Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol captures the spirit of this season of goodwill to all men (and women). It relates, of course, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge – visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley – who, in turn, introduces him to three other ghosts: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. They tell him how his life, once so promising, had got into the mess it had, and how much worse it could become if he didn’t mend his ways.
Watching a spirited production of this much-loved classic at the Charles Dickens Museum the other day, I found it hard not to see a message in it for our times. It is as if Dickens had written it with our politicians in mind. Let’s consider what each of the three Ghosts of Brexit might have to say.
The Ghost of Brexit Past
It’s the job of the Ghost of Brexit Past to remind us of largely happier times. Times when we all seemed to get along so much better, we thought about the long-term and not the short-term, we made plans based on options we could be certain were available to us and our family, and our politicians represented us at our very best.
A united Europe was a dream of a generation that had to build their lives out of the blood and the rubble of the Second World War.
A lot of Brexit politicians have painted themselves as modern day Sir Winston Churchills – but they forgot what it was that great man was doing between 1945 and 1950. In that period, he realised the best hopes he had for the United Kingdom could only be achieved in cooperation with our European partners. Churchill was the principal agent in creating the European movement, and also the Council of Europe. Those who, like Boris Johnson, try to model themselves on Churchill, should read his famous Zurich speech of 1946 which ended with the rallying cry that Great Britain must “champion” Europe and “its right to live and shine.”
Sadly, Churchill did not live to see the country he loved joining the European Union. Still, the Daily Mail – such a cheerleader for Brexit until recently – was there to rejoice when we became a fully fledged part of the great European project. On January 1 1973, its front page was emblazoned with the words, “Europe, here we come.” It proudly declared: “For ten years, the Mail has campaigned for this day. We have not wavered in our conviction that Britain’s best and brightest future is with Europe.”
There were, from the outset, rumblings of discontent, invariably among the wealthiest elite in our country. Sir James Goldsmith – an Anglo-French billionaire – set up The Referendum Party as long ago as 1994. The party’s sole objective was to secure a referendum on the nature of the UK’s membership of EU. Money was no object: in the build-up to the 1997 general election, it spent more on press advertising than either the incumbent Conservatives or their main rival, the Labour Party. It stood candidates in 547 of the 659 constituencies, more than any minor party had ever fielded in a UK election.
For all that, the party failed to win a single seat in the House of Commons. The party was very much a one-man band, and, not long after Goldsmith died in 1997, The Referendum Party became defunct.
Eurosceptics continued to ferment discord within the Conservative Party, however, and, 25 years ago, Sir John Major was caught on an open microphone referring to three of his Eurosceptic ministers – believed to be Michael Howard, Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo – as “bastards”.
The problem with the Eurosceptics was that they could never agree among themselves on a coherent strategy to take the UK out of Europe. Easy to say “I don’t like something,” or “Let’s knock things down”. Far harder to say: “This is what we should do instead”, “Here’s how we rebuild”.
This was highlighted a year before David Cameron called the referendum on Europe on June 23 2016 when Dr Richard North, who was group research director of the Eurosceptic EDD group in the European Parliament, emailed the Vote Leave boss Dominic Cummings to ask why they still had not agreed on an exit plan.
“Cummings told me had to deal with ‘a physical reality,’ where ‘almost nobody agrees … about almost anything,” Dr North admitted. “Thus, it was not a question of the campaign failing to have a plan. The idea was deliberately rejected, an act of cowardice that had the main players ducking an issue that was inevitably going to rebound on us all, simply because the campaign wanted to avoid disagreement in its ranks.”
And this was how it all began…
The Ghost of Brexit Present
The Ghost of Brexit Present is chaos without end. It is almost daily emergency cabinet meetings, falling outs, name-calling, meaningless soundbites devoid of any detail, some of the most farcical scenes ever witnessed in the House of Commons, Mrs May going to and fro between European leaders, facing a revolt among her MPs one day and being praised by them the next, no one ever agreeing on anything, and a sense among ordinary voters of utter dismay and deepening anxiety.
All the while, the legitimate concerns of ordinary voters – the state of the NHS, education, the rising levels of poverty and rough sleepers on the streets – go unaddressed. Brexit is not a policy: it is a state of continual political paralysis, disregard for the concerns of ordinary people and national humiliation.
It is a cultish obsession I believe of a small group of individuals who, for ideological reasons, want it at any cost. Just four years ago, only 11 per cent of voters thought Europe was the most important electoral issue, and the economy was in the number one slot. While controlling immigration is important to British people, these statistics suggest we are far more interested in the NHS, education, housing, foreign policy rather than purely and simply the EU.
The Ghost of Christmas Present need not say much: we are all living this nightmare every day and know the reality of it only too well.
The Ghost of Brexit Yet to Come
It is the job of the Ghost of Brexit Yet to Come to show how the future will look if we don’t change direction. Well, let’s just imagine that political power games, the personal greed of some individuals who believe in unfettered, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism, or, indeed, sheer inertia enable the worst possible scenario: a no-deal Brexit. The Ghost of Brexit Yet to Come is the most terrifying ghost of all.
So imagine it is 11:00pm GMT – midnight on the continent – on Friday 29 March 2019. The consensus in the Square Mile had been – even until the final days – that the government would avoid the cliff edge. Markets start tumbling, followed by a nosedive for sterling.
The start of British Summer Time on the 31st only worsens the rapidly escalating logistical chaos that follows. At the approach roads to the Eurotunnel terminals and sea ports, there is gridlock as commercial goods lorries and holidaymakers’ cars sit backed up in queues that are already stretching for dozens of miles.
The modest numbers of additional customs officers so far recruited by the UK, France and the Netherlands are proving themselves ill-prepared and completely outnumbered as they desperately try to manage the vast queues growing hourly at the UK border. Within weeks, stocks of some specialist foodstuffs imported from the EU are dwindling, and supermarket shelves beyond the home counties have started to empty.
More critically still, drugs with short shelf-lives that cannot be stockpiled start running out: these include cancer drugs. Other vital supplies of pharmaceuticals are beginning to disappear from dispensing pharmacies, even though many hospitals had started stockpiling drugs months ago. Patient care and lives are at risk.
Shops are closing, container ports are grinding to a halt, car production slows and factories are eventually closed. As public disquiet grows, the armed forces are called in to help to manage the border, guard against civil unrest and support the delivery of critical public services.
Even that last and possibly most alarming prediction in a long list is not mine alone: recourse to the army was what Philip Rutnam, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, blurted out when he was asked how Brexit would all play out by the home affairs Select Committee last year. All of these scenarios for a post no-deal Brexit Britain are real possibilities, according to the government’s own papers and expert evidence to other Select Committees.
For all that, I am by nature an optimist, and, if any piece of literature makes me look to the future with hope, it is A Christmas Carol. “Christmas, and the end of the year, is definitely a time when people try their hardest to begin afresh,” as Dickens wrote. “A good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
How badly we do now need to begin afresh. I wish everyone a happy Christmas, and for those kind enough to support the End the Chaos team and myself – a very warm thank you for your kindness and your encouragement.