Be the subject Brexit or potential World Cup exit, the judgement, thinking, insight and common sense of the mythical figure Tommy Atkins is sadly missing.
Chancellor Philip Hammond and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling have penned a joint column in the Sunday Telegraph today. It concluded: “What was agreed at Chequers on Friday night is a pragmatic as well as a principled Brexit deal, one that works for both the EU and the UK.”
They wrote it together of course, because that’s the kind of thing busy Cabinet members do, pretty much in the same way that pigs are prone to becoming airborne when the mood takes them. And of course, it was a pragmatically principled deal: a sort of gritty sellout, a capitulation royal.
However, the two essayists lost the plot entirely with the “works for both the EU and the UK” thing, because rather than being a cynical oxymoron, it’s just obvious nonsense: it is not the Brexit Britain voted for (or anything like it) and it will not work for the EU, because only total and unmitigated humiliation will work for the Junckers, Barniers and Verhofstadts of this world.
Indeed, already the Sprouts are getting their retaliation in first. The massively encouraging phrases used so far have been “very unsure this will fly”, “no different to what she suggested eleven months ago”, “very worried”, “not good enough for the EU”, and “a non-starter”. So we’ll do that, then.
Those who see this as a “negotiating ploy” are asleep. The European Commission and its unholy trinity of unaccountable bulldozers don’t do negotiation. Since the Greek crisis began in 2010, politicians around the World have had eight years to study the modus operandi employed by the EC, ECB and Eurogroupe. It is a Satanic mélange of financial bullying, overt threats, media-based propaganda, downright lies, subterfuge and broken promises.
Yet the Remainers in Britain seem oblivious to the track record: first Athens, then Spain, Hungary, Poland, Britain and now Italy have been subjected to the same blithe interference in their affairs which, if Russia tried it, would result in a nuclear response from NATO….no doubt with Boris Johnson waving his cowboy hat astride the first bomb to fall.
But what of Boris in all this? “Trying to sell this [deal] as in any way a real Brexit would be like polishing a turd,” he told an acquaintance on Saturday morning…and as he’s spent his life doing just that, he’s probably well qualified to judge.
The problem as ever with BoJo is that he too is a serial bully and liar who is very lucky indeed (it’s called privilege) to be on this side of the walls of Dartmoor prison. He’s also (as my Mum used to say) “all mouth and trousers”. He promises to fall on his sword a lot: but when the day arrives, it’s astonishing how often the blade turns out to be fashioned from blancmange.
I have a contact who suggests to me that the tactic agreed by the Thursday evening Brexiteer caucus organised by Johnson was to “sit quiet and watch the silly bitch hang herself”. We shall see. In the meantime, pro-Brexit MPs – already, I note, being defamed with the ridiculous prefix “Hardliner” – have been dishing out nonstop flak with the aim of downing Theresa May’s 7-humped Sopwith Camel. Labour, meanwhile, has emerged during the day to say it will oppose the proposal “every step of the way”.
This is what happens when you try to please everyone because you have neither a grounded econo-fiscal strategy nor a set of ‘red line’ ethics. For all its ghastliness, at least the EU has its immovables: the four freedoms of movement underpinning the internal market – goods, services, capital and people. As Brexit is, at the bottom line, a rejection of that, an agreement amenable to the towering ivories in Belgium and Brexit voters is impossible, period.
After watching England’s 2-0 victory over an at best indifferent and unambitious Sweden yesterday, I jotted this down in the notebook that all writers have with them at all times:
‘Whatever became of Tommy Atkins?’
For those under sixty years of age, Tommy Atkins was the ordinary British kid who – at regular intervals after the Act of Union in 1702 – was the poor hapless bastard who wound up dying on the battlefield of failed diplomacy: the Universal Soldier of 1960s folk singer Donovan, he was the esprit of uncomplaining British grit rather than a real person. And over the centuries, he became The British Tommy.
Tommy Atkins was an idealised Brit probably best captured in the songs of Vera Lynn. But when out of uniform after the war – and back in ‘civvy street’ – he was a piercing critic of rigid ideology, bollocks as expounded by politicians on the make, and anything that got in the way of his fundamental addiction to fairness, a decent life for all, and the need to aspire to excellence in everything one does. That could involve everything from “doing the right thing when nobody’s looking” all the way through to discerning the opportunism of lavish (but undeserved) praise.
The one thing Tommy never did was “swank” – 1940s slang for what is now called ‘larging it’.
Following the Brexit process since 2016 (and the World Cup coverage over the last few weeks) it seems to me sadly obvious that Tommy Atkins is dead. He and his wife Edna brought the children up to do the Right Thing. The kids followed their lead, but then got distracted by 1960s “if it feels good do it” drivel, and – given the politicians then emerging were of the same mould – didn’t get too upset when their children somehow slid down the slippery slope to that place where ethics is a county as pronounced by someone with a lisp, and no politician has principles….but somehow, every new politician on the block must be a Messiah – and just by invoking nostalgia, everything becomes possible.
Tommy Atkins could tell shit from sugar. He didn’t steal things “because nobody’s looking”. He admired Churchill as a great war leader, but voted for Attlee because of his quietly considered form of democratic socialism. He didn’t like footballers who fouled and cheated their way to the top: he revered Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Nat Lofhouse, Duncan Edwards and Bobby Moore. He regarded time-wasting in soccer games as “the sort of thing continentals do”. When the Profumo scandal broke in 1963, he told his wife Edna, “It just isn’t good enough”. Lying to the House of Commons, in his book, was close to treason.
Now before lots of smart-arsed relativists get on my case, let me just record the obvious: Tommy was the personification of a national aspiration: a man of few words happy to let others do the talking, albeit taking note of when (it seemed to him) they were spouting idealistic theory at the expense of good governance. There were in the 1950-1978 period lots of real life Tommies; but Wilson, Thatcher and then Blair were already selling the ideas of the black market spivs he’d encountered during the war….the sort of people he loathed. The white heat of technology, the decisive role of free markets, a Third Way….none of it was real, and all of it came to grief.
What we lack today is the decency, discernment, understatement and common sense of Tommy Atkins….and almost all of his aspirations.
As the England side held on to its 2-0 lead over Sweden in the last ten minutes of the game on Saturday, all the commentators applauded the “clever” and “mature” way in which our players wasted time in a way that was many things, but it wasn’t class entertainment. Back in the studio, the “experts” lauded a “magnificent performance” in which, once again, England had needed free-kick and corner set pieces to overcome a very poor side.
As the “news” of May’s band-aid consensus dribbled out from post-Chequers attendees, columnists over the length and breadth of the country awarded points to Theresa May’s “political skill” in steering the United Kingdom towards a pathetic, directionless and altogether cowardly appeasement of a corporately anti-democratic superstate now busily falling apart on the mainland of Europe.
Tommy Atkins was the standard for Brits of all classes to match. The political, media and bureaucratic classes in the disunited Kingdom of today have no standards, and even less class.