No polemic yay or nay that image elementally says it all for me. No, this is a not-so-quick glimpse at the extraordinary state Britain finds itself in mid-2016.
Doesn’t Eurovision seem a long time ago? I know, everyone’s thinking about that today. And still people are clamoring for a Referendum rendition of Sweden’s Love Love Peace Peace... How to make the perfect Eurovision song. As with most quests for perfection that was smothered in irony.
But sadly irony’s taken a bit of a beating in the past month. The British and their European cousins have become increasingly aware that a UK exit from the European Union is a very real possibility. Not some trifling inconsequence, or easily grappled rise of extremism as seen in the United States or central Europe over the past few months. Instead, the barely plausible idea that Britain could quite easily choose to leap into a great unknown or a slightly less unknown in just over 12 hours of madness. Today’s the culmination of a bitter, horrid political tussle, one that should never have happened. One that’s shown once again that Referendums are a fucking stupid idea.
While the language slips, worth remembering that today’s also two months from the rather strange celebration of Shakespeare’s death on St George’s Day. A lot’s happened to me and this country since the Bard’s birthday and indeed, deathday. I’ve become a Godfather twice, lost the plot with a business idea, invented a new cartoon character, painfully coded a robot, started a shop, built a website, fallen in and out of love a lot (standard Aries), crushed on Supergirl, lost Penny Dreadful, tried to reboot my N64 playing career (again), finally come up with a killer temporal head-scratcher of a Doctor Who story. Oh, and Justin Timberlake’s new single has finally eeked into my pia mater. Meanwhile, Britain’s gone to shit in acrimony and in-fighting while almost every citizens’ heads were peeled like onions and injected with barracking nastiness and little sense.
A mere week since the barmy brilliance of Geldof and Farage’s Battle of the Thames, where my local MP Kate Hoey, absurdly prominent Euro-sceptic and member of Labour Out played an unwitting part into Nigel Farage’s Alan Partridge meme.
I once physically bumped into Farage at Brussels Central Station and his hat fell off. But that’s another story.
I’ve never bumped into Kate Hoey, but the highest flag in Kennington is likely the European flag flying high over Durning library at Kennington Cross. Dating from 1888, Durning’s one of the libraries the Labour councillors of Lambeth are currently attempting to desecrate.
Despite the drudging, inevitabile horror that such sticky, metaphorical trench warfare of referendum was always going to turn up , the past week has shown us the implications we didn’t want to consider. Today, with #Dogsatpollingstations trending on Twitter, it remains confused, complicated, deeply troubling. And there’s no chance that any result will make things better in the next or coming weeks.
On micro-blogging, many colleagues, peers and friends have been posting and reposting considered explanations of their referendum decision over the past week. And those are majoritively according to the age split that has emerged as bloody petrifying. As with any decision, the starting point must be moderation, but that’s something this campaign’s left little space for. It’s no surprise that many posts begin with the writer suggesting they’ve taken time to remove themselves from proceedings to explore facts for themselves. To go Quiet. To have some time to think and consider. To paw the internet (of course a new entrant into European referendum). And those openings betray no usual British ornamentation. Unfortunately, in many cases these come across as self-validatory if not valedictory, no matter how reasoned.
There’s no way such a referendum, one certainly destined to go far closer than the EC referendum of 1975, can neatly present reason on one side and bug-eyed lunacy on the other. Even the day after Michael Gove, almost certainly the most intellectually robust of the Leave politicians, finally lost his grasp on language and Nazi containment.
There’s a need for many to make a statement before the results come in, ordered as those are before the commencement of trading on Friday morning. The simple, crucial compulsion to vote is not enough this time. Everyone’s staring into the abyss. I have no older generations to cajole or coerce to one way or the other to even test or control the perceived age split. Worryingly, the last time I saw such voting fervour on social media , from the hang-on Millennials, enough for me to ignore at the time the obvious warning signs of their forced allegiance and prolonged sighs, it was for Ed Miliband. While the Leave crowd may prove the smaller, but louder side of the argument, vast swathes of the South East of England alone are a simmering morass of unknown. Country-wide, the last week’s widely hailed a hijacking of working class revolution by the elite. It’s like a series of matryoshka dolls, each representing their own revolution, nestled within each other to infinity. This amounts to far more than any reshuffle or leadership bid could heal. And that would only take care of the elected elite.
Closer to home
Yesterday lunch-time I heard a resident of Chichester, the City-museum near where I mostly grew up, mention the Fourth Reich in his diatribe call for Brexit on the Jeremy Vine show. And to think, just a few days ago I thought that Tim Peake’s safe return from the ISS and Tom Odell riding high in the album charts heralded Chichester’s greatest year since AD 43, when the Romans set sandal on the beach.
Roughly 13 months ago I headed down to deep coastal Sussex two days after the General Election and into a fishing village’s street party for VE day. Those events seemed a horrible juxtaposition in London, but on the coast, resplendent in its new, reconfirmed sea of blue there was a a new and distinct sense of empowerment as the country solidified from its coalition.
There won’t be anything so neat come 8am tomorrow.
While we still have an astonishing home countries attendance at the European Championships, we’ve missed the chance to hide behind either of Her Majesty’s birthday celebrations this year. Ah yes, the Crown. A difficulty, as the Sun found when it disingenuously suggested that Elizabeth II was pro-Brexit on its front page. Regardless of Her Majesty’s constitutional impartiality, as Jamaica readies its plans to leave her, as William demonstrates that he can still disappoint her by not standing up at the right time in public, there are different worries for the monarchy.
Back to the Bard, I’ve watched a lot of Shakespeare this anniversary year. Sitting atop the bookcase is Coriolanus, saved for post-referendum, and Russell T Davie’s brilliant A Midsummer Night’s Dream twice watched and on speed dial. Not least enjoyed has been the BBC’s peerless Hollow Crown; polished off this past Sunday with Benedict Cumberbatch’s sterling Richard III. The culmination of Auntie’s six-part, truncated adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Bloody history of the English Crown”. That retconned War of the Roses, increasingly reasserting its power and legacy on modern life, gained added prominence when Parliament was recalled on Monday after Jo Cox’s tragic murder, the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster, side-by-side, taking her empty seat.
Also waiting, jumping back in that legendary battle of cousins, is the recent stage production of Richard II, starring David Tennant. That play coming before the peak of Henry V of course (“England ne’er had a king until his time”), where Hal’s grandfather John of Gaunt was famously gifted the sublime patriot speech of “this scepter’d isle”.
“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”
In April, two days before Shakesday Labour MP Chris Bryant flexed his opinion for the Guardian that a pro-Europe Shakespeare would be displeased by the building crisis of nationalism. It’s a fair observation, full-supported, but as hollow as the English Crown in the 15th century in respect of this debate; along with the drawing in of Churchill and many other British giants. I’ve not seen anyone suggest Arthur’s defrosting, but with Glastonbury just warming up who knows?
The European question is now fundamentally different to that of 1975 let alone 1945. In the past week, amid the suffocating stream of opinions and articles on this confused debate, Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s exploration of Euroscepticism, also in the Guardian caught my eye.
On one level, that potted history recalled Jeremy Paxman’s light and intense study The English, one of many explorations of the identity, coming from a distinct lack of national identity, that defines the English as much as identity itself defines their near-neighbours. A shame that books author is still banished, social media tells me once again, on his own Elba of Channel 4 populist debate. But are we English on some perpetual quest to find ourselves, that even the #C4debate is part of? We’ve had an incredible history if we are, but there is clearly an issue at the heart of it.
Wheatcroft’s observations came at the end of two weeks where removed from the darkness of the debate in Albion, the national stereotypes of English hooliganism and violence was reconfirmed against the similarly prolific characterisation of repressed tea drinkers. There’s a wonderful freedom in this contrary lack of identity; immensely powerful when combined with the fire of the other countries in the Union. A wonderfully diverse and vibrant microcosm of the diaspora that’s always defined humanity and Europe itself. One forgotten in a Referendum campaign constantly overshadowed by fear of immigration. It’s been a very forgetful debate.
And that’s clearly affected me: Of predominantly Norman stock, I’ve somehow managed to put my innate mistrust of Saxons on the back-burner for the past month. Somehow.
Invoking the Bard
As Wheatcroft mentions, what a wonderful coincidence, or quite the opposite, that the world’s greatest playwright was around to add startling imagery and feeling to patriotism as the Tudors began the rising of the British Isles from obscurity to Empire. In that article’s subsequent summary of the foreign dynasties that have ruled Britain for over three centuries, and the European talent of Händel and Mendelssohn and their ilk that fed so greatly into British culture thoughout, there’s little indication that the incredible post-renaissance tradition that manifested as art and music on the continent so comfortably translated into the written word in the British Isles.
Disregarding the comedy and tragedy, that’s a key reason why the ‘discussion’ of 2016 has been so disappointing. It’s fallen short of our tradition. Well short.
Such myth as Shakespeare’s words gave form, in no part all of it coming from Stratford’s most famous son, that idea, that self-glorification, is all fundamental to English and British identity. But that’s not a sign of self-denial as a compelling trait. Britain’s Finest Hour was imbued by the same as much as it further fulfilled it, and came less than 100 years ago. It’s something else this debate has had trouble grappling with, but the decision Britain reaches in the next 12 hours or so will assume a place on pages of history books near it.
Myths, in this this island state, in Europe as a whole, are part and parcel. Giants and vampyres. Odins and Zeuses. Conversely cemented by the conflict that defined the continent before the European Union, the British demand the glorious sentiment of having the right to tell Europe to “Fuck off” – as went the punchline of John Oliver’s pointed intervention this week.
Would we rather claim that ‘right’ inside the castle battlements or outside?
A bloody terrible idea
Crucially, Wheatcroft evokes the sentiment of one of the 20th century’s pivotal Prime Ministers. “An empty taxi drove up to 10 Downing Street and out of it stepped Clement Attlee” goes the apocryphal quote, attributed to Winston Churchill when Attlee defeated him after the Second World War was won and their prolonged coalition was ended. That sentence’s existence owes more to the weight of Churchill on British history than anything else. I’ve seen more people evoke Nye Bevan in this debate than Attlee, but it was their progressive Labour government that sought to immediately craft a new Britain from the ashes of our worst war. Rightly or wrongly, mispalced or too fast, it was ambitious and makes a stark comparison to administrations of recent decades. Before heading back to war in Korea, for Attlee that included The Royal Festival and the National Health Service. As Wheatcroft observes, how much better it would have been had David Cameron remembered Attlee’s words with his rash promise of a referendum a few years ago rather than herald a vicious debate where both sides sought to drag in the ghost of Churchill as early as possible.
“I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum, which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.” – Clement Attlee.
For all the luxury of freedom, hard earned in a Europe growing together during its longest stint of peace, referendums are a stark lesson from the history of Europe. 98 years ago, in July 1918, Major Clement Attlee took temporary in command of 10th Tank Battalion at Bovington. My great-uncle Alfred Symons would join him as Commanding Officer of 29 Company, before heading to France on active service, unlike Attlee. Having married in 1918, Alfred Symons died in February 1919 after a few days of war related illness at the age of 26.
At least the legacy of the War of the Roses will continue in the similarly gripping wait for this weekend’s Game of Thrones series finale. How fitting we’ve just reached a peak of sorts with episode nine, The Battle of the Bastards. A wonderfully horrid antidote to the current situation. A 25-day shoot for barely 10 minutes of footage, an extraordinary battle filmed the field of Northern Ireland, pitting John Snow – Kit Harrington, descendant of both Gunpowder plotter Robert Catesby and contemporary Parliamentarian John Harington – against ever rising Welsh star Iwan Rheon’s Ramsey Bolton. In that phenomenon of a show; really quite superb, but not a patch on the real War of the Roses,
So amid a bunch of contradictions – clear benefits for remaining, clear chutzpah optimism for striking out from a country built on immigration that never cowers – it’s quite astounding our ruling elite have crafted such a narrow and miserable campaign. Politics has become smaller. I can only hope that the difficult times that lie ahead, no matter what the result, live up to the optimism so many have been happy to ignore. But it’s difficult to see that any advantage can be realised by any of the existing players. Everyone has the appearance of a chess piece being moved to the side of the board.
If it is, if the hate can be canned, if the real opportunity can be discerned, Britain will surely be fine either way. As Kit Harrington relayed, when his paternal ancestor walked past the decapitated head of his maternal ancestor in parliament, the plot foiled, the monarchy and country set for it’s early, defining civil war in a few decades’ time…
“He’s an ugly fellow, isn’t he?”
And as if irony has mustered in these final hours, right now the current debacle of a broken Waterloo station just down the road, battered and mistreated by torrential rains and storms in the British capital over the past 24 hours, threatens to keep Londoners, unsafe, away from homes and ballot boxes.
It’s namesake is just nine miles from Brussels. It would have to be Waterloo.