Thursday, 4 February 2016

Thank you for the irony, Daily Mail

It’s not often that the British Daily Mail makes me smile, but it did today.

It was the headline that got me going: “WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ENGLAND?” it demanded to be told.

Usually I’m put off by what is, after all, the paper that lines the sewers of British journalism. It could have been for the Mail that the celebrated ditty was written:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God!
the British journalist.

But, seeing what the man will do
there's no occasion to.

In this case, however, my reaction was that of a lover of irony. There were, after all, simply too many layers of irony in that headline for them not to be appreciated.

The article is about what the Mail sees as a battle between Britain and the EU, currently being waged without much conviction by David Cameron’s government. From the perspective of the Mail and others that share its political outlook, this is a battle for the very soul of Britain, threatened today by all those nasty foreigners across the Channel.

The reference in the headline is to one of the most poignant moments in the history of the House of Commons. I’ve mentioned it more than once before, but it was an inspiring event so I make no apology for talking about it again.

The then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had just flown home from a meeting with Hitler, in which he’d been joined by the French Prime Minister Daladier. On arrival back home, he had waved an agreement that, he claimed, guaranteed “peace for our time.” It gave Hitler a free hand to dismember Czechoslovakia, in return for his not threatening any French or British vital interests.

Hitler ignored the agreement and within a year, we were at war with Nazi Germany.

The time of the agreement was perhaps one of the most humiliating in Britain’s long and colourful career. A great many people felt that way, even then. When Chamberlain made a statement on his meeting to the House of Commons it was greeted by silence – shamed silence. And when the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Arthur Greenwood, stood to reply for the Opposition, a voice called out from the other side of the house – the Conservative, Government side – “speak for England, Arthur.”

So that was irony number 1. It was a Tory, Leo Amery, who called on a Labourite to speak against the Tory Prime Minister.

Irony number 2 is that he made that call in the name of England. But the whole of Britain was affected. Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish would share in the ignominy, as they would share in the sacrifices that the war would entail.

Irony number 3 is that the Mail claims to be speaking for Britain, and also referred only to England.

Irony number 4 is that Leo Amery was speaking out against Nazi Germany. The Mail is railing against a bunch of politicians, no better or worse than others, but as committed to democracy as any current member of the British Parliament.

The Mail says in its article that it’s drawing no parallel between the EU and Nazi Germany. But have you been watching the excellent French series on TV at the moment, Spin (Les hommes de l’ombre)? There’s a moment in it in which the protagonist refers to her adversary as “disloyal” and immediately corrects herself to “loyal”. It’s deliberate: her correction is designed to free her from attack for her insult, but the insult is out there.

The Mail’s use of that headline draws the parallel, even if the body of the article denies it.

Finally, and funniest of all, the Mail is the newspaper which, back in the 1930s, supported Hitler and his British (indeed, English) opposite number, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. How wonderful that it should now quote the great anti-appeasement Tory Amery to lambast David Cameron over his support for the EU…

Glorious stuff, isn’t it? Well worth a smile. And I suspect there’ll be plenty more such irony before we get our referendum on continued British membership of the EU.

That’s British membership including the English, by the way.

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