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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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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.