Monday, 18 May 2020

Darkest Hour - A Review


Two of My Darkest Hours

Darkest Hour (2017)
Universal (Working Title) (117 mins.)
Directed by Joe Wright
Screenplay by Anthony McCarten.
Starring Gary Oldman.

Yet another war film, yet another Churchill bio-pic, yet another movie disaster. I had few expectations of this film but when I finally got to see it (on the BBC) any slender shards of it were soon smashed to smithereens.

This is the Hollywoodisation of history at its most dire. Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is very good, courtesy of some very heavy and quite convincing make-up, though his vocal register and accent wobble a bit, and his performance tends towards impression and caricature rather than true inhabitation. The trick of playing him as dim and slow-witted as a device to suggest the opposite is scarcely original and has reached the point of becoming wearisomely predictable (see just about every other portrayal of him). The depiction of London in 1940 is very good, and some slow-motion photography of street scenes at a couple of points in the film is highly effective in creating atmosphere. I only wish the same could have been said of the rest of the enterprise. Churchill’s uneasy and turbulent relationship with his wife Clemmie is nicely teased out, thanks chiefly to an excellent performance by Kristin Scott Thomas (perhaps the best of the largish supporting cast) and the scenes in the Cabinet war rooms are quite well realised. The acting and direction is generally good, save for the amateurish re-creation of the Dunkirk flotilla (Operation Dynamo) seemingly taking place in a bathtub.

However, the problem is the script which is historically inaccurate, politically half-baked, and oozes clichés from every pore. Of course I do not expect absolute and tedious fidelity to the historical record, and artistic licence is not merely excusable but more or less a necessity if one is to have a properly rounded drama and to reach any sort of satisfactory conclusion.  And one would have to be spectacularly naive to suppose that the cinema is going to deliver any such thing as a strictly factual account. Clearly also the great bulk of the dialogue has to be invented since there is no official record of private conversations, and even where unofficial ones exist in diaries and memoirs they tend to vary according to the prejudices of the players concerned. But Darkest Hour takes 101 liberties too many. Whilst the first half of the film is tolerably adjacent to reality the second spirals off into fantasy land, its absurdities almost a betrayal of the rather laboured efforts at authenticity built up in the first. To go through all the outrages at some length is arduous but I will nonetheless attempt it.

We begin with the Norway debate in the House of Commons in early May of 1940 which sees the PM, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup looking very much the part) and his Conservative government under heavy pressure from the Labour Opposition led by Clement Attlee (whose name is misspelt in the credits). Attlee is here portrayed as an oratorical thunderer, denouncing Chamberlain in the most emphatic terms and demanding his resignation, quite unlike the placid figure we all know and love to be bored stiff by. (In breach of Parliamentary etiquette, perhaps an excusable error on the part of the film-makers, he refers to Chamberlain by name not by prime ministerial title or as “the right honourable gentleman”). Thereafter, however, this titan of the dispatch box disappears altogether from the film, despite being called into the War Cabinet as part of the Churchill coalition. In fact the real ammunition in the debate was supplied by Tory backbencher Leo Amery (in the name of God GO!) and former Liberal PM and hero of WWI Lloyd George, and Labour was led in the debate by Arthur (Speak for England Arthur!) Greenwood not Attlee. But they do not appear. I suppose you can’t really clutter the film with too many characters, many of whom will have only a walk-on part, and there is only so much you can cram into two hours.
Churchill is shown, or rather not shown, his place on the front bench vacant save for a hat (the film-makers seem to think that ministers have fixed places on the front bench) and we have a sardonic comment from an MP that Winston “does not want to leave his fingerprints on the murder weapon”, one of the better lines in the script. It does, however, create the impression that Churchill had in some way failed to support the government when in fact, as a member of the Cabinet since the declaration of war the previous September, he would have had to support the government, both by his presence in the division lobby and on the front bench beside his colleagues. And we are treated once again, as with so many representation of the Commons, to the sight of almost literally every single MP on both sides of the House cheering (or jeering) wildly and waving his order paper, as if it were some sort of musical production number. Has the director never actually watched the House of Commons?
We then proceed to a dinner party that evening attended by party grandees, though not I assume the full Cabinet because Churchill is absent despite being a very senior member of it as First Lord of the Admiralty. Chamberlain addresses the need to resign and the question of the succession; cue for an orgy of lumbering expositional dialogue from all and sundry, as they plump for the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane); “Must be Halifax”; “No Contest”; as sole acceptable candidate, and when he duly declines, “But then who?” they all cry. “Oh, no, no, no!” 
The whole scene is an absurdity because it was already widely accepted within the highest circles that the choice lay between Halifax and Churchill, and that the former was an impossibility from a practical viewpoint given that he was in the Lords. In fact the decision was to be made the following day in a meeting between Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill, a scene not depicted here. It is also suggested that only Churchill among Tory MPs would have been acceptable to the Labour Party, though Labour merely demanded that Chamberlain resign without expressing any preference for a particular successor, and their eventual willingness to serve under Churchill in a grand coalition was distinctly grudging and half-hearted.
We proceed to Chartwell the following day and in a self-consciously bright and cheery domestic scene, designed to contrast sharply with the hugger-muggery of the preceding, Churchill’s breakfast is being prepared and we see the work of the household and the induction of a new typist. The servants are all loveably eccentric plebs of course, and I almost expected to see Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges pop up or should I say Mr Carson and Mrs Patmore. Breakfast is taken up to the great man’s bedroom, followed by the fledgling typist. As with all the best heroes we are only introduced to him in circuitous fashion, shrouded in mystery, the better to leave us guessing as to his credentials (think John Wayne in Stagecoach or James Bond at the gambling table in Dr No). The typist, Miss Layton (Lily James), duly enters the darkened and smoke-filled den to be greeted by Churchill already in full flow of dictation and expecting the poor girl to take up the reins in an instant. When she duly flounders he berates her and she departs in a flood of tears. Well, almost. Of course he will subsequently repent of his severity on her, though without admitting it, (after Clemmie has admonished him - a scene in which she uses words addressed to him a letter not face to face) and gruffly accept her back, revealing his bark to be worse than his bite; she will overcome her trepidation and settle in to become super-efficient, devoted to him and end up as his greatest cheer-leader. So far, so stereotypical.
Then a police motorcyclist roars up to the doors of the mansion to deliver a telegram to Churchill from the Palace. Whatever can it be? Surely it cannot be an invitation to become PM. Why, yes it is. We are transported to Buck House where a rather sallow and self-doubting King George VI is waiting for him, having already had another exposition- laden conversation with the outgoing Chamberlain in which they discuss Churchill’s shortcomings and his litany of policy debacles (Gallipoli, the Gold Standard, the Abdication crisis, etc, etc). George here, unlike in The King’s Speech, manages to keep his stammer under control, though only by some obscure means that leaves him looking perpetually constipated. Churchill and the king discuss matters and agree to meet weekly as per the constitutional custom. Though Churchill of course has to impress upon His Majesty, and upon us, what a Bohemian he is because he cannot make it for 4pm on a Monday because that is the time he has his nap.  
We then see him take up the appurtenances of office and select his Cabinet (a very swift and perfunctory matter here) and renew acquaintance with old ally Anthony Eden whom he appoints War Minister (credited as Sir Anthony though he did not receive his knighthood until many years later). Then to a convivial family gathering with his wife, son and daughters wherein Clemmie describes with mock despondency her life of self sacrifice on the altar of her husband’s ambition. They make a toast to “not buggering it up”; an actual event though as with so much else kind of spatchcocked in and out of place.
Thence to Parliament again and his first speech as PM: “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat” in which he makes it clear that there will be no negotiated peace or “surrender”, cue much muttering of discontent on the Tory backbenches. This is artfully interspersed with scenes of the dictation of the speech to the by now well established Miss Layton (the only personal typist we see though he must have got through squads of them in reality) including the now regulation allusion to his tendency to dictate in a state of nature.
Chamberlain and Halifax meet privately to talk darkly of trying to unseat Churchill by means of a vote of no-confidence, though it would have been inconceivable for that to have originated from within the Cabinet, and certainly not immediately upon his accession to office. Chamberlain admits he has terminal cancer and “Will not see England at peace again”, though in actuality he had not yet been diagnosed and was never told of it even after he had been. Halifax is clearly being set up as the villain of the piece, because of course there has to be a villain. We are given a tour of the war rooms as Miss Layton, again, is introduced. She is ubiquitous in this film. He flies to France to meet the French premier, Reynaud, and is astonished and enraged to discover that they have no plans to counter-attack against the German blitzkrieg through the Ardennes. There is considerable humour extracted from Churchill’s execrable attempts at French (probably close to reality here).
Then more scenes of Tory backbenchers chafing at Churchill’s leadership, and more exposition. George and Halifax plot together against Churchill. I was amused to be treated to the apocryphal scene of Churchill declining to see the Lord Privy Seal at Chartwell because he is sealed on the privy and can only deal with one shit at a time - the best line in the whole film (recounted in Boris Johnson’s lively biography of the great man). At Chartwell, Clemmie bemoans their financial state. “I will economise with only four cigars a day”. “You are insufferable!” “Pig.” They exchange endearments because of course they are really in love despite the shouting matches.
Churchill tries out his trademark V sign for the benefit of the paparazzi but gets it the wrong way round, and in a quite bizarre scene he has it explained to him (by Miss Layton of course and in the war rooms) that it should be done palm outwards and what the palm inwards version means. The idea that a callow, young female typist in the 1940s would be having a conversation of this nature with the PM, any PM, is anachronistic beyond measure.  We have his first radio broadcast. Churchill is exasperated, unfamiliar with the technology and baulks at being rushed by the producer. Will he come through with the goods? After a lengthy hesitation (has he lost his nerve?) he launches upon his speech with characteristic vim and brio (and Miss Layton there in the background willing him on of course). He gives an inaccurately optimistic account of the situation in France so as to boost morale and is subsequently rapped over the knuckles for it by the king.
Back to the war rooms and he is briefed by the military chiefs to the effect that the “whole British army” is trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk and under threat of wipe-out by German bombers and artillery. This is absurd because although there were 300,000 men in northern France there were millions more, both professionals and conscripts, based all over the globe; but that would be insufficiently melodramatic.  However, Churchill is informed that there is a small garrison at Calais, and orders that they make a diversionary attack upon the Germans. Halifax demurs, saying it would be suicide and that there is an offer of negotiating a peace via the Italians (then not yet at war with Britain). Halifax urges this be taken up. Churchill is angrily dismissive. The problem with this and subsequent such scenes is that in reality such arguments would never have been held in the presence of the military. Political questions, of which the Italian peace plan was quintessentially one, and the whole question of whether to negotiate at all would have been dealt with in Cabinet, and probably just within the War Cabinet. Of course it is more dramatic to have these rows in semi-public but it forfeits plausibility.
We have a transatlantic telephone call to Roosevelt, one of the funniest scenes in the film, probably intentionally so unlike many others. Churchill asks to be supplied with the planes Britain has bought with the money the USA lent, only to be told, hilariously, that as a result of the Neutrality Act that has just been passed through Congress, they cannot be despatched, though they could be pulled across the Canadian border by horses! This scene is truly uproarious, but comes across more like a comedy double act than a discussion between two great world statesmen.  And it clearly did not take place because it was not possible at that time to hold direct scrambled calls with the USA, and I cannot really believe that such a conversation, brilliant though it undoubtedly is, could possibly have taken place. It is a preposterous scene.
There is a call to First Sea Lord “Bertie” Ramsay, wherein Churchill floats (almost literally) his idea of a civilian flotilla to rescue the army at Dunkirk.
Churchill has dinner at the Palace with the king. “How do you drink so much?” “With practice”! The royal families’ evacuation to Canada is canvassed, his position being insecure. George tells Churchill “You scare me”, due to his unpredictability. Churchill explains that there is “wildness in his blood”, “my father was everywhere”. Would Churchill really have had this conversation at that time with his sovereign, especially given the frosty relations still subsisting between them? I cannot believe it.
More war room stuff, Eden is now present. More rows with Halifax, “stop interrupting me when I am interrupting you!”; “I have overdone it with including old rivals in the Cabinet.” Halifax gets to make a powerful intervention opposing but Churchill shouts him down; “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”. Halifax threatens resignation, and in an allusion to Gallipoli, Churchill defends himself by saying that it was designed to alleviate the situation on the western front where men were “chewing barbed wire”. A good and illuminating exchange here, though probably not made at that juncture.
Chamberlain and Halifax plot some more; “the king will back us”. There is the commencement of Operation Dynamo. Churchill sends a telegram to Brig. Nicholson, commander of the Calais garrison, to the effect that there will be no evacuation of his troops. Miss Layton becomes distressed as she is typing this. Naturally she has a brother there, who we learn subsequently didn’t make it. She is taken to the Inner War Room to be shown the situation. The Calais garrison is in dire straits.

Hereafter the film starts to nosedive, not that it has been flying at all that great an altitude for the previous hour but there has been some effort at verisimilitude. But from hereon each scene is more preposterous than the last. Churchill starts to vacillate as the military briefings bring more and more dire news with capitulations everywhere, forecasts of airborne and sea invasion by the Germans and Halifax still pressing for peace negotiations, via Bastianini, the Italian ambassador. Churchill wavers, prepared to countenance some concessions to Hitler, evidenced by his losing his normal oratorical flair. The words won’t come! He mumbles his contempt for Hitler, the tyrant and housepainter (we cannot be sure which he thinks is worse).
The king is angry at the situation, and chafes at being asked to flee to Canada. George makes an impromptu visit to Churchill (at Chartwell or no 10, not clear). Such a visit would have been inconceivable; any contact would have been strictly formal and pre-determined. George was not the sort of monarch to drop in on people unannounced. And he certainly would not have been sitting having a heart to heart on the edge of Churchill’s bed! But somehow the king has been converted to Churchill’s side in a Damascene conversion for reasons never entirely explained. He urges Churchill to go to the people. Even more preposterous!
With the kings words still ringing in his ears Churchill, en route to Downing St, looks out of his car at the people scurrying about and we have a curiously effective slow motion tableau of London life, which underlines the physical authenticity of the film (if not is spiritual authenticity). This precipitates one of the most excruciating scenes I have ever witnessed in a film, which is saying something. Churchill decides he must ask the people! He darts out from the back of the car to the astonishment of his driver. “We’ve lost the PM” they announce in the war room. Churchill has popped down into the London Underground, and, asking a bemused passenger how to get to Westminster he boards a railway carriage to the utter dismay of its occupants who all instantly recognise him. “What’s the matter, haven’t you seen a PM before?” He then engages in a wince-inducing forum with the assembled passengers as they gather round him like children at Santa Claus’s grotto. In this ad hoc focus group he queries them as to their collective mood; what they feel about negotiations for peace? What would they do if Britain were invaded? and so on. The carriage seems to have ground to a halt whilst these conversations take place for it is only two minutes to the Westminster stop and the discussions last for at least ten. The passengers are all salt of the earth types, all working class, and include a girl and a black man (good to see the screenwriter got the memo on diversity). Churchill sedulously takes their names. They are of one mind and all fiercely oppose negotiations, and are determined to fight to the bitter end, even after an invasion. The girl is the most strident and delivers the wince-inducing clincher, “Never, never!”
This scene is wrong on every level imaginable. Churchill, as he himself mentions early on, had never travelled on the underground or a bus or indeed any form of public transport for that matter, and never did. It would have been impossible for him to have slipped away unnoticed since his bodyguard would have been seated next to him, and there would probably have been others in the car. The idea that he could find a tube carriage quiet enough and stationary enough for him to hold forth as he does is outlandish. Public opinion at that time could not have been accurately gauged, since opinion polling was still in its infancy, but all of the available evidence suggests that the British people, of all classes and political affiliations, were at that time deeply divided on the war, with perhaps, even probably, a majority for peace negotiations if they were on offer and reasonable terms could be achieved. The notion that this supposed cross-section of the populace would be so unanimously and adamantly against negotiation (and it is clear in the film that this is meant to be a sincerely held if hitherto unvoiced view, not merely something they were saying for Churchill’s benefit) is preposterous! And would Churchill really have been that anxious to discern the people’s view, particularly if it might have contradicted his own. He had his unshakeable outlook and he had pursued his anti-appeasement and pro-rearmament campaign from the early thirties onwards when public opinion would almost unquestionably have been pro-appeasement and anti-re-armament.
Back to Parliament, and Churchill, having now found his way there from the tube and having recovered his former resolution, convenes a meeting of the “Outer Cabinet”, rounding up several strays along the way. I am not sure there was such a thing as the Outer Cabinet, only the Cabinet proper and the War Cabinet; and this body could not possibly have included random backbenchers summoned at a moment’s notice; and even if so would have been seated around a table not bunched together in a huddle in an eyrie of the Commons, but trifles such as these are not permitted to deflect the filmmakers from their mission to tell a story. They, like the tube travellers, enthusiastically endorse his decision to reject negotiations, cheering him to the rafters after he makes his famous peroration that “If our island story is to come to an end it will only be when each and every one on of us lies choking on the ground in his own blood.” Yet another Churchillism spatchcocked in to bolster the script.

And thence to the climactic scene of the film in which Churchill again address the Commons, and makes his most famous speech, “We shall not flag or fail, we shall go on to the end...We shall fight them on the beaches...”, re-affirming in the starkest possible terms his refusal to countenance negotiation. Miss Layton is of course in the gallery to cheer him. She is everywhere. This is greeted ecstatically by the whole House, on both sides and in all parties, with order papers fluttering furiously in response to his every cadence. No explanation is given for these apparent changes of conviction. Churchill strides out of the chamber to unanimous and thunderous acclamation with order papers scattered everywhere as if it were a ticker tape parade on Fifth Avenue. Even Chamberlain tacitly signals he does not dissent and Halifax, watching from the gallery, is left isolated in his adherence to peace talks. “He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle!” he says despairingly. The speech is of course justly famous but it would not even then have won the universal approval depicted here, with many on both sides, especially his own, still deeply unconvinced, and Labour only grudgingly acquiescent.
And the speech is heard live on the radio by the king and by Clemmie, which of course it wasn’t and could not have been because there was no live or even recorded transmission of Parliament in those days, not until the 1970s. The speech was recorded by Churchill many years later and broadcast, the one we often hear. And Oldman’s delivery of the speech differs markedly in its rhythms and emphases from Churchill’s rendition, though of course Churchill may have uttered it differently by contrast to his later recording.

The problem with this film is that it bends historical truth, indeed snaps it in two at several points, in the interests of conforming to a stock Hollywood narrative formula. A weak and aloof ruling class vacillates in the face of threats from an evil and despotic enemy at the gates, havers in its conduct of a war it never really wanted and seeks a cowardly route out via negotiation. A hero emerges from the shadows to challenge the ruling elite, a man who walks with kings but retains the common touch, and channelling the unexpressed but authentic voice of the people, topples the ruling elite, seizes the reins of power by force of personality, and after a bit of a wobble caused by extreme adversity and the enormity of the task ahead, he rallies to a triumphant conclusion, leading the nation to victory on the battlefield. This is a travesty of historical truth in all its myriad complexity and uncertainty. Hollywood at its worst. The whole fiasco reminded me of nothing quite so much, as an IMDB reviewer noted, of The Strike (1988), an episode of The Comic Strip Presents strand shown on Channel 4 satirising Hollywood treatment of British historical themes with all its misapprehensions and distortions.
There is real story to tell but it requires subtlety and political understanding. Nuance is totally absent here. For example negotiation is equated with surrender, appeasement with defeat, etc. To be fair Halifax, as representative of the establishment, does get to put the alternative case, but he is characterised so strongly as a dour and unimaginative figure, unlike the real Halifax (the Holy Fox) that we are invited to hiss and boo him at every turn, thus undercutting the power of his argument.
One yearns to see the high politics of the period dealt with in a much more authentic and nuanced way, analysing the machinations of those years; but such a project can really only be undertaken by television with its more leisurely time frame. This has been attempted of course over the years, with varying results. One thinks for example of The Wilderness Years (1981) starring Robert Hardy as Churchill, though dealing with the preceding period of his career, from 1929 to 1939. Churchill’s rise was genuinely heroic in some ways, but not as presented here.

18th May 2020

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A Week is a Long Time in Politics

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A Week in Politics...
Recent events have been so momentous that I am now moved to put pen to paper, or at any rate finger to keyboard, to unburden myself of my own long-simmering cogitations on the matters in hand.
Harold Wilson once said that “A week is a long time in politics”. The last week or so, as from Thursday, 23rd June, seems to have encompassed about twenty, thirty, forty years worth of events. It is as if the film of politics has suddenly been speeded up. To quote another politician, Lord Halifax, in the immediate aftermath of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of September 1939 that precipitated the Nazi onslaught on Poland and Britain’s consequent declaration of war on Germany, “Every ism is now a wasm.” I have never known a week like it in British politics. British membership of the EU which had seemed to be set in concrete has been dissolved; the EU itself is in crisis as a result; the PM has resigned and precipitated a leadership and, ipso facto, a premiership contest; both major political parties are in a state of turmoil with bitter recrimination and accusations of treachery in one and near civil war in the other; the integrity of the UK itself is again in question with Scotland threatening another independence referendum and the Irish question suddenly re-appearing on the agenda; the markets are going haywire; and the economy is topsy-turvy. Oh yes, and we get the long awaited Chilcot report next week just in case there is a bit of a lull. Phew!
The Referendum
Where to start with all of this? Well, let’s start with the result of the referendum. It was obviously going to be a close run thing but, and I speak as one who voted ‘Leave’ (I may as well declare my bias at the outset), I expected it to be about 52%-48% for ‘Remain’. I was right about the percentages but wrong about the direction. There is usually a swing back to the status quo in the run-up to a vote of any sort – we witnessed it with the Scottish referendum a couple of years ago – and anyway I was always a bit sceptical about the polls which showed Leave ahead at some points. Also, I had a feeling that Remainers were slightly more likely to turn out to vote than Brexiteers across the country. (The pollsters again have not exactly covered themselves with glory.)
But it was evident from the very first couple of results in Newcastle and Sunderland that Brexit could well be heading for a surprise victory, with the former voting for Remain more narrowly than was supposed and the latter voting for Brexit more strongly than was supposed[1]. As I sat glued to the screen from before midnight until six in the morning, frantically switching channels between the BBC, Sky and ITV to gobble up every morsel of information, it was increasingly evident that Brexit was heading for an unlikely victory and that British politics was never going to be the same again. A parade of politicians and pundits were wheeled on and off as the night progressed, many of them almost visibly stunned and trying to explain away what was happening before our eyes.
It was also glaringly evident that there was a very marked disparity between different parts of the country with, as predicted, London, some of the other big cities and Scotland voting strongly for Remain and the rest of the country in between voting strongly Leave. This cut right across traditional Labour/Con or working class/middle class divisions, with old working class redoubts in the north and midlands joining hands with very middle class southern towns and seaside resorts to vote Leave and, seemingly, all classes of people in cosmopolitan London and metropolitan England aligning themselves with Scotland to vote Remain. Truly extraordinary.
If social class, income or party preference ceased to be good predictors of voting intention it seemed that age, generation and level of education were much better indicators, with the young and relatively young being preponderantly Remain and the late middle-aged and elderly preponderantly Leave, and the well-educated preponderantly Remain. This, I think, is unprecedented in that age, per se, scarcely ever has a significant effect on voting intention and views on political questions, even those issues that disproportionately affect the young or the old such as student loans or pensions. I feel that a major reason for this is that the young and early middle-aged cannot remember a time when Britain was not in the EU (or its’ predecessor incarnation as the ‘Common Market’) and view membership of the EU as part of the political furniture; something which is scarcely worthy of mention let alone contention and who are amazed that there are those who should want to leave. The older voter, by contrast, can remember all too well the time when we were not in Europe and may in some cases still yearn for those days. This has led to the rather silly suggestion in some quarters that the young have been betrayed by the old who will not have to live so long with the consequences of the decision, and the utterly daft idea which I have heard mooted even by ordinarily sane and intelligent people (such as a nincompoop on The Moral Maze the other day) that those over a certain age should have been denied the vote or had their vote count for less in some way. It simply begs the question of whether in fact we, as a nation, will be worse off in the long-term. I don’t think so, but time will tell. And anyway the franchise should of course be the same for the referendum as for elections. Why on earth not. We all have to live with the consequences of general elections as well as referenda. Admittedly, elections are more easy to reverse but their effects are still often very long-lasting.
Education, too, is clearly a factor in shaping opinion and there is a very strong bias in favour of the EU within academia, the media, the civil service, the professions and the bien pensant classes generally. This has rather framed the debate with a distinctly elitist feel to some of the arguments put forward on the Remain side, portraying at least some (or even many) Brexiteers as ill-educated, ignorant, geriatric provincials incapable of understanding the benefits of EU membership and the complexities of the argument. In its more virulent form there is a tendency to characterise some in the Brexit camp as reactionary, bigoted, xenophobic and racist. Will Self, for example, has asserted that whilst not all Brexiteers are racist, all racists are Brexiteers (almost certainly not true). Of course there is a great deal of ill-informed and half-baked comment thrown into the mix, on both sides, and doubtless some on the wilder shores of the Brexit campaign deserve some or all of these epithets, but I am far from persuaded that the average Brexiteer is any less astute or erudite than the average Remainer.  

The Campaign
This brings me to the vexed subject of the campaign itself, which I agree was generally conducted on a very low plane, with the great TV debates often descending into shouting matches and scarcely able to get much beyond the direly predictable clichés trotted out with excruciating tedium. I feel the campaign was very inferior to that of the 1975 referendum, though it may be argued that the inferior quality of the debate this time around is due, at least in part, to an inferior quality of politician, right across the spectrum of opinion. I don’t feel that David Cameron, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage et al, are quite of the same calibre as Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Roy Jenkins, Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell, Michael Foot, Tony Benn etc. from 1975, though maybe I am just an old curmudgeon.
This campaign was marked by a level of crass hyperbole, mendacity and platitudinous thinking surely unrivalled in the annals of British political discourse. It is as if we were debating the structure of the calendar and one side absolutely insisted that the week consisted of eight days to which their opponents would respond that actually it is very definitely and incontrovertibly only six days. The first lot would then say, that, no, they had made a miscalculation and that really is was nine days and the other lot would say, no, they too had been understating their case and that it was emphatically only five days.
To take a few oft-cited examples from both sides the Vote Leave bunch repeatedly asserted that Turkey’s accession to the EU was both certain and imminent when it is surely nothing of the kind (having been on the table in one form or another since 1959). David Cameron responded by saying that Turkey will not be ready for membership until at least the year 3000, despite his having given a speech only six years ago saying he was fully behind speeding up their application. If Cameron told me there were seven days in the week I would check my diary. Then again we have the matter of budgetary contributions and Vote Leave’s mantra, emblazoned on their battle-bus, that our weekly contribution is £350 million, omitting to mention that that is a gross figure and that half comes back in a rebate and much (but not all) of the other half comes back in one form or another as regional aid and such like. The Remain side respond by saying that actually we are probably making a net gain from the EU when we are surely not. The Brexiteers argue a variety of alternatives to EU membership, some saying that we could somehow retain tariff-free access to the single market whilst avoiding the free movement of labour; very obviously an impossibility under EU rules as repeatedly underlined by various EU bigwigs. George Osborne has told us that the average household would be worse-off by £4,500 a year outside the EU; in other words by between a fifth and a sixth. An utterly preposterous suggestion even given a “worst-case scenario”.  I am surprised he didn’t end up by saying that we would all be begging on the streets and foraging in dustbins. And on and on. I am reminded of the celebrated Monty Python sketch where a group of old men talk about how hard their childhoods were, each one trying to outdo the last, until the final speaker announces that, as a lad, he lived in a cardboard box in a swamp, had to work 25 hours a day, eight days a week, had to walk hundreds of miles barefoot across broken glass to get to work where he had to pay his boss rather than the other way around,  and was regularly murdered by his father.
But enough of this tomfoolery. What happens now? I am far from convinced that we actually will ever leave the EU. For a kick-off there are plenty of siren voices among the Remainers who suggest we should have a second referendum of some sort and at some time, perhaps only to decide on what form our departure should take, or maybe even to re-run the whole thing, given that a lot of Brexiteers have apparently repented of their sin in voting to leave or thought that they were really voting on the Eurovision Song Contest. There is a lot of history of countries voting against EU treaties only to be told to do it again and get it right the second time, after a few cosmetic changes to the treaties themselves. Admittedly this is a vote against membership itself not against a treaty, and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission, and others have been adamant that there can be no back-tracking or a new deal. Moreover the Tory leadership contenders are all saying that the voter’s verdict must be respected etc and ‘Leave must mean Leave’. But none of them seems too keen to actually invoke Article 50 to commence Leave proceedings, and this could drag on for ages. The disengagement process itself is expected to take two years, or even three, and who knows what might happen in that period of time.
It looks very likely, at the time of writing, that Theresa May, a Remainer (albeit a very low key one), will win the leadership and may appoint other leading Remainers to key posts undermining Britain’s negotiating position. Who knows that we might not end up with some sort of deal that, whilst ostensibly freeing us from the EU’s embrace, effectively gives us a form of associate membership with qualified access to the single market but a qualified acceptance of free movement and other EU impositions; a sort of Norway minus.
The Constitution
This brings us on to the constitutional conundrums thrown up by the whole EU/referendum imbroglio like sparks from carriage wheels flying over stony ground. The referendum was technically non-binding, though of course the government of the day is bound, politically and ethically, to ‘respect’ the outcome. But there’s the rub. The government will effectively have changed in the intervening period between the voting and the conclusion of the negotiations with the EU. Indeed, even before the commencement of the negotiations, given that Article 50 has yet to be invoked. There will be a new prime minister within two and a half months, and although all the leadership contenders have committed themselves to give effect to the Leave verdict of the referendum we cannot know how they will behave behind closed doors.
Also, it is argued by some constitutional experts that leaving the EU would require Parliamentary approval in the form of the repeal of the European Communities Act of 1972 that gave effect to Britain’s accession, and surely some Parliamentary votes would be involved somewhere along the line. There is a very large majority for the EU in the present House of Commons, taking all parties combined. Labour is overwhelmingly pro-EU as is the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the various odds-and-sods and a majority, though not great, of the Conservative Party. There is no reason why any of the Opposition parties should feel themselves bound by the referendum result given that they had had no part in its pledging or calling, and may well have thought it wrong in principle even to hold such a referendum. Would any anti-EU legislation get through? And, if not, what then? It would presumably trigger a general election (which is itself problematic given the accursed Fixed Term Parliaments Act the coalition drove through). And what might be the outcome of that? Another pro-EU Commons probably, with a smaller or possibly even greater EU majority than before?  
Suppose, also, that one or more of the leadership contenders had come from the backbenches rather than from within the ranks of government. Would they have felt bound by the referendum result given that they had had no part in the pledging or calling of it? They may have stood on a referendum platform at the last election but might personally have opposed it to their constituents. More seriously, whichever candidate wins the Tory leadership and premiership might decide to call a snap election to obtain a renewed mandate, and might lose or fail to obtain the mandate sought to take Britain out of the EU. It is interesting that of the five contenders two are Remainers, including the favourite, and so for all the talk of the new PM and Cabinet having to be Brexit in composition or complexion it might well not be. In place of Cameron, Osborne and Hammond we might get not Johnson, Gove and Leadsom but May, Osborne and Hammond!  The more things change the more they stay the same.
The Conservative Party
This brings us to the Conservative leadership contest. Michael Gove’s assassination of Boris might come to look increasingly stupid if it turns out that he would have been the only one capable of beating May (assuming of course that Gove’s purpose was to ensure a true Brexiteer is in Number 10). Gove is way behind May in MPs’ nominations at the moment and it is unclear if he will even get onto the ballot of members. There is speculation that some of May’s supporters may be backing Andrea Leadsom (currently second) specifically to deprive Gove of sufficient support, confident that May will beat Leadsom easily amongst the grassroots. Gove will anyway surely pay a price for his perfidy, at least within the ranks of Conservative MPs.
The whole business of Gove and Boris is assuming the proportions of Shakespearian tragedy and the more one thinks about it the more mysterious it becomes. I was stunned by Boris’s announcement, the more so coming as it did at the peroration of a lengthy and involved speech. Quite a punchline. Hitting hard by not hitting at all. Did Gove’s candidature really fatally hole Johnson’s bid below the waterline? If many of Johnson’s supporters were apparently flocking to Gove then why does Gove have so few supporters now amongst MPs? Did Johnson not have many to start with? Or was it the comments that Gove made about Boris’s lack of leadership qualities that made Johnson feel he was fatally compromised? Or was it that he never really wanted the leadership at all, astonishing as it may seem to say that? There are those who argue that Boris never thought he was going to win the Brexit campaign and was only staking a claim to high office, though Cameron had offered him that anyway to buy him off back in February. Did he not relish the prospect of taking office to clear up the mess the Remainers insist will be the fruits of Brexit, as Lord Heseltine claims?
And what of Michael Gove? Why his last minute Damascene conversion? It is typical of politicians to disavow any desire for the premiership or for high office at all, but they do not usually couple that with complete self abasement insisting they are totally unfitted for office, as Gove has done. Most pundits took Gove’s oft-stated claims at face value, and not out of naïveté (they never for example took Michael Heseltine’s disavowals of ambition seriously in the late 1980s). Was it a last minute conversion or had he been planning it all along? It seems too Machiavellian even for Gove, but how else can we explain it? He had been working alongside Boris for weeks and even months in the Brexit campaign and had seen him operate at very close quarters. He must already have formed an opinion of Boris’s capabilities as a leader, and they can surely only have been enhanced by the success of the campaign. There must be a great deal of chicanery that has yet to come out, and we may even have to wait for their memoirs to appear decades hence before all is revealed (and probably not even then). This will be meat for the historians for decades to come.
And as for Cameron! Like so much else in this drama the turn of events is riven with irony and paradox. He spent much of his political life posing as a eurosceptic, not very convincingly in my view, but convincingly enough for much of the commentariat. I always perceived him as euro-neutral rather than eurosceptic. He tried to steer his party away from euroscepticism ever since assuming the leadership but has been dogged by it. He then took a gamble to try to buy off his eurosceptic backbenchers and shoot the UKIP fox by promising the referendum. He may well have calculated that he was not going to win the 2015 election outright and that, as in the period 2010-2015, he would be reliant on Liberal Democrat support which would provide him with the pretext not to hold the pledged referendum – ‘I want to but those blasted Europhile Lib Dems in the Cabinet won’t let me’ he was going to cry. It would not be the first time a prime minister sought refuge from the die-hards in his own party in the embrace of a coalition partner.  But he won and had to make good on his pledge, and on other things he may not really have wanted to do.
But not to worry. With the whole weight of the establishment on his side; big business, the banks, most of the Labour Party, most of the trade unions, former PMs, the panjandrums of the EU, the World Bank, the IMF, think tanks and research institutes galore, showbiz celebrities, President Obama, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all he was sure to win. And then as the campaign progressed it was not at all clear that he was going to win. More and more artillery was wheeled into place to blast the recalcitrant electorate into compliance; even museum pieces like Sir John Major and Lord Heseltine were brought out of storage. And still the easy victory he had anticipated seemed unclear on the horizon. Then the day of reckoning. Hoist by his own petard. And then the bitter recriminations. The sheepish sojourn to Brussels and the humiliation at the hands of the EU Council of Ministers. His treatment of Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs was priceless. Not the usual pantomime stuff but words of bitter scorn and a look of genuine and withering contempt at the Labour leader’s failure to prosecute the campaign more enthusiastically on his behalf. Thus Cameron seems to be evolving a strange new doctrine of Parliamentary democracy whereby it is the function of the Opposition to support the Government and to dig a prime minister out of a hole of his own making, even when the Opposition never had any part in the manufacture of that hole and had specifically advised against it. Hubris and nemesis. He may now be remembered as the Prime Minister who took Britain out of the EU and perhaps precipitated the break-up of the institution itself, the very last epitaph he would have written for himself given the choice.
The Labour Party   
 And that brings us to the Labour Party. What a farce! I am sure there has never been a situation quite like this in Parliamentary history (how many times have I said that in this essay). The present position, however, is the almost inevitable culmination of the decision made to throw open the election of a leader to the wider membership (a decision made by all the parties at different times), whatever form that may take. Inevitably the occasion will eventually arise when the membership elects someone unacceptable to the PLP. Something rather similar occurred to the Conservative Party when Iain Duncan-Smith was elected by the membership but was then eventually despatched by the Conservative Parliamentary Party, though Duncan-Smith almost certainly had more support amongst his MPs than Corbyn currently has amongst his.  
Of course that is why the party requires a candidate to secure a basic minimum proportion of MP nominations, which Jeremy Corbyn duly achieved, though only because some right-wing or centrist MPs nominated him to widen the debate. But many of these did not vote for him and subsequently regretted their actions in nominating him. Essentially the skids have been under Corbyn ever since his accession with a large part of the Blairite right of the party simply refusing to accept his leadership, and plotting to undermine him at every turn. Quite a few existing shadow cabinet members refused to serve under him from the outset, not even bothering to wait for his invitation. But nonetheless he seemed able to cobble together a reasonable coalition of MPs to form a shadow cabinet though the stresses showed over the vote on the bombing of Syria. However, it was really only a matter of time before there was a serious move against him, and it might have occurred after the local elections which were poor for an opposition party (though not as poor as many liked to paint it) but the right stayed its hand because of the looming referendum and the need, as they saw it, to hold the party together to campaign for Remain.
Corbyn is a veteran of the internal party battles of the 70s and 80s and retained the anti-Europeanism of the hard left of those times, always voting in the eurosceptic lobby. Yet he came out for Remain when the referendum campaign got under way, probably under pressure. Whilst he was in a minority, and sometimes a small minority, within the PLP on several issues he would have been in a tiny minority if he had come out for Leave, and with almost the whole party campaigning for Remain his position would have been utterly impossible. Even his grassroots base centred on ‘Momentum’ were overwhelmingly pro-EU. He compromised, in effect, by campaigning for Remain in a half-hearted way, pointing out the negatives as well as the positives of the EU, in a way that most of the party evidently found infuriating. It was even suggested that he might actually have voted for Leave in the privacy of the polling booth! Perhaps he calculated he would get the best of both worlds this way, but he seems to have ended up with the worst of both.
After the referendum was lost the party came down on him like a ton of bricks for failing to invigorate the Labour vote and even blamed him for the defeat of the whole Remain campaign. Yet this was absurd. A large majority of Labour voters did vote Remain, and it is very unlikely that a more whole-hearted effort on his part would have made any difference. Those Labour voters who were prepared to follow the party recommendation did so, and the rest were never going to do so. But the Blairites seized on this ‘failure’ as just the opportunity they had been craving to unseat Corbyn, aware that others on the left of the party also took a dim view of Corbyn’s lacklustre campaign. Mass resignations from the shadow cabinet ensued, which may or may not have been co-ordinated, on the Sunday following the referendum, together with a no-confidence motion which was tabled by the PLP and passed by an extraordinary 172-40. There were trenchant calls from all and sundry for him to go, but he has been adamant up to this point that he will not resign and if MPs want to unseat him they will have to issue a challenge. He knows that given the level of support he still enjoys among the grassroots he is likely to win another contest, though some of his erstwhile support may have ebbed away for a variety of reasons. A vexed question is whether, as incumbent, he would automatically be entitled to be on the ballot, given that it is very unlikely he would garner enough nominations from MPs, but the consensus of legal opinion is that he would be so entitled (only the Labour Party could contrive to have rules so opaque for this very basic issue to be in doubt).
The PLP has been very reluctant to produce a challenger to come forward, though it seems both Angela Eagle and Owen Smith have got the requisite number of nominations, largely because they know that Corbyn would probably win again, so there is at present a stand-off with continuing demands for his resignation, even from David Cameron, while Corbyn seals himself off and plods along, emboldened by his Praetorian guard of John McDonnell and Seamas Milne. He still apparently has the support of most of the big unions, though deputy leader Tom Watson has quite openly been trying to wrestle them away from him. It is a preposterous situation, and it is hard not to see the only possible resolution as a split in the party, either before or after a leadership contest. If Corbyn were to be victorious he would still not command the support of the PLP. At present he cannot even populate the Shadow Cabinet, with several posts vacant and some people doubling up. New bodies have been drafted in, but one resigned after only two days in the job – a new Parliamentary record! Paul Flynn has been sent to the frontline, at 81 the oldest front-bencher since Gladstone! It has got beyond a joke but there is yet no denouement in prospect.
Scotland
The SNP has long been seeking the excuse it needs to hold a second independence referendum, ever since losing the first one, and has long threatened that if the UK were to ‘take Scotland out of the EU against its will’ it would duly deliver. Sure enough in the wake of the EU referendum Nicola Sturgeon swung into action preparing the ground for it, and has also been to see EU leaders to try to negotiate directly with them over a Scottish application to join, even if Scotland were still part of the UK. Unfortunately for her the EU will not play ball with this one not least because several of them fear their own separatist movements (e.g. Spain vis a vis Catalonia) and do not want to give them any encouragement. Moreover, Sturgeon will be very cautious about actually calling a referendum unless she is sure she will win it, which is highly debatable at present given that Scotland would have to join the Euro as all new members are required, and the price of oil upon which the Scottish economy is heavily dependent is low. A second referendum defeat within a space of two to three years would kill it off for the foreseeable future.
I am not at all impressed with the Scottish nationalist argument anyway. They are still part of the UK, and, unlike any other part of the UK, have actually voted expressly to remain part of it. As such they have to accept the result of the nation as a whole and be governed by it. London and some other big cities also voted Remain but they are not demanding independence or continued adherence to the EU (except for a humorous call for London to be a city state). One might just as well ask what right Scotland would have to keep Britain in if England and Wales voted strongly out, as they did. Sturgeon pleads that there has been a material change of circumstances but things change all the time and if every such change provoked another referendum there would never be an end to it. Moreover, she is not constitutionally able to block Brexit as she has suggested, so matters north of the border are hanging in the air as elsewhere.
The European Union       
What of the institution itself at the heart of the whole imbroglio?
The EU has been crisis-ridden for several years now over the euro and the migrant influx, and now Brexit had added to the brew. Brexit will embolden other members to hold in-out referenda, euroscepticism now sweeping the continent, and there seems to be a real fear within the EU that the whole project might be de-railed and even break-up. Polls show that euroscepticism is even stronger in France than it is in Britain and nationalist movements and anti-EU parties, on both left and right, are on the march in several countries. However, I doubt that the EU will disintegrate. Paradoxically the exit of Britain may even produce another bout of integration as a reflex defence. Though they are all expressing regret at the departure of Britain there might be some who see it as a blessing since we have so often been a drag anchor on their projects, not in the euro and not in the Schengen area, always reluctant Europeans.
Within the next few months Britain will surely invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to trigger the exit negotiations, which can take up to two years (or even three if extended). Exactly what will then be negotiated is very unclear, since the Brexiteers were divided amongst themselves about what future for Britain they envisaged; the Norway option, the Canada option, the Albanian option (!?), etc, etc. The main question seems to be whether we can negotiate some sort of tariff-free access to the single market perhaps in return for a concession regarding the free movement of labour, but then it was opposition to free movement that was the chief driver for people voting out. The Brexiteers seem to think their ace card is that Europe exports far more to us than we export to them, and that therefore the imposition of reciprocal tariffs would not be to their advantage. The other ace up their sleeve is the putative negotiation of trade deals with the expanding economies in the third world (as was) but it remains to be seen what that will yield in the long term.
What is negotiated will also depend on who is doing the negotiating, which depends on who the new Prime Minister is and who is appointed as “Minister for Brexit”. At the time of writing (8th July) the contest has been narrowed down to Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, thus guaranteeing us our second female PM,  with Michael Gove having been eliminated – probably paying the penalty for knifing Boris Johnson. May is heavy favourite, being by far the more experienced with a record six years under her belt as Home Secretary, but Leadsom has the advantage of being a prominent Brexiteer, and many party members being predominantly eurosceptic might yet opt for her. If May wins perhaps Leadsom will be the negotiator, and if Leadsom wins perhaps Gove. What ultimately emerges may be a kind of soft Brexit.
Chilcot
Just when you thought it was safe to watch the current affairs programmes again along comes the long-awaited Chilcot report on the Iraq war (it is impossible not to affix the adjective long-awaited given that it has taken seven years to plop weightily onto the mat). In its very measured way it has delivered a stinging indictment of Blair and his cabinet, the decision to go to war, the quality and use of the intelligence, the process whereby legality was established, the lack of preparation for the occupation post-conflict, the failure to properly equip British forces still using vehicles and equipment designed for other earlier conflicts such as Northern Ireland, etc., etc. Never I would imagine has a PM or government been so savaged by an independent official enquiry. Blair held his own press conference in the wake of Chilcot, repeating his mantra of self-justification, that he was convinced it was right to get rid of Saddam and that he would do the same again, and rejects any charge of falsifying intelligence (which Chilcot acquits him of anyway). But Blair now looks a haunted man, a ghost of his former self. He may have felt the hand of history on his shoulder but, with a motion to impeach him for misleading Parliament now being moved by Alex Salmond and supported by David Davis and probably Jeremy Corbyn, he may soon feel the heavy hand of the law on his collar. It is unlikely that any of this will lead anywhere vis a vis Blair, though there may be civil actions for negligence against the Ministry of Defence by bereaved families of slain service personnel.
Summary
Everything is so much up in the air that it is difficult to know what things will look like when matters have settled again. Having begun this essay by quoting one deceased politician let me conclude by quoting another, to wit Enoch Powell’s oft-repeated axiom that ‘all political lives end in failure...’. It is a cruel irony that Blair, for all his achievements in office and his feat of winning three successive elections for Labour, will now be remembered chiefly for the Iraq fiasco and Cameron in an equally cruel irony as the man who caused Britain to crash out of Europe and perhaps presaged the break-up of the United Kingdom. In Cameron’s case the irony is even more poignant given that he had long posed as a eurosceptic and then apparently underwent a Damascene conversion to the benefits of the EU, only to have the electors not unsurprisingly incline to question his sincerity. The stage is strewn with corpses: Cameron, Boris, Gove and now Leadsom (as I write) on the Conservative side and, perhaps, Corbyn on the Labour side, not to mention Nigel Farage who has yet again resigned as UKIP leader. It now seems certain given Leadsom’s withdrawal that we will have May as new Tory leader and PM very shortly. What sort of Brexit will she negotiate and will the Tory Party be united under her, or will the cracks start to show again once negotiations with Europe are under way? And Labour looks to be heading for a split whatever now happens, with Angela Eagle standing and Corbyn standing firm.
A week is a long time in politics and two and a half weeks (23rd June to 11th July) an eternity.

Neville Twitchell
11th July 2016






  






 












[1] On a psephological note I assume that the pollsters must have done surveys for the broadcasting organisations in each local authority area to gauge the likely outcome so as to have a baseline against which to measure the actual results, given that there is no precedent to use to measure ‘swing’ as would be the case in an election.