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The Political Butterfly Effect: fun, forensic hypothesising

By Antonia Quirke

Did a mass brawl cause Brexit? Or one incident on a boat tip climate change on to its current trajectory? Probably not. But a five-part series (2-6 September, 1:45pm) had huge fun suggesting that the past could have been significantly altered but for one disruptive action, one twist of fate. It turned out to be an especially entertaining parlour game when the programmes were cut to sound like Chinese whispers. Multiple interviewees, many voices weaving and clamouring, many butting inflections: exasperation, resignation. A devil in one ear, and an angel in the other. Everybody swooning deep down a rabbit-hole. 

The opening episode, about “the Brexit brawl”, examined the moment the former Labour MP for Falkirk, Eric Joyce, “hit the booze” in the Commons bar in 2012 and turned his bitter gaze on some “enthusiastic young Tories”. Someone bought a packet of crisps. The word “oik” was muttered. Eric (“he’s a big bloke”) started a fight and senior whips were called. But instead of it being just a “footnote in the history of pissed MPs”, seats were lost, voting reforms implemented, and Jeremy Corbyn rose. Hence the campaign for Remain was lacklustre. Equals Brexit. Ha! Really? 

I loved the atmosphere of drawing pins in a board complicatedly connected with coloured string. The flourish of the Ripperologist. But it all indicated a much wider and unhealthier desperation somehow. Never had September started with quite such a sense of regret, I thought, as when this episode aired. The where-did-it-all-go-wrongness. The grasping pulse of: I’ve identified the point where it all went wrong! Now I can sleep! By the time Joyce was quoted faux-despairingly claiming, “It’s my great contribution, this terrible… moment” (the ultimate shame-brag), I thought of Tolstoy’s profoundly obsessive pages contemplating cause and effect at the end of War and Peace. “What does all this mean? Why did it happen? What made those people burn their houses and slay their fellow men?” And his deathly conclusion: “Power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.” Possibly, for the foreseeable, it’s advisable to confine any pivotal-moment pinpointing to one’s own life, not history. Still – a hoot!

The Political Butterfly Effect
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 04 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war