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12 June 2016

Naked sleepwalking, going native in Spain, and the real threat to the NHS and the BBC

Plus: why the EU referendum is our Hillary Clinton v Donald Trump moment.

By Rory Bremner

The other day, I read that police in Manchester had picked up a man who was sleepwalking through the city late at night with no clothes on. He wasn’t identified at the time, though I did wonder if it was Louis van Gaal. The story reminded me of an occasion when my late friend John Fortune found himself in the street in Chiswick one night, having sleepwalked (he was dreaming he was in Manhattan) and shut the front door behind him.

He dialled 999 from a phone box. “Are you naked?” the operator asked. “No,” said John. “I’ve got my pyjamas on.” “In that case, it’s the fire brigade you want, sir. I’ll put you through.” (Apparently if you’re naked they send the police.)

So John went back and sat on the wall outside his house and, sure enough, a few minutes later, a fire engine came slowly up the street, its blue lights flashing but without the siren. The fire officer jumped down, took one look at John sitting there in his ­pyjamas and said, “Well, George Parr. You’re in a bit of a pickle, aren’t you?”

Viewers of our TV show will ­remember those peerless interviews in which the Johns – Bird and Fortune – took it in turns to play the hapless George Parr, who could be anything from a banker to a junior minister or an army general. How I miss those sketches. Just imagine who Parr might be today. Probably a Brexiteer.

The air that I breathe

“We want our country back” is a constant Brexit refrain. Yet many of the things that make our country great – the BBC, the NHS, the Post Office – are most at risk not from the EU but from the largely pro-Brexit right wing of the Tory party, which wants to undermine the BBC, privatise the NHS and sign up to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would ­allow companies to sue our government if its policies impacted adversely on their profits.

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Many of those pesky European regulations and directives, meanwhile, are designed to improve the quality of our air, beaches and animal welfare – improvements that our government often fights tooth and nail. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for instance, was held to account by the European Court of Justice after the campaign group ClientEarth complained that the air ­quality in 16 of our cities and regions – including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff – was unacceptably below EU standards on pollution.

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Bad medicine

Among the Syrian refugees seeking to come to this country are many highly qualified people, including doctors. As he ran out of ways to keep the lid on the crisis, it must have crossed the Prime Minister’s mind that one way to stop them coming here is to create a situation in which nobody in their right mind would want to be a doctor in Britain. Luckily, in Jeremy Hunt, he has the right man for the job.

Where’s Jez?

The referendum campaign so far has been dominated by the battle between Conservatives. Invariably, it’s David Cameron v Boris Johnson; or George Osborne v Michael Gove; or IDS v . . . well, IDS. The other parties barely get a look-in. This is partly because Jeremy Corbyn is still unwilling or unable to make any impact. Each morning, surrounded by a scrum of reporters and news crews waiting to hear something – anything – he doesn’t use the opportunity and is instead bundled into a waiting people-carrier as if he were being taken off to appear in court.

In the battles to come, Labour supporters need a champion, not a conscientious objector. And Corbyn needs a strong phalanx of supporters around him to put out the message in the studios, just as Tony Blair could rely on John Reid, David Blunkett, Margaret Beckett or Peter Mandelson to fight his corner. What we hear of those inside Team Corbyn all too easily gives rise to the impression that he is a Trojan horse. Actually, make that a Trojan donkey.

Isla del Crime

I’m always bemused when Vote Leave states that EU immigrants put an untold strain on the NHS. It is the youngest, fittest migrants who come here to work on our farms and in our factories. Imagine if Britain were a haven for the EU’s pensioners and gangsters. It must feel like that for the Spanish, who for years have provided homes for our retired people and criminals (in some cases, both). To be fair, once they arrive in Spain, the Brits do their best to integrate. Do they set up British pubs, eat fish and chips, watch Premiership football on Sky and play bridge? No. They learn flamenco, eat paella, speak Spanish and quote Cervantes at length.

One fact to rule them all

Just as in the Scottish referendum, people insist that what they want are “facts”. It’s as if they’re waiting for one killer fact that will seal the argument. Yet there are any number of facts available, both for and against Brexit. Maybe they want a comparison website, where you can type in your circumstances and choose your supplier of government based on who offers the best deal. That’s the level at which many of the economic claims on both sides have been made: “Vote Remain and save £4,300!” or “Vote Leave and we’ll cut VAT on fuel!” (That tax was introduced, by the way, not by Europe but by the arch-Brexiteer Norman Lamont and reduced by Gordon Brown against Tory opposition.)

Identity crisis

Ultimately, I believe that the decision is ­existential. What sort of people are we, and what sort of country do we want to live in? Are we outward-looking and ­co-operative, believing in the principle that we can achieve more by uniting across borders? Or are we angry, disillusioned with the EU project in general and immigration in particular? Am I Barack Obama or Marine Le Pen? Mark Carney or Jacob Rees-Mogg? Stephen Hawking or Chris Grayling? In a sense, this is our Hillary Clinton v Donald Trump moment. I know which I prefer. l

This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe