Trump. Terrorism. Death. Okay, so not perhaps the most obvious of topics to stray into a restaurant review. But having somehow managed to do just that in some of my previous posts, what’s now left is a big Brexit-shaped elephant in my blog-room that’s still to be confronted.
But I cannot remain silent anymore. A deal has been negotiated. March 2019 is fast approaching. It’s time to talk Brexit.
Firstly, just to nail my colours to the mast from the very start – yellow and blue to be precise, since I’m very much a Remainer. But also red, white and blue, since I’m a proud Brit too.
But that’s not to say I don’t recognise that the European Union is flawed or at times a behemoth of bureaucracy. However, that’s primarily a consequence of having an institution that encompasses 27 countries and their myriad agendas and interests, as well as a remit that stretches from security to fishing, rather than any excessive inefficiency on its part, which so often gets exaggerated.
I also have some sympathy with those who think that sovereign powers should be brought closer to the people that are actually bound by them. However, I also believe that much of EU legislature, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, benefits and protects us all.
And it’s also clear to me that many people have been left feeling utterly estranged from the socio-economic advantages afforded by the EU free market, or indeed by globalisation in general.
Moreover, as a Remainer, I know that according to the 2016 vote, I’m actually in a minority. Just. Although admittedly at times it feels more like I’m part of an overwhelming majority – especially whenever I discuss Brexit with family, friends, NHS colleagues or Twitter folk.
I guess that’s a reflection of the bubble I’m in – as presumably most of us are – and that’s been another disheartening realisation from this whole sorry Brexit mess.
Yes, our country is clearly divided. But that reality also means that it truly gets my goat whenever I hear politicians talk of a “mandate from the people”. How can 52% equate to a “mandate from the people”? Is this really democracy?
In fact, for me, the whole thing’s been a revelation on how a referendum – which used to seem like the most democratic thing a country could do – can sometimes feel decidedly undemocratic.
Firstly, the EU referendum was not born out of a genuine belief that this was the right thing to do for the country as whole. Nor was it triggered by a popular groundswell of grassroot support.
Instead, it was an irresponsible political gamble by then Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a vain attempt to silence the jabbering hostile right-wingers in his own party, and to stem the tide of Tory voters (and even MP’s) jumping ship to UKIP. But as we all now know, Dave rolled the dice, and lost.. and now we’re all having to pay the consequences.
If the people are to be offered direct power, the issue at hand and its consequences shouldn’t be so mind-bendingly complex so as to be beyond the range of everybody except for the leading experts in the field. For when you look at referenda more generally, they’re usually centred on core human values (like the recent abortion vote in Ireland) rather than issues with such dense economic, political and legislative connotations that so characterise Brexit.
In fact, now that we’re seeing one set of Brexiteers lambast the Brexit deal with such animosity – including the very Brexit Secretaries who negotiated it in the first place – it surely begs the question: when people voted Leave, what did they think they were voting for? A soft Brexit? A hard Brexit? A no-deal Brexit? Canada style? Norway style? Norway Plus?.. Turns out that Brexit means different things to different people.
Besides, some people didn’t seem to be voting on the actual question posed anyway, using this referendum instead to project a whole host of other grievances onto the vote, no matter how tangentially related.
By this, I’m not meaning to judge anyone for voting Leave as an angry ‘fuck-you’ to the authorities. Or even as a despairing act of self-harm: an attempt to feel some semblance of control no matter how self-destructive it appears to us on the other side of the fence.
But still, this general disenfranchisement ran much deeper than the matter of deciding whether or not to leave the EU, and in so doing, hardly made the referendum a reliable reflection of people’s views on the specific matter at hand.
And then there’s the issue of the information presented to the public. For us to have made an informed choice, information needed to be accessible, reliable and true.
Instead we were subjected to a swathe of misinformation, epitomised by those brazenly-brandished buses strewn with sugar-coated lies. Not to mention those shrieking tabloids, cynically whipping up a storm, manipulating people’s attitudes for their own financial gain.
And beyond the information that was presented, what about the information that wasn’t? Like the Irish border question. So crucial when it comes to Brexit. So serious when it comes to peace in Ireland. And so pertinent for the future integrity of the United Kingdom. And yet barely any mention of it in the lead up to the referendum.
Finally, there’s the matter of who weren’t allowed to vote. Namely 16-17 year olds. Okay, so they don’t get the vote when it comes to general elections, but Brexit is arguably a very different beast: its shadow shall be cast over them for longer than for any other voter, its impact much more enduring.
And as for whether they are mature enough to make such a weighty decision? Well, as I know from my own line of work, the law already gives them the right to make their own confidential choices on healthcare, no matter how complex and life-changing, from major surgery to terminations of pregnancy. So why should Brexit be any different?
So much for democracy. And what about the enormous and very real risks to our country that Brexit poses, particularly from the ‘hard’ or ‘no-deal’ variety. Instead of helping the poor and desperate – many of whom may have been tempted to vote Leave in the first place – Brexit will actually hit them harder than most.
Jobs could well be endangered by any economic downturn. And if growth is damaged, this could significantly harm the government’s ability to fund our public services, many of which are already on their knees thanks to the ravages of austerity.
Furthermore, there’s the additional risk faced by the NHS from the potential shut-out of invaluable EU doctors and nurses, and how a similar drain in workforce could threaten other industries too, from science to food. And as I know from various friends and colleagues, we are talking about actual real breathing people here, not just a resource, who are now having to live under a cloud of insecurity. Likewise I’m sure for Brits living in the EU too.
And besides people, there’s how our respective EU and UK systems are just so intractably entwined across so many other key sectors too – from manufacturers’ supply chains, to the regulation of medicines, to the flow of security information. Surely no good things can come of attempting to untangle all this.
And when I think of the humongous, almost unquantifiable, amount of energy and time already expended on Brexit – from government ministers to civil servants, from public organisations to private businesses – at the expense of the much-needed thinking space and investment that’s required for so many other crucial matters facing our country – I just think what a bloody waste. And we haven’t even got to Brexit yet.
Meanwhile, all these genuine concerns just get casually swatted away by Brexiteers under the epithet “Project Fear”, as if they were irritating flies rather than the self-destructive socio-economic missiles they actually represent.
In one corner, we have The Bank of England, the Treasury, and the World Trade Federation all publishing their meticulously-prepared research, warning of the dire consequences of Brexit on our economy; an analysis also supported by the vast majority of economists and business analysts.
In the other corner, there’s Jacob Rees-Mogg. He calls the analysis “hysterical” and the governor of the Bank of England, a “wailing banshee”, and shrugs it all off as “Project Fear”. Not exactly cutting-edge analysis, Jacob.
In fact, it’s the epitome of arrogance. It’s also slick deployment of linguistic weaponry: the mere utterance of “Project Fear” conveniently brushes aside all that amassed evidence in one fell swoop. There’s no real difference between this and Donald Trump’s reflex cries of “Fake News” whenever he’s confronted with something he doesn’t want to hear.
In fact the parallels go even deeper, since they both share the same kind of irony – for in the way that it’s actually Trump who fakes the news, it’s really the Brexiteers who use fear as their modus operandi.
With their tabloid horde of propaganda pushers, it’s the Brexiteers who cynically stoke people’s fears – just look at their rhetoric on immigration or European interference. They relentlessly create and exploit a sense of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ as a means to inculcate some sort of siege mentality.
Okay, so to some degree we all have a ‘Them-and-Us’ dial wired into our psyche – it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism that once helped our early human ancestors fend off marauding sabre-tooth tigers and rivalrous tribes. But in the modern era it’s a mindset that’s limiting at best, and toxic at worst: we no longer need to fear others in order to define ourselves.
But with people whose sense of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ is already heightened by perceived injustice – maybe through poverty, joblessness or community disintegration – the Leave machine has targeted them unscrupulously. By championing their own version of ‘Project Fear’, the Brexiteers have delved deep down into people’s insecurities and ruthlessly ratcheted up the ‘Them-and-Us’ dial to the max.
Do I believe Rees-Mogg really cares about the disadvantaged? No I do not. Is he offering any kind of hope or plan for them? Nope.
This whole situation saddens me greatly. And it angers me vehemently when it is immigrants and ethnic minorities – already so often the victims in society – being cast as the ‘Them’. In this way, it’s a mentality that can descend all too seamlessly and despairingly into downright xenophobia and racism.
Still, there is perhaps a lesson from history to help us here, something brought home to me after a recent visit to the compelling Anglo-Saxons exhibition at the British Library. It reminded me that pretty much everyone in Britain is descended from immigrants anyway – a commonality that should actually be uniting us.
The Anglo-Saxons came over from Northern Europe in 6th Century and settled. The Vikings came over from Scandinavia in the 10th Century and settled. The Normans came over from Normandy in the 11th Century and settled. And every century since, Britain has been a country that’s taken in people from Europe and beyond. In other words, we are ALL immigrants!
This has also meant that Britain has always been closely bound up with our continental neighbours, revelling in the flow of ideas and people, exchanging trade and stories, and working together on projects down the centuries from medieval illustrated bibles to modern commercial aircraft.
Okay, so for some of the time, we’ve also been beating the hell out of each other too, with countless wars and conflicts. But in some ways, that’s why the EU represents such a vital development – an institution and framework to help maintain the peace and allow relationships to flourish.
I’m no expert on these things by any stretch. These are just my views. I’m very happy to hear constructive arguments to the contrary and to be proved wrong. I am in a bubble after all.
Having said all this though, and despite not being a Brexiteer or a Tory, I can’t help but harbour a strange sense of sympathy for Theresa May – now that’s something I never thought I’d say! – for trying so tenaciously to steer a ship through a perilous minefield, despite facing mutiny from rogue elements within her own crew, whilst also under heavy bombardment from at least four* competing ranks of enemy armies, not to mention an apocalyptic tsunami looming up ahead.
(* For the four, I’m counting the EU, DUP, SNP, and Labour. I would have included the Lib Dems, but given their rather depleted state, they’re regrettably less like an army and more like a long-lost platoon that’s gone decidedly AWOL. Shame, since it was them who came up with the notion of a People’s Vote in the first place.)
Okay, so May chose to put her hat in the ring once Cameron left, so I guess she volunteered for all this. But still, her strategy has been to find a compromise – sort of the whole point of a negotiation – and to that end she’s somehow managed to secure a solution that arguably honours the referendum result, but remains about as pro-Europe as she can get away with in order to accommodate the concerns of the 48%.
Now that’s no mean feat. But the problem is that people are still so divided into their respective bubbles, to the point that anything less than a hard or no-deal Brexit (for the Eurosceptics) or a People’s Vote (which Remainers hope will equate to a no-Brexit) seems inadequate to most. Had the negotiators calibrated the deal a little towards one or other camp, I don’t think it would really have made much difference – both sides seem to be pretty much sticking to their guns.
Meanwhile in terms of the MP’s, it seems that Parliament consists of just so many different warring factions, that it’s difficult to envisage any one of those making it to an actual majority. It’s therefore hard to foresee how this can be resolved other than to take it back to the people.
So my ideal outcome at this point would be a People’s Vote, inclusive of 16-17 year olds, that ultimately delivers strong support for Remain. At least this time round most of the issues have come out of the woodwork (including the Irish border question) and the people have had time to digest their meaning and consequences. And hopefully there’ll be no more nonsense buses.
Still, the road to that outcome is quite fraught and uncertain, and if there’s anything we’ve learned from all this, it’s that we can’t make assumptions on how people will actually vote. And if the vote were to be finely balanced, whatever the outcome, there’s a risk that it all further amplifies the divisive atmosphere that’s already infecting our society post-referendum.
(So, Dave – a penny for your thoughts on this utter debacle, as you leisurely chillax inside your garden shed..)
If that British Library exhibition got me really thinking about all these things, it was then a meal at The French House that made me decide to put pen to paper. For against a backdrop of such anti-European sentiment (well, at least in 52% of the country), here’s a place that’s showing some real love and affection to our continental neighbours.
Indeed, the very history of The French House illustrates our close European ties. Opened as a public house in the late 19th Century by a German immigrant, it was then bought by a Belgian émigré family, and it has since become the epicentre of the Soho community, a much-loved haunt of bohemians and poets, artists and actors – it’s pretty much seen them all.
Meanwhile, during the War, Charles de Gaulle, then a fugitive from the Nazis, would often stop by. It’s even said he penned his seminal rallying cry to the Resistance – “À Tous Les Français” – from the pub’s rickety tabletops. It’s name then changed to The French House, and its Gallic roots have been part of the fabric ever since.
So when it came for its new chef Neil Borthwick to conjure up a menu for the tiny bistro upstairs, it’s perhaps of no surprise that it pays tribute to these roots. In fact, as the ever-changing menu is lovingly written out each time by hand, it resembles nothing short of an impassioned love-letter to Les Français.
And such devotion manifests itself in such gratifyingly Gallic dishes as confit garlic, resplendent in its full alliaceous glory, the sweet little cloves all close to bursting out of their pockets, with an accompanying slice of toast smeared lavishly with goat’s cheese. It’s as though the Tricolore has just been planted on the table, accompanied by the stirring sound of the Marseillaise.
Then comes a tranche of brill, beautifully-roasted and decorated with emerald-green flecks of tarragon and sweet diced shallots, the aniseed flavour redolent of lazy summers by the Loire or amid the fat wheatfields of the Bourgogne. Alongside comes a bowl of rich gooey aligot, the stupendously cheesy mash that’s Gallic comfort food par excellence.
And then the pièce de résistance – to excuse even more flagrant plundering of the French vernacular – a dessert of Paris Brest, which can only be described as the naughty lovechild of a profiterole and a bagel, its sweet delicate pastry encasing an enchanting filling of velvety crème anglais studded with crunchy hazelnuts and crystallised sugar, whilst in the ‘hole’ stands a warm column of melted chocolate that oozes out dreamily once its defences are breached. Overall verdict: Oh là là!
Yes, this food and this place represent an affectionate homage to France, and a tribute to its culinary traditions. It’s a reminder that instead of putting up the barriers between ourselves and our neighbours, we’ll all be enriched by keeping the channels open.
And so whatever twists and turns are in store for the coming weeks, and whatever lurks post-March 2019, at least let our hearts continue to remain open to our neighbours – whether that be a fellow Brit or European, a Remainer or a Leaver – for loving thy neighbour is all that’s really expected of us in life.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to get your teeth into some more troublesome topics, you’re welcome to check out my pieces on Trump, terrorism, and death. It’s not all doom and gloom however – there’s always a silver lining in my pieces, and of course there’s always food..
Find Solace from Brexit at The French House