Strange as it looks to us, the goings-on in Westminster over the past two weeks must seem even more baffling to those looking in from abroad. If the fate of nations weren’t in the balance, it would be a farce. A farce where clever boys use language with immense skill as they prove they are the cleverest boys in the class.
It’s a uniquely British sport: compare Rees-Mogg, for example, to Donald Trump, or the former Toronto mayor, the late Doug Ford. Neither could string a sentence together, let alone have the wit to call anyone a ‘chlorinated chicken’. By contrast, British politicians might seem brainy, even erudite, but there is no substance behind these disingenuous loquacious men.
The war of words is brazenly un-Canadian. There is not one iota of subtlety when the posh bullies go head-to-head. But you can get mesmerised by the language, English or Latin.
The Americans can’t quite get over the scenes of absolute chaos. Frida Ghitis, a contributing world affairs columnist at CNN and the Washington Post, asked what happened to the Britain that was poised, composed, respectful of tradition. “We’re confused,” she admits, saying, “What’s going on looks like democracy in chaos.” From across the Atlantic, it’s like a “mind-boggling mess, confusing — and not at all impressive.” But then, she commiserated. “It’s a mess, but our mess is worse.” Democracy shouldn’t be this complicated. Perhaps she’d be relieved to know that since 1313, you are not allowed to wear a suit of armour into the House of Commons, so that’s at least one safe tradition.
She might also be interested to know that, weird as it is, you can’t clap in the Commons, but bizarrely, you clap at a cricket match. I couldn’t get over that at my first view of the game at Lords. Most newer parliaments (e.g. the European and Scottish ones) allow applause. The SNP and Labour are trying to introduce the habit of clapping and cheering, as they did on Wednesday at PMQs when a Sikh MP accused Boris of racism (also “unparliamentary”, by the way). The Speaker let them get away with it. So they will try again. Applause, please.
My first introduction to London was as a two-year-old. I arrived with my parents from Montreal for a year-long stay as my father had a fellowship at the Maudsley Hospital. Now, every conversation I have with him starts with Brexit. He sees a cosmopolitan country turning into Little England, with Boris’s recklessness wrecking it. And, it just doesn’t make sense to him or almost anyone else abroad.
The view from Toronto is that everything was working fine until 23 June 2016. Why, when China and Asia are getting stronger, wouldn’t we want to belong to a larger entity such as the European Union? There is a profound lack of understanding of what is actually at the heart of these political shenanigans.
I remember being in France in February with Swiss and French friends who were equally baffled. Everyone loves the UK, but they were rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of Britain’s comeuppance.
We may be in a pickle over Brexit, but there won’t be civil war despite the deep divisions and the you-couldn’t-make-it-up daily scenes in Parliament. (To paraphrase Churchill: Do we have nothing to fear, but fear and Farage?) While we are ripping ourselves apart, neither Boris nor Brexit will ultimately undermine the fundamental decency of this nation. We still have the NHS, pensions, and a social security system.
On BBC4, national treasure Neil MacGregor, who wrote A History of the World in 100 Objects, is doing a radio series called As Others See Us. It’s based on the Robert Burns poem and happens to be one my father taught to me. Right now, as Johnson might have to ask for an extension of the UK’s membership to the European Union, we know what they think, and it’s not good.