It was the Week of Four Speeches. It was also the week everything got very, very cold. Whether this was an omen or not is something for the soothsayers to ponder, but the Prime Minister might as well ponder it too, because otherwise she and the UK are doomed.
Part of the problem Theresa May faces is that she is a prisoner of the English language. English, at its worst, inclines you to bromides, platitudes, thought terminating clichés… For all its strengths, it can be a lowminded, yet pompously sneering tongue.
Language creates thought. Only an English speaker could come up with the phrase ‘have your cake and eat it’, with all its faux irony and smug, dim glibness. But of course, in the case of Brexit, this has become not merely the only option, but holy writ.
Theresa May’s speech on Friday was a case in point. Its poverty of language hinted on the one hand at a chancer still hoping to bluff her way out of a savage chain whipping by a gang of angry Belgians, and on the other, a deep void in thought and deed.
It was a fool’s speech, but May is a fool,
and she was addressing a nation of fools.
One out of four ain’t bad
Compare and contrast to the other speeches this week. Tony Blair showed he is incapable of being anything but a two-faced failed demagogue, for whom squalid doublethink has become an end in and of itself.
Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, engaged in wanton cakery, forever dreaming of cosy Lexit and both blaming and not blaming migrants for the nation’s woes. The only beneficiaries of Labour’s pro-Brexit excess, in the long term, will be far right Tories. But like May, Corbyn is not known for his sense of dramatic irony.
John Major gave a clear, coherent and rational speech that only told the truth. It lacked both clichés and soundbites. And for that he will never be forgiven, especially by the Brexiteers.
I write, of course, as a Corbyn supporter, or at least someone who supports him 80% of the time. I am also someone who thinks that John Major is about 20% beige carpet.
But when one is plainly wrong, and the other is plainly right, intellectual honesty must prevail. And that honesty is, surely, the sworn enemy of Brexit.
Wrong and not able
So it came as no surprise to see Theresa May lacking both that, and much else to say, in her speech. She is a cowed excuse for a bare knuckle boxer, the kind that gets punched into Pedigree Chum every other weekend because they’re too dumb to stop.
Nothing in her big speech and Q&A changed this. Her speech was vague, hackneyed and, of course, full of clichés. Indeed, it was a master class of the genre. It was full of more clichés than a 1983 Benidorm disco full of football pundits. It had nervous tics in place of soundbites.
May started with “going the extra mile”, then followed it up with “a crucial moment”, with a dash of “bold and creative” thrown in for luck. “Forge a new future”, she followed, with a big slice of “strengthen the union”, and then that old crowd pleaser, “take back control”.
“Let’s get on with it”, she droned like a depressed parrot, for “the people.” This dragged on for many a grim passage. (“Respect the referendum…”) Though, to her credit, May did manage to avoid saying “where there’s muck, there’s brass”, “at the end of the day”, “I’m not being funny” or “I’m not being racist or nothing, but…”
Theresa May is the perfect PM for Brexit. Not because she is competent, but because, much as Trump embodies his know-nothing voters, so Theresa May represents Brexiteers in all their confusion, panic, rage and spite.
“Neither of us can have exactly what we want”, May said at one point, and that sums up our tragedy. Europe doesn’t need us, but we need it, even if only as a scapegoat for our many, many failings.
You Brexit it, you buy it
Rather than acknowledge this, May did as Brexiteers do. When their delusions fall away, they simply move to the next hole in the ground and fill that with crap instead. The boss-eyed belief never goes away, but always rewrites itself; just one of the ways in which Brexit dogma resembles conspiracy theories.
All of which was why the speech existed in a sort of quantum state where all things were possible, but only if we believed in it enough.
There would be no customs union, but also no Irish border. UK courts would rule supreme, but European law would be ‘considered’. Freedom of movement would end, but UK citizens would still work, live and study on the continent. The UK would ditch the EU Fisheries policy, but still “cherry pick” which European institutions to stay part of.
Part of the problem Theresa May faces is that
she is a prisoner of the English language.
In summary, we would trade with Europe, but push away Europe. We could take control of our borders, but we would be open for business. We would… Oh, you get the point.
It was a fool’s speech, but May is a fool, and she was addressing a nation of fools. Only fools, after all, could be so hell bent on ‘respecting’ a referendum result, even though only 37.4% of the total electorate voted Out, and the bloody thing was only advisory anyway.
Theresa May (not)
In that sense, of course, May’s speech was perfect. It encapsulated a glum nation sinking into the mire. Perhaps we deserve her, as the Russians deserve Putin, and the USA deserves you-know-who.
But perhaps if any good comes out of Brexit, it will be the decline of the Anglosphere. Maybe, as said, the English language is part of the problem. It stultifies the mind, makes it bland, pig-headed and dozy.
It is a depressing thought, of course, to think that the language of Wilde, Colebridge and Mansfield (and Barbara Cartland) heralded its decline with a crap speech by a crap Prime Minister.
But as one altogether wiser, more multilingual European put it, après nous, le deluge…
Image by infozentrale @ Flickr. Used and modified under the terms of the CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) licence.
Alexander Hay is a writer and polemicist based online and in print.