Falling down

Falling down

Michael Douglas’s defining performance remains his leading role in Falling Down. He plays the part of a man who, when his car gets stuck in an unending traffic jam, steps out on foot and strikes against the annoyances and dangers of everyday life in a way that audiences would have dreamt of but never have dared.

One of the joys of the film is how it leads its audience to identify with and cheer on a man who act out a fantasy that they could strongly identify with, but who they then slowly come to realise is suffering a dangerous breakdown. With successive incidents more and more viewers come to realise that they had completely misjudged him. By the time that he shoots up a fast food joint, most viewers see him not as a daring everyman but as a deranged nutter.

Now, a propos of nothing in particular, let us turn to Brexit.

Julius Caesar’s opening line of his account of his Gaul campaigns was: “Gaul is divided into three parts”. (This is many students’ favourite line in Latin. Not because it is interesting or even true, but because it is the only line they could securely translate). The Leave referendum coalition similarly could be divided into three parts. First, there were those who viscerally loathed the EU beyond all reason, whose hatred of it actuated their every move. Next, there were those who saw leaving the EU as a way of dealing with their concerns about immigration. Last, there were those who saw leaving the EU as a way of pushing Britain decisively in a free trade direction.

The ambitions of these three groups were in direct opposition. No matter. That conflict could be sorted out after the campaign was over.

In reality, the dividing lines between these three groups were not that rigid – many voters who were anti-immigrant hated the EU and many golf club bores sat in the centre of the Venn diagram.

The strategy of the free traders was simple, if immoral. They were well aware that by themselves they could not win a referendum to leave the EU. So they planned to tuck in behind the main Leave anti-immigrant message (which was aimed squarely at left-wing working class voters sceptical of big business and wage competition), then unveil themselves after the vote was won to make common cause with defeated Remainers to secure a business-friendly Brexit. By placing themselves at the hinge point, they reasoned that they could get all of what they wanted despite forming a tiny minority of the electorate, letting the Remainers take the heat of what other Leavers would regard as a betrayal.

Well, don’t they look like chumps now? Who could possibly have guessed that a campaign that was won on the basis of whipping up anti-immigration feeling would result in a government that would wreck Britain’s credibility for striking free trade deals? Yet still they delude themselves that at some point they might win out.

Wake up, suckers. Of all the losers from the referendum campaign (and there were many), this group probably lost worst. They twisted on 18 and drew a picture card.

It was in truth a really bad bet. The only glue holding Leavers together was the fact of the vote itself. And the only way that glue can continue to hold fast is by Leavers acting only on the purely negative wish to leave the EU. So at every stage compromise has been ruled out, because it would split the coalition. Theresa May found that out the hard way. Boris Johnson watched and learned and has not made the same mistake. Politically, he has been driven to no deal and Leavers have been swept along on a conveyor belt to the most extreme form of Brexit at every stage.

We have seen a direct assault on the courts as the enemies of the people for having the temerity of ensuring that proper legal requirements were adopted for triggering the exit from the EU. We have seen a government without a majority or its own mandate seek to suspend democracy in an attempt to force a no deal Brexit on the country. And now we see the government seek to break international law, breaking obligations that it entered into itself just a few short months ago.

The government may well not be able to make good on this threat. It may be thwarted by the House of Commons or the House of Lords (it may well be counting on this). Even if it is not, the practicalities of wrecking relationships with not just the EU but also the USA may cause a humiliating rethink. (No wonder Sir Keir Starmer ignored the subject this week at Prime Minister’s Questions. Reality is likely to do his work for him on this.)

The damage to Britain’s reputation is already done. Who is going to sign a trade deal with such a faithless negotiating party, unless the terms are tighter than a cat’s bum? Who is going to listen when Britain next wants to condemn a breach of international law?

And it is time for those who voted for Leave on the basis of free trade opportunities to admit that they got this wrong. The concrete trading advantages given by membership of the EU have been traded for magic beans that never sprouted. They made a catastrophic misjudgement and it is time for them to say so.

This would be humiliating. So what? Everyone makes mistakes. They are unlikely to get a warm reception from former Remainers, who will no doubt charmlessly gloat. Well, you can carry on being stupid just to spite them. That’s not obviously a winning strategy.

The alternative is to decide that you supported Leave for different reasons. Sadly, I expect most of these Leavers will decide that they now hate the EU enough that the loss of the free trade opportunities is still outweighed by that. I expect that would more palatable to their amour propre. But Britain will still be objectively worse off and continue falling down.

Alastair Meeks

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