Britain must ditch post-imperial fantasies for a shot of sober realism – just as it did in 1975

God forbid that a leading Brexiteer should have to own the mess he has helped create.

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As Robert Saunders reports in his fine book Yes to Europe!, the popular mood in 1974, a year after Britain joined the Common Market, was nicely captured by an official at the Department of Trade and Industry. He likened the British public, in its attitude to its European adventure, to “a crowd of holidaymakers who, after much doubt and expense, have made a dangerous journey only to find the climate chilly, the hotel not what it was cracked up to be and the food too expensive… bloodthirsty feelings are mounting, not only towards the other nationalities in the hotel but to the courier who got them there”.

The dominant mood in relation to leaving Europe seems eerily similar to that after entering. So much so that it is almost impossible not to reach for Karl Marx’s formula for how everything in history happens twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Except that it is not quite right. There was nothing particularly tragic about the first time: Britain mostly got over it. And though there is more than an element of farce about the second visitation, it has too much tragedy about it to be purely risible.

What unites these moments is, rather, that very English emotion: disappointment. The recent death of Ray Galton reminded me of those brilliant half-hour mini-epics he and Alan Simpson wrote for Tony Hancock. They repeatedly play out a three-part psychodrama. First there are Hancock’s delusions of grandeur. Then his extravagant aspirations are thwarted, leading to painful disappointment. Finally, he slumps into luxurious self-pity. The playlets are thus neither tragic nor farcical, but some strange and very specific mixture of the two – specific, that is, to a post-imperial culture still struggling to come to terms with the failure of the outside world to play along with its sense of exceptional entitlement.

Disappointment is not a fixed or absolute feeling – it is entirely relative to expectations. It is deepest when those expectations are most foolishly inflated. And, in this, Brexit is a perfect Hancock’s Half Hour. It is fuelled by delusions of grandeur. The tedious ordinariness of being a successful member of the most successful multinational single market in history is not enough. Some other destiny must await, a destiny not European but, as in the days of empire, global. Because this is destined, it will be easy: the easiest negotiation in history; dozens of international trade deals already concluded before March 2019; an overawed EU conceding all the benefits of membership with none of the burdens. With one bound, we will be free from the monotony of being pretty much like any other prosperous and privileged western European country.

This was the holiday brochure on which the trip to Brexitland was sold. And the draft withdrawal agreement is what the place actually looks like – not all it was cracked up to be. The climate is chilly, the food is humble pie and the hotel is miles from the beach, where the Germans and the French will continue to occupy all the good sunbathing spots. The Brexit project was wrapped in mendacious claims about the EU and Britain: hyperinflated grievances on the one side and wild promises on the other. The withdrawal agreement is the great unwrapping. And it is like getting, on Christmas morning, a huge and beautiful box with golden ribbons and layers and layers of perfumed pink tissue paper which, when you finally work your way through them, contain a pair of cheap socks.

After the disappointment, there is the self-pity. The joy of self-pity is that it is a state in which nothing is your own fault. You deserved everything and you got next to nothing, so the fault lies with those who have refused you your just deserts. Throughout this process, the leading Brexiteers have refused to take responsibility for their own creation: their characteristic motion is the crab-like scuttle away from power and on to the comfortable sidelines from which they can accuse others – the Europeans, the Remoaners, the Irish, the nervous business leaders – of betraying the clean, perfect Brexit that they would otherwise have delivered. It would, for example, have been astonishing if Michael Gove had actually accepted Theresa May’s offer of the Brexit secretaryship – God forbid that a leading Brexiteer should have to own the mess he has helped to create.

Bloodythirsty feelings towards other nationalities and towards the Theresa May travel agency will now be indulged. There is, however, one part of the official’s metaphor in 1974 that does not apply now. In his image, the disappointed British holidaymakers had already arrived at their crappy hotel. This time, it is possible to look up the reviews on Trip Advisor before you make an unrefundable booking. May and Michel Barnier have in fact provided a 500-page-long TripAdvisor preview of the Brexitland resort. It is a grey and dreary place, and even Mrs May’s travel agency can’t make it sound like anything other than what it is – a dull suburb of Europe. Its only allure is a forlorn one: if you are really determined to leave home, where else can you go but here?

But you don’t have to leave. There is now no rationale for swapping first-class membership of the European Union for second-class status. And the chaos of no deal is not an alternative option – it is a suicide threat. The disappointment of 1974 led to a referendum the following year in which Britain decided (allegedly once and for all) to stay in the Common Market. It got over itself, took stock of its real interests and settled down to what then seemed a future without post-imperial fantasies. In this at least, it is surely time for history to repeat itself – the first time as sober realism, and the second time too. 

Fintan O’Toole’s “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain” is published by Head of Zeus

This article appears in the 23 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis