Brexit: Irish Backstop For Dummies (video)

With a little help from The Cranberries, and footage from the People’s Vote March, London, 3-23-2019

In my (literally) fevered brain, I’ve been searching for a way to make a statement about the People’s Vote March, the Irish Backstop, and the seeming lack of concern among politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg over the violence which could ensue in Northern Ireland if things aren’t handled just right. This is it:

Full screen it for best effect, and choose 720p. Any problem with the embedded video, try this Dropbox link:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/96u0is2hoka9gdr/Irish%20Backstop%20For%20Dummies.mkv

I also made an animated GIF for added exposure:

During peacetime, we don’t recognize how fragile and precious peace is, and how easily the peace can be lost. To use a stupid pop analogy, it’s like a game of Jenga, where removing the United Kingdom from the European Union may cause a chain reaction which sends the Towers of Peace crumbling.

In the video, different media sources are blended to create an ironic commentary in the guise of a “for dummies” book, with British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg cast in the role of dummy (or zombie). The French version of “for dummies” is “pour les Nuls,” as was kindly explained to me 20 years ago by my then workmate Virginie Ducrot.

During the time of the “Troubles,” a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a source of constant fighting in which thousands died, including innocent children. Then the Good Friday Agreement established an open border and fighting ended. Yet, the same forces still exist in Northern Ireland today, and might easily be re-ignited by Brexit. But the Brexiteers gave no thought to the Irish border, and don’t take seriously the need to avoid a hard border at all cost. What’s in their heads?

The Cranberries’ music video “Zombie” was banned by the BBC. It’s not hard to understand why. It’s one of those pieces of art that forces you to confront difficult issues. At first, I worried that the Crucifixion theme was sacrilegious. But while some of the imagery is garish, it makes the powerful point that innocent children are being crucified, and the consciousness behind this killing is not noble or heroic — it’s more in the nature of a gnawing spirit of hatred that knows no mercy.

This January marked the one year anniversary of Dolores O’Riordan’s tragic death at the too young age of 46. Her song “Zombie” transcended the Irish Troubles and became an anthem decrying senseless violence between warring tribes wherever it occurs — from Bosnia to Rwanda. As she hailed from Limerick, I offer her this sincere tribute:

There was a young girl named Dolores,
Who echoed a powerful chorus;
She protested the killing,
And in Heaven, God willing
She’ll put in a goodly word for us.

Michael Howard

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

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Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 2

(Well, mostly serious — with a sidebar on RINOs, WINOs, BRINOs, TINOs, and Tiggers.)

(Part 1 here.)

UPDATED! Those making an honest, fact-based cost-benefit analysis of Brexit are coming back to say, “Leave the EU? Are you barking?” But those wedded to Leave as a political ideology (almost a religion) are turning every fact-based study counterclockwise (putting their thumbs on the scale, so to speak) in order to continue stoking the emotional fervor for Leave. Apparently, “It’s all about democracy.” Toffee-nosed Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg are transformed almost overnight into humble servants of the common folk — the latter demanding that politicians deliver Brexit or else.

But who was it who aggressively propagandized the common folk (sometimes using dark or foreign money) in order to persuade them that Brexit was something like re-fighting the Second World War or repelling an invasion of terroristic foreigners? I admit this is an oversimplification, but to me Brexit looks like something dreamt up by a clique of eccentric millionaires of the English aristocracy, then put over on the common people by appealing to the worst sentiments in human nature.

(Note: To describe the architects of Brexit as eccentric millionaires may be misleading in that it suggests they act without rhyme or reason. One theory is that at least some of them act with the quite specific intent of turning the UK into a so-called “low-regulation” country where workers’ rights and environmental protection standards are gradually eroded, taxes are lowered, government services are drastically reduced, the NHS is privatised, and food safety falls well below EU standards. Perhaps the mascot for UKIP should be a chlorinated chicken!)

There is presently a similar populist phenomenon in America. Donald Trump has got millions of people begging the government to make them poorer by taking away their health care and lavishing billions on an unnecessary border wall with Mexico. Trump seems increasingly unhinged from reality; to subscribe to his views and policies, one has to intentionally blind oneself to the real world data coming in from reputable professionals whose life work has been to know whereof they speak. So, we can take this as a symptom of populist movements which lead to a dangerous disconnect between real world facts, and policies based on unicorns or folk devils: That symptom is increasing reliance on “alternative facts” and spinning the tale.

I am an American, and am familiar with the “ugly American” and “oafish American” memes which at some points in history have been absolutely spot on, and whose ingredients include imperialism, disdain for anything foreign, and a desire to dominate rather than participate coequally. But have a gander at this video of MEP Nigel Farage addressing the European Parliament just after the 2016 referendum:

Doesn’t he seem to be acting out the worst stereotype of an ugly Britisher? Yet, this type of snide, superior attitude (and corresponding disdain for the EU) is an oft-encountered feature of the Leave movement.

To high EU officials, Farage is both Mr Brexit and Mr Big Mouth. He’s well-known to go out of his way to insult and abuse people just for sport, to be loud, obnoxious, and obstreperous. In the above clip, at 4:10 he famously tells the EU Parliament: “I know that virtually none of you have ever done a proper job in your lives, or worked in business, or worked in trade, or indeed ever created a job. But listen, just listen…”

To the average viewer possessing sense and sensibility, such massive put-downs worthy of an insult comic would be the main takeaway from his speech (plus the loud boos Farage certainly earned). Here’s a quick mashup of the same event, with more comments from MEPs:

But strangely, just after this eccentric performance Farage was interviewed by BBC News, and the accompanying chyrons seem to treat him as a sober statesman, e.g.: “Nigel Farage: The UK is a beacon of hope to democrats.”

Farage is proud of being the perennial “pantomime villain” in EU Parliament, but how does this set the table for Brexit negotiations? Keep in mind that his music-hall comedy act does not consist only of personal abuse.

He’s on record wanting the European Union to fail and die, and never misses an opportunity to gloat over any setback. Thus, he’s about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party; yet he’s arguably the most visible (and audible) face of the UK in Brussels, sapping good will at every opportunity.

To the EU, Brexit represents the odd, temporary victory of no-nothing big mouths like Farage. The EU is committed to minimising the damage incurred from UK withdrawal, while remaining true to core principles.

Compared to Farage’s Eurosceptic or Europhobic view, most young people (who will be the inheritors of whatever policy is adopted) have a completely different view of the EU. They have their British identity, true. But they don’t see that identity as being fundamentally in conflict with the EU. Having grown up with things like open borders, hassle-free travel, cheap and easy access to food and medicine produced in the EU, and close friends who are from the EU, their attitude tends to be open and welcoming. They too want the best deal they can get from the EU, but they’re more apt to believe it can be gotten by staying in. They don’t see the UK as being in a geopolitical conflict with the EU, and don’t agree with the far right that those who fail to support Brexit are “traitors.” Nor do they think the EU is run by (pick your stereotype) Nazis, Soviets, or George Soros. Their daily experience does not lead them to believe that British sovereignty is in danger from EU membership. The two can easily coexist.

The genius of James O’Brien’s Germany+ reframing (see Part 1) is that it gets us beyond the Leave/Remain dichotomy and returns us to the fundamental question: What’s the best deal? Imagine you put a diverse group of voters to a blindfold test of different deals available, using neutral labeling such as Option A, Option B, Option C, etc. Each option would be summarized in neutral language, with no appeals to sentiment, patriotism, or bias of any kind, and no promises of unicorns — only facts that can be agreed upon as accurate by a neutral regulating body composed of respected figures representing diverse views, but no obvious crackpots, demagogues, or politicians-on-the-make.

Under those conditions, it wouldn’t surprise me if a majority of voters chose the option which (when the blindfold was removed) turned out to be Germany+, a.k.a. Remain.

The sad and absurd fact is that after three years of messing about with Brexit, trying to figure out what it would actually mean in practice, a great many experts have concluded that it would mean a poorer UK with a reduced standard of living — especially for those already living in poverty. Under one scenario there would be further depreciation of the British pound, as well as a rise in prices for fruit and veg imported from the EU during late winter/early spring. Under that scenario, some working class families might be reduced to a diet of mostly beans on toast. (Call it Project Fear if you like; it remains a possibility.) And as noted in a lovely dance with language by Baroness Bull in the House of Lords:

Perhaps the biggest threat to women is dependent on what happens to our economy if — and after — we leave the EU. Any negative impacts of an orderly Brexit, or, in the worst case, of leaving without a deal, will hit women — specifically, the most vulnerable women in our society — hardest. Reductions in public spending have a higher impact on women, as the primary users of public services. Cuts in public sector employment or pay disproportionately affect women because of their greater concentration in this sector. Strains on social care increase pressures on women because they are more likely to care for elderly or disabled family members.

Baroness Bull of Aldwych

Again, the problem with large, complex systems with many variables is that no one knows for sure what will happen when you throw the switch on a massive, fairly sudden change. It might come right in the end, but that could take years. In the meantime, a great many individuals and small businesses could go under; and some global firms might minimise investment.

There’s an increasingly odd disconnect between the happy talk of Brexiteers and the real world data coming in. According to The Times, the government have now quietly drawn up plans for a “hardship fund” to be used to offset the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit:

No-deal hardship fund planned for surge in jobless

Ministers are planning a “hardship fund” for Britons impoverished by a no-deal Brexit.

A leaked document from the cabinet committee dedicated to preparing for a chaotic rupture with the European Union reveals the extraordinary scenarios being prepared for in Whitehall.

Other measures under consideration include using “tax and benefits policy” to offset rises in the cost of living, protection for parts of the country “geographically vulnerable” to food shortages and sourcing alternative food for schools, prisons and hospitals.

The plans were drawn up at a meeting this month of the EU exit and trade (preparedness) committee, which is chaired by Theresa May and attended by almost every cabinet minister.

–Henry Zeffman, Political Correspondent

Pity that bit about hardship not being on the big red bus. 😉

Only a few years ago people were saying: “Brexit — What a lovely idea!” Now they’re saying: “Brexit — We made it through the Blitz, we can make it through this.” That’s a scary lesson in how expectations are being managed. Good news, citizens! Your chocolate ration has been raised again: from 30 grams to 20 grams per week.

How We Got Here

It troubles me that lately both the the UK media and politicians seem to have given up questioning how we got here — how the nature of the referendum and the means used to win Leave have led us to the present morass, this inability to reach some kind of deal or consensus. Of course, any reckoning of how we got here must include the “ugly Britisher” act performed by Nigel Farage at EU Parliament for years on end.

I suspect most EU officials are mature, practical people who don’t want to respond with ill will toward the UK, and are trying in good faith to negotiate a withdrawal deal which is fair to all parties. But how many daily insults from the likes of Farage can they withstand, knowing that his style of rhetoric leads to the burning of EU flags in the streets of Britain, and on social media?

Neither the Tories nor UKIP, nor those even farther right, have a clear sense of the ideals upon which the EU was founded, and toward which it tries to gravitate. Quoting Lord Davies of Stamford:

The Tory party has never understood the moral force or the genuine idealism behind the European Union, or its genuine commitment to the concept of solidarity. … The idea that the EU would take a permanent stand on behalf of the Irish, who are rightly defending their right not to have their country divided in half by a hideous permanent border, will not have occurred to them. They will have said, “Oh no. There’s no way that the EU, with 500 million people, will allow a country of 2 million or 3 million to stand in its way”. They were completely wrong on all those points — disastrously wrong.

Brexit is not just bad policy, but bad policy arrived at by questionable means, and championed by questionable figures.

Due to the considerable deception involved in selling Brexit to UK citizenry, when it comes to actual implementation the pieces just don’t fit. There doesn’t seem to be a deal which can be cobbled together to satisfy all (or even most) factions.

Brexit as a concept has built-in structural problems. It was always likely to be deeply divisive; always likely to reanimate the Irish “troubles” and reinvigorate the call for Scottish independence; and as Tony Blair has pointed out, at one end of the Brexit deal spectrum you get a “pointless Brexit,” while at the other end you get a “painful Brexit”:

More and more, Brexit 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.

What strikes me as particularly shameful is that leaders of the two main political parties seem engaged in a massive reenactment of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Neither is willing to face the naked truth that Brexit is a sham solution to some very real underlying problems — problems which are best solved whilst remaining in the EU.

If what we truly have is an Emperor’s New Clothes problem, this explains why compromise is so difficult. Those who smile wanly and commend us to adopt pleasant compromises are (in effect) suggesting that the Emperor is partially clothed — a view which pleases no one. (Perhaps he’s wearing only a jockstrap and a clown hat.) The 2016 referendum has arguably created a rift which — like the Catholic/Protestant rift among the Irish — leads to a binary split: Brexit is either the greatest thing since sliced bread, or else it’s total rubbish. Lord Davies claims it’s total rubbish:

This is rubbish. That is the point: this is total rubbish. We are buying hot air. There is nothing in it at all. There are no countervailing economic benefits from Brexit, no economic gains or economic revenues. Not one has been mentioned in the months of discussion here, and not one exists. None exists outside the fantasies of the Government. It is a very serious matter. I do not know whether the Government have deceived themselves, ​but they must not be allowed to deceive the British people.

–Lord Davies of Stamford

Some “good government” types take the position that yes, Brexit is mostly rubbish, but the people did vote for it, so we have to respect their wishes and enact it anyway. But to do so is to reject the very benefits of parliamentary democracy over direct democracy: The Greek philosophers were highly suspicious of direct democracy, having observed firsthand that the common people can easily be misled by false arguments or the arousal of base passions. (Perhaps a big red horse?) Such is the case with Brexit. In a parliamentary democracy, the duty of elected leaders is not to be a rubber stamp for popular sentiment, but to make decisions that will most benefit their constituents. Now, a tough question: Are the MPs who admit that Brexit is mostly rubbish but vote for it anyway really “good government” types? Or are they cowardly politicians, afraid to do the right thing lest they be punished by rowdy Leave voters?

It is in this context that we have to admire members of the new Independent Group. They’re like canaries in the coal mine, giving us all valuable feedback on how toxic British politics has become. They’ve defected from both Labour and Conservative parties, and have coalesced around the need for a People’s Vote. Such a vote, if politically feasible, would not solve all Brexit-related problems; but it would at least clarify whether — after seeing what Brexit looks like in the doing (and the government’s incompetence to implement it) — the people still want the government to proceed. If (as I’ve suggested elsewhere) Brexit is a phenomenon related to the madness of crowds for tulip bulbs and Internet stocks, then the hope for Remainers is that the fancy has largely passed, dampened perhaps by economic reports which trickle out (or are leaked by government officials) that Brexit will likely entail hardship and a lower standard of living for the British people.

The End Game

For both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit may have become a no-win issue. If Brexit is actually implemented in some form, the results may range from suboptimal to catastrophic. Better in the end to find some way of avoiding Brexit, perhaps via a People’s Vote. But whilst a Remain solution may yield better results for most Britons (and avert problems with Scotland and Northern Ireland), both May and Corbyn fear the political repercussions of turning back from the brink. Having hitched their wagons to the black star of Brexit, they fear looking weak, foolish, and indecisive. They dread the backlash from those common folk who have been propagandized to believe that Brexit is “all about democracy,” and that any failure by government to deliver Brexit should be greeted with violence in the streets, and more death threats to politicians.

It’s hard to see how this ends well. But truth will out in the end, so better to be on the side of truth, even as a latecomer, and even if it costs you votes. Perhaps some coalition of Tory Remainers, Labour Remainers, and fledgling Independents will do something brave and noble in the end. But there’s not much time left. (The House of Commons has plenty of green benches, but sadly, only one Green MP: Caroline Lucas.)

The EU can’t tell May in an obvious manner how to resolve the present impasse. But they’ve strongly hinted that they would be willing to reopen negotiations if she were to relax her red lines and work with Labour to come up with a soft Brexit that could garner wide cross-party support.

A soft Brexit is what Tony Blair also calls a “pointless” Brexit. He’s mostly right; but a soft Brexit is also a relatively harmless Brexit. At some point, the majority of politicians — both Conservative and Labour — may want out of this Brexit debacle. But they’ll want a fig leaf for doing so. So, a soft Brexit is also a fig leaf Brexit. If May and Corbyn reach a soft Brexit deal whereby the UK remains in both the Customs Union and the Single Market (or some variations thereof possibly renamed for cosmetic purposes), they can adopt the public stance that they’ve delivered Brexit for the people. Hoorah for Democracy, and let’s move on! Remain would be better, but political leaders fear it. It would leave them standing “alone and naked” (to coin a phrase).

So an extension of Article 50 followed by a negotiation leading to a soft Brexit is another possible end game scenario — maybe the best we can hope for, given the political realities.

I vote we call it a “Meat and Two Veg Brexit.” The “meat” would be an agreement (at least in principle) to exercise greater control over immigration. (The details can be fudged.) The “two veg” would be membership in the Customs Union and Single Market. Don’t mention Norway, or Germany, or the war, and people just might go for it! “What about that Theresa May, then? She gave us a right proper Meat and Two Veg Brexit. How’s that for democracy, mate?”


Sidebar: Night of the BRINO

Here in the states, we’re used to strife between the Republican right and far right. Moderate Republicans (a nearly extinct breed) who fail to support far right causes are often accused of being RINOs: Republicans In Name Only.

You may also know that our lunatic president, Donald Trump, is obsessed with building a huge, multi-billion dollar border wall to keep out Mexicans purported to possess excessive amounts of duct tape. The question has arisen: How do we pacify him, shut him up? One answer: Put up a Fotomat, call it a wall, then get the hell out of Dodge!

The Fotomat, an extinct structure belonging to an era when family snaps needed to be developed in a photo lab. It is here memorialised in oils by Skowhegan, whose technique is unusual — the clouds being fashioned with a palette knife, the medium being a mixture of Brylcreem and ground Lifesavers. Reproduction courtesy https://www.fotomatfans.com/fotomat-1984/

The Fotomat solution, if implemented, would be a WINO or Wall In Name Only. (Obvious headline: TRUMP BORDER PLAN SAVED BY WINO.)

Likewise, the BRINO acronym (attributed to Jacob Rees-Mogg) stands for Brexit In Name Only. Picture a Brexit so soft and delicate that its breath can barely be detected against the bright-burnished vambrance of a suit of armour. Who knows? March 29 could turn out to be the Night of the BRINO:

Typical false advertising. What they don’t tell you is that Night of the Lepus includes a cast of thousands… of bunny rabbits!

One thing’s for sure: If a you’re a politician who’s been selling Brexit door-to-door, a suit of armour is recommended attire. 😉

Michael Howard

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

P.S. Hate to ask, but since Anna Soubry is a Remainer and favours a People’s Vote, might she be a TINO? A dated joke, as she’s now left the Tories and gone Independent or “Tigger”:

There’s a new bill to ban dog meat consumption. Would that apply to Brexit as well? Is there an ethical way to dispose of dog meat like Brexit, without eating it raw as some are doing?

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‘Twas The Night Before Brexit

 

‘Twas the night before Brexit, when out in the Kingdom
Some wanker shot Boris, but the git only winged ‘im.
The Maybot was placed on her chill pad with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
She had spent the whole week giving Corbyn a ragging;
Now she’d spend the whole night helping Santa with tagging.
Gifts for the gentry and gifts for relations,
For Labour MPs and for Tory Alsatians.
She had waited for Santa through elevens and twelves,
But began to despair the appearance of elves.
Then the clock struck out one with a note of revival,
As if presaging tidings of Santa’s arrival.
The Downing Street crowd, from toffs to plebeians
Beheld Santa’s sleigh, pulled by East Europeans!
“The Labour Exchange must be notified quickly”,
Said the Duchess of Ducks to the Duke of North Prickly.
“They’ve been fishing in Scotland, as is plain by the smell;
“And they’ve prob’ly been bonking the Sturgeon as well”.
But St Nick took no note of these tossers and yelpers;
He was flanked by a bus filled with SNP helpers!
As I blinked in the moonlight, there appeared a fine elf
Playing ‘Scotland The Brave’ — it was Nicola herself!
Her colours were grand, and crocheted on her nightie
Was “Bollocks to Brexit, and a new vote for Blighty”.
Then Nigel Farage arrived, driving a hearse;
He was stewed to the gills, and what made matters worse,
I could tell by the groans which emerged from the casket
He had Boris in tow, who had quite blown a gasket.
The two of them tried to take over the party;
Farage all too posh, and the Johnson all farty.
Between them they had only one sticky wicket,
But they tried to pull down Santa’s elves — was that cricket?
It’s an insult to Scotland, how these two carry on
On the holiest night, until well past the dawn.
So May in her ‘kerchief and I in my hoodie
Asked Johnson to leave — but do you think, would he?
His bellowed refusal resounded for miles,
But good old St Nick was all chuckles and smiles.
He bundled the Johnson up into his sleigh,
He sacked him and fracked him and took him away.
He shouted to May, before making his exit–
“Merry Yule, stupid woman! And to all a good Brexit”.

Michael Howard

Links

The Twelve Days of Trumpster
Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful
Jesus is Born – in a World of Many Faiths
Simple Gifts, the Christmas Truce, and Benjamin Bowmaneer
Christmas, Childhood, and Cable Spaghetti

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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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