Eating the cabin boy: clues to Brexit from the mists of the Noughties

The period around a decade ago, at any given time, is often lost in a Bermuda Triangle of cultural amnesia. We remember very recent events; and we enjoy revisiting events further back, the tracks through which have been trodden down by enough historians to count as ‘history’. But go back only one decade and we can be a bit uncomfortable. It’s not long enough ago for a revival of interest to be fashionable, or for historians to take ownership of it; but too long ago to actually remember events in much detail. It’s a foggy, disconcerting place; few venture there.

Not sure about this new career as a serious journalist. You didn’t have to read all these books back in the Good Mixer days …

Enter John Harris, ex of the NME now of The Grauniad, in a “long read” in September 2016 on the current struggles of the political left (John Harris: Does The Left Have a Future?). Harris went back a decade and re-visited political speeches that were much reported at the time, but have now fallen down the back of the sofa of memory. And in doing so he has caught a rear-view mirror glimpse into the seeds of Brexit germinating.

He went back to a then widely reported, now-forgotten Blair speech (come to think of it, do we remember any of them much?). It was the one he gave to the Labour conference in 2005, after his third and final General Election victory. Blair was warning of the ramping up of the harsh pressures of a globalising world economy and flagging up the challenge for Britain. Harris writes:

His next passage was positively evangelistic. “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”
I watched that speech on a huge screen in the conference exhibition area. And I recall thinking: “Most people are not like that.” The words rattled around my head: “Swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” And I wondered that if these were the qualities now demanded of millions of Britons, what would happen if they failed the test?

Sink Or Swim:  peak Davidsonmania / a national nadir

We’ve all been saying for decades the world is getting more competitive. For a long time it sounded like a gentle and distant admonition and, to many of us, the UK seemed to be coping well enough. Yes, we were working ever harder, and time and money were getting increasingly squeezed, but was the UK not well up the league tables on GDP? Yet … our apparent successes overall were masking the fact that, looking inside, it was actually the economic success of a fairly small number of people. For the rest there was stagnation in living standards and quality of life – at best.

Books like Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level put the data together to prove what had been happening for decades. And it’s far from only theoretical or statistical, as I have experienced in recent years when interviewing people in-home around the UK on the detail of their household budgeting. It’s visible too in high streets and the shopping centres around the country. The big urban centres are thriving and exciting. But large parts of the country are in visible atrophy, struggling for a role in modern Britain beyond hosting low pay, low security, low satisfaction employment. There’s a carotid artery leading straight from that, it seems to me, via the 2007-8 Crash, into the heart of Brexit.

The 2007-8 Crash was a seminal moment, when we saw that the hallowed financial market emperors had no clothes. Worse, they didn’t seem to care. Not surprisingly, the clothed masses started questioning how much the financial experts deserved to be trusted – and not just them, other ‘elites’ too –  to look after the interests of all. The Crash, along with the inability of the Coalition government subsequently to produce a socially-spread recovery, plugs fairly directly into 23rd June, 2016.

From IFS, quoted in The Independent, March 2016. The pain of recovering from the Crash has been felt much more by the less well-off. More of the same is – or was – planned.

Since 2010 in particular, people have felt left on their own to sink or swim.

We were on the EU ship, but June 2016 has shown too many of us were worried it was going in the wrong direction. So we have activated the life boat – whose seaworthiness has only been cursorily checked – and launched off on our own. We’ve just been bobbing up and down, really, in the months since we splashed down into the icy waters. We have a captain, but she’s not keen to tell us what direction she’s taking us in, in case we mutiny if we don’t get there. Rescue craft, in the shape of big generous trade deals with the US, China or Japan, are on their way, she assures us. But in truth these rescue craft haven’t even been designed yet, let alone, built, let alone set sail in our direction. We’re going to have to survive on our own in the ocean swell for a long time. We are at the mercy of the weather, supplies are not limitless and I personally don’t even like fish that much.

As Neil The Hippy said in The Young Ones episode, Flood, when it appeared they might be the only survivors of a vast deluge:

Hey, wouldn’t it be terrible if we ended up having to eat each other? Like those sailors did in that film, um…”We Ended Up Having To Eat Each Other”.

Dudley v Stephens – the case known to law students as “the one where they ate the cabin boy”. Sadly for them, the case established that “necessity” is no defence

Let’s hope we can paddle like people possessed, and that Poseidon smiles on us. That big EU ship is still in sight, we could head for there – I hear they have a food mountain. But it has all but disappeared over the horizon. I expect by the time we’ve been cooped up for two years, we’ll greet any sight of land at all with delirious gratitude. We may have eaten each other by then. But who will eat whom?


Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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