The last time I saw so many Union Jacks on public display in Britain, they were worn by Gerri Halliwell or painted onto Noel Gallagher’s guitar. It was basically a marketing technique to sell the new, younger-looking UK to the world, and though it was short lived, for those of us in our twenty-somethings in the 90s, we could see through the packaging and recognised the playful irony behind the hype.
The strange death of Cool Britannia
On the political front, a young Tony Blair won a landslide victory for Labour and became the natural political face of the movement, promising an ethical foreign policy abroad, and at home an end to the sleaze into which John Major’s Conservative administration had sunk.
Outsiders looking in saw a country in a phase of regeneration. Britain looked good.
George Bush had not yet been elected and Blair’s catastrophic support of US action in Iraq had yet to overshadow his legacy. This legacy included doubling foreign aid and successfully intervening to end conflicts in Kosovo (to the extent that ‘Tonibler’ became a popular boys name there), in Sierra Leone and of course Ireland, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
And so we come full circle – this last achievement is now under serious threat and sleaze has once again reared its ugly head.
It’s all about the ‘B’ word
The Union Jacks are back, but this time with no tongue-in-cheek. We used to leave all that flag stuff to other nations; we just didn’t need it. Those days are gone.
As writer Anthony Barnett says (quoted in the New Statesman), “Brexit has rendered us a country run by a government of the old, by the old, for the old”.
There is even talk of returning to imperial measures and putting crown signs on pint glasses.
The omertà surrounding the ‘B’ word (even the prime minister banned his own ministers from saying it) is slowly being lifted and as the negative consequences of that decision, economic and political, are inevitably revealed, the harder it will be to blame covid, global shortages and of course, the EU, for our problems.
Macron calls Johnson a clown
In the meantime, it’s all our government can do. So once more, instead of engaging with the EU and indeed the wider world in a serious manner to resolve what is now a humanitarian crisis that cannot be wished away and will only get worse, Johnson very publicly tweets a bizarre letter to Macron, totally unreflective of the telephone conversation they had the night before in which they agreed to work together to prevent further human tragedies such as that which occurred this month in which nearly 30 lives were lost.
The French government reaction was swift. Macron declared that Johnson can’t be taken seriously. According to Le Canard Echainé, the French equivalent of Private Eye, he described Johnson as a clown. Furious about this latest episode, he is quoted as saying, “It’s sad to see a major country with which we could do huge numbers of things being led by a clown”.
Further souring the UK’s relationship with France
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s swift disinvitation to Sunday’s meeting was the result of a growing exasperation at this government’s tactics.
The early AstraZeneca supply problems, and Johnson’s dithering over blocking airport arrivals from India, led to Britain being seen abroad as hogging the vaccine whilst simultaneously exporting the Delta variant (known in France as the English Variant at the time) which led to the third wave of the coronavirus in Europe.
The matter of the issuing of licenses to French fishermen is still unresolved. It is considered as evidence of a country refusing to abide by its agreements and pointlessly punishing some poor small boat owners to satisfy a minority at home who have given fishing a mythical status and risking a full on trade war over a financially negligible industry which is being decimated by Britain’s own device.
And now we have the migrant crisis.
Having borrowed votes not only from the Labour Party in 2019, but also from Farage’s Brexit Party, the government has to keep this element of his support satisfied.
France looks on in amazement as the Home Secretary proposes armoured jet-ski patrols forcing asylum seekers to return to France in dangerous manœuvres that our own customs officers refuse to entertain. This was before the magical wave machine idea, at which point the French desperately reached for the Ricard.
It’s understood that this government posturing doesn’t reflect the views of most British people, but the optics are not good. And worryingly, the government seems to be disproportionately courting a certain type of voter.
The French are fed up
In July of this year, Britain agreed to contribute €62.7m to the costs of clamping down on the trafficking of migrants to the UK. Patel is rumoured to have instructed that the payment be withheld until the French comply with her demands to return dinghies at sea, which being against international maritime law, would be illegal.
Payment in full has not yet been made.
The French are exasperated at what they describe as this government’s ‘double talk’. An Élysée spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, in a furious reaction to Johnson’s tweet this week said in an interview on BFM TV that surely the British prime minister regrets Brexit, because far from taking back control, he keeps asking France to solve his problems, from fish to asylum seekers.
Attal despaired at how the British refused to send customs and immigration agents to process applications in France, as is usual practice.
Xavier Bertrand, a presidential candidate for the conservative Républicains suggested the French provide ferries to transport the migrants safely to the UK and let Britain deal with its asylum seekers itself.
Johnson caught in his own trap
France sees that Johnson is forced into constant conflict with them, and the rest of the EU, to keep his home fires burning. He needs to keep the animosity alive so that the EU, and especially France, can be blamed for the Brexit failures ahead, not least the Northern Ireland protocol.
Le Canard Echainé reports that Macron allegedly said:
“Brexit is the starting point of the Johnson circus. Very quickly he realised that the situation was catastrophic for the British.”
Macron told his advisers that Johnson even apologises in private for his behaviour but says he has to consider public opinion over everything else. In Johnson’s game plan, France has to be the scapegoat for now. But it’s not a game anyone else wants to play.
No nation is perfect, France included. The treatment of refugees by the French police at Calais has often been shameful. But when shameful behaviour becomes the flagship policy of the Home Office, then there is a real problem.
We now have Union Jacks by the bucketload behind every minister on TV, but from the outside looking in, there is little reason to wave them. And despite Michael Gove’s best efforts in provincial discos, we’re just not cool anymore.