Brexit means Brexit – whatever that means today

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Little Britain: honest statement of reality, or criticism of our parochialism?

“Brexit means Brexit.” That’s today’s mantra. The speed of political change is so swift, however, that as mantras go its career may be as short-lived as a Labour front-bench spokesman or, indeed, a would-be Tory leader (see Keith Hann on that). Merely blink, or turn to pour another drink (which seems to be the only way to cope with the current mess we are in), and you’ve missed another momentous change.

Momentous? I wonder.

Walking through the City of London last week I found myself taking a shortcut down the aptly-named street, Little Britain. We are essentially a little country and, notwithstanding a fair history of punching above our weight, would do well to remember it rather than hoping to bestride the post-EU world-stage with the kind of arrogance demonstrated by leading Brexiteers Gove, Johnson and Farage.

Of course, Little Britain is a term usually applied ironically and critically, referring to the sort of parochial and isolationist attitude of those who still cling to image (outlined time after time as an argument in favour of Brexit) of an era when we still had an empire on which the sun never set, and when the proper way to spend a Sunday afternoon was eating cucumber sandwiches (no crusts) on the vicarage lawn accompanied by the chocking sound of mallet on croquet ball.

Sadly, Little Britain arguments also took on the racist and xenophobic tone which now seems to have given rise to what is indisputably a post-referendum spike in racist and hate crime.

Still, the people have spoken and Brexit means Brexit. Except that, er, no one seems quite to know what it means. New Prime Minister Theresa May (unelected in almost every sense but, hey, that’s UK politics) must now define it.

Will she rely on big beast Brexiteers Gove and Johnson to join her cabinet and lead the way? I’d prefer to see them pay the price of their disloyalty to party and colleagues: but compromise and peace-making, things I always advocate, unfortunately demand the acceptance of uncongenial bedfellows.

Three things have struck me in this last week. First, while both major parties have been run by leaders hamstrung in different ways by lack of mandate, the wheels of commerce and industry have continued to turn: and nothing dramatic has happened to the economy. The FTSE 100 looks better than it has for the past year: and maybe the pound’s loss of value will help our exports. No thanks to our politicians, I suspect.

Second, after the absurd claims, threats accusations and allegations bandied about on both sides of the argument, the issue of immigration has gone quiet, though fears have been expressed both by EU nationals currently living and working in this country, completely in the dark about their future, and by industries, such as farming, who rely so completely on cheap overseas labour. Is there a crisis, then? Or not?

Kinderstransport Memorial, Liverpool Street Station
Kinderstransport Memorial, Liverpool Street Station

Third, catching a train out of Liverpool Street Station last week I came across one of those moving memorials to the Kindertransport that saved the lives of 669 Czech Jewish children in 1938-9 (their parents perished in Auschwitz). Organised by the late Sir Nicholas Winton, trains brought those children into the heart of London where they were adopted and brought up to adulthood, incorporating both their talents and (a vital ingredient in human success) an appreciation of their good fortune into British society and its workforce.

Though such integration isn’t easy, they were by and large welcomed, and Winton was belatedly knighted in recognition of his great humanity (and, I would suggest, of the fact that he obliged his nation to behave in a proper way towards those refugee children).

Let’s not forget. The last train was, sadly, stopped: of its 250 child passengers, just two survived the war.

Now that things have to some extent “simmered down” post-vote (and I have no idea what I mean by that expression), both the refugee crisis and immigration appear to have been relegated to the back-burner.

Brexit means Brexit. It may mean actually doing something about the refugee crisis, and about playing our part on the world stage by setting an example of humanity.

But I fear it’s more likely that our leaders (whoever they are next week, or the week after) will be tempted to pull up the drawbridge.

In the meantime, memorials such as that pictured above stand, to my mind, as a rebuke to all of us and to our selfish politics.

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