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The guilty men of Brexit, Churchill, Boris Johnson, and the “bullseye of disaster”

The xenophobia during the EU referendum campaign was loathsome.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum I considered publishing a special issue of the magazine in which, in a series of specially commissioned signed essays, we would indict the guilty men of Brexit. As I’ve said before, I am no ardent Brussels-phile but the referendum campaign had appalled us. David Cameron’s carelessness and insouciance in calling and leading such a wretched campaign and then walking away from the consequences of his actions disgusted us.

We despised the narcissism and game-playing of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, newspaper columnists masquerading as statesmen. The xenophobia of the right-wing press and Nigel Farage had been loathsome. The Remain campaign had been little better, from the fear-mongering of the Treasury to the lacklustre performance of Jeremy Corbyn.

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The inspiration for the issue would be Guilty Men, the celebrated polemic written by Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard and published in July 1940 under the pseudonym Cato, named after the Roman senator and historian. The three authors were all employed by Lord Beaverbrook, a Conservative and appeaser, hence the desire for anonymity. Cato’s 15 guilty men included Neville Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin and Lord Halifax. Their appeasement of Hitler had led to the Dunkirk catastrophe. Our guilty men would have been Cameron, Johnson, Gove, Farage, Duncan Smith, Corbyn, and so on.

In the end, we published an issue featuring a brilliant André Carrilho cover illustration of Boris Johnson with an elongated nose, the chosen line for which was “The Brexit lies”. But the idea of writing something more ambitious about the Brexit debacle – the viciousness of the campaign, the lies and distortions, the divisions it exacerbated and revealed – nagged at me.

I even discussed with my agent, Andrew Gordon, writing a short book, a contemporary reworking of Guilty Men for the age of Brexit. “You’ll have to write it quickly, by the end of the summer,” he said. I didn’t have the stamina for such an undertaking but I hoped another writer might and said so in a column. Someone must have been listening because last week a book about Brexit called Guilty Men by “Cato the Younger”, published by Iain Dale’s enterprising and nimble Biteback operation, landed on my desk.  

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The original Guilty Men opens with an impassioned account of the retreat from Dunkirk: “How was it . . . that the bravest sons of Britain ever came to be placed in such jeopardy?” Cato the Younger’s version begins more prosaically with a short summary of the original book with which it shares a title before it moves on to the beaches of Kos in Greece and the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War. From there, it recounts how Britain came to join the European Economic Community and how the conditions for Brexit were created.

It is not written with the swagger and literary flair of the Michael Foot original: after all, Foot was a belletrist as well as a politician and newspaper editor, a passionate student of the Romantics, especially of Byron and Hazlitt. But it makes its case forcefully as it indicts for the five sins of deceit, distortion, personal gain, failures of leadership and hubris 13 men and two women, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, who is damned because of her “inflexibility on freedom of movement”. (I suppose the title Guilty Men and Women would not have been so euphonious.)

In the concluding chapter, or “envoi” as the author prefers, there is an expression of defiance: “We will come through and we will thrive.” But the final note is long and plangent, a lament for what is described as a diminished sense of European fellowship, “perhaps for ever”. For ever is a long time, of course, but you get the point.

Guilty Men sold more than 50,000 copies in a few weeks and 200,000 by the end of 1940. “No tract on foreign policy since Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace in 1919 . . . had so decisively seared itself into the public consciousness,” wrote John Stevenson in his introduction to the Penguin edition. Cato the Younger’s “Brexit Edition” is unlikely to be a best­seller – Britain is not existentially threatened by fascism, after all – but its central idea is a good one (I had it myself!) and one wishes the pseudonymous author or authors well.

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While we are on the theme of Brexit, here are some more variations. David Davis, who used to say that striking a free trade deal with the EU27 would be straightforward because the Germans would be so desperate to sell us their cars and the French their cheese and wine, has now said that the Brexit negotiations are as “complicated as the moon landings”. Andrew Adonis, speaking in the Lords, has called Brexit “a hard-right nationalist policy”. The diarist and theatre critic Tim Walker uses the neologism “Brexshit”. Nick Clegg has asked, rhetorically, if any of us remember the time when we were promised an “easy Brexit”. And the Labour MP Mike Gapes has suggested we are heading for a “Wrexit crash”.      

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Dunkirk and the failure of the Norwegian campaign opened the way for Winston Churchill to become prime minister and for the creation of the wartime coalition in which Clement Attlee served with such distinction. Today, in our age of illusion, there is no Churchill waiting on the Tory benches to replace the humiliated Theresa May. Compared to Churchill, Boris Johnson (for all his glorified Churchillian self-image) is a huckster and a popinjay, whose character flaws render him unfit to be foreign secretary, least of all prime minister. Churchill said that Chamberlain and the appeasers had led Britain to “the bullseye of disaster”. Something similar could be said of Johnson and of our present predicament. Guilty men, indeed.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear