Saturday 21 November 2020

Feeding the Dragon: Guards! Guards! and Brexit

For a book published 31 years ago, "Guards! Guards!" by Sir Terry Pratchett has a lot to tell us about Brexit. I started reading it for light relief from the news; it didn't entirely work, but did give me a new perspective.

(Minor spoilers follow, but as noted, it's been 31 years.)

I hadn't reread GG for at least a decade, and what struck me this time is how angry it is. I don't mean that as a bad thing. Beneath all the daft puns and jokes (which are extremely funny), is a deep and righteous anger at the petty evil of humanity.

Ltoinel, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

To recap the plot: A secret society known as the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night, led by their Supreme Grand Master, summon a powerful dragon to do their bidding and punish their enemies. The dragon breaks free of their control, and sets itself up as ruler of the city.

The Brethren are very ordinary people. They'd be pleasant company down the pub. They have the same sort of petty grievances which, if we're honest, most of us nurse in one form or another: A hostile shopkeeper or difficult boss or annoying neighbour. The Brethren have come together to make their enemies pay.

I admit, the idea of dragon-based punishment is appealing from time to time; for instance, when that halfwit blocked my driveway with his SUV, who does he think he is I'd like to know, serve him right if it was reduced to a puddle of molten metal, et cetera.

Brexit has divided the UK between young and old, urban and rural, English and otherwise. All these divisions are real and important. But I think the fundamental division, the real root of the thing, is this:

Given the chance to really go through with it, to summon a dragon, to turn those petty annoyances into a small heap of ash, to make them pay; some people will back away and stop going to secret society meetings, while others will quash any misgivings and jump right in.

The Brexit vote was an inchoate attempt to make them pay. Exactly who was them, and how they were supposed to pay, was poorly defined and varied widely. In its most genteel form, it was "won't those Europeans be sorry when we're not paying into the EU any more, and we do so well without them." A cruder version was, "Let's stick it to the bloody foreigners." Nobody, least of all the leaders of the Leave campaign, had a coherent plan for how this was going to work.

This brings us to the leaders, like the Supreme Grand Master. As we find out, he's never been a leader before. He's always attached himself to a bigger, more powerful figure, and been tolerated because he was clever and made himself useful. In this, he strongly resembles Dominic Cummings or Michael Gove.

Boris Johnson is a wretched excuse for a Prime Minister, with almost no redeeming qualities, but I'll say this for him: He took charge.

Johnson became Prime Minister and won an election. He will get the credit, or blame, for what happens next. But he probably wouldn't have made it without the likes of Cummings and Gove, lurking in the shadows, providing what passes for the brains of the operation.

The dragon in GG soon breaks free of its summoners' control, and becomes ruler of the city. Being a traditionalist, it demands tribute in the form of gold, jewels, and aristocratic maidens to devour.

This is where Sir Terry's anger really takes hold. The citizens go along with it. They gather the treasure. They put the maiden in chains and leave her out for the dragon. All the while they tell themselves, of course this isn't on, it's shockingly bad to have a dragon eating citizens and setting fire to buildings for target practice, and as soon as someone puts a stop to it, they will definitely say they're glad it's over.

No one puts a stop to it. A brave man makes a stand, but he makes it alone. The dragon burns him to a crisp. Instead of rising up to avenge him, the onlookers shuffle uncomfortably and go about their business. Later on, with the greatest reluctance, our heroes try to do the right thing; but that's not enough either, until something entirely suprising and beyond their control happens.

We're now in the stage where Brexit has broken free and started torching the landscape. Things are getting real. The points of no return have been passed; for Brexit itself in January, and for extending the transition period in June. Large areas of Kent are being paved over, to make massive lorry parks to handle the new customs delays.

A majority of the UK public now thinks Brexit was a bad idea: A poll released on 12 November had 51% thinking it was wrong, 38% right, and 12% don't know. In fact, "Brexit was right" hasn't had a consistent opinion poll lead since the middle of 2017; not that you would know from the behaviour of the government.

Much like the Supreme Grand Master, the UK's leaders belatedly recognise they have summoned destructive forces beyond their control, and have no idea how to make them stop. 

The UK's leaders can't stop Brexit. They won't negotiate membership of the Single Market, for a minimally destructive Brexit. They aren't even competent to mitigate the effects of the maximal Brexit they have chosen. Because this is real life and not a fantasy novel, I'm pretty sure that no deus ex machina will come to the rescue.

What comfort does GG have left for us? Maybe this: Even when things look hopeless, some people will try to do the right thing and help their neighbours. They won't make the dragon go away, but at least they might unchain the maiden in the town square.

It won't be much when the hammer of Brexit falls in January, but it's all that's left. I wish my friends and family in the UK luck, because they're going to need it.

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