Biblical Blizzards, Bloody Meadows, and B Day

Only two months to go, then, till what the comedian Zoe Lyons has dubbed “B Day”. Buckle up, peeps, it’s likely to be a bumpy ride, whatever happens. We’re in trouble, though: our Prime Minister has so far failed to secure a withdrawal agreement acceptable to Parliament, much less an actual final deal. The various promises made by the winning side won’t be delivered (you know, the extra money for the health service, countries lining up to do trade deals with us, the “easiest deal in history”…) – the fact that pro-Brexit ministers like Boris Johnson, David Davis and Dominic Raab last year ran to the hills instead of taking responsibility for their words should have been a big enough clue.

Ultra-Remainers stubbornly unreconciled to the Referendum result are arguably making things worse, though, by pursuing their “People’s Vote” campaign rather than reaching across the divide by pushing for rejoining EFTA and staying in the Single Market (a.k.a. the Norway Option). That said, their campaign is only a symptom, not a cause, of the mess we’re in. The buck stops firmly with our spectacularly incompetent Prime Minister. After all, nobody forced her to invoke Article 50 before she had a coherent Brexit strategy (never mind a competent team). Nobody forced her to call an unnecessary early general election, where she lost her parliamentary majority. Nobody forced her to lay down obviously hampering “red lines” and rule out the only sane way of doing Brexit – the Norway Option – just to appease the shadowy European Research Group (ERG), despite their members forming a fraction of the parliamentary Conservative Party. This organic storm is one almost entirely of Theresa May’s own making, as the clock is ticking ominously toward B Day.

On 1 April, meanwhile, new EU rules for cracking down on tax avoidance will come into being. A growing number of us in Britain reckon there’s a connection between that and B Day – if nothing else, it would explain many high-profile Brexiteers’ (many of whom are very rich indeed) flat refusal to consider pausing Article 50.

Henry VI of England (1421-1471), one symbol of national failure…

Interestingly, for history fans (which is most of us), March 29 is also the anniversary of the most violent day in Britain’s history. Around 28,000 men were killed in the Battle of Towton, fought a few miles south-west of York on a snowy Palm Sunday in 1461. It was part of a long, Game of Thrones-type struggle for the English crown, where the incompetent and insane King Henry VI was overthrown by his charismatic and talented cousin Edward of March, who was popularly acclaimed as King Edward IV. No other battle fought on British soil was ever so bloody – indeed, given that England’s total population at the time was a little under 3 million, this means that around 1% of the kingdom’s inhabitants perished on that day. To this day the battlefield is known locally as Bloody Meadow. The slaughter followed nearly forty years of malaise, in which England lost the Hundred Years War against France, suffering various hardships, famine and disease, and with little to show for it except a weak and unsuited king who surely merits the status of a symbol of national failure. That Henry VI isn’t remembered so negatively as he should be, is maybe because he founded Eton school, alma mater of much of England’s ruling Conservative establishment, who have their own ideas as to what and whom we should remember and why.

…and here’s another: Captain Scott (1868-1912)

March 29 is also the anniversary of the last diary entry of another symbol of national failure, Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN, the man who lost the Race to the South Pole, to Norway’s Roald Amundsen (by five weeks), and who died with his four-man party on their way back from their disappointment. It’s true that Scott was at least partly undone by bad luck: for example, his orders for replenishing supply depots for his party’s return journey weren’t carried out, and temperatures dropped to unprecedentedly alarming lows from late February 1912, leading to an almost biblical blizzard that finally proved fatal to the team. Nonetheless, Scott didn’t have to use ponies (all of which were shot) rather than dogs, and he didn’t have to take a team of four with him for the last leg to the Pole, despite having enough supplies only for three. Adding several pounds of rock samples to his sledges was certainly scientifically useful, but only worsened the weight that he and his men had to drag through the snows: you get the impression that Scott ultimately couldn’t decide whether he was an explorer or a scientist. At least Amundsen got the job done, and came back alive with his men.

Although Scott lost the Polar Race and his life, he undoubtedly won the propaganda contest. Amundsen’s diary is a matter-of-fact account, while Scott’s reads like the work of an articulate hero:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have turned out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint… Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions, which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes, and our dead bodies, must tell the tale.

Scott’s image, of an upstanding English gentleman with a taste for duty and sacrifice, remains his popular image in Britain, despite the best efforts of Roland Huntford in his iconoclastic 1979 dual biography Scott and Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth. As Huntford rightly reminds us in his book, though, heroic failure, duty and sacrifice do not win prizes or put food on tables, and have undoubtedly held Britain back over the years, as we keep voting for amateurs rather than professionals, and “gentlemen” rather than players. Brexit is arguably only the latest episode in this national malaise, as we have let amateurs manoeuvre us into holding an unnecessary referendum over whether to quit the world’s most successful trading bloc, and have allowed fatuous panic about journalistic “balance” to let these amateurs tell bare-faced lies (mostly unchallenged) about the consequences of this decision. We need proper leadership, not pathetic platitudes from latter-day Henry VIs and Captain Scotts. Over the next few weeks and months we will find out whether Scott’s last words – For God’s sake, look after our people – will become Britain’s new national motto.