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2016 and all that…
Brexit balls, Issue 1487

bayeaux.jpg INTERVIEWED by the Observer on 29 December, the Irish author Fintan O’Toole was scornful of people who draw parallels between Brexit and the Hundred Years’ War.

“A single word: vassalage. What on earth is this word doing in political discourse in the 21st century?” he demanded. “It comes originally from Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, this mad idea that somehow the Hundred Years’ War shows the English capacity to throw off feudal vassalage. It’s a ludicrous misunderstanding of history.”

But then we’re all historians now, it seems. When Jo Johnson MP resigned from the government in November, he described Brexit as “a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”. The Economist thought he didn’t go far enough. “This is the most serious domestic crisis Britain has faced in the modern democratic era,” it wailed. “In fact it is worse than anything else Britain has endured in peacetime.” But former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab saw it as a mere blip. “This,” he reassured Sunday Times readers, “isn’t Dunkirk.”

Valley of Death
So what the hell is it? According to Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer last month, it is “the worst period for the Conservative party since the ERM crisis, the poll tax, Suez, the Corn Laws”. This pile-up of precedents came only a week after Rawnsley had written in his 9 December column that Theresa May’s gallop towards almost certain defeat in parliament reminded “her more historically minded colleagues” of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Also on 9 December, former chief whip Andrew Mitchell MP wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that May’s idea of presenting a deal to the Commons which would certainly be voted down “appears to have as its inspiration the Charge of the Light Brigade”.

According to Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, however, May’s Charge of the Light Brigade had already happened: it was the 2017 general election, not a 2018 Commons vote. “We’ve already been into the Valley of Death once,” he told the Sunday Mirror on 2 September last year, “and not all of us came back.” Fellow hard-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg disagreed. The “brave but mistaken dash against all the odds” was actually the Chequers plan, he wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 29 September. “Eurosceptics to the Right, the Labour Party to the Left and the European Union in front have all stormed at it with shot and shell.”

If you don’t fancy that historical analogy, Rees-Mogg has had plenty more to offer – ever since his maiden speech in 2010, when he paid tribute to “Alfred the Great, the first Eurosceptic, who got rid of the Danes and made England independent”. In September 2017 he wrote that Brexit was “as worthy for celebration as victory at Waterloo or the Glorious Revolution”. A month later he told Tory conference delegates that Brexit “is Magna Carta, it’s the burgesses coming at Parliament, it’s the Great Reform Bill, it’s the Bill of Rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crécy. We win all of these things.” Audience member: “Trafalgar!” Rees-Mogg: “And Trafalgar, absolutely.”

Bayeux tapestry
In March 2018 he said a diluted Brexit would be a worse national humiliation than the Suez crisis – but confused the picture by adding that Remainers now “model themselves on Mr Hiroo Onoda”, a Japanese soldier who had nothing to do with Suez but spent 29 years in the jungle because he didn’t believe World War II was over. By way of an encore, Rees-Mogg then deployed Fintan O’Toole’s dreaded V-word – though not in relation to the Hundred Years’ War this time. He denounced last July’s Brexit white paper as “the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Philip II at Le Goulet in 1200”.

Why stop at 1200? “If Chequers were adopted,” Boris Johnson harrumphed in the Daily Telegraph last September, “it would mean that for the first time since 1066 our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule.” Odd that the Bayeux tapestry omits the scene of Harold “deliberately acquiescing” to the Norman invasion; odder still, since Brexiteers often celebrate the Glorious Revolution, that he forgot about William of Orange. But as readers of Sellar & Yeatman know, there are only two memorable dates in English history – and 1688 isn’t one of them.

“Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings – arguably the worst man-made catastrophe to befall the English people,” the ubiquitous Brexit pundit Daniel Hannan MEP tweeted on 14 October 2018. A day later, Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun accused Theresa May of “leading us to the greatest defeat since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the last time we capitulated to a foreign power”. How could she avert catastrophe and beat back William of Normandy? “Discover her inner Boudicca” was the puzzling advice from her former chief of staff Nick Timothy in the next day’s Sun. Forestalling pedants who might point out that Boudicca was bloodily routed by the Romans, Timothy insisted that she was still the right precedent – “whatever the details”.

War of the Roses
The greatest exponent of the “whatever the details” approach is Dominic Sandbrook, the Daily Mail’s resident historian, whose finest hour came on 5 August last year when Paul Dacre was still using the Mail as a hard-Brexit howitzer. Noting the “howls of Remainers lamenting that we are now terribly divided”, Sandbrook offered this celebratory interpretation: “But this, too, is part of our national character. We have always swung between wild boasting and morbid self-flagellating, talking ourselves up one moment, sunk in gloom the next. And like all families, we have always loved a quarrel, from the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation, to the great struggles between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell”.

Wise of him not to mention how the Wars of the Roses concluded: with an invasion from, er, France by Henry Tudor accompanied by French mercenaries, and Richard III’s death at Bosworth Field. Ah, how we do love a quarrel!

To read all these stories in full, please buy issue 1487 of Private Eye - you can subscribe here and have the magazine delivered to your home every fortnight.

Next issue on sale: 19th February 2019
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