October 14, 2019
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: ‘When Britain finally leaves we should shut the EU door and change the locks’

I WAS in Manchester on the day Theresa May first announced she had secured a deal with the European Union. I recalled the visit this week when the British prime minister reluctantly accepted the offer of a further six months to get that withdrawal agreement through parliament.

I had been visiting Irish friends who are totally opposed to Brexit, but that evening we attended a large function along with quite a few Brexiteers. They all rubbished the agreement although, at that stage, none of them knew its terms and conditions.

Their feelings about Brexit had nothing to do with trade figures, food standards or the problems of the Irish border. Their dislike of Europe was instinctive and deep-seated. They longed for the return of a bygone age and believed that Brexit would magically bring it back.

This age is not the one that existed when Britain joined the European grouping in 1973,  nor the one that existed when General de Gaulle vetoed the UK’s first application for membership in 1961. Britain was in a bit of a mess back then. Its industry was outdated, it was importing too much and exporting too little and it was beset by constant strikes.

I remember those years. I may well have been the only person at that Manchester function old enough to do so. But even I am not old enough to remember the era longed for by Brexiteers.

It is an age when Britain won the war, when there were blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover and Vera Lynn was top of the charts. It is an age when Stanley Matthews was the world’s greatest footballer, when every team had two defenders, three mid-fielders and five forwards, when matches kicked off at 3pm on Saturday and all cricketers played in white.

It is an age when Sterling Moss was the world’s fastest driver, Wembley the world’s greatest stadium and Britain built the world’s best and biggest ships. Nobody is old enough to remember that age because it never really existed.

The great British journalist AA Gill had no time for this nostalgia. Shortly before his death in 2017 he wrote: “The dream of Brexit isn’t that we might be able to make a brighter, new, energetic tomorrow, it’s a desire to shuffle back to a regret-curdled inward-looking yesterday.

There is a reason,” Gill argued, “that most of the people who want to leave the EU are old while those who want to remain are young: it’s because the young aren’t infected with Bisto nostalgia.

 I feel sorry for those young Britons who are being deprived of their European citizenship and, indeed, for the near 50 per cent of the British electorate who voted to remain and are being being dragged out of the real world and into this fictional past.

But I am not sure there is very much more we can do for them. The Brexit debate is destroying Britain and distracting the EU from other important business. We must not let it endanger the fabric of the Union.

Britain’s politicians have been given a further six months to agree on the nature of their departure. I hope they do. But if they still can’t agree to jump we may have to give them a push.

An unplanned Brexit is likely to prove damaging for Ireland but, if it happens, a part of me will be glad to see them go, taking their negative nostalgia with them.

I hope they can leave on good terms, that barriers between the UK and the EU will be few and relations friendly. But, when Britain has finally left, the EU should shut the door, change the locks, and leave our neighbours in peace to enjoy their land of fantasy.

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