Brexit: A Nation Returns to its Spittle

Johnny Rotten launched himself to stardom by walking up and down the King’s Road in Chelsea, spitting at people. “I did it because they were stupid.”
‘The Guardian,’ 3 December 1976

  One wonders what the world thinks of British culture, and more specifically of English culture, nowadays. Are we as polite as they thought we were? Do we still queue? And just how long can we continue to amuse the planet with our eccentricity and our famous sense of humour, now that we have stated in a referendum that we are disenchanted with the status quo of the world and want to get off. Yes, it was an eccentric decision, but we definitely weren’t joking.

    Well, in Europe (if reports are to be believed) they are yet to reciprocate our disenchantment. Instead, they have been watching with something like horrified fascination as the farce of Brexit has been played out. 
    On 17thJanuary, in the midst of chronic parliamentary agonising, the Guardian reported that the Europeans greatly admired Mr Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, for the way he bellowed “Order!” The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrantwas in ecstasies: “No one on the British island can call ‘order, order’ more beautifully than John Bercow. […] Louder, boisterous and, yes, more animal than ever, he shouts ‘order, order’, with which the 55-year-old House of Commons Speaker tries to calm down the members of the famous parliament.” 
   This view of the Speaker as a kind of lovable animal, a grumpy shepherd dog attempting to control the unruly members, is in marked contrast to the view of the British government. They are so incensed by what they see as his bias against the executive and disregard for the unwritten rules of the house that there is talk of punishing Bercow by refusing to make him a lord when he retires, a preferment which is considered as hallowed a tradition as any of the rituals of the mother of parliaments. Abroad, on the contrary, he is considered hugely amusing, as funny as any Monty Python sketch. 
   In Britain, these rituals lack the novelty they still have on the continent. The British public has long been wearily accustomed to the rowdy behaviour of its elected representatives. Ken Clarke is known as the ‘father of the house’ as he is the longest-serving member of parliament. In a recent interview, he managed to describe the antics of his fellow parliamentarians as ‘silly’ no less than five times, thus demonstrating that he takes his parental responsibilities very seriously. In an equally stern rebuke, Isabel Hardman of theSpectator lamented the way ministers and MPs were ignoring the very rules designed to check the power of the executive. This was, she complained, ‘a terrible example to emerging democracies around the world’, as if MPs had taken leave of their senses and were giving democracy itself a bad name, to the lasting detriment of good governance the world over.
    It’s a significant difference of perception: the British are solemn about the harm being done, the foreigners are by turns amused or wistful. The latter tone was noticeable when a group of German leaders made a plea to the British to scrap Brexit and remain in the European Union after all. They appeared almost tearful in contemplating a future without us, as if we were decamping en masse to New Zealand. “We would miss the legendary British black humour and going to the pub after work hours to drink an ale,” they said, though it’s safe to say that no Brit ever ‘drank an ale’. “We would miss tea with milk and driving on the left-hand side of the road,” they continued, as if these were once exotic customs now eagerly adopted throughout a continent of helpless Anglophiles. “And we would miss seeing the panto at Christmas,” when they could have Christmas every day in Westminster. “But more than anything else, we would miss the British people – our friends across the Channel.” 
    These sugary sweet sentiments may have been wasted on the Brits and even more so on the English, because the dark, open secret of Brexit is that the English, those perfidious inhabitants of Albion, are its chief perpetrators. The Scots and even the Northern Irish, despite the abrasive attitudes of the DUP, were innocents caught up in the disaster.  
    Given the way the English (and the Welsh, of course) have behaved, the continuing affection and captivated attention we receive from Europeans begins to feel slightly embarrassing. Their sentiments verge on clingy. Because, as recent history shows, there is little love lost on our side, at least not for the villains in Brussels, and the result of the referendum in 2016 had a definite whiff of rebellion about it, a kind of two-fingered salute across the Channel, a case of the curled lip and good old punk defiance. This is not just my conclusion, though I came to it before realising that others felt the same way: Punk is back and rearing its ugly, gobbing head all over the place. 
    The British film currently wowing the Oscar judges is called The Favourite. It has been described by Peter Bradshaw, a venerable film critic these days who can recall the punk phenomenon, as ‘more punk’ than the usual costume drama, ‘a rousingly nasty, bleary, hung over punch up’. 
    Bradshaw meant this as high praise. The film might also be a good way to approach the possible change in the perceptions of Britain, which might only sink in after we have definitively left the European Union, since by doing so we will no longer seem as harmlessly eccentric and funny as we may have seemed. No more Mr Nice Brit. Brexit will see to that. 
    Though billed as a dark comedy (and therefore just the sort of thing that so delights German leaders), the laughs in The Favourite are few and far between. I think I laughed once, at a moment of particularly bad dancing, but if I wanted that I could always replay Theresa May’s last speech to the Tory conference. 
    Over the film hangs a pall of punk sulkiness. The main characters even wear punkish clothing. There is also an undercurrent of something distinctively unsexy which afflicts all English attempts at being sexy, something ugly and literal, as if sexuality could never lift itself above the more gut-related appetites. The wigs, the men wearing make-up and fake moles on their faces, the music and even the stilted script with its occasional bursts of vulgarity, all reminded me of Peter Greenaway, and the music was nowhere near as good as Michael Nyman’s. Maybe too much time has elapsed for most people to notice the similarities. Even Peter Bradshaw seems to have forgotten the Draughtsman’s Contract. It was eccentric to have a fat, naked man being pelted with fruit for no apparent reason, but this was just the sort of eccentricity I recall in some of Greenaway’s scenes, and under the intellectual, mirthless humour of it lurked another similarity: the edge of menace that pure ego creates. This was the cynicism of a country that had lost its way. 
    Bradshaw called the script ‘cheerfully obscene’, when in fact it was obscene period, and cheerlessly so. Could this be the rather sour cud of a new punk era? Punk, pre-masticated, served up without any of the weird glamour it possessed the first time round, unlovely as it always was, but even more futile. 
    If so, this would be the Brexit version. It was spotted first, perhaps, by Anthony Barnett in his book The Lure of Greatness, described by John Harris in the New Statesmanas a ‘punk polemic’. This is a little unfair on the book, as in fact the punk gesture is something which Barnett himself discerns in the referendum. Barnett describes how people had grown sick of the ruling class and of politicians of all shades, and Brexit was a ‘displacement of English exasperation with the whole damn lot of them’ on to Brussels.‘Unable to exit Britain,’ he says, ‘the English did the next best thing and told the EU to f--- off.’
    It is a shrewd assessment which captures the widely acknowledged anger of the vote. Though it has been difficult ever since to define what exactly the English (and the Welsh) were so annoyed about, there seems little doubt they wereannoyed. The campaign was ugly too, and full of rancour, to the extent that talk of having a second referendum to resolve the deadlock in parliament has led to dire warnings of civil unrest, even from the Prime Minister herself. Anger was the ruling passion of punk, was it not? Ergo, the whole Brexit thing was a punk snarl of discontent. Well, actually, the whole thing may not be so simple.
    The similarity first detected by Barnett appealed to one of the best journalists around, Fintan O’Toole, who happens to be an expert anatomist of the cultural aspects of Brexit. He is also its best psychologist, sociologist and myth-buster. My first acquaintance with him came in an article the Guardianpublished, where he compared the sight of the House of Commons defeating Theresa May’s Brexit deal to the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland. It was an extravagant and satirically satisfying comparison, right down to the Dodo (May, or her deal, or both, as depicted by the Sun) and the sea of tears everyone had been in danger of drowning in. Yup, Brexit in a nutshell, I thought. I then purchased a copy of O’Toole’s Heroic Failurewhere he nicks the idea of the punk Brexit from Barnett and runs with it, as any good thief would. 
    Brexit may not have inspired much eloquence in the House of Commons (silly, silly, silly, silly, silly), but in an observer from across the Irish Sea it has inspired sublime prose. Heroic Failure has virtually nothing to say about backstops, or trade deals, or the Court of Human Rights. It has little to say about Europe, though one short passage is sufficient to demonstrate that O’Toole is no great fan of its institutions and austerity policies. But the book’s real concern is to look at the cultural backdrop to the vote and to subject it to psychiatric examination. For this purpose, he combines two main diagnoses, one of sadomasochism (or, as David Cameron famously referred to it once at the dispatch box, ‘masosadism’) and a very belated case of punk-itis. This is what O’Toole declares at the beginning of the chapter he entitles ‘Sadopopulism’: 
    ‘If you are English, and in your fifties or early sixties, two things are likely to be true of you. One is that in 2016 you voted to leave the European Union: 60 per cent of both men and women in the UK aged between fifty and sixty-four did so. The other is that you were, in the immediate period after the UK joined the Common Market, a punk.’
    I may as well confess, here and now, that I am what some leave voters would call a ‘remoaner’ and proud of it, despite falling into O’Toole’s age bracket, but I forgive him. Nonetheless – and this I find harder to forgive – I have never called myself a punk. That doesn’t mean I am devoid of feelings. Like anybody, I have a soft spot for that version in French of Anarchy for the UK, where Sid Vicious is seen walking down a chic Parisian street and sticking his tongue out at the bourgeois Parisians through the restaurant windows. And I ask you, who could resist his version of Eddie Cochran’s Something Elsewhile cavorting around his bedroom dressed only in his underpants? Or his version of My Way, where he confesses to having killed a cat ‘and may I say, not in a shy way’? 
    But I never wore the gear and I never cultivated a Mohican, so how dare O’Toole imply otherwise? It makes me want to spit.

    Having got that off my chest, I do think the punk analogy has some truth in it. But I am getting ahead of myself. Heroic Failureis not simply about the recrudescence of punk. It is also about a nation’s collective self-pity after the perceived let down of winning two world wars and yet failing economically afterwards. It describes the culture of heroic failure, but this is seen as only possible in the context of success. There was no self-pity to get in the way of the Brits who glorified the charge of the Light Brigade, for instance, or the misadventures of Sir John Franklin as he tried, and failed, to locate the Northwest Passage, because these were mere blips in the nation’s ongoing success story. 
    Pluck, which O’Toole identifies as the most English of words, got them through and there was to be no self-pity. It is only since then, with the loss of empire and a clear role in the world, that self-pity has become fashionable. O’Toole provides a wonderful portrait of Enoch Powell, that arch villain of British racism, as a theatrical exemplar of political ‘camp’, but the rivers of blood have long disappeared under the bridge. I shall focus for the time being on the book’s description of Boris Johnson, for it is ‘Boris’ (he is often referred to by his first name, as if he was a pop idol) who has made the mixing of the English sense of fun with the serious business of politics a pressing issue for our times. It was all very well when he was the mayor of London and waving ludicrous little flags while suspended from a wire he could not get down from. Even the massive expense on projects that never came to fruition, such as a Garden Bridge over the Thames, or projects that did, like a pointless cable car, could on some level be seen as a harmless joke compared to his elevation to high office. It was Boris as Foreign Secretary that seriously tried the world’s patience because, after all, his job exposed them to close contact with his ‘sense of humour.’
    When it comes to Europe specifically, O’Toole reminds us of the apex of Johnson’s comic career, his starring role as King Brexit, a kind of regal dunce, but the way had been prepared for this carnivalesque incarnation by his time as a journalist reporting from the front line. He made his name among the party members (and preserves it among current readers of the Daily Telegraph) by inventing European Union rulings to prevent children blowing up balloons or people reusing tea bags. These were like the bent bananas – or was it the straight bananas? – supposedly favoured by the faceless (and humourless) bureaucrats. He also menaced his readers with the Union’s threat to prawn-flavoured crisps. The largely imagined indignities suffered by Britain at the hands of Brussels were told as if in accordance with Oscar Wilde’s dictum ‘that we should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality,’ an attitude which has always worked when trying to please the delegates at Tory conferences, but which doesn’t have quite the same impish charm when people’s livelihoods are at stake. 
    His adherence to this fin de siècle dictum led to Johnson’s unmasking, just months before the referendum, by Andrew Tyrie in front of the Treasury Committee, a spectacle O’Toole compares to watching ‘a kitten bouncing into a combine harvester’ – the kitten in this instance being the cuddly clown, Boris. Tyrie began by disproving the story about recycling tea bags, which it turned out had been a directive from Cardiff City Council. He also rubbished the balloons story as merely being a safety warning, rather than an attempt to prevent all minors from inflating balloons. And Tyrie had no hesitation in rubbishing a rumour that Europe was seeking to legislate on the weight, dimensions and composition of coffins, as Boris had claimed:
    “It is not EU regulation at all, is it?” asked Tyrie, rhetorically. “In fact, it is a Council of Europe convention on the transfer of corpses […] there is no reference to coffin weight or dimensions […] The story is a figment of your imagination.”    
    This, then, was Boris the frivolous liar, the cheerfully mendacious figure who lent his comic charisma to the campaign to leave the European Union and restore ancient liberty to the English people. But according to O’Toole, Johnson had never expected to be on the winning side of the referendum. When the unthinkable happened, he was at a loss what to do next, which meant:
    ‘…the English revolution became more like a medieval carnival in which the crowd sweeps up the village idiot and proclaims him as king for the week. Johnson was in fact King Brexit for slightly less than a week…’
    Thereafter, of course, he bowed out of the leadership race, having been betrayed by Michael Gove, his erstwhile ally. 
    But where does the punk element come into all this? In truth, it doesn’t.  For O’Toole, there were at least two Brexits, the one championed by Boris and his fellow Brexiteers, posing as bad boys when in fact they were pillars of the Establishment, albeit prepared to cock a leg at those same pillars and relieve themselves thereon. The other Brexit was not so rarefied or posh. It certainly hadn’t received an Eton education and may even have thought it was cocking a snook at some of the politicians (e.g. David Cameron) who had.   
    This other Brexit took place at the level of popular culture. O’Toole describes this Brexit as ‘pure punk’ – Never Mind the Bollocks, as the Sex Pistols would have put it, Here’s Brexit! 
    It is not easy to summarise the argument here, as there are enough paradoxes and counter-intuitive insights to fuel an entire Freudian case study, but this much we gather from stretching Britannia out on the couch and probing her complexes: she is definitely engaged in displacement. Having lost an empire, she has pivoted from imperial power to oppressed victim, from colonialist to the colonised, with Europe as the colonial power. O’Toole even sees the country’s perplexity in terms of Fifty Shades of Grey, with England as the Submissive at the mercy of a remarkable variety of rules dictated by Europe, the Dominant. 
    But England is also rebellious. She is into self-harm, a very punk tendency indeed. Just as the punks wore bin liners and safety pins to emphasise their defiance and their willingness to fail on society’s discredited terms, so England cultivates a sense of grievance. She inflicts pain upon herself as a punk might scratch her own arms, because to inflict pain on oneself is at least to exert some kind of control. Thus, for some, O’Toole claims, ‘marking Leave on the ballot paper in June 2016 was a way of scratching the name of England on their arms to prove their love.’ It’s like this because of the phoney grievances the Brexiteer elite have roused them against. They have been goaded into self-harm by what George Orwell famously called the ‘wrong members’ of the English family, those old Etonians and toffs who are forever ‘in control’ and don’t feel the need to take it back. The outcome can only bring the people further pain, of course.‘The people get out of the Red Room of Pain only to find themselves in the Red White and Blue Room of Pain.’ There can be no victory as the enemy was never Brussels; it was the inequalities of modern Britain and, for the smaller nations, the ‘precious union’ itself, which is now imperilled by the whole unholy mess. 
    It’s a grim prospect. The ghost of Malcolm McLaren cannot conjure success out of failure this time. Johnny Rotten, who used to spit at people on the King’s Road ‘because they were stupid’, has donned a straitjacket in solidarity with the working class he came from and embraced Brexit. Just as the first punks spilled out of McLaren’s sex shop dressed in the bondage gear of the boudoir, so the ‘maso-sadists’ spawned by David Cameron’s folly in calling a referendum are released onto the high streets of England, a little over half of them yelling ‘leave means leave’ while the other, almost half of them, can only re-moan.
    Grim as the state of the national culture has become, it does seem unlikely that the world will find us quite as funny in the future. That point has been amply demonstrated by the unpopularity of King Brexit overseas. As for eccentricity, those who exhibited it were once generally seen as harmless. Now, in this newly embittered England, maybe it’s harmful eccentrics we have to fear most. 
    Still, that Mr Speaker is hilarious.