Friends from England who like Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, and American friends too because I’m a Brit, have been asking me to explain Brexit. This is what I’ve written to them.
It became clear to me some weeks ago that Brexit would have an impact on everyone’s wealth and work in Britain eventually, not to mention the probable break-up of the UK as well as the possible break up of the EU. We all knew the downsides of staying in – the massive bureaucracy, the powerless and meaningless European Parliament, the mountain of regulations, the unaccountable undemocratic European Commission, and so forth. But what about any possible downsides of leaving? What would be the plan?
It is now fascinating to see that, after all those years of demagoguery and months of active campaigning, the Brexit people have no plan. It reminds me of Warren Buffet’s famous remark about the crash of 2008: “You can’t see who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out”. They were swimming naked.
The greatest problem emerging now is the rise of the far right, all over Europe and in America too. The EU was started by de Gaulle and Adenauer after not one but two World Wars in less than 25 years brought previously unimaginable death and devastation to Europe and the rest of the world. Patriotism may be good, but it has an ugly twin: nationalism. The European Common Market (as it was) was started to make European powers so financially inter-dependent that there would be no more such wars. But, as Edmund Burke famously pointed out, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”
Boris Johnson knows history but he was too ambitious and narcissistic to take note of it. He was going to run for Prime Minister but was counting on the backing of his friend, Michael Gove, Minister of Justice, who seems pleasant enough and probably knows some history too but politically he resembles a rabid hamster.
Boris had led Cameron to think he was for Remain until a last minute announcement to the contrary. This betrayal cost Cameron the referendum and his job. Now Gove’s promised support for Johnson has also proved illusory. Both incidents lend support to Sir Humphrey’s dictum that you have to get behind people before you can stab them in the back.
Another prominent Brexiter with no clue what to do is Chris Grayling, who as Minister of Justice (forgive my hollow laugh), in the spirit of austerity, decided the courts should not be seen as a public service but should pay for themselves. (He also planned to outsource legal aid for the poor to Tesco’s supermarkets and Eddie Stobart Trucking – No, I’m not inventing this!)
And as for Nigel Farage and those other xenophobic, ferocious racist pygmies, I fear that some of them are probably longing for history to repeat itself.
The tragedy is that it has all been brought about by Cameron and Osborne. And not just by Cameron’s dumb promise to hold the referendum, a continental procedure which has no validity in the British constitution. The problem is the needless austerity that they and Angela Merkel insisted on for Britain, Germany and the poorer EU countries. It was not necessary. The deficit was not a problem. The US had its greatest period of prosperity in its history during the Eisenhower years, when her deficit was the highest it has ever been.
A national budget is not the same as a household budget. It is easily reduced by creating prosperity, after which people pay much more tax because they are earning more. Benefits drop, because people are employed. The people are happy because they have work and an income. The answer, following the crash of 2008, was not austerity but to stimulate the economy. (Obama knew this, but he was half-hearted about it to start with because he was being advised by Wall Street bankers Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, and later blocked by a Republican House and Senate). Once there is growth, deficits are easily paid back. That’s how the US got out of the great depression: World War Two forced Washington to stimulate the economy, a huge deficit was created but the economic growth was gigantic.
But that foolish puppet David Cameron and his ventriloquist (and brain) George Osborne went for austerity. They did it either because they don’t understand economics or for ideological reasons. I now fear it was the latter. They were encouraged by Merkel, who will soon pay the price too. Osborne slashed the NHS, and welfare, and made sweetheart tax deals for big corporations like Google. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. Voters in all the deprived areas of England and Wales, unemployed, broke, and bitterly angry about the inequality they could see all around them, were easily persuaded by Boris, Gove, Grayling, Farage and the other ambitious, xenophobic far-right scoundrels that the problem was immigration!
So that’s what it was really about. Farage said: “Now we can take our country back.” Back from whom? The immigrants, it seems. The immigrants were scapegoated. And anyone of colour. The immigrants, who hold the NHS together and who do all the jobs that the British won’t do, are now being attacked in the streets. Jo Cox, a pro-Europe MP was shot dead by a fascist. There’s more to come. It’s the Weimar Republic again. Pandora’s Box has been opened. It will not so easy to stuff all the evil back into it.
And now, in a supreme irony, it is being said that if Gove wins he will bring back Osborne, the smug fool who is responsible for the whole catastrophe. The contest might be between Gove and the fear-mongering Theresa May, the current front-runner. She cleverly hedged her bets by staying in the Remain group with Cameron but her trump card is that she’s even more virulently anti-immigrant than everyone but Farage. Or it might be between May and Angela Leadsome, the Energy Secretary who sees herself as Thatcher reincarnated, now that Gove is perceived to be as treacherous as Boris.
They will all wipe their daggers clean and praise Cameron. And maybe Brutus – sorry, Boris. And then they’ll try to think up a way to get us out of this mess. For they are all ‘honourable men’, especially Theresa May.
Jonathan Lynn’s prolific career spans more than four decades as a director, screenwriter, producer and actor in films, television and theatre, as well as best-selling author and novelist. Read Jonathan’s extended biography here.