On Saturday, with the Trump administration in increasing turmoil, Leni and I marched in London to protest the looming disaster of Brexit. We returned home, like Paul Simon’s “one and one-half wandering Jews”, to “speculate who had been damaged the most”. This is a genuine question. Which of us has most to fear for our country, me or my American wife? Trump, Brexit, Brexit, Trump… the options confront each other with the kind of grim symmetry Samuel Becket would have understood.
Estragon (looking at what’s left of his carrot): Funny, the more you eat the worse it gets.
Vladimir: With me it’s just the opposite. I get used to the muck as I go along.
When Marx, echoing Hegel’s comment about history repeating itself, added: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”, he was thinking of a period of a couple of generations. But if the US election was Brexit 2.0, we only had to wait a few months for America to get the farcical version of Britain’s tragedy, the version where the bumbling criminals trip over the furniture before exiting to howls of laughter, while Britain sinks into permanent decline.
All very well, you might be thinking, for me to make light of the Trump nightmare, but in the meantime what about the environment, what about global instability, what about the likelihood of a fascistic response to the next terrorist attack? Certainly the dangers are considerable and the time between now and Trump’s inevitable eviction from the White House promises to be very mean indeed, with sufferers including undocumented migrants, Muslim travellers, and anyone depending on the minimal safety net of Obamacare. But Trump will be evicted and, before that happens, there is at least furniture for the criminals to trip over, in the form of a written constitution.
In Britain, 52% of the 72% who voted, or 37% of the adult population, have been granted, more or less on a whim, the power to effect a huge constitutional change, undoing decades of carefully considered legislation, against almost all informed advice. Both a settled European minority living in Britain and UK citizens working or living in retirement across Europe face the threat of expulsion. The door is slammed against young Britons wanting to study or work on the European mainland. The Scottish are forced to choose between membership of the UK or the EU. Peace in Northern Ireland, which ended the 30-year misery of civil conflict, is recklessly endangered by new borders. Trade and investment between close neighbours, together with shared employment and environmental protections, are sabotaged for no coherent reason.
One of the most alarming comments I’ve seen from a Brexit voter was in a letter to the Forest of Dean Gazette. The correspondent was complaining of our slow progress towards fulfilling the dream of Brexit. She concluded: “Why can’t we just tighten our belts and get on with it?” I find this hair-raising because it reveals that the writer cannot be reached by appeals to enlightened self-interest or to self-interest of any kind. Even if we end up poorer, standing alone free from Polish plumbers is its own reward.
Perhaps the writer’s appetite for belt-tightening is rooted in an irrational nostalgia for post-war austerity. But statistics reveal that, while older voters tended to go for Brexit, there was more enthusiasm for Europe among those old enough to actually remember the war. Like Churchill, who foresaw a united Europe, and like the generation of elder statesmen now sitting in semi-retirement in the House of Lords, they recognise the value of European cooperation.
The Republicans are setting themselves up for a well-deserved kicking in the 2018 mid-terms. Here in Britain, we won’t yet have begun to face the reality of our post-EU existence. If Trump survives his four years, barring full-scale war he’ll be out. We’ll still be scrabbling to fix up trade deals on any terms, tightening our belts and getting used to the muck as we go along.