Brexit and the Bells of Rhymney

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and MEP Ska Keller make a persuasive case for a second referendum, and why the U.K. will always be welcome in the E.U. Theresa May and Rupa Huq take Prime Minister’s Questions to a new level. Plus, we listen to (and discuss) the Welsh mining song ‘Bells of Rhymney’. (Yes, there is a connection!)

In my previous magnum opus on Brexit, much of my focus was on how E.U. membership benefits the U.K. After all, the nature of politics at the populist level is all about self-interest. (‘And what will you give me?/ Say the sad bells of Rhymney’.)

Yet, there’s a quite different way of exploring the Brexit question, based less on self-interest and more on the visionary aspect. In a representative democracy, one ideally tries to elect leaders who have vision, who understand the direction in which the world is headed, and who try to align their nation with the right tide of history. Despite many practical problems with E.U. membership which need ironing out, the E.U. represents a noble effort at cooperation between nations who had previously engaged in open warfare. It’s also a response to the burgeoning awareness that many pressing problems, including climate change, can only be tackled at a global level.

Aside from practical benefits, the E.U. offers each member nation an opportunity to come together with other nations and contribute its unique qualities, while not losing its individuality. This coming together of nations and peoples, which may be described as ‘oneness in diversity’, is the right tide of history, the good direction in which the world is moving post-World War II. In this visionary understanding of what the E.U. represents, Britain is a beloved member nation which has many good friends among other nations, and which has something most meaningful and special to contribute to the mix.

From this point of view, Brexit represents a retreat into the past, a rejection of the sometimes challenging, but ultimately fulfilling promise of the future, in which cooperation between nations is understood to be the highest political good, and a necessity for survival of the planet. If Remainers are sometimes tearful and angry, it’s because they love their country and know that Britain has a big heart, a heart which has the capacity to identify with broader Europe and not cordon itself off. From the point of view of Remainers, the Brexiteers have fooled the people into making a retrograde decision which is bad for Britain, bad for the E.U., and bad for the world. The result will be salt and vinegar, not any kind of cake feast or champagne breakfast.

When did Brexit (which was supposed to be such a lovely idea) take on the character of an unstoppable juggernaut to which we are all chained? As Tony Blair recently noted, “Things do not need to be like this. We’re not in a state of hypnosis to do this. We can assume consciousness. We have free will, and it’s past time to exercise it”.

Between working and raising a family, the average citizen may not have time to ponder these deep matters. That’s why it’s so important that political leaders elected to do the job bring out the best in themselves, respond dynamically to the changing situation, and not be afraid to admit mistakes while there is still time to rectify them. When government economists considered the worst-case scenario of a no deal Brexit, even then they did not look into the future and weigh the possibility of new troubles in Northern Ireland, or a second referendum in Scotland which might result in that nation leaving the U.K. In a chess game one must look several moves ahead, but too many in government are only playing ‘Chequers’.

I admire Prime Minister May, but she has a deeply bureaucratic streak in her nature such that she will not deviate from plan. The ‘Maybot’ sobriquet has stuck because she keeps delivering the same speech over and over again, and during PMQs often gives the equivalent of ‘I am not programmed to respond in that area’. Her lack of creativity and flexibility in a time of crisis naturally causes other leaders to step in to fill the void.

It is uncharitable of her to savage Tony Blair for stating what is becoming increasingly obvious, even to some of May’s own allies: After two years of discussion in which Brexit reality has gradually come to replace Brexit fantasy, the people deserve a final say on a decision which will impact their lives for generations to come. It’s not a ‘do-over’ or mere repeat of the first referendum. History is not static, and neither is democracy. It turns out that the Brexit which can be delivered is much different than what the people were promised. Those who led them down the garden path should at least give them a final say before plunging them over the abyss.

Adding ‘Bells of Rhymney’ to the mix

Welsh miner turned poet Idris Davies penned ‘The Bells of Rhymney” in 1938. It was later revived by fellow countryman Dylan Thomas. American folksinger Pete Seeger set the words to music circa 1959, and his tune is the one used for numerous cover versions:

There’s also a version by Bob Dylan and the Band from 1967, but I’m guessing it’s pretty well locked down by copyright Nazis. 😉

As for the poem itself, it is perhaps best understood as an impassioned response to a Welsh mining disaster, with the church bells in different cities pealing out different reactions to the tragedy. These responses are variously political, legal, metaphysical, and so forth, creating a kind of geographic tableau which also reflects the poet’s inner dialogue. ‘Even God is uneasy, sang the moist bells of Swansea’.

‘Is there hope for the future?’ This is a question oft asked in times of crisis, bringing us back to Tony Blair’s speech defining Brexit as such a time. There is always hope, and as Ska Keller said when interviewed by Channel 4:

Of course, [a second referendum] is up to the people in Great Britain to decide. But if they were to decide to change their minds, then they need to be welcomed back. There should be open doors for the people of Great Britain. Absolutely! But that is up to Great Britain to decide. If the people of Britain were to change their minds, then our doors and our hearts and arms are very welcoming, very open to them. For me, the Brexit is a real tragedy. We have so many great friends there, but also Great Britain is not going to move away. It’s very close to the rest of us, and we’re linked in a partnership, we’re linked together in geography, and for creating a better future we need each other. That’s why I think it’s such a tragedy. [If nationalism rises in Europe] I wouldn’t blame the Brits. I would still think it’s a tragedy that they have left, and I would always want them to come back.

In her comments we can see much of what’s good about the E.U. Where there is love, forgiveness, and oneness in diversity, eventually practical problems can be overcome.

This is Michael Howard ringing in the Christmas season, and hoping that the bells which ring for you are joyful ones.


Sidebar: The Bells of Rhymney – Further Reflections

When I first heard the song performed by Pete Seeger, I was about 14 years old and he was a guest artist on WBAI radio, helping them out during one of their interminable fund drives. I liked it for its poetic images — the bells of different colours sounding out different messages, and picturesque town names like Caerphilly and Swansea — but I didn’t really understand it. Or, let us say, I understood it at a surface level (which is not always bad). Some singers have beautiful voices, but don’t know the history or meaning of what they’re singing. Here are two more cover versions of ‘The Bells of Rhymney’:

The Cher version is rather insipid, but no need to dwell. The John Denver version strikes me as somewhat prettified, and his introduction fortifies misimpressions about the song: that it was written by Pete Seeger (no mention of Idris Davies), and that it’s primarily about local colour. You can easily picture him crooning ‘They were buried alive/ Said a Belgian endive…’ without batting an eyelash. Still, the bell-like guitar harmonics are a nice touch. Some fancy fingerpicking, but I wonder if it doesn’t detract from the meaning.

For me the song imparts a rare dual memory — of what it sounded like when I was 14, and what it sounds like now. Having learned more about poetry, I now know that the speech of bells can be a stand-in for the speech of men and women who might gather at churches in different towns the first Sunday after a mining disaster, and speak out in a myriad of voices. As with church bells, these voices might not exactly harmonise. Some might trail off or speak at cross-purposes, but their collective clanging would signify that some momentous event has taken place. Fire! Flood! Or Mrs Cropley putting anchovy paste in her lemon curd tartlets.

Maybe on some deep level, that’s why I thought to connect the song with Brexit. After all, Brexit is a slow motion political disaster, and is typically accompanied by a school of porpoises from the University of Wales banging on about this or that option on the BBC. “I prefer Norway Plus Plus, but without the Norwegians, and a side order of Canadian bacon gently sautéed in a litre of Glenfiddich Gran Reserva.” Ding-dong.

Like any good disaster, Brexit also has its share of junkies tuning in to the news every five minutes, hoping against hope that someone will insert a new punch card into the Maybot, and maybe she’ll say something genuinely new for a change. You can make better book on the 3:30 at Ascot, though now and then she does surprise:

As for ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, I’m convinced there’s a Gordon Lightfoot version stashed somewhere in the compilation Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written:

I’m avidly rummaging through all 379 discs, but oh wait! There’s an interview with Nyle Hogg-Filth on ITV. Apparently, he’s found a new solution to the Brexit problem which involves nuclear physics and buggery. I just have to watch…

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