When I was a schoolboy it was common practice to go to the cinema (or “the pictures”, as we used to say) and arrive well after the start of a double bill. We would then stay until the action in the first film had reached the point where we had come in.
As this country becomes the laughing stock of the world in regard to the so-called “negotiations” about Brexit, we find that, hey presto, this is where we came in.
For people urgently seeking a solution, not to say a squaring of the circle, membership of Efta, the European Free Trade Association, is often touted as the best option.
But, to repeat, this is where we came in. After we had won the war – not alone, pace the Brexiters, but with considerable assistance from what were then still British empire forces and, eventually, the US – we had to come to terms with the economic consequences of the devastating cost of the war, and the dissolution of the empire.
In economic terms, the empire had offered this country captive markets for its goods and ready sources of imported food and raw materials on favourable terms. Adapting to the end of empire became the common cause of politicians and civil servants alike.
Despite the fact that Churchill had at one stage contemplated a union with France, as well as later calling for a United States of Europe, we regarded the setting-up of what was then known as the Common Market – the European Economic Community – with a certain disdain. It was a case of “start the revolution without us”.
It soon became apparent that the UK had made a mistake. The EEC was doing well, and outpacing the British economy. But we had missed the boat and joined Efta, a rival grouping. There were six members of the original EEC, and seven of Efta; this gave rise to the joke that Europe was “at sixes and sevens”. Efta did not prove good enough, but applications by prime ministers of both major parties – Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson – to join the EEC were turned down flat, and we eventually only joined as late as 1973, under Edward Heath.
Well, the UK itself is at sixes and sevens at present. Although Efta would be better than nothing, it would be very much a second-best link to the single market, with our having precious little influence over future EU policy.
But the Johnson/Gove/Rees-Mogg team would not be content with diminished influence over EU policy. No: they want no influence. They fantasise about being free of the imaginary constraints of the union, and breaking out so that we can increase our exports to China – notwithstanding the fact that, while allegedly constrained by the EU, German exports to China amount to many multiples of our own.
I have little time for Johnson, Gove and the anachronistic Rees-Mogg. As the irrepressible Remainer Lord Adonis keeps pointing out, this trio have in effect been the egregious Nigel Farage’s placemen in cabinet, exerting too much influence on a prime minister who ought to know better.
In the 45 years of our membership of the EU, we have built up tens of thousands of links that it is absurd to try to remove. That is why Chancellor Hammond and other Remainers want to stay as close to the EU as possible – which really means that we should not be leaving at all. But Theresa May is so frightened of Johnson and co that she has still not got the point. She should re-read an infinitely more substantial Boris – Boris Pasternak – and his great novel Dr Zhivago: “It turns out that those who inspired the revolution aren’t at home in anything except change and turmoil… For them, transitional periods… are an end in themselves… And do you know why there is this incessant whirl of never-ending preparations? It’s because they haven’t any real capacities, they are ungifted.”
This country is crying out for leadership, at the outset of potentially its greatest crisis since the second world war. If the Gadarene rush to Brexit is not stopped, the consequences for investment, trade and economic wellbeing are almost certain to be serious.
The problem for those of us who have not given up the fight is that, although there are warning signs, the real economic damage from Brexit will only be apparent in the medium term. But even now, notwithstanding minor upward revisions to the Bank of England’s forecasts, the economy which former chancellor George Osborne believes could become “the strongest in the world” is falling behind mainland Europe. Moreover, every day brings news of threats to freedoms we take for granted. The price of the “freedom” the Brexiters want to impose on us would be – well, less freedom.
The new film about Churchill has been a great hit. There is not a Churchill among the Brexiters. It is time for the overwhelming majority of Remainers in parliament to stand up and be counted.