Drawing parallels with the past is a perilous pastime for those who’d like to keep some vestige of sanity. Still, just this once wouldn’t hurt.
Reading the account of the exchange between Jean-Claude ‘Junk’ Juncker and our own Theresa May, one wonders if a similar encounter could have taken place between, say, Castlereagh and Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna.
T: Your proposals are nebulous.
C: Who are you calling nebulous?
T: I didn’t.
C: Yes, you bloody well did.
T: No, I didn’t.
C: You did too.
T: I didn’t either.
C: Did, did, did, did…
T: Didn’t, didn’t, didn’t…
C: Liar, liar, your pants are on fire.
T: Cross my heart and hope to die, I didn’t.
C: Did, did, did, did…
T (sticks his index fingers into his ears and chants): Na, na, na, na…
C (screams at the top of his lungs): You call me nebulous once again, and I’ll shoot you like a mad… Canning!
T (unplugs his ears): Oh yeah?
T: Says who?
C: Says I!
T: Well, you can go and…
Hard as I strain my fecund imagination, I still can’t picture this dialogue taking place in 1815. Yet there’s nothing surprising about it having taken place in 2018 (albeit without the few embellishments I added for emphasis).
Old-fashioned things like dignity, manners and style have gone out of modern politics, as they have out of everything else. However, even with that proviso it’s painful to witness the spectacle of Her Majesty’s prime minister haggling like a fishwife with a booze-addled foreigner from one of those iffy countries.
What makes it even harder to take is the realisation that the booze-addled foreigner is actually right, and Her Majesty’s prime minister is wrong. In fact, my friend Junk ought to be complimented on his restraint in having chosen a mild word to describe Mrs May’s performance.
He would have been within his right to use meatier adjectives, such as ‘inane’, ‘idiotic’ or even ‘half-arsed’. Any one of those would have been richly deserved.
Now that we wax nostalgic, let’s agree for old times’ sake that this government has handled Brexit in ways that would make Messrs Pitt, Castlereagh, Palmerston et al spin like tops in their graves.
Sometimes they acted as true statesmen, sometimes they didn’t, but they never went to Europe as supplicants, begging for ‘deals’. Just imagine any one of them imploring chaps from Luxembourg and Poland to let our parliament pass more of our own laws.
The very concept of a deal is deeply flawed anyway, borrowed as it is from commerce. Merchants live or die by deals; statesmen operate in pacts, treaties, alliances – or, barring those, conflicts.
A deal presupposes both sides relinquishing something for the sake of a greater mutual good. Yet one thing that a self-respecting country can never relinquish is its sovereignty, not without a fight anyway. British sovereignty is vested in Parliament, and no fragment of it can be broken off and traded away.
For an equitable deal to materialise in commerce, both sides have to be trading in good faith. If one of them isn’t, no deal is possible. Yet in this case, neither side is.
The EU doesn’t want an equitable deal. It wants to stop Brexit in its tracks or, barring that, to make it so painful that other members will think twice before following Britain’s suit.
And Mrs May doesn’t want to leave at all. She seems to think that Britain’s sovereignty rightfully belongs to an unaccountable foreign body with generous pension provisions for its operators. So she works surreptitiously to undermine the popular mandate, while making a show of respecting it.
Any courageous, statesmanlike PM would be telling the EU what we’re going to do, not asking if we could please do it. Britain may not be the great power it was at the time of Pitt, Castlereagh or Palmerston, but that doesn’t mean it has to humiliate and dishonour itself.
Yet humiliating their own country comes naturally to our spivocrats, nonentities to a man, or in this case woman. They are driven by self-interest and self-perpetuation, not by any considerations of bono publico.
In pursuit of such ignominious ends, they effectively act against their own country, joining forces with foreign governments, few of which have Britain’s best interests at heart.
I’m not as ready as some of my friends to bandy the word ‘treason’ about, what with its very specific legal implications. But used loosely, treason is exactly what Mrs May’s government and the so-called Remainers are committing.
If they acted as British statesmen, rather than as European bureaucrats of, well, nebulous allegiance, they wouldn’t negotiate at all – or if they did, they’d do so from a position of strength.
They wouldn’t genuflect before Junk and his accomplices, begging them for a deal. And once some thin gruel were served to them, they wouldn’t do an Oliver Twist and embarrassingly ask for more.
Instead they’d prepare the ground for an orderly fall-back and leave unconditionally and without paying any exit fees, making clear to the EU that, if we assume our share of liabilities, we must also have our share of assets.
That out of the way, by all means we could then discuss free trade agreements or any other ‘deals’. But making the exit contingent on a ‘deal’ puts those who are desperate to reverse Brexit into a powerful, nay dominant negotiating position.
Junk and his gang have effectively been handed veto power over Brexit and a decisive say in Britain’s internal politics. They could, for example, oust Mrs May by refusing to be enveloped in the nebula of her waffling and announcing harsh punitive measures awaiting a no-deal exit.
In effect, they could reduce Britain to a third-world status by facilitating the advent of a Trotskyist government that sees Venezuela as its role model.
Messrs Pitt, Castlereagh, Palmerston et al had their failings. But they would never have prostrated themselves in such a humiliating manner before a continental power.
But then in those days Britain had proud statesmen. All we have are spivocratic, deal-making nonentities. Is that really the kind of government we deserve?