Brexit stand-offs, Boris Johnson and the burqa, and the eerily early blackberry season

The Brexit negotiations are now in their downward phase, with Liam Fox rating “no deal” as odds-on.

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Anybody who hopes that Jeremy Corbyn will find the words to satisfy the majority of British Jews that he is, after all, a good anti-racist egg faces disappointment. Corbyn’s views are a mirror image of those held by Israel’s most fervent supporters, not all of whom are Jews. They believe that Israel is on the front line of a planetary battle for the survival of Judeo-Christian civilisation against an Islamist enemy. In most Western countries, they think, the enemy operates largely under the radar in madrasas, hard-line mosques and sharia courts. Only periodically does the threat, in the form of terrorist attacks, become visible and deadly. Israel, however, constantly faces the openly terrorist armies of Hamas and Hezbollah massed on its borders.

Corbyn believes that the developing world is engaged in a struggle against Western imperialism. This enemy now operates mainly below the radar through its control of business, trade, media and finance. Only occasionally, in Iraq for example, does it intervene more directly and violently. Yet Israel, a US client state, openly occupies Palestinian territory and uses military force to maintain control. The last open colonial oppressor, it represents the vanguard of Western imperialism.

Corbyn will not repent of his life-long political mission to defeat Western imperialism any more than the Tory MP Bill Cash will repent of his mission to get Britain out of the EU. Others on the Labour left, whose campaigning focus has been more on domestic issues such as the NHS and education, can modify their commitment to the Palestinians. For Corbyn, it would involve an unthinkable U-turn.

No compromise is possible. It would help if Jews stopped calling Corbyn anti-Semitic and he stopped calling Israel a racist state. But why would either side throw away its strongest rhetorical card? Corbyn will enter the next general election with the “anti-Semite” label hanging round his neck. Labour must decide whether that could make the difference between victory and defeat.

Nuns on the run

In his Daily Telegraph column, Boris Johnson says he opposes a “total ban” on the burqa in public, of the sort that Denmark has just introduced. But he supports limited bans – in, for example, schools and universities, most workplaces and his MP’s surgery – and adds a bit of gratuitous mockery about burqa wearers looking like letter boxes or bank robbers for good measure. That is not the language of a politician who wishes to make Muslim women feel fully accepted in our society. He starts from the presumption that the burqa is a problem.

He should study the history of nuns’ habits, which sometimes fully covered the face. Just as the burqa is now thought to symbolise the Islamic threat to Europe, so a nun’s veil was once thought to symbolise the evils of popery. Many nuns thought that, until they could walk the streets in full veils without being insulted or pelted with rotten fruit, that Catholicism would not be properly accepted in Britain. Fully veiled nuns were common sights as late as my 1950s childhood. By then, they were arousing no comment, derogatory or otherwise. Now they are hardly ever seen.

Day zero

It is a characteristic of negotiations – whether in business, industrial relations or international affairs – that, as a deadline for agreement approaches, the chances of a successful outcome take a downward plunge. Bankruptcy, a strike or a war seem inevitable. Then, at the eleventh hour, a new solution emerges, negotiations re-start and agreement is reached, usually in the small hours of the morning.

The Brexit negotiations are now in their downward phase, with Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, rating “no deal” as odds-on. The chances of agreement will continue to fade until talks officially collapse. Food will be stockpiled and the army put on standby while Boris Johnson makes Churchillian speeches and the pound falls to near-parity with the dollar. Then, probably in the New Year, talks will start again, a compromise will be agreed, Johnson (not for the first time) will look silly, and we shall all wonder why nobody thought of the compromise in the first place.

Shadowy conspiracy

This year, for the first time I can remember, I made my first pickings of blackberries from Epping Forest in July. In my childhood, admittedly 90 miles further north, I never picked blackberries before September and continued until Michaelmas Day (29) when, it was said, the devil spat on them. What does that august newspaper the Times have to say about this and other aspects of an extraordinary summer across the northern hemisphere? A leader detects “something vast lurking in the shadows” (a curious choice of metaphor in the circumstances) but insists that human life survived when temperatures were “ten degrees warmer than today 50 million years ago”. Humans? Fifty million years ago? It’s worth penetrating the paywall for that news.

Testing times

The first match of the England-India Test series was widely acclaimed as the most thrilling for many years. Yet assorted pundits lamented that England’s heroes are no longer household names, as Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen were during the classic Test series against Australia in 2005. They blame this on the rights to live matches being sold to pay TV channels.

They seem not to understand three things. First, well over half of the UK population subscribes to pay TV in some form. Second, almost anybody under 40 knows how to get live sport on a computer without paying for it. Third, English cricket needs the money to pay its top players. Without Sky’s millions, England’s top cricketers wouldn’t be playing Tests. They would be starring in Twenty20 cricket leagues around the world – a format invented by the English in their desperate attempts to keep 18 first-class counties financially afloat. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State