For me, one of the great tests of a play, film or opera is that it should be so absorbing that one’s mind switches off from day-to-day, mundane concerns.
The Churchill film Darkest Hour is an exception that proves the rule. How could one possibly not reflect on the present failure of British leadership as we are reminded of the way Churchill rose to the occasion in the face of powerful opposition?
Last week’s response from our partners (still!) in the European Union to Theresa May’s latest speech confirmed that, in its pusillanimous reaction to the referendum, the May government has been going around in circles.
Why should they be surprised? By bowing to a vociferous minority of rightwing, deeply prejudiced, anti-European fantasists in her party, May has ruled out membership of the present customs union and single market – privileges that more enlightened predecessors in her party, including the Brexiters’ heroine, Margaret Thatcher, fought for decades to achieve.
I say “fantasists” advisedly. I have pointed out before that dreams of being free to build up markets in China look absurd when one notes that, supposedly imprisoned by the shackles of the EU, Germany already manages to export many multiples of what we send there.
But if ever there were an example of why the advisory vote by 37% of the electorate to leave the EU should be reconsidered, it is the obvious impact of the lurch into protectionism by the egregious president of the United States. This surely scotches the fantasy of Messrs Johnson, Gove and Fox that all would be plain sailing after Brexit via a wonderful new trading relationship with the US.
In the admirably swift response from Brussels, within a week there has arisen the prospect of a trade war between the US and EU. One hopes it will not come to that, but it was smart of our EU partners to list examples of Europe’s favourite US imports that would be affected in a tit-for-tat response to Trump’s plan for steel and aluminium tariffs.
The situation has echoes of the 1930s, and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of June 1930. This was considered by the economist AH Metzler to have converted the recession aggravated by the 1929 Wall Street crash and banking crisis into a depression. But in his magnum opus Major Recessions, the British economist Christopher Dow points out that, by that stage, the Depression was already severe. What Smoot-Hawley did was, “by reducing foreign competition”, divert demand from imported to domestic supplies and raise US output. This, of course, is precisely what Trump has in mind for his rust-belt voters. But it is not good news for the liberal world trading order, let alone for the British steel industry.
Terrible things are going on in the world at present. Brexit has not yet happened
There are many reasons why the result of the referendum should be reconsidered, and the thought of “going it alone” on the eve of a potential trade war is certainly one of them. There is also the manifestly insoluble problem of Northern Ireland. It seems to me no coincidence that in recent weeks, former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair, both of whom worked on what became the Good Friday agreement, should have spoken out in favour of a reconsideration of the May government’s policy.
It is a tragedy that Blair is not taken seriously on this issue on account of his historic misjudgment over Iraq – about which I said a great deal in this column at the time. But Major, who knows what it is like to have to put up with Eurosceptical fantasists, has developed into a formidable elder statesman.
Having endured quite enough backseat driving from Thatcher, whom he succeeded, he does not criticise successors lightly. But he recently attacked May’s “unrealistic” negotiating strategy and her “ultra-Brexiteer” colleagues.
It was Philip Hammond, the chancellor, who said after the event that the British people did not vote to become poorer. Yet May’s “strategy” amounts to just that. In one historically important phrase, Major said the prime minister had a duty to consider the impact of Brexit on the “wellbeing” of the people.
As DJ Galligan, editor of the book Constitution in Crisis puts it: “The House of Commons is a representative body, the principal duty of which is to act for the good of the nation, formerly called the common weal, now sometimes expressed as the common good, at other times the public interest.”
Terrible things are going on in the world at present. Brexit has not yet happened. If it does, it is guaranteed to make things worse for the common good of this country, and to destroy our reputation and influence abroad. Wake up, Theresa May! Rise to the occasion!