Only When I Laugh: Brexit and the Comedy of Errors
There are many reasons why moving to Germany was not as daunting as I expected; for one I had already been to Germany a number of times and another was that I had a girlfriend who was more than capable of keeping me on the right track. It also helped that I didn’t spend a vast amount of time thinking about the problems and tried to focus on the practical issues of moving myself and my meagre possessions to another country. That being said, I would also factor in the German openness to all things British. It might be a stretch to say that Germany is a nation of Anglophiles, but Germany likes many aspects of British culture, especially the language. The ability to speak English is regarded as evidence of a good education and so Germans will take any and all opportunities to speak it, even if they only know a few words. The culture of the UK is also popular, if lacking in nuance.
Most Germans know Britain is a land of tea, the Royal family and peculiar manners. Germans also know that the UK is a country of “schwarze humor” or black humour by which they mean sarcasm. British humour is highly regarded here, if not always completely understood. British exports such as Mr. Bean or Monty Python still hold weight and are regarded as examples of the impeccable nature of British humour. Of course, I haven’t the heart to mention, when these two examples are offered as the UK’s great comedy exports, that Mr. Bean is perceived as dated for its slapstick style, while Monty Python is revered for its surrealism but seen as uncool when quoted during a casual conversation.
Though I might, after a while, attempt to explain the difference in the British perspective of these two comedic behemoths, it has become increasingly hard in conversations with German friends to convince them that Python or Bean have little currency on my former island. When Germans look at the current state of the UK and the looming Brexit negotiations, they must wonder if slapstick and surrealism are the only things underpinning the UK’s current strategy.
When Germany looks at the UK in 2017, how could they possibly think anything other than “this must be some kind of British sarcasm”? The days following the referendum last June were spent slowly realising that no one, especially not the Brexiteers, had any kind of coherent plan for what to do next. Germans I spoke to were shocked to learn that there were places in the world that made such massive decisions without any form of planning. Shock gave way to bemusement when it turned out that people and countries also made decisions based on promises delivered on the side of a bus or through the filter of a ruddy faced patrician, whose only tangible qualification was a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and a knowledge of the best way to cook a swan.
Finally, shock and bemusement have given way to a wry smile and a realisation that the UK is actually performing a grand old comedy routine for the amusement of everyone. At the forefront of the show is Theresa May, doing her best impersonation of The Simpson’s favourite Johnny Tight lips. Ask her a question on any possible topic and she will steadfastly refuse to answer, for fear of accidentally incriminating someone. Even when it looks like it might kill her career. She still won’t budge. Hilarious. Her comedy foil is Jeremy Corbyn, who at one point was seen as the champion of the left wing, but now appears to be settling in to a comfortable impersonation of the hapless Frank Spencer. Just when it looks like he might ask a troublesome question of the Prime Minister, he accidentally slips on a wayward roller-skate sending him flying head first out the doors of the Palace of Westminster and into the oncoming traffic.
David Davis, who today sat through a grilling by the Commons Brexit Committee, is perhaps harder to pin down since he seems to be playing a combination role of Swiss Toni and Yes Minister’s Humphrey Appleby. His role as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, more commonly referred to as “Minister for Brexit” he exhibits the ability to bamboozle, patronise and smarm in equal measures.
Where Davis smarms, his colleague Liam Fox appears to be channelling Basil Fawlty in his desire to cause himself and others continual calamity. When he isn’t resigning for ministerial infractions, over-claiming expenses or breaching parliamentary rules, he can be found on live television denying his own tweets. As if this wasn’t enough, he has declared that he would like to have use of a “trade yacht” in order to win over the EU on Brexit. People might be queuing outside food banks back in the UK, but nothing says “I’ve totally lost touch with reality” like gallivanting around Europe in a yacht.
With all good comedies, there is usually a straight man, but if one cannot be found it is better to double down on the buffoonery. Enter Boris Johnson, Lord High Admiral of Buffoonery, capable of making patronising jokes in both Greek and Latin. Johnson continually baffles the rest of Europe. The French are confused why his ancestors weren’t guillotined, the Germans are convinced he should be taking part in some kind of Carnival parade and Italy are still wondering why the UK didn’t simply appoint him Prime Minister. Johnson seems compelled to compare everything to WWII or can be found single-handedly destroying Britain’s reputation for wit. At present, EU representatives seem to be treating him as some kind of British court jester, tolerating his imbecilic nature until he inevitably Mr. Beans himself through a window and out of their lives.
All of this hilarity will eventually lead the UK and the EU to the negotiation table, once there the tragicomic nature of the whole Brexit business will begin to become more tragedy than anything else. The lack of planning or of a plan, the steadfast refusal by the Prime Minster to countenance any other options and the current débâcle over Scotland already show huge cracks appearing in the idea of Brexit. The UK has wounded itself badly and is currently trying to stem the flow of blood by telling itself knock, knock jokes, pulling funny faces and making fart noises. The admiration Germans hold for British humour won’t deflect from the reality of life outside the EU and it will certainly not provide a sweetheart deal that government ministers think it can get. Brexit, I’m afraid, is not a mere flesh wound.