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 moving, and who try to align their nation with the right tide of history. Despite many practical problems with E.U. membership which need to be ironed 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 happily 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 option or that 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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Brexit Drama, Brexit Humour

Catching up on the latest Brexit developments, with talk, videos, and a bit of a laff

What does BREXIT stand for? Those who follow the news closely know it stands for ‘Brazen Revolt Eliminates Xylophones In Tasmania’, a story originally aired on ABC Australia. Sometime later, people realised it could also stand for Britain exiting the European Union. That’s when the acronym really took off.

An old TV commercial used to go ‘You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye’.

Likewise, you don’t have to be British to love watching how the Brexit drama is unfolding. It’s a ‘seedy’ occupation for Americans who may not feel the results directly in their breadbaskets, but are fascinated to observe all the twists and turns. (Maybe bagels would have been a better analogy.)

Lest I be accused of chuntering from a sedentary position, I should explain that I do have friends in the U.K. who are affected by Brexit, and I always hope the nation as a whole will listen to its better angels.

I admire Theresa May for her perspicacity and determination, but being both American and sympathetic to Labour (though not a big Corbyn fan), I could never vote for her. Still, I suppose the essence of my reason for liking her is her perseverance in attempting The Thing That Couldn’t Be Done:

That’s the thing about Brexit: More and more it comes to resemble the thing that couldn’t be done, the carpet that couldn’t be laid. You tack it down in one place, it just sticks up in another. You try to backstop Northern Ireland, and the Scots get skittish and want to depart the Kingdom again.

No good compromise between the various factions can be found, and the British people (eminently practical) are beginning to realise that proposed solutions are typically worse than the (much exaggerated) problems of simply remaining in the E.U. and getting on with daily life, working toward reforms (where needed) within the existing structure.

Yes, E.U. membership has its share of problems (which must be taken seriously), but also many benefits — including the huge benefit of avoiding the world wars which used to break out between European nations before they developed a comprehensive strategy of cooperation. The value of this ‘peace dividend’ is inestimable, as is the progress made in human rights:

There is, moreover, a point at which Leavers’ determination becomes mere foolish obstinacy. America spent years fighting the Vietnam War because politicians were too stubborn to admit it had been a grievous error. The historical lesson is clearly ‘Cut your losses’.

Even fellow Tories stare at May’s Brexit deal with icy disapproval. Some have grown quite red-faced over her alleged ‘betrayal’ of their vision of a Brexit in which Britain calls the shots, rather than being like fish to the fryer. (No Nicola Sturgeon jokes, please!)

As an outsider, I’m gobsmacked that there’s still no new referendum on Brexit, as this seems the best way forward. I’m convinced a second referendum would result in a vote to remain. Why?

– The first vote had something of an air of the madness of crowds about it. It was a mania for a novel idea whose downside had yet to be fully grasped. Two years later, that downside is far more apparent.

– Many people voted Leave as a kind of protest vote or middle finger to Brussels, without really believing Leave would win the day. No one was more surprised than Boris Johnson, who adopted Leave as a means to stoke his political career, but was left looking rather sheepish the day after.

– Brexit was sold by rock star conservatives with no real plan for implementation. After the sugar high of excessive nationalism came the inevitable crash: into the harsh reality that Brexit may mean economic stagnation for Britain (as the latest Treasury report would indicate).

– In retrospect, it appears that some pro-Brexit propaganda crossed the line into psychological manipulation covertly funded by non-U.K. sources, thus flouting British campaign-finance laws. There seems to have been an international campaign to misinform voters about what Brexit would actually entail, and to inflame jingoistic passions rather than rely on neutral facts. In hindsight, Leave looks more like a ‘grassroots’ movement funded by eccentric millionaires.

– It is also claimed that a number of supposedly independent pro-Brexit groups (Vote Leave, BeLeave, the D.U.P., and Veterans for Britain) pooled their resources illegally, spending a collective £3.5 million to hire a Canadian political consultancy and data research firm, AggregateIQ, to leverage the outcome. See ‘How a tiny Canadian IT company helped swing the Brexit vote for Leave’ in The Telegraph.

– Brexit was arguably a product of the same sort of nationalist sentiment which served to install Donald Trump in the White House. There may be those in Russia who would rather see Britain, America, and the E.U. all bitterly divided, rather than cooperating to build a world which is peaceful, free, and poised to deal with the very real problem of climate change (and is unified against Russian military expansion).

– One ought to get past the view that ‘the people voted for Brexit, therefore it must be the Will of the People.’ Serious questions have arisen as to whether the people were badly misinformed, and whether the policy can be successfully implemented. A second referendum two years later (in light of all the revealed facts) is entirely appropriate, and is the best way to honour the Will of the People.

– Plan A, Plan B, Plan C… If we count all the plans advanced by warring factions, we’re probably up to Plan 9 by now:

– It’s easy to say ‘We don’t like all them foreigners, so we’ll take our puddings and go home!’ But it turns out it’s much harder to actually do it. In a second referendum, cooler (and better-informed) heads may prevail — always assuming dark money can be kept from buying the results (or buying the marketing and advertising which determines the results).

Quoting from a Washington Post article:

‘What was always an illusion on the Brexiteer side was that the kind of world you could return to was when Britain had an empire and was a global superpower in the world economy’, said Fabian Zuleeg, the chief executive of the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank with close ties to the E.U.

In short, Brexit was a pipe dream — well-intentioned perhaps; sentimental, nationalistic, but not geared to practical economic reality. Globalisation is no unalloyed joy, but the challenge for Britain (as for all nations) is to compete as effectively as possible, rather than pretending one is still living in the old world. The retro quality of Brexiteers is underscored in this interview from Fox Business where the tune being hummed is ‘What would Maggie do?’

Those nostalgic for the Thatcher years might want to watch this video:

No, not even the ghost of Maggie Thatcher (or her imitators) can rescue the British people from the throes of Brexit. What’s needed is a new referendum.

In the face of enormous, throbbing problems with the Brexit deal, some cabinet members are voting with their feet:

An unusual resignation speech delivered by a member of the May cabinet

For singalong purposes, let us recap the essential points:

You need feet to be a Tory,
You need feet to kick your friends;
You need feet to pull your socks up,
And stop the deal from fraying at the ends.
You need feet to switch positions,
You need feet to dance the hoochie-koo;
You need quite big feet to cast your vote for Brexit,
And I need feet (are you listening, Theresa?)
To run away from you.

What some people’s feet are running away from is a logical inconsistency known as “having our cake and eating it” — a Boris Johnsonism regarding Brexit. This is where I feel a tinge of sympathy for Mrs May. She’s been dispatched to Brussels to extract all the benefits of being in the E.U., while simultaneously up and leaving it — a two-step which no one, no matter how blessed by the Terpsichorean Muse, can manage to perform. How does cheery Donald Tusk respond to all this cake-eating?

Or if the The Donald leaves you unpersuaded, consider this helpful puppet demonstration courtesy the ever-helpful Germans:

How many Britons were sold on Leave through false assurances that they could still reap the benefits of E.U. membership? Five percent? Ten percent? And how many of those now see the reality more clearly? Democracy is not just about choice, but about informed choice. That’s why a second referendum is the best way forward.

Suppose I order an item from Freemans, based on an advert which promises a certain size, colour, and style. Then the merchant contacts me and says, ‘Well, we don’t actually have that size, colour, and style. Can we send you something else instead?’ If the original item is undeliverable, I want that second chance to choose.

What if the Brexit people voted for is undeliverable? Should they be given some substitute made of tofu, toffee and pigswill, or should they at least be given some final say in the matter? A second referendum is not anti-democratic. It respects the right of the people to choose from available options, rather than the pie-in-sky Brexit that was promised them.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Next time: The Fishy Commoners Policy – Can It Work?

‘There are no Thatcherites in foxholes’. –old Ojibwa proverb

Links

Greenspan Bobblehead Shocks Nervous Britons – UPDATE
David Tennant Reacts To Brexit Vote
British MPs Need Stronger Passwords
Queen Elizabeth Plans for Trump Visit

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