Brexit blues

25 Sep 2019


A FEW years hence, when passions have cooled somewhat and Brexit: The Musical hits London’s West End, the show might include a ditty that begins: “You never give me your money, you only give me your funny paper — and in the middle of negotiations, you break down …”

It is purely coincidental, of course, that the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ endgame coincides with the denouement, possibly, of a saga that has dogged Britain for more than three years now. “And in the end,” Paul McCartney intones at the conclusion of the medley that took up most of the second side of Abbey Road, “the love you take is equal to the love you make”.

Those lines probably wouldn’t make it into the musical, given that love hasn’t been much in evidence during the disunited kingdom’s reckoning with posterity. Hate, in fact, has figured far more prominently on the conflicting agendas of dedicated Leavers and Remainers.

But then, hate was hardly an unfamiliar phenomenon in Britain half a century ago. Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech reflected a racism that has endured and mutated over the decades, and was arguably instrumental in the 2016 referendum. Both sides routinely dabbled in untruths in the run-up to that vote. 

Hate was hardly unfamiliar in Britain half a century ago.

The result, a 52-48 majority in favour of withdrawal from the European Union (EU), was a far cry from the 1975 referendum in which a far more substantial proportion of the electorate opted to stay in what was then known as the European Economic Comm­unity (EEC), which Britain had signed up to a couple of years earlier.

Back in 1969, though, it wasn’t a member of the EEC, its bids to do so having been vetoed earlier in the decade by Charles de Gaulle, who viewed perfidious Albion, not entirely without cause, as a subsidiary of the American project. Inevitably, his doubts now tend to be seen as prescient.

On the other hand, culturally and economically, Britain was hardly cut off from the Continent in the decades leading up to its EEC accession. The Beatles, in a way, epitomised this connection. They honed their craft in Ham­burg and by 1969 were quite possibly more popular in Paris and Stockholm than they were in London. They recorded German versions of a couple of their early hits, occasionally lapsed into French in their lyrics, and one of John Lennon’s contributions to the Abbey Road medley, ‘Sun King’, includes a Spanish interlude.

Perhaps more pertinently, the recurring sentiment on the longest track on the album, ‘I Want You’, a kind of heavy metal excursion valued more for the instrumental skills exhibited therein than for its lyrical profundity, is Lennon’s declaration “I want you so bad it’s driving me mad”, which may have been directed at Yoko Ono back then, but ought to resonate today for both Brexiteers and Remainers.

The divisions that the prospect of leaving the EU has wrought are unprecedented in recent British history. Where they might lead remains uncertain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is adamant on Britain exiting the European club by Oct 31, and just may be able to pull off a deal with Brussels — but is disinclined to request a delay should an agreement not be reached by mid-October, as the House of Commons has explicitly decreed.

Instead, he shut down parliament for an unprecedented five weeks with the assent of Queen Elizabeth. Yesterday the supreme court unanimously ruled that the prorogation was unlawful, so parliament reconvenes today, a constitutional crisis might ensue, all bets are off, and songs to mark the occasion are as yet unwritten, although some may choose to hum ‘Here Comes the Sun’.

The Damocles sword that hangs over the proceedings is Yellow Ham­mer, the reluctantly revealed governm­ent report on the dis­aster that a no-deal exit might en­t­ail. And one cou­ld see ech­oes of it in McCar­tney’s mock-horror ‘Maxwell’s Silver Ha­m­­­mer’, almost universally recognised as the least impressive track on Abbey Road — although one could conceive prime ministerial adviser Dominic Cummings as a latter-day version of the psychopath at the centre of the song.

While the Tories have gone into full-Brexit mode of late and the Liberal Democrats have opted for the opposite extreme, the Labour Party leadership has argued for a more balanced approach, and been mercilessly denigrated by much of the mainstream media for its willingness to straddle the divide.

For any reasonable national party, that makes perfect sense, given the current acrimony. The future is uncertain, and unwritten, as it was for The Beatles 50 years ago. But they went on to thrive individually. And Abbey Road didn’t quite end as it intended to, concluding after a brief silence with a cheeky tribute to Her Majesty.

The likelihood of her still being on the throne a half-century later would have induced titters of disbelief in 1969. It’s not entirely inconceivable that, whether or not they come together, Britons will still be wondering about all this in 2069.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2019