A friend of mine used to say that the only certainty in life was its uncertainty.
He wasn’t a quantum physicist parroting the principle associated with Werner Heisenberg in 1927. My friend described himself as a romantic capitalist who liked the adventure of entrepreneurship. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 47, a couple of years after surviving a serious cancer operation in London.
Uncertainty has been a feature of daily life ever since Albert Einstein proved that space is curved and that time is not linear. If the behaviour of a quantum particle is unpredictable why should packets of quanta in the shape of human beings be any different?
And yet, post-Brexit, all you hear on the BBC and see in most of the papers, is that the UK is in a state of division and uncertainty. Some people have short memories. I remember that before June 23 uncertainty was rife about a number of things – the state of the NHS, the Cameron Government’s borrowing deficit, the likelihood of Roy Hodgson’s England football team achieving something notable in the European Championships.
We were far from certain about whether the summer would be sunny or changeable.
But now it seems all manner of things are being blamed for the uncertainty created by the Referendum vote to leave the European Union. Travel firms go bust – post-Brexit uncertainty is the reason given. The Governor of the Bank of England talks about cutting interest rates and then doesn’t do it – post-Brexit uncertainty is the reason given. Prime Minister Theresa May appoints Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary – post-Brexit uncertainty is…wait a minute, I’ll come on to that later.
The 67 years that constitute my timeline from 1949 could be described as The Age of Uncertainty, like one of the books making up the Roads to Freedom trilogy of novels by Jean Paul Sartre.
The Labour Government from 1974 to 1979, in which Jim Callaghan took over from Harold Wilson halfway through, was the embodiment of uncertainty, principally because of the dependency of support from other political parties.
Lucky Jim lost the 1979 General Election after Labour’s prolonged uncertainty turned into the Winter of Discontent. Out of a piles of uncollected bags of rubbish on the streets of London, Margaret Thatcher emerged triumphant, Britain’s first female Prime Minister and a template, did she but know it, for the daughter of Eastbourne clergyman Hubert May and his wife Zaidee.
The Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962, the assassinations of President John F Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King and the collapse of Soviet Communism between 1989 and 1991, generated enormous uncertainty, as did the near total collapse of American banking and finance between 2007 and 2008. Remember that one?
Uncertainty has been part of life for longer than I can remember. I don’t suppose the Romans waiting for the arrival of Alaric’s barbarians in 410 AD looked upon the immediate future as a glass half full.
But just as there are always people who hope for certainty, there are those who refuse to accept the result of votes that go against them.
Assuming that the House of Commons doesn’t follow Tony Blair’s advice and vote down the EU Referendum result, the question of whether we should remain or leave has been settled – after all the past broken promises. The time has come to start shaping the future.
The ill-informed petulance of those who wanted to remain in the past has surprised and rattled me. What did they imagine they belonged to? A country with no name, no flag, no history or tradition, an all-inclusive borderless zone invisibly managed by a benign unelected bureaucracy?
Probably most of them are below the age of 43 and have no living memory of the way Britain was signed up for the European communities Act in 1972, a process that included the gerrymandering of votes in the House of Commons contrived by the whips of both Edward Heath’s Tory Government and Harold Wilson’s Labour Opposition.
Probably most of them have no memory or even interest in Britain’s pre-history of the EU, when this country was one of seven members of the European Free Trade Association. Efta, formed in 1960 to facilitate trade rather than a political idea, lost three of its members to the European Economic Community, Britain included. By one of history’s little ironies, freeing ourselves from the political octopus of the EU is likely to mean re-joining Efta. The four remaining members – Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland – appear to be doing better than some of the countries that left, and that includes international football.
Probably most of the Remainers believe that continued membership of the EU means protecting the planet from man-made climate change. They won’t be pleased about Theresa May’s decision to scrap the Climate Change department as an independent entity and merge it with business and environment.
Probably most of them think that the EU embodies the equivalent of the United Nations: a consensus of national interests mitigated by four freedoms: free movement of people, goods, services and money.
Probably most of the Remainers think that leaving the EU inevitably means less freedom and more constraints; less altruism, less generosity and more selfishness.
Probably most of them really do believe that Britain is more prosperous inside the EU, not realising that we currently have a trade deficit in the region of £96 billion because we buy more from other EU member states than they buy from us. In short we import more from the EU than we export and our exports to Euroland are falling principally because of trade with countries in other parts of the world.
Probably most of them regard the EU as a bastion of peace and goodwill in a factitious world of national and sectional conflicts. The EU is a cosy harbour offering protection to 28 countries from the currents and storms beyond the arms of the harbour wall in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now they feel all at sea or they think that Britain is all at sea. For a country with a long maritime history and tradition this response is odd.
Would the EU have prevented World War II, had Jean Monnet and Arthur Salter’s post World War 1 ambition been realised in time to stop Hitler’s rise to power in 1933?
The League of Nations didn’t. Hitler could have been stopped had Britain and France taken unilateral action in 1936 when Nazi Germany unilaterally re-occupied the Rhineland; but they didn’t and Hitler prospered.
Those who believe the EU’s hands are cleaner of blood than Pontius Pilate’s should take the trouble to look again at the break-up of former Yugoslavia in the wake of the collapse of the political entity known as the Soviet Union.
They should also re-examine what happened in Ukraine following political advances made by the EU.
And those troubled by refugee boat people fleeing conflicts largely stemming from political and military adventures by Britain and the US in the Middle East might ask themselves why the EU failed to respond adequately to the crisis.
Some commentators are now saying that Theresa May has set up her new Cabinet to sabotage Brexit. According to this interpretation the appointment of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is the equivalent of three men in a leaky boat up a creek without a paddle.
I always thought Mrs May was regarded as a pretty dull woman, not noted for cunning. In the six years of her life as a Cabinet Minister under David Cameron, I cannot recall anybody either praising or damning her for Machiavellian super-subtlety.
Barbara Castle once observed of Margaret Thatcher that when she metamorphosed from leader of the Opposition to Prime Minister her confidence and authority visibly grew with the job. Can this have happened to Theresa May?
If it has, why would she risk jeopardising her own Government and the future of the country it is supposed to represent by engineering a political catastrophe or, in the language of the EU, a ‘beneficial crisis’ that results in Baby Bunting Britain hurrying back into the swaddling arms of the EU?
Personally I think her three appointments have more to do with balancing conflicting elements in the Conservative Party – for the time being. The way things are now may not be the shape of things to come, especially if EU member states are subject to further damaging economic and migration crises.
Meanwhile there is a lot of background reading and talking to do by officials being recruited into the new department for leaving the EU, a necessary prelude to mapping out a strategy whether or not it is on the lines of the six-stage process detailed by Richard North’s protean Flexcit magnum opus.
Dr North, who seems to prefer notoriety to popularity, nevertheless has gifted the UK one tremendous idea: that leaving the EU is not an event but a process. This means it wasn’t accomplished on June 23; the result of the Referendum was an instruction to Parliament to proceed, nothing else. Achieving it is going to be painstaking and demand a lot of time and patience.
Pieces to camera by excitable TV news journalists should be regarded as light entertainment. The process of working out the details is not going to be dramatic. Any attempt to sex it up should not be heeded.