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14 January 2020

Evening Call: Brexit is happening – but why do we have to be happy about it?

Is it just me, or is there something ever so slightly sinister about all this festival of joy stuff?

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a 1988 Doctor Who story in which the Doctor and his companion Ace land on a planet with an authoritarian regime obsessed with eliminating sadness by, essentially, killing anyone who experiences it.

This story – which is called The Happiness Patrol, and whose villain, played by Sheila Hancock, is ever so slightly reminiscent of a certain Tory prime minister – keeps popping into my head as I watch some of the more deranged pageantry of Brexit. The government has already minted two batches of commemorative 50p coins, and last month ordered a third, despite the fact that the first two had to be melted down because events in parliament meant that they featured the wrong exit date. But this week there have been two more stories suggesting that Brexit is doing something very, very odd to this country.

The less ridiculous one first. Martin Green, the director of Festival 2022 – more commonly, if upsettingly, known as the festival of Brexit – has given his first interview since being handed control of its £120m budget.

It’s a reasonably sensible interview, to be fair, in which Green does his best to play down the Brexit angle and talks mostly about how the arts can bring a divided nation together. But his suggestion it could provide “a bit of joy and hope and happiness” has still led the NME to suggest that the festival “strikes a sour note” – not least because Brexit is going to utterly stuff British musicians by requiring them to sort out a vast quantity of expensive paperwork every time they want to gig across the channel.

BrexFest is as nothing, however, compared to today’s big story. The bells of Big Ben have been silent for some time, on the not unreasonable grounds that construction workers are repairing the tower and if the bell was going off every fifteen minutes they’d all end up deaf. (I say this is “not unreasonable”; this did not stop the Telegraph from wasting the summer of 2017 campaigning to keep the bell ringing for no immediately comprehensible reason.)

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But some people are very, very upset about this, for some reason. They’ve been demanding the bell should ring at 11pm on 31 January to celebrate Britain’s freedom.

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And, in what looks like a transparent attempt to shut them up, our glorious leader has suggested we crowdfund it. “The bongs cost £500,000,” Boris Johnson told the BBC, “but we’re working up a plan so people can” (I’m so sorry about the rest of this sentence) “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”. Half a million quid to replace the bell’s clapper for one occasion? Be a fool not to.

It doesn’t feel like the government is serious about this – no such crowd-funder exists and there isn’t that long to arrange one – so perhaps crowd-funding is the new “cross-party commission”, a way of chucking something into the long grass. But nonetheless, how have we got to the point where the actual Prime Minister would think it was okay to say that sentence out loud where actual people might actually hear him?

The vast majority of Remainers, even those who spent the last three and a bit years plotting to overturn the referendum result, have now accepted that Britain will absolutely, definitely leave the European Union at the end of this month. We lost. For now, at least, it’s over. But is it just me, or is there something ever so slightly sinister about the fact that we’re now expected to be happy about it?

Good day for…

LGBT people in Northern Ireland where, as of yesterday, gay people can register their intention to marry. The first ceremonies will take place next month. Arlene Foster and the DUP will no doubt be delighted.

Bad day for…

Anyone worried about carbon emissions, because the Guardian has reported low-cost airline Flybe’s struggles – it’s on the brink of collapse, and the government is thinking of offering it short-term funding – by interviewing a bunch of people who commute by plane. Bet you’re really glad you put all that effort into sorting out your recycling now.

Quote of the day

“Quite incredible to watch all these men in Westminster who tank everything they touch yet keep getting advising jobs, isn’t it, just never get tired of it.”

Freelance journalist Marie Le Conte on the news that Will Straw, late of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, was advising Jess Phillips’ Labour leadership campaign. Nick Timothy has a lot to answer for.

Everybody’s talking about…

The Labour leadership campaign which is, somehow, already in its 75th year. The piece on the subject you should read today: Ailbhe on why Emily Thornberry’s unexpected survival into the next round should worry her opponents, and will force Phillips and Keir Starmer in particular to up their game.

Everybody should be talking about…

The epidemic of suicides afflicting Northern Ireland. Some 5,000 people have died by their own hand in the province since the Good Friday Agreement was signed – including, since the start of this year, one aged just 11. Roisin Lanigan has been investigating.


Questions? Comments? Drop me an email.

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