Dirty English Coaster – 29.01.2020

With Brexit looming and a campaign of normalisation running at full tilt, it is a good time to look both back and forward. To take stock. As on a major birthday or the start of a new decade. Because Brexit is also personal.

Like almost everybody else living in the UK, I am still an EU citizen. But on Friday 31st , along with most UK residents, our rights and freedoms will shrink to those of British subjects. I would resent this even were I a soft-right or soft-left English monarchist: I can understand the pain of a Heseltine or a Blair. But as an English libertarian and socialist, I am naturally an internationalist and patriotic European. I love my country not above but alongside all others. Europe is where I feel most at home, England where I happen to live.

But in that now fissile entity we oddly still call the United Kingdom, we are also a national collectivity – several in fact. And nobody denies that in the future we English (as well as those Scots, Northern-Irish and Welsh, should they decide – against their 2016 judgements – to stick with the UK) will be less free to live, work, travel, conduct relationships and business across the twenty-seven other countries that have been part of our shared domain these last several years.

And very few would dispute that England is likely to be a less prosperous country as we turn inwards and as the Scots, Northern Irish and eventually the Welsh leave the UK and return to the warmer embrace of the EU – as they surely will – not in a spasm of nationalism but as a natural expression of internationalist vocation. Already, if you live in Belfast or Derry, you must look for trading standards and protections not to London but to Brussels and Dublin. So much for Boris Johnson’ principal achievement thus far. It will fast become apparent that Brexit was always a chimera, a contradiction in terms: you could have Britain in the EU or you could leave the EU and no longer have Britain. The process of peeling-away has already begun and from tomorrow will become unstoppable.

As has also been the case for Portugal, Estonia, France or Italy, Britain’s sovereignty as a European nation, far from being undermined by the EU, has been guaranteed and protected by our membership and is diminishing palpably day by day as we are now squeezed into unequal deals with the US, China and, indeed, soon perhaps with a no-longer-quite-so-friendly EU. Can anyone imagine Donald Trump, President Xi or Vladimir Putin saying to themselves tomorrow as we leave the EU: well, now that England (and its restive anti-Brexit adjunct nations) has stripped itself of its closest friends, allies and trading partners, we’re really going to pay attention to what they do next and give them whatever they want.

And yet, for all the righteous bellowing to the contrary, there has simply been no democratic mandate for Brexit.

Referendums are well designed for exceptional, clear and binary questions of pressing importance. Nothing more than David Cameron’s supremely arrogant miscalculation of Tory-party interests triggered the 2016 referendum. It may take an effort to remember, but prior to 2016 there was no anti-EU campaign, no large anti-EU demonstrations, no hint of any plausible English-nationalist insurrection: UKIP had failed repeatedly to have even its tub-thumping leader elected to Westminster. Most Britons simply took the EU for granted, neither loving nor hating it, viewing Euro-enthusiasts and Euro-sceptics respectively as nerds and flat-earthers.

More scandalous than the trigger for the referendum was its franchise: the disqualification of over two million long-term tax-paying EU-residents (entitled to vote in local elections) and the exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds (who had voted in the Scottish referendum of 2014). This is what made a simple leave-majority result imaginable. The reckless failure by Cameron’s government to insert into the 2015 EU Referendum Act the customary constitution-safeguarding thresholds (66% of votes cast/40% of electorate) means that the entire population of the UK is now to be torn from its economic, social and historical moorings on the say-so of barely one third of the electorate, barely one quarter of the population.

Even with the contest thus skewed and playing out against the backdrop of a migrants crisis and the targeted class cruelty of the Cameron-Clegg austerity regime, Leave might still not have ‘won’ the bare plurality that it now needed without the racist innuendo of the Johnson and Farage teams., the gone-gardening duplicity of the Labour leader and the deployment of electoral-engineering social-media techniques.

Decisively dirtier than the referendum’s trigger, the reckless provisions of the 2015 Referendum Act itself and the mendacious campaigns was the systematic misrepresentation of the eventual result. If the referendum result had been honoured and respected, these simple truths would never have been forgotten: that while 17 million had voted leave and 16 million remain, 4 million young adults and EU citizens had been disenfranchised and roughly 10 million others had declined to express a view either way, generating a result that cried out for analysis, compromise, consultation, a consensual exit deal and then a confirmatory vote. The fact that this natural course of action was not initiated on 24 June 2016 was the crowning democratic outrage. But of course the needs of the Tory party must come first. Always.

How will we ever forget the constant post-referendum ear-battering from politicians misconstruing the votes of the 17 million as the ‘will of the people’, indeed their ‘clear instruction’: this against the almost daily evidence of opinion polls, oceanic demonstrations, febrile grass-roots activism and record-breaking petitions demanding a ‘people’s vote’.

The only way to seal the democratic travesty of the 2016 referendum was to engineer another and a greater one. The  greatest Johnson-team triumph over the hapless Corbyn and the deluded Swinson occurred not in December but in November 2019, when the vain and deluded labour and lib-dem leaders, with the connivance of the SNP, threw away a rare chance at a government of national unity, and leapt instead into Cummings’ lantern-jawed electoral trap. What then followed was both predictable and widely predicted: a clear majority of votes was cast for remain or vote-again parties while Britain’s winner-takes-all electoral system gave Johnson team a fresh anti-democratic triumph to seal and sanctify the first one.

This is a bad place for a country to be. While as a European, there is some cause to rejoice – no more hectoring from Farage at Strasbourg, no more British prevarication on the urgent need to deepen as well as broaden the EU – as an English person I can only envy the hard-headed Euro-realists of Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff, who now have a swift return to the EU concert of nations within their sights. For the English, it will be a longer, bitterer and harder haul. But if we want any sustainable and democratic future it will be back into the EU that we will surely have to go. And here is why:

The EU is neither the capitalists’ club of Lexiters fantasies (that’s the US with a Brexited England as go-to poodle and/or punch-bag) nor the communist big-brother superstate horror show of Eurosceptic raving (that’s more like Xi’s China – our next big brother, Huawei facilitating?). Rather, the EU is a clumsily evolving site of relatively open democratic and world-beatingly transparent trade and cooperation between largely equal nations, the place where European metropolises first went to seek a substitute market after being shorn of their empires (Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Britain, Italy, Portugal, etc.) or, in the post-89 era, after being released from imperial oppression following the Soviet collapse (Eastern European nations from Estonia to Bulgaria).

Looking to that future, there’s a great deal to cooperate on . The EU, more than any other large political and economic bloc, displays a determination to tackle the climate emergency, to counter racist populism, to develop humane migration policies, to form genuine partnerships across Africa and Asia, and to make tax-dodging tech corporations pay. For anyone to the left of Trump, Putin, Xi and Attila the Hun, in the EU there is everything to play for.

So while some might cruelly liken the Brits to rats leaving the sinking EU ship, if they take a closer peek they may see the outlines of something rather different: the EU and its currency, far from foundering – as drooling doom-merchants in Wall Street and Wokingham love to predict – have in fact survived and thrived.

Indeed, the EU is increasingly regarded around the world as a success story worthy of emulation (listen, for example, on youtube to historian Timothy Snyder’s 2019 Message to Europe). The EU over the past half century has provided an increasingly persuasive and mature answer to the question that continues to rack the English: ‘what does a country do after empire?’ In short, the answer is: cooperate with one’s closest neighbours as equals, negotiate one’s way forward openly and carefully, enhance the sovereignty of all in order to protect the sovereignty of each. By proceeding in this way, the EU has invented the one resoundingly successful new form of statecraft to emerge since the second world war.

So look again: while the EU ship trims its sails and breasts the ocean waves, its cargo of sweet white wine still intact, England, with a chest-pounding drunken Boris Johnson foaming at the wheel, is like the dirty little English coaster, holed below the water line, its steerage harnessed between dismay and indignation, its upper decks away with the hedge-fund fairies, butting through the channel towards a hazy horizon, while the remain-voting Scots, Northern-Irish and Welsh crowd the lifeboats and head cheerily back to a continent that the blond-mopped skipper booms is cut off by fog.

Christopher Woodall is an English novelist and translator. November (2016) and Sweets and Toxins (2019) were both published by Dalkey Archive Press (Dublin and Illinois). His story ‘Lying to be cruel’ was published in the Best European Fiction 2019 anthology.



A Response to DEXEU’s response to the latest stop-Brexit petition:

Like others, no doubt, I recently received a response from the Department for Exiting the European Union, regarding a petition I’d signed. I don’t know why, but I always expect some kind of intelligent argument from them or at least an absence of lies. So I had to respond to it. The parts in bold type are my comments. The other parts are the email I received. Thus:

Me: The government’s response to the Petition in question is so inadequate, disregards the truth so flagrantly, makes such a mockery of the petition process, that you should really apologise to us all and undertake to try harder next time.

Dear Christopher, The Government has responded to the petition you signed – “Stop Brexit”.

Government responded:

This Government is clear that we won’t be deterred from getting on and delivering on the will of the people to come out of the EU on 31 October. We are taking steps to be ready for every eventuality.

 Self-evidently nobody voted in June 2016 – not even your boss Michael Gove – ‘to come out of the EU on 31 October’ as you put it. Let alone without a deal. Further, it was not the ‘will of the people’ to come out of the EU at all. You cannot translate the votes of 26% of the population, less than 37% of the electorate as the ‘will of the people’. That’s populist demagogy and you should be ashamed for misrepresenting the 2016 referendum in that way.

Three years ago, more people voted to leave the European Union than had ever voted for any party or proposition in our history. Politicians of all parties promised the public that they would honour the result.

 On the first point, we have a much larger population than ever before so the point is a pretty silly one. However, more to the point, larger proportions of the UK population have in fact voted for single parties in previous elections and for propositions in previous referendums. Since your research departments cannot be incapable of finding out the facts, I take your misleading statement to be intentional. On the second point, since the 2015 Referendum Act stated clearly that the outcome of the referendum was ‘advisory’ all those promises made by politicians were arrogant and worthless. You cannot change an act of parliament retroactively by making promises that are not yours to make.

This Government is clear that we won’t be deterred from getting on and delivering on the will of the people to leave the EU on 31 October. We are taking steps to be ready for every eventuality.

 This is the same as the first paragraph, word for word. Can’t you get someone to edit your letters? Such sloppiness is insulting to your addressees.

Our focus remains on getting a deal at the October European Council and leaving the EU on October 31. In doing so, the Government remains absolutely committed to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, to ensuring there will be no infrastructure at the border and to upholding the functioning of the all-Ireland economy.

 Amber Rudd, on resigning from the government and the Tory party, made very clear the falsity of your first point. As for the second point, I’m afraid the government has just torn that bit up, hasn’t it, by announcing the need for infrastructure around the border, indeed two different borders, while parading your complete disregard for the fragile peace process on the island of Ireland.

We are also turbocharging ‘No Deal’ preparations with the Treasury making all necessary funds available. We will ensure that there is as little disruption to national life as possible.

 You really must stop lying in this way. It’s getting embarrassing. We have seen the Yellowhammer documents – or we have heard about them.  (Did you think the use of the faux-macho term ‘turbocharging’ would impress anybody?)

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has taken steps to ensure that we can have all the medicines that we require, both by ensuring that we have unimpeded flow in the short straits and by ensuring that we can procure additional freight capacity.

I trust you will be held accountable for that promise and if people should fail to get their essential medicines owing to a no-deal Brexit, that you will know what to say to anyone who is sick, dying or bereaved on your government’s account.

The British people gave us a clear instruction to leave the EU. This country can be entirely confident that this Government will be ready, deal or no deal.

The British people is not a physical or moral actor in any of this and certainly cannot issue ‘an instruction’. To honour the 2016 vote you have first to recognise what it was and stop pretending that it was the expression of a single will, let alone that of a people. The franchise was restricted, there were many, especially young-adult, British citizens who were barred from voting, some non-British citizens given the vote, a few non-British resident EU citizens (Irish, Maltese Cypriots) given the vote but not others, etc. Over ten million abstained: what kind of instruction was that? And in the end, of those enfranchised a lot less than 40% of the electorate voted Leave. You wouldn’t attempt to change the constitution of a local social club on that basis. Or would you?

Department for Exiting the European Union


No ifs, no buts: Leavers WERE misled!          

Remainers tend to fall silent and look sheepish whenever Leavers protest, ‘we weren’t misled, we knew exactly what we were voting for!’
Yet every claim made about Brexit and the supposed need to quit the EU has unravelled since 2016. So…
* If you voted Leave to prevent the imminent arrival of 70 million Turks, you were misled – they were never coming;
* If you voted Leave  so the UK parliament could ‘take back control’ of housing, education, health, pensions, investment or other domestic policies, you were misled – austerity was home-grown;
* If you voted Leave because you thought this would channel extra money to the NHS, you were misled – the NHS, like the rest of the country, is not weakened but strengthened (and partly staffed) by the EU and will suffer in a shrinking economy;
* If you voted Leave to give Cameron, Osborne and Clegg a bloody nose, you were misled, just look at them now;
* If you voted Leave   to save this country from basket-case populist Europe, you were misled – the EU is thriving and investing through hard times and dangerous populists now hang their hats in Downing Street;
* If you voted Leave to prevent the EU from hindering the construction of socialism-on -island, you were misled – the EU has no aversion to the fundamentally social-democratic policies of the Corbyn faction within Labour;
If you voted Leave to restore British sovereignty, you were misled: in our still imperial world, the best protection for the sovereignty of any European country, large or small, is membership of the EU;
* If you voted Leave  to enable the UK to strike ‘our own trade deals’, you were misled – the largest market on the planet was ours, as were the trade deals it – with Brits playing a prominent part – had  made;
* If you voted Leave, confident that the Anglosphere and others would rush to join ‘Global Britain’, you were misled – as is too blindingly and pathetically obvious to detail;
* If you voted Leave because you believed the guff about becoming again ‘a proud independent nation state’, you were misled. Like most European countries, Britain has never been a nation state: it was first an empire and then a member state of the EEC/EU, through which it gained an imperial size substitute market and the precious opportunity to cooperate with other European post-colonial nations on the basis of equality rather than domination;
* If you voted Leave because you think the UK can always ‘go it alone’ – just like in 1940, you were misled: in 1940, Britain was not alone, it was the hub of a vast empire. For the sake of Britain, Churchill was prepared to fight fascism to the last drop of African and Asian blood.
* If you voted Leave because ‘surely Boris would never tell a lie, would he?’, you were misled: he’s been caught out too many times to count. And he’s at it again.



Vassals, masters or, just maybe, unexceptional grown-up Europeans?

It is perhaps not yet too late for the British to remember what they mostly well understood in the 1970s, the same lesson learned by the Portuguese, Spaniards and Greeks during the 1980s, the glaring truth discovered in the 1990s by the abruptly liberated Balts and other East Europeans, and the conviction to which Ukrainians, Northern Macedonians and others cleave so passionately today: that the EU is the preserver not the destroyer of European sovereignties.

As the historian Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands, The Road to Unfreedom) puts it, the European Union has provided a ‘safe landing’ where post-imperial nations can go after their empire has – with more or less ceremony – imploded or cast them out (Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Britain, Portugal, Spain, etc.) or, alternatively, when the empire under which they have languished for far too long has contracted, retreated and collapsed (Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovenia, etc.).

Put simply, the EU provides an empire-sized market without the autocratic and paternalistic trappings of empire. In return for access to this empire-substitute market, its member-state beneficiaries are expected to behave as grown-ups and as equals and to renounce ancient habits of imperial bullying and puerile hectoring: something perhaps rather hard for the English in general and evidently quite impossible for the current posh-child English Tory leader.

The EU’s vast single market and customs union come freighted neither with a nineteenth-century centripetal and racist autocracy nor with a twentieth-century totalitarian bureaucracy but instead with an evolving democratic, flexible, often fumbling yet relatively transparent low-cost and light-touch polity which, in stark contrast to Russia, China and the US, is minded to confront the pressing challenges of the twenty-first century: climate change and the need to renounce hydrocarbon consumption; mass economic and ecological displacement and migration; far-right populism and terrorism; the criminality of oligarchic state actors; and tax-evading new-tech corporate giants.

For England [sic] to be retreating at this point into the geriatric bunker of nation-statery is not only damaging for Europe as a whole but lethal for the UK and for what remains of its faltering, antique and now hysterically enfeebled democratic culture. Post-Brexit – by which I mean, if Brexit can be halted – attention must urgently be turned to democratising the UK from top to bottom – and above all from bottom to top.

On the other hand, should Brexit actually happen in any form, what we have to dread includes, not only chlorinated chickens and the creeping dismemberment of the NHS, but a deepening of social inequality, a further criminalization of financial and corporate sectors, East-Asian levels of labour exploitation and a shrinking of public debate and culture as we stumble into the orbit of either the US or an increasingly belligerent China-Russia tandem. The alternative to cooperation as responsible members within a shared European project that is still evolving – and where everything therefore is still to play for – is a return to empire: but this time as periphery not centre, vassals not masters.


My response to the government’s Department for Exiting the EU’s statement declining to consider revoking Article 50:


The government’s response to the petition to revoke Article 50, given in black below, is full of blatant absurdities and false claims. I have sought to highlight these by making comments in red beneath and in some cases between the government’s text.

“It remains the Government’s firm policy not to revoke Article 50. We will honour the outcome of the 2016 referendum and work to deliver an exit which benefits everyone, whether they voted to Leave or to Remain.

Two points: 1) you honour something by recognising what it is, not by willfully misrepresenting it. The result of the 2016 referendum provided no democratic mandate for any kind of Brexit, owing to five fatal flaws: a) the restricted franchise excluded both EU citizens and 16-17 year olds; b) there was no threshold – as would be expected for any referendum of constitutional significance – and the Leave vote would have failed both the normal 66% of votes cast and the 40% of electorate thresholds; c) under the EU Referendum Act 2015, the referendum was explicitly ‘advisory’ and all the cavalier promises made to the contrary were illegitimate and have no moral force; d) the referendum question, often called a simple binary, was nothing of the sort: ‘remain’ meant the status quo whereas ‘leave’, since there was no explicit plan, meant anything anyone wanted it to mean including, as one caller to BBC’s Any Questions confessed on March 22nd , a simple protest vote cast on the confident assumption that ‘Remain’ would win; e) the circumstances under which the referendum was called had nothing whatever to do with democracy: there was no national demand for such an event, the single-issue party (ukip) devoted to securing it could not even get its tubthumping leader elected to any Westminster constituency in the land: the only purpose of the referendum was to solve an internal Conservative party wound and to staunch the haemorrhage of that party’s members to Ukip;

2) it is an insult to everyone’s intelligence to say that there is a Brexit that ‘benefits everyone’. The government’s own briefing papers have made it clear that even in purely economic terms, let alone in terms of national influence, individual rights, etc., any form of Brexit will damage everyone, whether they voted Remain or Leave.

Revoking Article 50, and thereby remaining in the European Union, would undermine both our democracy and the trust that millions of voters have placed in Government.

On the contrary, by refusing to acknowledge the current surge of opinion against Brexit (the 23rd March demonstration in London, this huge petition and recent clear polling evidence to the effect that only 6% of the population expects Brexit to be a success and that 55% would now vote Remain) the government is compounding its abuse of both democracy and the UK population.

The Government acknowledges the considerable number of people who have signed this petition. However, close to three quarters of the (severely and one-sidedly restricted: see above, point 1a) electorate took part in the 2016 referendum, trusting that the result would be respected. This Government wrote to every household prior to the referendum, promising (see above, point 1c) that the outcome of the referendum would be implemented. 17.4 million people then voted to leave the European Union, providing the biggest democratic mandate for any course of action ever directed at UK Government.

The 17.4 million Leave voters represented less than 40% of the electorate and far far less than two thirds of those who voted (See point 1b above). The 17.4 million represented in fact just over 26% of the UK population of roughly 65.5 million.

British people cast their votes once again in the 2017 General Election where over 80% of those who voted, voted for parties, including the Opposition, who committed in their manifestos to upholding the result of the referendum.

This is a classic red herring, no matter how many times it is repeated. People do not vote for parties at general elections on the basis of one single element of their manifestoes. It is simply dishonest to suggest otherwise. Try a simple thought experiment: did those who vote for Chukka Umunna and Ann Soubrey, knowing perfectly well their positions on Brexit, support their respective parties’ manifestoes on Brexit?

This Government stands by this commitment.

Revoking Article 50 would break the (illegitimate and unwarranted, see point 1c above) promises made by Government to the British people, disrespect the clear instruction from a democratic vote (see above, passim), and in turn, reduce confidence in our democracy. As the Prime Minister has said, failing to deliver Brexit would cause “potentially irreparable damage to public trust”, and it is imperative that people can trust their Government to respect their votes and deliver the best outcome for them.

The British government has utterly betrayed the population of the UK by carrying out this anti-democratic and largely unwanted referendum, systematically misrepresenting the result and attempting now to steamroller through against popular opinion a Brexit that almost nobody wants. If the British government was not terrified of democracy, it would hold a second referendum on a proper franchise, with a threshold appropriate to a matter of constitutional importance and legislate for it to be ‘binding’ rather than ‘advisory’. To fail to do so is to compound the damage to public trust it has already caused rather than to start to rebuild that trust.

Department for Exiting the European Union.


Arguments why ‘Leavers’ should support a people’s vote:

FIVE reasons why BREXITERS should support a second referendum. And ONE against.

As true believers in democracy and the right of the British people to determine their own destiny, all fair-minded BREXITERS should support a second referendum. Here are FIVE reasons why. Followed by ONE against.


1) The UK population is deeply divided on the subject of Britain’s place in Europe in a way that it really wasn’t even four years ago. Prior to 2016, most people simply took the EU for granted: there was never any mass petition remotely to compare with the six million signatures gathered in 2019 to revoke Article 50, no mass demonstration to compare with the 2019 million-person march, also in 2019. Since opinion polls say that the UK population is now quite evenly divided on an issue that is far better understood than before, a second referendum could be a genuinely democratic, grown-up exercise, rather than, like the previous outing, a desperate ruse to resolve an inner Tory-party problem at the country’s expense.

2) In a second referendum, the choice before the electorate would be tangible and comprehensible: on the one hand, some well-defined version of Brexit around which all Brexiters could unite; on the other, the choice to remain in an evolving EU. Contrast this with the question last time: LEAVE functioned as a magnet not just for proud nation-statists, convinced Eurosceptics and self-styling patriots but also, since ‘Remain’ had the backing of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Blair, et al., it also netted every imaginable species of anti-establishment protest vote.

3) Whereas Cameron’s 2016 Referendum will always possess scant democratic legitimacy owing to the restricted franchise (excluding EU citizens and 16-17 year olds), the lack of any constitutional threshold (whether 2/3 of votes or 40% or electorate) and the statutory definition of the vote as ‘advisory’, the new referendum could be framed (with input from Brexiters) in such a way as to be inclusive, constitutionally responsible and permanently decisive because ‘confirmatory’. It would thus leave no scope for anyone to question its validity, no room for any further ‘remoaning’. A second referendum could truly reflect ‘the will of the people’ and therefore be immune to the mockery aimed at the first – let’s face it – botched referendum.

4) If Brexit, in any form, happens without the endorsement of a second referendum and then proves difficult, voices arguing its fundamental democratic illegitimacy will grow louder and louder. Diehard Remainers will say, with some justification, that the 2016 Referendum was a very poor mandate and even former Leavers may come to claim that the Brexit finally delivered was not at all what they voted for, either too hard or too soft. The thirteen million abstainers in 2016 are also likely – somewhat belatedly – to arrive at a view on the matter and to wish they’d been a chance to voice a considered opinion. Not to mention the children now grown to maturity and the EU citizens still (we hope) staffing our hospitals and looking after our parents and grand-parents.

5) Without a clear, improved, well-informed and up-to-date mandate, is Britain post-Brexit not likely to remain bitterly divided, with its mother of all parliaments in a continual mother of all hissy fits? In order to chart its own bold, independent course as a free nation, should Britain not start as it means to go on, ie. with a clear, open, well-designed and decisive choice of direction rather than the shambles of the 2016 referendum and the parliamentary and now governmental meltdown it ushered in? Where will Britain be internationally without such clarity? Which businesses will invest in any imaginable Global-Britain project if Brexit reversal looks likely?


There is only ONE reason for BREXITERS not to support a second referendum: this time LEAVE might lose. Let’s face it, the fact that LEAVE won last time was a bit of a fluke – and also… shhhh!… a bit of a cheat.

Still, look on the bright side: after three years of omni-Brexit shambles, REMAIN still haven’t quite learned to love and campaign for the EU, still can’t praise the EU without adding ‘for all its faults’ or ‘warts and all’, still haven’t in fact quite worked out what the EU is really for. Just see how quickly they can still be silenced, indeed left almost bewitched, by Boris’s and Nigel’s, Kate’s and Gisela’s talk of Independence Day, Britain’s exceptionalism, sovereignty, Brussels bureaucracy, and the horrors of the ECJ.
As with the first referendum, a second referendum would be Remain’s to lose. But cheer up Leavers! They pulled it off last time!


26th March 2019:

On Sinn Fein Absenteeism: A Modest Proposal

Does nobody these days have back-channel access to the Sinn Fein, passionate Remainers all? Or some mobile phone numbers, twitter handles?

Could those seven Sinn Fein mps not be encouraged to waive their time-worn abstentionist policy, swallow hard and – however briefly – take their seats at Westminster? After all, sometimes a custom is more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

At present, Northern Ireland, where 55% of votes cast in June 2016 were for Remain, is represented at Westminster only by the DUP – passionate Leavers all and currently still supporting the government (like a rope supports a hanging man?)

Brexit in any form would be hugely consequential not just for Britain but for the whole of the island of Ireland.

Is anybody trying to talk them round? Leo Veradke? John McDonnell? Besides, might they not find it absolutely delicious in one fell swoop to stick it to Brexit, to the Tories  and to the DUP?

Would they really have to swear allegiance to the House of Windsor? Surely if many an honourable British republican – not to mention the likes of (Tony) Benn and Jeremy Corbyn – have somehow managed the trick, surely Sinn Fein could do so too? For example, fingers crosssed?

It goes without saying that for such a sacrifice of priniciple they would reap the eternal gratitude not just of 16 million Remain voters but, at a guess, that of a clear large majority of the 13 million who abstained in 2016 and the 19 million who, too European or too young, weren’t enfranchised. Above all, there would be an enormous number of people in Ireland who’d appreciate the sacrifice.

22th March 2019:

Open letter to Guy Verhofstadt

Dear Guy Verhofstadt,

You have every reason to be impatient with the British parliament’s stance on Brexit. Can they not, you plead, finally cease stating what they don’t want and make clear instead what on earth it is that they do want?

It sounds so simple, so attractive. But, Guy, they just can’t do it. They can’t bring themselves to say it. Not because they don’t know what they want but because it would make them a laughing stock. Not in your eyes perhaps, Guy. In their own eyes. In the eyes of the British public, from whom they derive their precarious authority and on whom they may one day rely to renew it.

The simple, impossible-to-acknowledge fact is that a majority of the British parliament knows precisely what it wants: it wants to remain in the EU. They have looked hard and long at the May-Barnier deal and they’re not buying it. And right now, they’re staring into the barrel of a ‘no-deal’ exit and they don’t like that either. Why would they? Nobody in their right mind would.

The softer Brexit options now under discussion do at least tick the ‘less catastrophic’ box but are still deeply unappealing: they would see Britain, like a beggar with his trusty dog, hugging the EU for warmth, but remaining gagged and bound – which, for European politicians, might well be a blessed relief. The thing that has to be grasped is that whenever Dame Margaret Beckett, a former Labour foreign secretary, splutters that ‘the best EU deal is the one we already have,’ nobody ever raises a voice to contradict her.

What complicates matters further is that the UK population, to judge by opinion polls stretching back over months, is in rough alignment with parliament. If a referendum were held today, Remain might well triumph as comfortably as the ineffably conceited David Cameron assumed it would in 2016. Which is precisely why a majority cannot be found in parliament to back a second referendum. They can’t be seen to go against the sacred will of the British people as expressed on June 23 2016.

For in the United Kingdom the profoundly shocking outcome of that simple binary vote on that single day in June 2016 has acquired the status of a miraculous event, a holy tablet. The 17.4 million people who voted Leave on that occasion are cited day in day out as unimpeachable oracles, glorified first as ‘the will of the people’ and now as ‘the voice of the people’ (Theresa May on 13 March 2019 in parliament): indeed, in such grandiloquent phrases as ‘the British people instructed the government to deliver Brexit’, the 17.4 million are allowed to stand for the nation itself.

Yet if you trouble to examine it closely, the 2016 Referendum – whisper it softly – never provided any honest mandate for any form of Brexit. The Brexit process that Mrs May calls ‘an exercise in democracy’ has always been an abuse of democracy and worse, an abuse of the demos, the long-suffering UK population.

How can that be true? Did not a majority vote for Leave?

A slim but clear majority of those who voted on 23 June 2016 did indeed vote ‘Leave’. But the closer you look at the details of that result, the framing of the referendum itself, the circumstances under which it was called and, indeed, the franchise, the less conclusive it appears. There are four reasons for this.

Firstly, the franchise set out in the EU Referendum Act 2015 excluded two notably euro-enthusiastic groups of voters: the over three million EU-citizens whose right to vote had long been recognised at council elections but who were deemed unfit for the (too consequential for ‘foreigners’?) EU referendum; and sixteen- and seventeen-year olds who in 2014 had been eligible to deliberate upon the weighty matter of Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom but who, in the space of two years, had lost their right to express a view on the (more?) weighty matter of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

Secondly, no threshold condition was set. As was set out in the EU Referendum Act 2015 itself, when it comes to matters of constitutional importance, for a referendum to count as valid and binding a two thirds majority is usually required or, as was the case for the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution, a majority equivalent to 40% of the electorate. In the 2016 referendum, the Leave vote in fact won not 66% but just 52% of the votes cast, roughly equivalent not to 40% but to 35% of the enfranchised electorate (and barely 26% of the entire UK population).

Thirdly, two of the four national constituents of the United Kingdom, Scotland and Northern Ireland, had majorities favouring ‘Remain’. It has long been a convention for referendums in multinational states to require a majority in each of the member nations in order for the referendum proposition to succeed. The consequence of flouting this condition is staring us in the face and may yet lead to the break-up of the UK; for the argument now rages in both Scotland and Northern Ireland that if Brexit happens their nations will be ‘forced out of the EU’ against their democratic will.

Fourthly, the EU Referendum of 2016 was explicitly accorded a merely ‘advisory’ status in the relevant legislation and this fact could not altered by the illegitimate and cavalier manner in which politicians starting with David Cameron promised that whatever the outcome of the Referendum the government would then ‘respect’ and ‘honour’ it. These were hucksters’ promises and should have been discounted as baseless. The fact that they were believed does not grant them any legitimacy.

But the supreme, the crowning, absurdity is that there was no popular pressure, no groundswell of opinion in favour of holding a referendum in the first place. Membership was never a hot-button issue. There was certainly never a demonstration to compare with last November’s 700,000-strong rally for a people’s vote. The single-issue Europhobic party known as UKIP could never manage, despite repeated and well bankrolled attempts, to get their tub-thumping leader elected to any Westminster constituency in the land.

The EU referendum was conceived as a straightforward and risk-free manoeuvre to silence a small minority of nationalist extremists within the English [sic] conservative party. Yet this is the tail that now wags the rest of England, the UK and even the European Union, powerfully distracting it from more serious business.

To summarise: in 2016, on a severely restricted franchise, without the constitutional safeguard of a threshold, the Leave campaign achieved a simple plurality in an explicitly ‘advisory’ referendum. Despite this fact and despite significant subsequent shifts in opinion and demography, the British parliament (made up largely of former Remainers) is quite incapable of liberating itself from what it continues perversely to consider its democratic duty, i.e. to deliver Brexit to a population (made up largely of would-be current Remainers).

You can demand angrily that the British government and parliament say finally what on earth it is that they want. You are right to do so. The trouble is that they just can’t. They have the entire nation in a twist. It is essential that they are given time to sort out their self-inflicted fiasco.  A couple of years at least. During which time, I would strongly advise you to look away.


Christopher Woodall

20th March 2019:

Open letter to George Freeman MP:

Dear George Freeman MP,
I’m a constituent of yours, living in [Mid-Norfolk]… I have never voted anything but Labour but, unless they rid their party of anti-semites and belatedly take a firm and principled stand against Brexit, I am unlikely ever to do so again. For the time being, like many others, I have no useful vote.
I feel very strongly that Brexit would not only be very damaging for this country and for Europe as a whole but also that its passage on the basis of the 2016 referendum would be essentially fraudulent.
On four separate grounds, that referendum cannot be deemed to represent the views of the population of the UK nor to consitute a mandate for Brexit.
1) the franchise excluded not only 16 and 17 year olds, who had been entitled to vote in the Scottish Referendum 2014, but also EU-citizens. My partner, an Italian citizen, property-owner, tax-payer, resident here for 24 years and mother of a British citizen was among those excluded from having a say. I believe that if these two groups had had their rightful say, the result would have been very different. No taxation without representation? Well, both EU citizens and young people in this country, in various ways, pay taxes but were not represented in a matter vital to their futures.
2) in contrast with what is normally the case in referendums of constitutional importance, no 2/3 or 40%-of-electorate threshold was set. Since the ‘leave’ vote only amounted to 52% (as opposed to 66%) of the votes cast and less than 36% of the entire electorate, it would not have been deemed to have passed. If you look at the numbers, barely 26% of the UK population voted Leave.
3) the referendum was explicitly ‘advisory’ (see 2015 EU Referendum Act) and no number of earnest promises made by politicians that any victory however slim, however shorn of threshold, would be taken to be ‘an instruction’ can overturn that fact. Those promises were illegitimate, invalid and should be set aside. You can’t promise what you don’t possess. You can’t bind the future. The referendum should have been accepted on 24 June 2016 as advisory only – in line with the relevant legislation – and a second referendum should have been immediately promised to confirm whatever deal was brought back. That could have happened. The fact that it didn’t is scandalous.
4) in 2016 there was no great appetite for a referendum. Most people cared much more about schools, the NHS, the economy, etc. The passions that were whipped up by the extreme-nationalist wing of your party and by UKIP were threatening to destroy the party led by David Cameron. The Referendum was conceived as a way to put the problem to bed. Had anyone believed Leave could have won, a sensible threshold would have been put in place and the franchise might have been different. Then if leave had won, everyone could have accepted it. As for UKIP, despite many attempts, they couldn’t even get their tubthumping leader elected to any constituency in the land. Never was there a mass demonstration of 700,000 people calling for either an EU referendum or Brexit – but there was one last November calling for second referendum.
Brexit is an abomination and it has no democratic legitimacy, having failed to extend the franchise to significant swathes of affected citizens, having failed to set a constitutionally appropriate threshold and having been set up to be ‘advisory’ – as I believe you know – and it should be stopped. Every time you hear someone say, ‘17.4 million people… the British people…’ remember that it is a non-sequitur: 17.4 million leave voters back in 2016 could never represent the UK population of 65 million and certainly do not now that the issues have become so much clearer and almost three years have passed.
For pity’s sake, do what you know is right, not what is [politically expedient].

With best wishes,
Christopher Woodall

10th November 2017:

Flanders Field doggerel for Brexit Ears

My son (10) has been instructed by his primary school to learn for homework ‘In Flanders Fields’, a piece of doggerel that in its final lines incites unspecified present and future soldiers to pursue ‘our quarrel’ against the ‘foe’, saying that not to do so would be to ‘break the faith’ – whatever that is – and somehow to prevent the dead from sleeping. Of course, the nature of the ‘quarrel’ is not specified either.

In other times and places, such piffle, though popular, might be laughed off. But some English [sic] politicians have begun to refer to their fellow Europeans as ‘enemies’ and to those who all too timidly continue to oppose ‘Brexit’ as traitors. At the same time, once respectable albeit rightwing journalists have now taken to calling European politicians and civil servants ‘EU monkeys’ in mass-circulation newspapers (Rod Liddle in The Sun, 26.10.17).

As an antidote to Flanders-Fields doggerel, my son and I are now reading Wilfred Owen, whose forthright English tones were inflected with a quiet internationalism, quite free of any scoundrel patriotism: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend…’ says the narrator at the end of ‘Strange Meeting’. In ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, Owen portrays the failure to avoid conflict on the part of European nations, depicted as an old ‘Abram’, as a refusal to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’, opting instead to slay ‘half the seed of Europe one by one.’

On the 11th November, we shall be making the modest gesture of wearing white rather than red poppies, in order to commemorate those of all nations who were slaughtered in the shameful twilight-imperial bloodbath known as World War One and especially those who stoutly refused to enlist or chose to desert and face certain death rather than to submit to the knaves, fools and asses who bade them kill their brothers and sisters.

Let us celebrate the words of the German anti-militarist Karl Liebknecht who in 1915, in the teeth of nationalistic compatriots and of backsliding fellow socialists, stated: Der Hauptfeind steht im eigenen Land. (The main enemy is in one’s own country). This was also the position of the Scottish Labourite internationalist Keir Hardie, the French pacifist Romain Rolland and many other fine men, women and children across Europe and beyond. These are the people we should honour in such times of dusted-off jingoism and extemporised foe-speak.


25 June 2017

Remembering A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Donna Triggs’ sensitive and forthright production of Peter Nichols’ dark comedy, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, continues to work on its audience – if I am remotely typical – like a depth charge almost a month after seeing it at The Garage, Norwich. So no apologies for taking all this time to reflect on the play and its staging.

When I first saw the play, it was the late 1960s and I was a teenager. I remember being shocked by the staging of severe physical handicap: in those days, with the exception of the men [sic] maimed in war, who tended to carry their wounds proudly, the disabled were hidden away. I was on the cusp of adulthood yet apart from the teenage girl next door, a spastic polio victim – yes, that was indeed the accepted language, shared by experts and family members alike – I had never encountered severe disability: not at school, not among friends or relatives, certainly not in books, magazines or on radio or tv. Ironside, the first police series to feature a wheelchair-bound detective wasn’t yet screening in Britain.

It takes an effort to recall – let alone to imagine – quite how shocking Joe Egg then was. As well as displaying the face of severe disability in the character of Joesephine, confined to a wheelchair, incapable of speech and, as is made brutally clear, unable to control her bodily motions, the play presents in her parents, Bri and Sheila, two contrasting characters, the father as desperately clownish as the mother is doggedly, painfully, resilient. The mind games that Bri and Sheila play as they dance and improvise something approaching a normal married life around their daughter’s central presence – central absence, I should say – is the very heart of the play’s first half, along with the personality traits they invent for Joesephine in order, it seems, to sustain their open-hearted devotion.

In the second half of the play, two new characters, Freddie and Pam, long-term friends of Bri and Sheila, are introduced, serving to embody the outside world and its varying conventional views of disability. While Freddie, who is well-intentioned and keen that Bri and Sheila should be ‘practical’, sketches out a humane solution to what he sees as Bri and Sheila’s intolerable predicament, Pam, his wife, displays a feeling of revulsion at the very thought and sight of disability, as if it were not merely traumatic but somehow intrinsically impolite or indecent.

It is at this point that the focus of Donna Triggs’ production seemed to shift from Joesephine’s parents – roles performed with maniacal energy by Robin Watson and titanic calm by Lois Entwistle – to Joesephine herself and, perhaps surprisingly, to Pam (played by the director herself). And as this shift in our attention proceeded, so did our self-questioning. From ‘could I ever be as good-humoured and inventive as Bri or as resilient and loving as Sheila?’ we moved to an examination of first Joesephine and then Pam.

From the outset, Moira Hickson’s formidably rich and suggestive portrayal of Joesephine repeatedly raised the suspicion that there was an active mind, a will and a consciousness at work there, despite the absence in the text or on the stage of any real evidence to that effect. And so it was that Joesephine, the object – or mere occasion – of the play curiously became its central subject as we, in imitation of Bri and Sheila, began to seek and almost involuntarily to construct a personality for ‘Joe’, willing her to live more fully. At the same time as this process unfolded, the character of Pam seemed to turn from vulgarly reprehensible, a perfect model of how not to react, to pitiful and deeply human.

After the performance I attended, there was an extended discussion with the actors, the director, and also with members of The Hamlet, a Norwich-based disability centre, including a severely disabled young man and his mother. When asked how she judged the characters and attitudes represented in the play, the young man’s mother not only voiced sympathy and understanding for Bri and Sheila but proved quite unwilling to condemn Pam, whose revulsion she attributed to simple ignorance and, above all, to fear.

Time was spent discussing the way language and perceptions have changed for the better in the last fifty years, since the play was written. Yet there is clearly no room for condescension towards the past nor for complacency about the present circumstances for disabled people. What has been achieved in terms of rights and inclusion took years of campaigning by those most directly involved and also required support and solidarity from wider society. In times that remain austere, this engagement will remain essential. Triggs’ Joe Egg and the work of The Hamlet, in different ways, will be important in this struggle.


The following review was published in TLS in 1995…


Piero Camporesi, Exotic Brew. Translated by Christopher Woodall. 193 pp. Oxford: Polity. £29.50.

From a review by Patrice Higonnet of several works. Title of the review: ‘Let them drink chocolate. Salons, food and the growth of civil society.’

Goodman and Gordon are strict taskmasters who write from verse and chapter; Censer’s scholarship is impeccable and cold. In Bologna, however, Piero Camporesi is a poet.The darkening shadows of theory are never visible in his text, which is none the less remarkably informed. Everything in Exotic Brew is culinarily transposed and comes with succulent recipes such as the one for Président des Brosses’s favourite creamed sweet: beef marrow, milk-soaked breadcrumbs, almond paste, cinnamon and stock-covered currants. In Camporesi’s pages, the individuation of social life becomes smaller table-ware, personalized settings, or a quest for comfort. Cartesiansism exists, but as a “ratio convivialis”, a reconceptualized sequence of dishes, whose deeper meaning is of a “geometrical order and mathematical reason”. The feminized salons are “the dreams of lightness become a social imperative”. Like Goodman and Gordon, Camporesi also sees sociability as the key to Enlightened thinking, but he sets it in a very different register: “The dinner-table was becoming the condensation chamber for the new frontiers of the mind”; and a dinner without Voltaire was “like a ring without a gem”. Food, writes Camporesi, “was spoken rather than eaten, taken with detachment, while the new hot beverages… punctuated the passage of time with an obligatory ritual and etiquette”. Coffee and chocolate were the “liquid emblems of a new society”.

Camporesi does not ignore high politics: the decay after 1700 of monarchic authority, so important to Habermas and his disciples, is relevant to him oo, if only gastronomically. Camporesi’s definition of “l’infâme” does include an implied critique of political excess in an age when – in the words of the sceptic academician and tutor in the French royal house, La Mothe le Vayer (1588-1673), “the princes of Europe fed on vipers the fowls [which] they themselves consume”. But Camporesi subsumes these princely politics under a culinary rubric, namely the “extravagance of the baroque imagination [with its] bombastic cascades of main dishes”.

For him, Enlightenment politics and lighter food were always very close; did not French haute cuisine begin during the negotiations for the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713? But for Camporesi, the difference between absolutism and enlightened despotism is not so much in the changed Habermasian configuration of the private and the public, as in the fact that Louis XIV, contemptuous of the civil sphere, never tasted potage garbure (which he easily could have done) whereas Frederick the Great, the first servant of the state, “composed verses in praise of pâté à la sardanapole”. Because the abbé Galiani’s acrimonious dispute with Morellet in 1770 over the advantages of free trade is a set-piece in any discussion of Enlightenment sociability, the Neapolitan minister appears at some length in both Goodman’s and Gordon’s texts. And Camporesi cites him too, but in his book, Galiani is not merely a polemicist. He is also a moderate and Enlightened man whose elevation of spirit enabled him to admire Morellet’s skill in carving pullets.

The transformation of the public sphere, the revalorization of civil society; these lofty changes, Camporesi reminds us, were hard to understand for those who lived them day by day, unthinkingly. But drinking chocolate (or, in Boston, tea) was more simple. In 1794, the reactionary Bishop of Parma knew what he was doing when he condemned ex cathedra the wicked love of novelties. For Camporesi, every new dish, every gastronomico-philosophical self-indulgence, every lavish table, every “epic of chocolate and sugar” contributed to “the graceful disorder” of the eighteenth century. Take the case of Cardinal Moncada, who was much interested in cooling and heating techniques and consequently devised a “well lubricated enema [that] entailed blowing hot tobacco smoke into the anus by means of a tube”. For Camporesi, the man is not an amiable eccentric but a “culture hero”.

Tiresome, postmodern Italian chic? No: Camporesi is very learned. He knows Bolognese food and culture perfectly. His knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuitical texts is impressive. He weighs his sources carefully, and he characteristically rejects, as he should, the questionable idea that the Cardinal of York, last of the Stuart line and a vegetarian, could really have consumed thirty pounds of chocolate a day. His playful, crafted and optimistic book is modest and accessible, elegant and entertaining, with, unexpectedly, an elegaic aroma: Camporesi’s diners had it in their mind to reject ponderous baroque cookery, but we see them also feasting in the shadow of the guillotine. Voltaire would have found food for thought in this delightful and incisive book.