Plans to play ball

The World Cup is drawing more attention in Britain than Brexit negotiations

By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 12.07.18
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Judging from outward appearances, the United Kingdom is not very political. You can be in any part of the country on the day before a general election without realizing that the carnival of democracy is on. True, there are the occasional 'monster' demonstrations that often disrupt life and traffic in Central London, and the very occasional riot that finds place in political mythology - they still talk about the Cable Street riot when the Left prevented Oswald Mosley's fascist Blackshirts from marching through the East End of London and the anti-Vietnam war march on the American Embassy on Grosvenor Square in 1968. But by and large, the fire and fury of politics is confined to committee rooms (alas, no longer smoke filled thanks to the draconian anti-smoking laws), meeting halls and, most important, Parliament.

Recently, 'political' Britain was in a state of high excitement over a day-long cabinet meeting at Chequers to decide on the UK's final strategy for the Brexit negotiations with the European Union. The process of formulating a white paper had taken nearly two years of passionate debate, oodles of political manoeuvring and volumes of editorial comment with no one, except the buffs, being any the wiser. What once seemed a straightforward parting of ways between London and Brussels had ended up becoming so utterly confusing and complicated that many foreign governments with whom the UK had begun exploratory post-Brexit trade talks had recoiled in horror and politely requested the Whitehall mandarins to first make up their own minds. On top of that, there were the scare stories about manufacturing companies taking a one-way ticket out of the UK, job losses in a society where the welfare state is under grave financial strain and even a dread of the confusion paving the way for a radical socialist Labour government headed by Jeremy Corbyn, a man once seen as simply unelectable.

Yet, on the streets of London and in the overflowing pubs where Britons and countless tourists were enjoying (or suffering from) a scorching summer minus air-conditioning, the focus was on events in Russia - the football World Cup. For a country that had only once tasted success - way back in the black and white days of 1966 - and had grown accustomed to countless disappointments, England's entry into the semi-final, where it battled the rough Croatian team, was truly the biggest deal in a very long time. In the Gentleman's Club I am a member of, they even overturned an age-old convention of putting up a big screen for Wimbledon and cricket only to show the England versus Sweden match - only to have the decision reversed for the more important semi-final match against Croatia. Throughout the weekend, as I traversed between different parts of London, all that was discernible were boisterous, but good humoured, fans singing 'Football is coming home', a song of anticipation. At one North London pub, I even heard the notes of 'Vindaloo', a Fat Les masterpiece celebrating football mania in a multicultural society.

One thing that excited only a very small minority was the Brexit confabulations at Chequers. Indeed, with talk of imminent rebellion in the ranks and a divided cabinet, what caught the imagination was the delicious information that any minister who chose to resign over the compromise formulation of the prime minister, Theresa May, would immediately lose his/her ministerial car and make their own arrangements for travel back to Central London, 40 miles away. In the event, the local taxi companies must have been disappointed since there was no revolt and no resignations.

I guess it was probably the dread of being stranded in rural Buckinghamshire that prevented the rebellion and resignations from surfacing at the Chequers meeting. However, between last Sunday and Monday, first the Brexit secretary, David Davis, and then the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, resigned. In a resignation letter that was characteristically redolent with the prose that he is justly famous for, Johnson berated May for "sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them". Brexit, Johnson claimed, echoing the sentiments of those who saw the EU as an over-regulated bureaucracy that had - along with earlier experiments in socialism - killed the British spirit of enterprise, "should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently, to be more nimble and dynamic, and to maximise the particular advantages of the UK as an open, outward-looking global economy. That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt".

The feeling among Brexiters that May, who had herself campaigned to keep UK in the EU, had systematically subverted the 2016 referendum verdict was widespread. If, they argued, the UK began its negotiations from the position that the EU and the UK would have a single market in "goods and agri-foods", the implication was that the UK would not be able to negotiate independent trade deals with countries such as the United States of America and others in the Commonwealth, including India. Worse, it would be bound by EU regulations without having any control over their statutory enactments. The UK would have the worst of all the worlds: it wouldn't regain its lost national sovereignty and at the same time have no influence over the decision-making of the gigantic multilateral body that has become a super-state. In that respect, claimed Johnson, "we are truly headed for the status of colony". And, if this was the opening gambit, the pro-Brexit lobby shuddered at the very idea of what further compromises would have to be made once the hard bargaining with the EU team got under way later this month.

The public reaction to the Chequers compromise that will form the basis of a white paper is one of bewilderment. According to a YouGov poll, only 14 per cent regarded the Chequers plan as good for Britain, with 33 per cent saying it would be bad for the country and an astonishing 53 per cent admitting their complete uncertainty. What, however, is clear to the electorate was a widespread disgust at the way the Conservative Party was itself in disarray over a national crisis and a national challenge. The YouGov poll put the Conservative and Labour vote levels at 39 per cent each, suggesting that in the event of the May government collapsing and another general election being called, there is likely to be no clear verdict.

Maybe that is a true reflection of the state of a deeply divided Britain. Opposition to Brexit remains fairly rampant among the middle classes, the young and the intelligentsia. Feelings against any departure from the EU are also hardening in the corporate world and many manufacturing companies have threatened to relocate their units out of the UK in the event there is no customs union with the EU. There is also a feeling that any weakening of the EU at this juncture will play into the hands of a belligerent Russia that sees the grouping as an impediment to its recovery of national esteem.

Against this there is a romantic ideal of a revitalized kingdom that has reclaimed its national sovereignty, where Parliament is supreme and where justice is meted out by courts located in the island and not somewhere in continental Europe. That romantic ideal may well get a fillip if - and notwithstanding expert opinion - England somehow edges Croatia out and enters the World Cup final. And, if by some fantastic dream, Gareth Southgate's boys defeat an European team, national pride will trigger the recovery of confidence that has to accompany Brexit.

In today's UK, only a minority care for politics. Most are obsessed with football. And the football may determine the political outcome: whether England is overwhelmed by dejection or triumphalism.