In The Alchemist, the poet Ben Jonson, a rather more considerable figure than his near-namesake Boris Johnson, allows his principal character, Face, to make use of the plague for all manner of subterfuge.
Until recently, the hardcore Brexiters were assuming that the latest plague, Covid-19, would divert attention from the predictable horrors of Brexit. Oh no. It is not turning out like that. Even during the “transition” period the monstrosity of it all was beginning to dawn on people. Why, the latest YouGov poll tells us that between 10% and 13% of Leave voters now regret their vote.
Many of these were conned by the blatant lies employed by the leaders of the Leave campaign – a campaign which the prime minister’s former right-hand man, one Dominic Cummings, was happy to boast about.
Mind you, there is no accounting for the perversity of human nature. I recently heard a snatch of the BBC programme Any Questions in which the author Lionel Shriver admitted that she was beginning to have doubts about the way she voted; but, notwithstanding those doubts, she said she would probably vote the same way again. I am not making this up.
It hardly needs someone like me, who has never trusted Johnson an inch, to point out that the sky is thick with chickens coming home to roost. (The phrase comes from one of the American author Peter De Vries’s comic novels, but seems to capture the chaos of the current political atmosphere.) Many of Johnson’s own supporters have now seen through him, not least in the formerly sycophantic Conservative press.
This government cannot be held responsible for the plague itself; but, most certainly, it is responsible for the chaotic handling of it – and of a host of other things. As one former senior civil servant of the old school put it to me: “I find the all-round economic, political, constitutional and reputational damage that a no-deal or even thin-deal outcome will do to the UK increasingly unbelievable and unacceptable.”
We are witnessing a national tragedy, and it is in sorrow and bewilderment, rather than anger, that so many of our European friends point this out. And the terrible thing is that, although friends and foes are becoming more and more convinced that Johnson is simply “not up to it”, one looks around his cabinet – largely chosen for being Brexit loyalists – and asks: “who is?”
The favourite for some time has been the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Alas, he too is a rampant Brexiter, with some fatuous ambition to create a network of free ports. We learn from an interview in the Spectator that his favourite former chancellor is the Labour politician Hugh Gaitskell: “He was at the same school as me so that we have that in common. As a Labour chancellor he was sceptical about European integration …”
Sunak did not add that Gaitskell was chancellor for only a year (1950‑51) or that one of his colleagues, Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary in Attlee’s 1945-51 governments, was a driving force in working on the first steps to European integration (as Andrew Adonis explains in his fine book Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill.)
Sunak, while having borrowed more in 10 months to alleviate the economic and social distress imposed by plague-related lockdowns than Gordon Brown did in nine years, is obsessed by his perceived need to raise taxes and lower public spending in order to bring the deficit down. His rationale is to prepare for the next crisis – “building up the resilience you need to deal with the future shock that will come along”.
But this is the next crisis. This is the future shock. All hell has broken loose with the British economy. The last thing business and consumer confidence need is even to hear talk of austerity to come. One reason why there is so much economic and social distress now is that the hit from Brexit, and from the economic and social consequences of the clampdown, have been imposed on an economy already scarred by austerity.
Which brings me to the sad news of the death of David Cornwell – John le Carré – whom I was privileged to get to know quite well in the last 10 years of his life. His literary achievements have been well covered and appreciated in many an obituary and memoir.
But there are two points I should like to add: first, his strong feelings about austerity – it was David who, all too presciently, first called it “planned penury”. And the great man was viscerally opposed to Brexit. As Smiley says in A Legacy of Spies: ‘If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe … if I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”
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