I remember an early 1980s sitcom shown in the UK called Yes, Minister! Written by former insiders experienced in the machinations behind the closed doors of British Government departments, it satirised politics, showing the relationships between politicians and those responsible for pretending to carry out their particular whim of the day. Later events in British politics seem to suggest that it ought better to be viewed as a documentary. An example of the insights from 1980 between a cabinet minister, Hacker, and his chief civil servant, Sir Humphrey:
Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?
Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely?
Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We “had” to break the whole thing [the EU] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch … The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.
Hacker: But surely we’re all committed to the European ideal?
Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.
Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?
Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.
Hacker: What appalling cynicism.
Sir Humphrey: Yes … We call it diplomacy, Minister.1
So far, so true. The breakfast has been prepared, the EU members have been invited and they will soon be sitting down and tucking in. But the UK has uninvited itself, its job done. That dish alone, though, wasn’t enough … Incredibly, what the Brexit campaign added was the spectacle of a ruling political party piling on the cynicism to the point where all its likely future leaders suffocated under the weight. David Cameron and Boris Johnson fell on their swords within days of the result, with the failure of Johnson’s gamble demonstrating that he’d forgotten what happened to the Pyrrhus he studied at university. And even the leader of the one-policy UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, showed his lack of stomach for swallowing the mess he’d made and ran off into the twilight, leaving yet another of his resignation messages behind. I expect that had the writers of Yes Minister! dreamed up this scenario, they would have rejected it as impossible.
Obviously I don’t know how the UK will ultimately be affected by the decision to leave, or even whether the decision will even be implemented. Who knows whether the markets will see Brexit as a temporary blip, whether the British pound will recover and the British economy will weather the storm? The UK is now in limbo, no one quite sure what to do next, by when and to whom. We don’t even know what political parties we have left. UKIP has run out of policies, Labour has run out of credible leaders and the Conservatives have given the task of leaving the EU to a new leader who wanted to remain. The Yes Minister! writers would have thought all their Christmases had come at once.
I do know that what the UK and the EU have demonstrated to the world ought to be seen as a shining example of how not to do business. But, in reality, what the campaigners have achieved is to deliver further evidence, as if it were needed, that voters will believe anything. As long as it appeals to their own self-interest. Truth has nothing to do with it. And some US presidential candidates have watched, learned and applied the lessons to their own battle for confusion, misinformation and isolation, with one even delighting any lover of satire with the sight of Farage in support. Up until then I’d thought it difficult to see him as the reasonable one in any gathering. But Trump managed it. Perhaps I shouldn’t let it bother me. I should wait and see what happens in the US election in November. That’s sure to restore my faith in the triumph of rational argument over demagoguery, lies and hatred.
Peter Riley, Head of Financial Translation