As I write this, and you read it, British Prime Minister Theresa May is traipsing around the U.K. trying to sell her Brexit deal to the great British public. Good luck with that. It is a truth as plain as a poke in your eye that the exit deal she’s agreed on with the EU has been universally condemned across political lines over there.
The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Democratic Unionists have said they will vote against the deal in Parliament, while many of May’s own Conservative MPs have said they oppose it. At issue is a deal which leaves Britain in a customs union with the EU because of what’s called “the Irish backstop,” while having little influence over EU policies and regulations. It’s a half-baked, half-in, half-out Brexit, as many see it.
What’s going on? You’ve come to the right place. This column is Irish born and educated, holds a graduate degree in Anglo-Irish studies, keeps up with British TV and is more than passingly familiar with British soccer. The answers are in that bag of things.
First, the TV side. Unlike, say, pop music, television cannot be said to act as a social force. But it has an impact on the imagination and how viewers see themselves and their country. British TV has made a fetish of Britain’s decline and played upon nostalgia for an earlier, often imagined, time. A pre-European Union time. When British stories end up having a significant impact in the international marketplace, that means something. A sense of strength in a traditional Britain, one not allied with Europe, but separate, is forged.
There is an arc connecting Downton Abbey to The Great British Bake-off to The Crown that celebrates a recent past as good, stable and, really, a lost utopia, and stands in stark contrast to any picture of a contemporary Britain that is more European and globalized. The sheer amount of time, effort and money spent by Netflix in fetishizing the Royal Family in The Crown is a signifier of inflated importance placed in traditional British institutions. The Great British Bake-off is a very British kind of food porn and the show’s huge popularity no doubt hardened the view that, without Europe, British food could again be merrily about Eccles cakes, gooseberry jam and elderberry wine.
Before we move on to soccer, another point about British TV. It remains largely ignorant of, and uninterested in, Ireland and matters Irish. BBC, ITV and Sky News rarely deal with Ireland and when they do, the narrative tends toward the stereotype of the Irish as other, backward and invested in drink and violence. In 1997, the famously gritty and allegedly realistic BBC-soaper EastEnders set several episodes in Dublin. What viewers saw was a European capital – then on the cusp of the Celtic Tiger economic boom - with farm animals wandering the streets, and the Irish characters encountered were dirty, rude and drunk.
It is characteristic of the British establishment to be baffled and bewildered by the Republic of Ireland. It doesn’t interest them. They see it in terms of clichés. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the hardline Brexit leader in May’s Conservative party has said, continually, that the issue of the Irish border in Brexit negotiations is only about “Irish agriculture” and, no doubt, many EastEnders fans would agree.
In soccer, the English Premier League is the most-watched league in the world, seen on TV everywhere on the planet. It’s the most-watched in part because teams hire top players from all over. It’s not unusual to see a team from London or Manchester field one English-born player surrounded by ten from multiple countries. There’s a nagging resentment about this, one fuelled by the success of the England team at the recent World Cup. That’s interpreted as a rebuttal of European influence and endorsement of the superiority of the English version of the game England created.
As an Irish person, this column looks on the matter of Northern Ireland with great dismay. The place that is called Northern Ireland was created in 1920 when Britain granted “home rule” to Ireland, but left six counties in the north as a part of the U.K. A vocal population there - “unionists” who wanted to retain a union with Britain - had opposed the home rule agreement. It was an act of pandering to tribal and religious fervour and once done, allowed to fester, until the so-called Troubles revealed the inflamed issues of identity and inequality.
The hard-won Good Friday Agreement, which has considerable input from Canada, brought peace and stability and, importantly for all sides, the near-disappearance of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, a country that was and remains, enthusiastically part of the EU. The “Irish backstop” is there in May’s Brexit deal because the border must remain near-invisible, as the EU and Ireland request.
It is there in the deal because it is a good, sensible and honourable solution, one that does not redress the great mistake of 1920, but helps heal it.
Whatever form Brexit eventually takes it is a rearward step into an imagined past. That past was hoisted into the imagination of the small majority who voted for Brexit by a popular culture of television and sport and common-or-garden ignorance of the country next door. You’re welcome.