This blog was written on Sept 24th 2018
It is difficult to understand the English reaction to last week’s events in Salzburg. I say English rather than British because that is what Brexit primarily is, an outbreak of English nationalism, a belief that somehow or other, England is being treated unfairly, given its inherent greatness.
The language of the Brexiteers tells you as much. “Global Britain”, set to reconquer the world. Add in suggestions that surfaced over the past weekend from a senior Tory advisor that Ireland should consider re-joining the UK outside the EU. Brexiteers see Ireland “coming home” as the first step on the road to building an Anglosphere consisting of the old white Commonwealth nations, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. When that is done the US will want in.
At the heart of the Anglosphere a “Singapore-upon-Thames” social and economic model for the UK: low tax, deregulation, swashing a buccaneering buckle across the world. In reality, and to be a more accurate, a fantasy version of what Singapore actually is.
Yet these global delusions do not themselves explain the hysterical reaction to last week in Salzburg. See here for a recap on what actually happened.
According to the Sun newspaper, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, was “ambushed” by the “dirty rats” of the EU. She was humiliated and, by extension, so was the whole of Britain.
May herself was furious at the perceived slight. From an oak panelled room in 10 Downing Street she took to the airwaves last Friday to issue a defiant challenge to Brussels to engage seriously and to make her an offer in response to Chequers. And like Joey Zasa in Godfather 111, she accused the “Dons of Brussels” of showing her no respect. As Joey put it: “I say to all of you, I have been treated this day, with no respect. … You will not give, I’ll take!” Joey did not make it alive to the end of the movie. I must watch it again but I don’t think he even made it to the second part.
May’s position on “make me an offer” reminds me of those popular afternoon TV programs where a UK couple go off to buy a “house in the sun”. They meet their advisor and tell them they have a budget of, say, €150K. The first house they are shown does not meet their requirements, not enough rooms, no swimming pool, too near a road, noisy neighbours. Shown us something better for the same money, they demand. We have red lines, you know.
May’s “I don’t like either the “Canada” or “Norway” options, show me something better” is little different from a “house in the sun”. As if the EU was a Spanish realtor working to client instructions.
Now, all that had happened in Salzburg is that the EU repeated, if in somewhat more robust language than previously, what it had been saying since May launched her Chequers plan. Time and time again it said that her attempt to slice and dice the EU’s single market in the UK’s favour was not acceptable. The EU was not prepared to undermine its most successful achievement just to suit the British.
How is stating the obvious a “humiliation”, especially when voices from all sides of the Brexit debate in the UK have been saying the same thing ever since Chequers saw the light of day? What is more humiliating to May and the UK? The EU saying that the economic and trade proposals in Chequers won’t work, or Boris Johnson writing in today’s Daily Telegraph:
I am afraid that Chequers = surrender; Chequers = a sense of betrayal; Chequers = the return of UKIP; Chequers = Corbyn.
I would have thought that an accusation of betrayal was a lot more hurtful than being told your plan won’t work. But I doubt if you will see a Sun headline saying that Johnson has joined the Brussels “dirty rats”.
For the difference between Boris and Brussels is that Boris is pure of heart and just wants MBGA. No, not Make Britain Great Again, but Make Boris Great Again. No doubt, in his faux Churchillian mind, the two things are same.
Yet, none of this fully explains the pain evident in the reaction, to stay with the Mafia theme, to the “Salzburg Massacre”.
I have a thesis as to why this is so. Leaving aside the few who live on the wilder shores of Brexit, the vast majority of the UK political, academic, media and think-tank class do not really want to leave the EU, even those who say loudly how much the result of the 2016 referendum must be honoured. What they really want is to be able to remain in the EU but, like Joey Zasa, to be treated with the “respect” to which they think the UK is entitled.
I call this “cakeism in the soul”, CIS for short. Those suffering from CIS want to be in the EU but on terms that suit the UK, because the UK is special and different. It is not as crude as Johnson’s “cake and eat it”, which roughly translates as “we can have it all with no obligations”. It is subtler that that, and often those who suffer from CIS are not even aware that they have the condition.
Now, out-and-out remainers do not suffer from this. They make it very clear that they believe that the 2016 referendum result was achieved throughout falsehood and deception and that it would be better if the UK voted again, now that the true costs of Brexit are known. They want the UK to stay in the EU. They are out and proud.
For those suffering from CIS the condition can present itself in different ways. There are the “blamers”, those who blame the EU for the position in which the UK finds itself. There are two sorts of blamers. There are the “Angry blamers” and there are the “more in sorrow than in anger” blamers – sad blamers, if you will.
Most of the angry blamers are to be found in the Tory party. A good example is a recent tweet from the party chairman, James Cleverly, MP:
The intransigence of the EU when dealing with David Cameron in 2015/16 was a contributory factor in the UK voting for Brexit (an outcome they didn’t want). It’s seems that the lesson from that hasn’t yet hit home.
Decoded: we would still be members of the EU if the EU had only given David Cameron what he wanted and if we leave the EU with “no deal” it will be the EU’s fault. Nothing to do with us guv. We did nothing wrong. It is all down to you, sunshine.
The more sophisticated, sad blamers hold that the EU is not acting in its own long-term geo-political and economic self-interest by refusing to bend its principles to accommodate the UK. See, for instance, this Financial Times article: here
However, as my fellow Irishman, Daniel Keohane puts it:
“I think it is right to debate this, as it is vital that the U.K. and the EU have a close constructive relationship after Brexit. The problem with this argument now, is it can come across as “give us a special deal or we will be a nasty neighbour, and it will be all your fault”.
I should add that it never gets you very far in negotiations when you tell the other party that you understand their self-interest better than they do. You generally get an answer in very short terms.
The reluctant blamer may also exhibit symptoms of “solutionism”, a term invented by my good friend, Dr Denis McShane. Solutionism a search for magic solutions and formulae that will enable the EU to accommodate the UK in some fashion or other, an elixir that allows you to square circles.
Now, the EU has already offered the UK two solutions: EEA membership, with a customs union, or a Canada-type trade deal. But these options do not work for those with CIS.
EEA membership means freedom of movement and customs union membership would prevent the UK negotiating its own deals. Now CIS sufferers would happily throw the ability to negotiate trade deals under the bus as all informed analysis shows that the benefits from any such deals would pale into insignificance compared to what would be lost in quitting the EU.
They also know, as compared to those blinded by an ideological obsession with so-called “free trade”, that the domestic politics of trade deals can be poison. Chlorine washed chicken anyone?
But freedom of movement is a different matter. Those who voted leave voted to stop Europeans coming freely to the UK. Taking back control of the borders is what it was all about. There can’t be any deal which allows continued freedom of movement.
Yet, on this, the EU will not budge. Maybe in the past there might have been some flexibility. Not today, with populist-nationalists using migration and the alleged undermining of Christian civilization by the influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle-East as their casus belli. Open the box on freedom of movement and see what demons fly out.
Wrong red UK line at the wrong time. The box will not be opened.
There is another variant of CIS: Red Mist CIS (RM-CIS). This is largely found among those on the left. You recognise that they are suffering from it when you hear the words “jobs-first-Brexit”.
Those suffering from RM-CIS believe that the lack of progress in the Brexit negotiations is all the fault of Tory ineptitude. If only Labour were in charge of the negotiations, they reason, the EU would be much more accommodating.
Now, it is never explained why this might be so, as the Labour position appears to me to be no different than the Tory position. As the Irish Times reports this morning (Monday):
Mr Corbyn said on Sunday that it would be “very hard” to accept customs checks in the Irish Sea, stating that the solution was to secure a trade and a customs arrangement with the EU. He said Labour would vote down any Brexit deal Theresa May brings back from Brussels if it does not satisfy the party’s demand that it should have all the benefits of remaining in the single market and the customs union.
“We would vote it down if it didn’t meet out tests, in order to send the government – if it is still in office – straight back to the negotiating table,” he told the BBC.
Further, it seems that while Labour would be willing to enter into a customs union with the EU it would insist on a co-equal seat with the EU in any future trade negotiations with third countries.
Put it this way: As a member of the EU the UK was one voice among 28. As a non-member it wants a 50% say.
I suspect that this might be one of those demands where there is a two-word answer from the EU, the second one of which is “off”.
I have yet to see any answer from the Labour Party as to what it would do next when the EU gives the same answer to a Labour government as it is today giving to the Conservative government. Send Jeremy Corbyn around dressed up as Gandalf the White to shine his wizard light before which the Tower of Brussels will crumble?
Oh, and in all of the above I seem to have forgotten the Irish border issue. I hear that could be an added complication.
Cakeism in the soul, CIS, is a desperate attempt to avoid hard choices, to think that Brexit can be done is such a way that nothing will change, that the UK can continue to sit at Europe’s top table. Unlikely.
Cakeism in the soul reminds me of the Neil Diamond song I am, I Said
Well I’m EU born and raised
I’m lost between two shores
Brexit’s fine, but it ain’t home
But it ain’t mine no more
Captures the existential angst of those with “cakeism in the soul”. Maybe Sartre could explain it.
3 thoughts on “#Brexit Cake-ism in the Soul* (* With apologies to Sartre)”
I’m so glad I found your blog. I left England in 1959 and I’ve been trying to find out why my ex-fellow country persons have lost their minds by trying to leave the EU. You have an uncanny ability to cut through the BS. Visions of empire, entitlement. Maybe it takes an Irishman. I’ve been sailing with one for 30 years and he sure has confirmed all my reasons for leaving little england all those years ago. Look forward to reading more from you.
Having grown up on the continent, to me the EU (in its earlier incarnations) was an almost unquestioned feature of life there, as was the sense of interconnectedness between the EU nations. Easy travel between countries also fostered an awareness of relative strengths and weaknesses of what one’s own country had to offer as compared to others.
I do remember the gentle mockery of the tutor on one of my EC-law modules when talking about “bent-banana” type regulations (which weren’t as outrageously silly as terminally lazy lie-down comedian AB de P Johnson painted them in his columns) as having been thought up on a particularly sun-drenched Friday afternoon in the Berlaymont. There was never any implication though, that such slightly unfortunate by-products of the process were enough to cast serious doubt on the validity of the project that was the European Community.
Two things struck me very forcefully when I settled in England in the mid-nineties. The first was a real sense of insularity, which was reflected in the paucity of news from abroad in the majority of newspapers. The second was a very widespread and “innocent” (in that, for those who held it, it had a quality of self-evident truth about it) belief in the superiority of the British way of doing things and the superior quality of British produce.
An English friend brought bags full of groceries with him when he visited the continent (including eggs) because the food available locally “might have been tampered with”. This was around the time of the Edwina Currie salmonella saga, I believe, and not long before the whole BSE/mad cow scandal broke.
I am convinced that many Leave voters were motivated by considerations that were a result of these features of life in England especially. Reasons people have given to me for voting Leave have included: “At least we’ll be able to sell our own strawberries again”; “I think we have a perfectly good justice system of our own”. One had had an unfortunate experience with an Italian customs officer.
Of course there were many, many decent people, such as NHS nurses and pensioners stuck on interminable waiting lists, who were influenced by the promise of increased funding for the healthcare services. They seemed to be ignorant of the fact that other EU countries were able to provide a multiple of the number of beds available to patients in England, whilst also being net contributors.
Yes, there was some entitlement, and an elderly couple I spoke to brought out the gunboats as a serious argument when I suggested that other member states might not necessarily be swayed by the loss of easy access to a fraction of their export markets (as compared to Britain losing the vast majority) into accommodating Brexiter demands.
As I’ve stated before in my comment on the previous blog, I believe that the motives of May – and her cabal/hostage takers – and the tabloids in reacting the way they have, are probably a lot more cynical and devious than those driving the rest of the population. I feel that a large part of the popular view, which the Brexiteers are very cleverly hooking into, is inspired by this very simple conviction that British is Best.