Carl Mortished: Brexit doomsaying can’t beat British nostalgia for gloom

Carl Mortished
Boris has been looking gloomy lately: AFP/Getty Images

This week brought more warnings from the top table telling us that Brexit will be bloody tough; house prices will collapse if we don’t keep the EU in a tight embrace. The IMF says that all Brexit deals will make us poorer but to leave without a deal would be very costly, indeed. We have heard it many times before.

I wonder why they bother because it makes no difference. For a very large group of people, tough times, hardship, that feeling of marching down a long dark tunnel towards a dim light is exactly what they miss and why they voted to leave the European Union.

It’s no good telling the British they will be worse off: prices higher and jobs lost, petrol more costly and holidays unaffordable. Above all, don’t say it will be like going back to the 1970s. Astonishing though it is, there is a big constituency of people who look back at that era of struggle — coin-operated electricity meters, the stink of damp wool, unheated homes and dreary food — with fondness.

It’s not a question of Left or Right. The rose-tinted spectacles are just as common among the older Labour voters in the North (who remember those glorious days when the TUC mattered) as they are among older Tories in the shires (who miss doorstep milk and deferential tradesmen).

The French have a phrase for hankering after squalor, la nostalgie de la boue, which is literally translated as nostalgia for mud. In Britain, we do this too: think of the romanticising of nasty criminals such as the Kray twins, or even the absurd fantasy of Downton Abbey: dare we imagine what it would really be like to be a Downton servant?

But in this country, people also feel another nostalgia — they hanker after a hardscrabble world of endurance, triumph over impossible odds — and over the past few years, the popular media has served up abundant fare to satisfy anyone’s craving for nostalgic pain and suffering: Call the Midwife and Victoria on television as well as films about Churchill and Dunkirk.

If Brussels notices this weird obsession, they dismiss it as nostalgie de la guerre (nostalgia for war). It’s true that war doesn’t quite do it as a nostalgia trip across the Channel or across the Irish Sea. Perhaps in places which have experienced invasion there is a common understanding that such dramas can never end well and therefore cannot inspire nostalgic yearning.

Whatever you might call it — nostalgie de guerre or a sentimental journey to Churchill’s sunlit uplands — there is a yawning gap in understanding of what is driving Brexit.

It is utterly futile for Remainers to sound the alarm about job cuts, thumping losses at John Lewis and House of Fraser, negative equity in the housing market and capital flight to New York, Paris, Frankfurt and beyond. Such commentary only excites Brexiteers. Bring it on, they cry. We have been there before. We will triumph again!

This isn’t just populist rhetoric or the stale xenophobia of a comic-strip view of history; it is Britain’s national mythology, and unless the country is administered a very cold shower soon, events next year could cause real harm to a great many people.

More alarming is the cynicism of those investors who expect to profit from the long period of chaos that may lie ahead. The words of one hedge fund employee, who I encountered while canvassing for Remain in 2016, still ring in my ears. “It could mean three or even five years of recession if we leave. But it will be worth it,” she said.

Your pain might mean profit to a hedgie; volatility creates opportunities for the short-term investments that are bread and butter for City traders. However, volatility is a curse for any long-term investor, such as a car manufacturer who must take a 10-year view on a new engine.

Why, then, is the Labour leader loathe to condemn Brexit and all its works? Surely a stable prosperous economy is good for the British working man?

The answer is quite simple. Britain is enslaved by a mythological beast and it has devoured both the Left and the Right of British politics. There is precious little to choose between Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 50-year march to the sunlit uplands and Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist fantasies. The Labour leader believes in revolution. He wants to bring down the capitalist order and what better opportunity than in the turmoil of a post-Brexit Britain? Bring it on, comrades.