Digested week: more tales of Brexit, Trump … and Uri Geller
I spent Saturday night talking about Brexit to a packed – since you didn’t ask – audience at the Ropetackle arts centre in Shoreham. Apart from being a very enjoyable occasion, it confirmed what many others have been saying: that old party allegiances are breaking down. Where people used to politically identify as Conservative or Labour – or in some cases Liberal Democrat or Ukip – they now primarily identify themselves as leave or remain. If this turns out to be more than a passing trend, it will make for an interesting general election in 2020. Most commentators have focused their attention on the Labour heartlands in the north that voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU and would be vulnerable to a strong Brexit Conservative or Ukip candidate.
But there are also some Tories in the south who may have cause to be worried, not least Tim Loughton, the MP for East Worthing and Shoreham. Though Loughton had an easy win in 2015 with a 15,000 majority, things could get a lot tighter next time as his constituency voted 53%-47% to leave. When I mentioned Loughton’s role as cheerleader-in-chief for Andrea Leadsom to be next party leader, his name got boos worthy of a pantomime villain.
In 1988 Margaret Thatcher chose Lancaster House as the venue to praise the EU single market; it was no coincidence that Theresa May used the same setting to bury it. We hacks were cooped up somewhere in the basement for the best part of 90 minutes before the prime minister gave her speech. Not, it turned out, for reasons of security but to try to keep us from asking any awkward questions of the 27 EU ambassadors who sat stoney-faced throughout the 45 minutes May had their undivided attention. More interesting was Labour’s response.
While Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, congratulated the prime minister on not taking the hard Brexit option, Jeremy Corbyn was berating her for turning the UK into a bargain basement tax haven. No wonder the rest of the Labour party weren’t quite sure what they were supposed to say or ask. “We weren’t given any briefing papers,” one MP told me. “When I asked why, I was informed that Labour hadn’t been given enough time to respond.” As most of May’s speech had been pre-briefed to the media several days previously, Labour politicians must have been the only people kept out of the loop.
When I was 10 years old back in 1966, my parents had a German boy to stay for the weekend as part of a school trip to our town. Before he arrived, my mum took me to one side and said: “When you’re playing war games with him, make sure you say ‘Let’s kill the enemy’ and not ‘Let’s kill Jerry’.” As much of my world view was informed by reading The Victor, War Picture Library comics, and watching films such as The Great Escape, this was probably good advice. At any rate, I managed to get through the weekend without causing a major diplomatic incident.
Which is more than can be said for Boris Johnson, who used his visit to India as a backdrop for comparing François Hollande to a Nazi prison camp guard. While his remarks have been excused as lighthearted banter by the likes of Michael “With Friends Like These” Gove, it might be more helpful for the country if we didn’t have a foreign secretary whose understanding of 20th-century history wasn’t still equal to that of a 10-year-old boy in the 1960s.
Much as I instinctively believed Uri Geller must be a charlatan when he turned up in Britain during the 1970s, part of me still wanted him to be genuine. And now it turns out that he just might have been. Recently released files have revealed that the CIA repeatedly tested Geller at the Stanford Research Institute between 1972 and 1976 and the Israeli spoon-bender kept passing with flying colours. Time and again, when locked in a sealed room and asked to draw the same image as a scientist was drawing elsewhere in the building, he came up with an uncannily similar picture.
According to Geller, the CIA was so convinced of his paranormal powers it roped him in to telepathically order a top Russian official to sign the nuclear arms reduction treaty. But one thing still bothers me. If Geller is so brilliant, why did he waste so much time bending spoons and stopping watches? If I was that gifted, I’d have much more fun.
“The senator [later President Windrip] was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a travelling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humour the sly cynicism of a country store. Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man. Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, and the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.”
Not a modern commentary on Donald Trump, but an extract from the 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis which has just been republished by Penguin. When fiction becomes non-fiction.
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