for years had high structural unemployment, and still has a shortage of housing and beleaguered public services, would cause anger? Did he not foresee that ceding supreme power over our courts and laws to German-dominated Brussels would be a slap in the face to the public who thought that the House of Commons ran Britain? He does not say in his piece. One can only conclude that the Tory Remainer elite took the Tony Blair/New Labour line: They did know there would be trouble but they did not care because they were quite sure the public could never do anything about it. Then came June 23, 2016, and the reckoning for all that sleight-of-hand governing.
To well-heeled Remainers who live away from cities – Sir Max lives in a country town in Berkshire, I believe – it may seem infra dig to complain about changed communities, but it too often seems to be people who live in areas virtually untouched by mass immigration and multiculturalism who are the most evangelical about imposing it on others. See the Chipping Norton Remainer set.
All things considered, I do not think the British have been so very beastly to the EU. In fact it is rather the other way round and Remainers would do their blood pressure a favour if they took that into consideration.