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Banging heads and falling apart – your handy Brexit Disintegration Primer

April 7, 2019


Edict of Thessalonica

A long time ago – in the 4th Century CE to be precise – if you wandered into the ancient equivalent of a pub in Constantinople and started mouthing off about the divinity of Christ, you ran the risk of getting into a serious fight. If you expressed the wrong opinion you could have been expelled from the premises, beaten up and possibly murdered.

Such was the passion for religious arguments that they seemed more important to the ordinary citizens of the Roman Empire’s new capital than the threat from marauding Goths and other predators. Understandably, for did not belief in the precise nature of Christ determine whether or not your immortal soul would ascend to heaven or roast in the eternal fires?

These controversies caused so much trouble that a succession of emperors from Constantine onwards attempted bring them to an end with a series of decrees, backed by conventions of clerics gathered to reach a compromise. Which they duly did, but with an explicit understanding that those who disagreed would, in the words of the Edict of Thessalonica:

“suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.”

Disputes over the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit come to mind when I hear reports of Theresa May telling Jeremy Corbyn that her Brexit deal delivers membership of the Customs Union “in all but name”.

It is perhaps unfortunate that we don’t have an emperor to bang heads together over Brexit.

In recent times we’ve been beset by arguments over secular articles of faith – from deeply destructive conflicts between communism and fascism to everyday contests between capitalism and socialism, Republicans and Democrats and, in my own country, between Conservatives and Labour. All of these disagreements concern our future in this life rather than in the hereafter.

But now, overlaid upon traditional ideological divides, we have an issue that has arisen from being a minority obsession to a political inferno sucking so much energy from those who govern us that other pressing issues – such as inequality, climate change, crime and pollution – are scarcely being addressed at all.

Instead, in pubs and taxis and at dinner tables across the country, we are witnessing conversations – or screaming matches – between people who support a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit, no deal, customs union membership, single market membership and God knows what else. What else might conceivably include union with Canada, annexation of Ireland or the reorganisation of England into its Anglo-Saxon constituents – Mercia, Wessex and so on – with a Trumpian reinforcement of Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Picts and the Scots.

It’s almost as if we’ve moved back a few hundred years, to an age when everyone had their own version of faith – at various times Lollards, Diggers, Anabaptists, Catholics, Levellers and Calvinists to name but a few variants of belief.

We’re not quite at that point with Brexit, but we do seem to be heading that way. And when an establishment figure such as former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson warns of “understandable insurrection” as a consequence of revocation, you might also think that we’re heading for a civil war. Long overdue, I suppose, since our last one was more than three and a half centuries ago, and most of our EU partner nations have been through their own armed upheavals much more recently.

Not that I agree with Lawson. Riots, thuggery and vandalism for sure, but full-blown fighting with AK-47s, RPGs and death squads? I don’t think so.

What some predict is further political fragmentation, which would be bizarre if the cause of the splintering was a single issue. Instead of two major parties, we could conceivably have five smaller ones – three on the right and two on the left. In fact you could actually argue that these groupings are even now functioning as separate parties. So should the Emperor Constantine decide to rise from the dead in order to bang some heads together on our behalf, here are the groupings, as well as the some of the good, the bad and the ugly associated with them, that he would have to contend with:

First there’s the Cro-Magnon faction, led in Parliament by the likes of Mark Francois (well known for his survival skills after his much-touted years in the territorial army). These are the people who, if we crash out of the EU as they desire, will presumably be out in the woods foraging, ably assisted by Tommy Robinson, who will be on hand to deliver the coup de grace on any small unfortunate small animal that they might find. Nigel Farage won’t make the trip, but will be on hand with a pint or two of out-of-date bitter with which to wash the rats and poisonous mushrooms down. Arron Banks will be there to scare off the gamekeepers with his twelve-bore shotgun.

Then there are the Nasties, also known as the Arghs, who will ally themselves with the Cro-Magnons when it suits their purpose. These are the insurance tycoons and hedge fund bosses who either have an ulterior motive for their fervent desire to leave the EU in the most extreme possible manner, or who have less brains than they think they have. Either way, they’re fanatics, believers in the True Cross of Brexit. Their leader, naturally, is the rather odd Jacob Rees-Mogg, who would like to be Prime Minister, but only if Nanny can sit in on cabinet meetings.

Further leftwards, but not too much further, we have the Ancien Regime, led by the Prime Minister, or before long, by Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. This lot is a mish-mash of country squires, lawyers and shopkeepers, laced with a few ex-soldiers. They’re dedicated to ensuring that the Conservatives govern in perpetuity. They attempt to do so by adopting any policy that achieves that end. Pragmatism over principles is the order of the day. For them, a red line is as solid as a row of jelly babies, which is why Theresa May will shortly be on her way to the back benches.

Moving on to Labour, there are the Proseccos, nostalgic for the sparkling days of New Labour, still singing “Things Can Only Get Better” as they did in 1997. Some call them Blairites. Others identify with Blair’s great rival, Gordon Brown. Either way, if they have a recognised leader, it would be Yvette Cooper, the long-suffering partner of former cabinet minister and Strictly Come Dancing star Ed Balls, who would probably think he escaped from politics at the right time when he lost his seat in 2015.

And finally, on the far left, we have the Popular Front for the Liberation of Islington, a cadre of flinty-eyed former (or current) Marxists and scions of the best private schools, many of whom have never worked in a proper job in their lives, whose desire to collectivise the country has festered away since they were marginalised by New Labour. They have now burst out like the alien in John Hurt’s chest. They’ve managed to convince the idealistic youth that their ideas – which have been around for decades – are fresh and new. They are theoretically led by Jeremy Corbyn (also known to Private Eye readers as Dave Spart). Some believe that he’s an affable figurehead with limited imagination who will sooner or later be shoved aside by some of the more ruthless political operators in his camp. I reserve judgement on this theory.

In addition, we have the nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales, the former a powerful group waiting to break the country apart, and the latter an inconsequential nonentity. And of course the Northern Irish parties – the Democratic Unionists, beneficiaries of the Conservative shilling, and Sinn Fein, who don’t want to play, at least in Westminster. Finally, the TIG group, a bunch of renegade Conservative and Labour MPs who are as mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore.

Have I forgotten anyone? Oh yes, the Liberal Democrats, who have made as much noise lately as mice surrounded by packs of ravenous wolves. Their days must surely be numbered unless they can find someone with star quality to replace decent but dull Vince Cable. And the Greens, who, given the impending end of the world, should be represented not by a single MP but by a multitude of wailers and teeth-gnashers.

If the major parties do end up fragmenting along these lines, politics in Britain would be quite interesting for a while, with all kinds of strange alliances and coalitions. Rather like Italy, for example. Or perhaps more like a sequel (without the sex) to the Game of Thrones, which, by conveniently heading towards a shattering final climax, is leaving something of a vacuum that could be filled by the warring factions in the British Parliament. In the end, however, I suspect that the smaller groups would eventually die out or coalesce back into the old two-party format.

Contrary to popular belief, our politicians are not all idiots, though plenty of them have become sufficiently deranged by the Brexit bubble to appear so. I feel sorry for them, because some decent and dedicated people are being demonised by association with the current chaos. But my sympathy is hardly going to help us move forward on the path of reconciliation. Whatever happens to Brexit, there would appear to be much turbulence to come.

If I were the Emperor Constantine, I think I would probably prefer to stay dead. Dealing with a bunch of unruly bishops might seem a breeze compared with getting this lot to agree on something as esoteric as a Withdrawal Agreement.

From → History, Politics, UK

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