Adversity brings out the peculiarities of the British character. There is often a traditional response that we “mustn’t grumble”. There is even an old song from the Cockney rhymesters, Chas and Dave:
“Well I had an old uncle – was mean as can be
He said – ‘When I die you'll get nothin' from me.’
Mustn't grumble, mustn't grumble…”
The Brexit deal triumphantly announced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is at least better than nothing but – outside Mr Johnson's supporters in some British newspapers – the sense is not of victory but merely relief. Mustn't grumble. A thin deal is better than no deal and an agreement which is much less beneficial to the British economy than existing agreements with the EU is the price for achieving what Brexit campaigners say is British "sovereignty".
In this bleak midwinter there is no sense of national jubilation or celebration, which is perhaps just as well. In another tradition, British celebrations organised by governments have often been fairly cheerless. The Victorian prime minister Lord Salisbury commented sourly on the state opening of the British parliament in 1860. He said: “Some nations have a gift for ceremonial… In England the case is exactly the reverse… some malignant spell broods over our most solemn ceremonials and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous… something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part.”
After four and a half years of Brexit negotiations the "malignant spell" on proposed celebrations remains. There was an ill-fated plan to ring out the bells of Big Ben when the UK formally left the EU in January. Unfortunately Big Ben could not bong. It was silenced for repairs. Then there was a suggestion that church bells all over England should ring out. The church authorities said no, we don't do political bell-ringing. Then there were plans for a "Festival of Brexit". Britain's creative communities didn't much like that idea. And so it has been renamed, rebranded and repurposed into something different, sometime in the future. Besides, before you celebrate Brexit, you have to be clear what it is. And despite those years of rancorous discussions, the "it" of Brexit still remains hazy. Britain is definitely out of the EU, but – as Spain's foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya pointed out – a trade agreement is a symbol not of independence but interdependence.
Despite all the supposedly regained “sovereignty”, the Johnson deal links the UK to the EU in a massive new bureaucratic framework. The key British minister involved in Brexit planning, Michael Gove, claims that Britain now has a new “special relationship” with the EU, an echo of the UK’s supposed “special relationship” with the US. But the British-American “special relationship” these days might be “special” in London, but it will be much less “special” in US President Joe Biden’s Washington.
Meanwhile the new UK-EU deal is vast and complex – 1200 pages long. British MPs have until Wednesday to read and understand its dense trade and legal jargon then vote to accept it. It is difficult to see how such haste can allow MPs any real understanding of what they will agree.
Something similar happened in Washington in the 1990s. Hillary Clinton tried to reform the US healthcare system and produced an astounding document which ran to 13,000 pages. The Republican leader, Senator Bob Dole, told me a plan of such complexity was dead on arrival in Congress. I told him I doubted he had read all 13,000 pages.
“Read it?” Dole laughed. “I couldn’t even pick it up.”
What we do know is that the 1200 page UK-EU deal breaks Mr Johnson’s earlier promises. In the 2016 Brexit campaign he insisted British people would retain their rights to travel, work, study and settle within the EU and the UK would remain part of the single market and customs union. None of that is in the deal.
Moreover, if the battle with the EU is paused, the battle for another Union, the union of the United Kingdom itself, is about to begin. The Brexit co-ordinator Mr Gove congratulated those who made the EU trade deal possible by saying that the British people had now “taken back control.”
Being in the EU meant “laws were made by people they hadn’t elected, rules were made by institutions they couldn’t change, power was exercised without accountability”. Ironically exactly the same argument is now being made for Scottish independence.
In May 2021 Scots will vote for a new parliament in Edinburgh and polls suggest the Scottish National Party will do well. Most Scots want to remain in the EU, and many now wonder whether a Conservative government they did not elect, a prime minister many dislike, in a Westminster system they cannot change, can truly represent their interests. Large numbers of Scottish voters want to “take back control” from Mr Johnson and Westminster by supporting independence. To misquote Winston Churchill in 1940, the battle for Europe has ended. The battle for Britain has just begun. Still, mustn’t grumble, eh?
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National