Brexit - a Ghost Story

At the end of January 2019, fearing Brexit was about to trigger a constitutional crisis, politicians from the two major parties met with the view to forming a party of national unity. A surprising collaboration, even more remarkable given all members of the coalition were dead.

The Foreign Office 28th January 2019

Three very different Foreign Secretaries in the space of a year and a government lurching from one crisis to another. Clive’s patience is wearing thin. Working late, another day of Brexit chaos and now a row brewing over Airbus. He calls a colleague in Brussels, the telephone receiver cradled between his head and shoulder as he places papers in his briefcase. The call lasts little over three minutes after which Clive leaves his office and crosses the courtyard to the iron gates at the main entrance. Late for a cabinet meeting, called at short notice, he steps out into King Charles Street; but this evening he turns right instead of left.

Half way down the staircase Clive can already smell cigar and pipe smoke, and hear the shrill sound of a female voice followed by a short burst of laughter. He waits outside the door to the cabinet room, gauging the mood of those inside.

“Helmut Kohl was visiting Moscow and one evening his wife finds him sat in the bedroom examining a thermos flask.” The woman’s voice is familiar although the tone less aggressive than Clive remembers. “What’s wrong Helmut she asked, and Helmut replied. Gorbachev has given me this and says it keeps soup warm in winter and beer cool in summer. But what I don’t understand is how does it know if it is summer or winter.” Once more the room erupts into laughter.

As Clive opens the door he hears a different voice. “Well Margaret your jokes are a lot funnier now than when you were alive.”

“I must admit being dead you learn to appreciate irony.” Margaret replies.

“Here’s one from the Blackpool Conference.” Says the grey haired man with a thick Yorkshire accent who draws on his pipe, pausing long enough for the man sat next to him time to interrupt.

“Is this one of your Mike Yarwood impressions Harold?” And he, like everyone else in the room, finds this funny because his shoulders rise and fall in time with his rasping laugh.”

“See what I mean about irony.” The woman exclaims as she wipes her eyes with a handkerchief.

At the far end of the conference table two men, having seen Clive enter the room, end their conspiratorial conversation. “So glad you could make it Clive, take a seat.” Says a rounded faced man, instantly recognisable as Winston Churchill.

“Whisky, cigar, cigarette?” Asks Clement Attlee, who is sat next to Churchill.

“Coffee, if there is one.” But there isn’t so Clive pours himself a glass of water as he takes his place at the table, his back to the door.

Churchill speaks again “I’d better explain why we’ve called this meeting, although it should be obviuos given the events of the past few weeks. What I believe in modern parlance is referred to as an ‘omnishambles.’”

“Shit Storm.” The pipe smoker offers.

“Clusterfuck.” And everyone stares at the woman in disbelief. She merely shrugs her shoulders and plays the innocent.

“Well I’ll start by introducing everyone.” Says Churchill. “On your left, not politically obviously, is Edward Heath. Sat next to him Harold Wilson.” Wilson nods and continues to smoke his pipe, his hand wrapped around the stem. “On the other side of the room we have Margaret Thatcher and next to her Anthony Wedgewood-Benn. Sat on my left, here, is Clement Attlee and I’m sure you know who I am.”

“If he has bought car insurance.” Chuckles Margaret.

“Oohhh, Yuuusss.” Adds Harold shaking his jowls.

“Perhaps, given the gravity of the situation we should dispense with the jokes.” Grumbles an irritated Churchill as he glares at Thatcher. “Now we don’t wish to interfere and, anyway, mortality rather limits our ability to influence current events. However, our fantasy government of national unity would like to bring to Brexit our collective experience. Obviously we are longer standing for election so we can be open, honest and candid about our own, and our respective parties’, past mistakes. We hope you will take away from this meeting an unbiased analysis of Britain’s troubled relationship with Europe. And perhaps a solution, going forward.”

Everyone, save Clive and Churchill, picks up a pencil and places a tick on a piece of card. Ted Heath, realising Clive is puzzled, explains “Oh, we are playing ‘Corporate Lingo Bingo’ Winston has spent the last few years haunting a bar in Lower Manhattan where he’s picked some truly awful Americanisms.”

“Any questions Clive?” Winston booms, attempting to bring the meeting to order.

“Just one Sir, I was wondering, well … Sir Anthony was never actually elected Prime Minister.”

Tony Benn looks startled. “Well, if Clive doesn’t think I’m qualified, I’ll gladly step aside.”

“No!” Snaps Margaret. “Part of the problem with modern day politics is that no-one is taking on board diverse and differing opinions. We need Tony’s input if we are to come to any sort of consensus on Brexit.”

In front of everyone around the table is a folder marked ‘Brexit.’ Heath places a hand on his folder. “Actually, this has been something of a steep learning curve for all of us. A lot of catching up.” He says, looking around the room. “And to be quite honest Tony is the only one amongst us who has fully got to grips with the Internet.”

Know Your Rights

“So, let’s begin shall we.” Winston opens his folder, a cue for everyone else, including Clive, to do the same. “We’ll start by clearing up a few basic misunderstandings regarding Europe in general and the EU in particular. First the idea the EU is solely responsible for seventy years of peace and stability in Europe. False, as it happens, with nuclear armed American and Russian armies head to head in Europe no-one dare sneeze, let alone fight each other. Also increased prosperity, bringing with it converging lifestyles and foreign travel eroded cultural differences.

“Next the belief a ‘United States of Europe’ is the brainchild of a Brussels bureaucrat. Well that was my idea, first mentioned in a speech in Zurich, 1946 I think. The Council of Europe? Again, my idea.” Winston says, cigar ash falling on the table as he jabs his thumb against his chest.

“I must say I was surprised by British public’s ignorance of European institutions.” Says Heath. “There seems widespread confusion over the difference between The Council of Europe and the European Council. And again, between the European Court of Human Rights and the EU Court of Justice.” He turns to a page at the back of his folder. “This, from a person commenting on why Britain should leave the EU. ‘It will put an end to all that human rights nonsense which stops us sending illegal aliens back home.’ I’m not sure this person understands that Britain will remain a member of the Council of Europe and will still be answerable to the European Court of Human Rights. It will probably come as a shock when they discover people can still take their grievances to Strasbourg after Britain has left the EU.”

“I have to correct you there, Ted.” Says Benn. “Britain has opted out of the European Convention on Human Rights and replaced it with a UK version, the key difference being the deletion of article 1 and 13 which ensures that a British Prime minister doesn’t end up in foreign court for crimes against citizens of a foreign country that Britain has inadvertently occupied. What they will lose access to is the EU Court of Justice, which accedes to the European Court of Human Rights. Currently this provides a simpler court of appeal for UK citizens. Until Britain leaves the EU, some rights, for example those within the working time directive, cannot be withdrawn unilaterally by the UK government. You can see why some in Britain, especially those nostalgic for the days when this country had subjects it could exploit rather than citizens with rights, might be keen to ‘take back control’ …”

“I must say I find this is disappointing.” Churchill interrupts. “In the run up to the Nuremberg trial we worked hard to create a legal framework to protect human rights. Some who wanted to charge the Nazis with genocide, but eventually we went with crimes against humanity. Since then an individual’s basic human rights have been inviolate and no longer dependent of membership of a race or citizenship of a country. Infringing those rights are, and hopefully will remain, a crime prosecutable under international law. You don’t have to wait for bodies to pile up before putting a despot on trial. A country no longer has the right to do what it wants with those residing within its borders. This is what Lauterpacht, the person who helped draught the indictments for the Nuremburg trials, had in mind. He foresaw a world in which no one would feel a dead child washed up on a Mediterranean beach had less right to life than other children simply because it was a refugee. How are we doing with that Clive?” Churchill asks.

“Not too well sir.”

“You can dispense with the sir, Winston will do.”

“Well, as the public seems confused about the structure of the EU’s Institutions, perhaps it is no surprise it understands little of its history.” Heath turns to another section of the file. “I quote, ’We only joined the European Economic Community, it was never supposed to be a political union.’ Well leaving aside Winston’s Zurich speech, everyone knew, from the start, the EEC was intended to be a political and defence as well as a commercial pact. That was how the French viewed the Community in 1952.”

“Yes.” Says Thatcher. “France saw it as a way of containing Germany, to prevent its former enemy rearming and, at the same time, placing itself centre stage in Europe.”

“And grab the industrial Ruhr, which at that time Britain still occupied.” Adds Heath. “Of course, it was all going to plan until America felt it needed a bulwark against an expansive Soviet Union. The German economy benefited greatly from the Marshall Plan and an influx of refugees from eastern Europe provided additional stimulus. By 1954 it was obvious Germany’s economic growth threatened to outstrip that of France. Germany was also about to join NATO and, once again, would have its own army. Unsurprising then France voted down its own proposal for a political and defence union. By 1956 even enthusiasm for economic union had begun to cool. But then came Suez which ended when the US forced the French and British to cease hostilities in Egypt. France finally realised it was no longer a world power and could only punch above its weight as part of an alliance of European countries.”

“We held out, of course.” Explains Attlee as he runs his hand slowly over his bald head. “We still had our empire. Our steel industry remained strong. And, of course, there was pride, why enter an alliance with countries we had either liberated or defeated. Historically we looked outward across the globe rather than inwards towards the continent. Joining the EEC would have seen us lose control of economic planning. I agued as much in the House of Lords in 1962.”

Heath takes up the story. “However, during the 1960s British industry went into decline. We no longer had an empire to trade with and economic growth fell behind that of other European countries. As well, our special relationship with the US was proving rather one sided. Unfortunately, De Gaulle felt we were still a little too close to America and, as France saw the EEC as a counterbalance to increasing American influence, our application to join was refused.”

“To be fair Ted,” Wilson interrupts, but leaves everyone in suspense while lighting his pipe, “De Gaulle was no fan of the EEC he just didn’t want Britain disrupting Franco German relations.”

“True,” Acknowledges Heath, “It wasn’t until he was replaced by Pompidou that attitudes changed. Then France realised it needed us to counterbalance an increasingly powerful Germany.” He looks towards Attlee. “It’s a pity we didn’t join at the outset, we would have benefitted from the growth Europe enjoyed during the 1950s. And we would have be able to influence the shape of the Common Agricultural Policy. Instead, pardon the pun, the French made a pig’s ear of it. That aside we still had tremendous influence within the EU; the principle language of the commission being English obviously helped.”

“That’s all very well,” Says Churchill, “But it’s obvious the British electorate are no longer convinced. Why is that Clive?”

Hands Across the Water, and on Your Pussy.

Clive is taken by surprise, not expecting to be consulted. “Well, in a word, immigration, I suppose.”

“Ah yes.” Churchill, along with everyone else around the table is leafing through his file. Clive too turns to the section entitled ‘Migration – Ending Free Movement.’ There he finds the iconic image of Nigel Farage stood in front of the ‘Breaking Point’ poster, which shows a column of refugees trekking into Europe. “Interesting man, Mr Farage.” Churchill mutters under his breath.

“Leader of the UK Independence Party, a single issue party that wants, and has almost got, Britain out of the EU.” Wilson reads extracts from Farage’s CV. “Not an MP, despite running for Parliament seven times.”

“All the same he gets himself invited to meet the new American President ahead of Britain’s Prime minister.” Adds Thatcher.

“I think the president was trying to make a point.” Heath has moved on to the next page. “I always thought the Americans were fickle friends and the ‘special relationship’ was not quite as special in American eyes. Trump seems to regard diplomacy as a zero-sum game. His Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt management strategy served him well in the corporate sector and now he is applying it to international diplomacy. Crudely in some cases, that remark about his power giving him free reign to grope females must have given a few foreign ministers pause for thought.”

“Surely Margaret your friend Ronnie must have had the odd fumble.” Wilson says. Both Heath and Benn giggle.

“He certainly did not!” Shouts Thatcher.

Churchill smiles “Ignore him Margaret, Harold’s just winding you up.” He then turns back to Heath. “OK Ted, so why do you think Trump invited Farage ahead of Theresa May.”

“As I said, to make a point. Trump is complaining about European tariffs and knows the EU is stronger than the sum of its parts. Breaking it up would make the individual states easier to manipulate. And it is clear from his relationship with Putin that Trump no longer feels the US needs a stable Europe to act as a bulwark against an expansive Russia. So perhaps Farage is merely Trump’s useful idiot.”

“I see Farage is also on friendly terms with Beatrix Amelie Ehrengard Eilika Herzogin von Oldenburg, now calling herself plain old Beatrix von Storch.” Churchill adjusts his glasses and studies the file. “He shared a platform with her during a political rally in Germany.”

“Aren’t the von Oldenburgs related to our royal family?” Attlee asks.

“Distantly, arm’s length given her grandfather was Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk.”

“The von Krosigk?” Attlee seems surprised. “From Hitler’s Finance Ministry, Case 10 at the Nurnberg trials, jailed for confiscating money from Jews?”

Churchill shakes his head. “You would have thought she would be trying to atone for her family’s sins. But according to this she is a member of Alternative für Deutschland, an Islamophobic, Eurosceptic far right party. Strong on identitarianism, more than a hint of antisemitism. Racist comments in their speeches, some of them lifted from Hitler’s speeches, some given by von Storch herself. Shooting immigrants, that sort of thing. The last election they won enough votes to get 92 seats in the German Parliament.”

“My God.” Says Benn.

“Oh, Nazis come back from time to time, a shape shifting, omnipresent, force in German politics. In the 1960s the NPD, openly National Socialist, won 10% of the vote in Baden Württemberg and got seats in regional parliaments in Hesse.” Explains Thatcher. “That’s why we should always be on our guard.”

“Try to remember we are dead, Maggie.” Mutters Wilson.

“Well at least we can thankful the far right hasn’t won seats in the British parliament.” Says Benn.

“Let’s not get too complacent Tony. There would be over sixty far right MPs in our parliament if we had proportional representation.” Wilson reminds him.

“Anyway, the upshot is Farage is talking to anyone who will help fulfil his dream of destroying the EU.” Churchill says. “From the inside it would seem, considering he has been a longstanding member of the European parliament. The reason for our interest in this rather tiresome man, however, is his habit of cosying up to people who Britain doesn’t count as friends.”

Attlee leans towards Churchill and whispers, just loud enough for everyone to hear. “Whatever happened to Mosley, you know that chap who liked being photographed with Hitler.”

“We are straying slightly from the subject in hand.” Says Churchill. “Which is immigration, Clem I think you are well placed to talk about that.”

Immigration – It’s as Simple as That. Really?

“I’d like to clear up some basic misconceptions regarding the government’s attitude to migration. Not just the present one, or mine back in the 1950s, but how all governments view migrants entering the country.” It has obviously crossed Attlee’s mind to stand while delivering his speech, however he changes his mind and sinks back into his chair. Clearing his throat he flattens the page in front of him with his hand. “You will have all heard of the Kindertransport, the rescuing of children, predominantly Jewish, from Nazi Germany. Brought to Britain by train. Commendably action by Britain, but, I have to point out, not something for which the British government should claim credit. Quakers used their contacts in Germany, and goodwill earned feeding starving Germans after the first world war, to rescue from under the noses of the Nazis, children whose parents were about to be incarcerated in concentration camps. The British government insisted these children were not to become a burden on the state. Those bringing them into the country had to pledge to look after them and were asked to contribute £50 to cover any costs the government might incur.” Attlee clears his throat again and glances nervously at Churchill.

“Second example. Late in 1945 German prisoners who surrendered in May were still in camps in northern Germany. Releasing them would have been problematic. The situation in mainland Europe was chaotic and setting free thousands of young men would have made matters worse, especially as some were of a mind to drive the Red Army back across the Oder River. Having occupied Germany we were responsible for the prisoners who, according to the Geneva convention, were, technically, no longer prisoners of war. For legal and logistical reasons, it was felt best if the prisoners were moved off German soil and kept as far away from the Red Army as possible. They were transported to camps near the Belgium coast. The winter of 1945 was cold, and food was scarce. A year later and the prisoners were still in Belgium camps, some had starved or frozen to death. People were starting to compare these camps to Belsen. Questions were asked in parliament. So, we were left with little choice but bring prisoners to Britain.” Attlee gives a short laugh. “Fortunately, no Nigel Farage, photographed in front a poster of thousands of German prisoners streaming out of Harwich, claiming ‘Britain was Broken’ and demanding I resign.

“But, a different press in those days – and no Internet.” Attlee glances at Benn, anticipating an interruption, except Benn remains silent. “Even so public reaction was much as you would have expected. In this case ‘We’ve just spent five years keeping these buggers out of the country and now you’re bringing them in by the boat load.’ But, like I said, the press was compliant. They printed stories about prisoners digging trains out of the snow in the winter of 1946 and told the public that these young men had been bought into the country to fix all the damage the Luftwaffe caused. Helping out while our boys were restoring order in Germany and the far East.”

“And don’t forget, A Kraut Isn’t Just for Christmas.” Interjected Churchill.

“Yes, the outpouring of festive goodwill as British families spontaneously invited German POWs into their homes to celebrate Christmas in 1946.” Attlee says with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“Except it was far from spontaneous, was it?” Adds Churchill. “Nice middle class liberal minded British families meet nice middle-class anglophile German soldiers. Hard luck stories from the Russian front and dead parents a bonus.”

“Then there were financial considerations. In 1946 there were still labour shortages, but German prisoners continued working on farms after British soldiers had been demobbed and returned to work on the land. For farmers, access to workers earning only five shilling a week meant they could cut overtime and postpone the purchase of new machinery. Young men raised and educated at Germany’s expense working for next to nothing provided a considerable boost to the British economy. In many ways those German POWs created a template for twentieth century migration. Later came Afro Caribbean, Asian and, more recently, East European workers. But still the same question, when the immigrant arrives, are they escaping oppression or are they merely here to provide economic stimulus, or both. And there are geo-political considerations because perhaps amongst those refugees are compliant Jihadis extracted from a war-zone by Clive’s friends over the river.”

Clive suddenly feels uncomfortable and he attempts to steer the conversation away from what is obviously a highly sensitive subject. “You are right, immigration is complex issue. That much is obvious from the Brexit debate. Even the terminology is confused; ‘asylum seekers’, ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’, ‘immigrants’ ….”

“Cockroaches?” Margaret reads from her file. “According to a journalist who wrote for a British tabloid newspaper.” Silence, save for the fan in the large screen display which is still showing the image of the drowned child on a Mediterranean beach. “What is it people are saying when they see that?” Margaret is pointing her pen at the screen. “’One less rapist on the streets of Cologne’.”

There is another long pause before anyone speaks. Then Churchill sighs. “The problem with human rights is what happens when people stop regarding each other as human? Joseph Goebbels repeatedly referred to Jews as vermin, tapping into latent European anti-Semitism, until the German public became desensitised, devoid of empathy, and prepared to stand by while people, no longer regarded as human, were gassed like rodents.”

“In part this was our mistake Winston.” Attlee comes to Churchill’s rescue. “Nuremberg, the trial, necessary but nevertheless flawed. A massive exercise in hand washing. Hang a handful of random Nazis and we were all cleansed. Everyone walked away the good guys. Forget the American’s treatment of native Indians and lynching of Blacks, forget the Russian’s execution of Poles, Kulaks and anyone else Lenin and Stalin didn’t like the look of, forget Britain pillaging half the world and massacring Indians and Africans. We even let Germans believe Nazis were some sort of visitors from outer space. With this we invited complacency, which is becoming more widespread as the holocaust slips from living memory. Now we realise we are the same prejudiced, intolerant people we have been since the discovery of fire.”

“I have to say Clem,” Benn interjects. “I think also culpable is this new medium, the Internet. I know this is something we will take up later, but this journalist, Katie Hopkins, was communicating using something called ‘Twitter.’ She didn’t actually use the word ‘cockroach’ in a newspaper. It was an attempt to gain attention by being outrageous. The danger is this devalues public outrage to the point where it is worth little more than ten seconds of the reader’s attention, which I believe is the currency of the Internet.” Clearly many around the table are confused by Benn’s remark.

“I think we should look at German immigration, after all this is what Farage was referring to.” Says Thatcher. “Winston, you have some thoughts on that.”

“Yes, this too was shaped by the second world war. With so many men drafted into the army Germany was compelled to import workers from the countries it occupied. Forced labour, either brought into Germany at gunpoint or economic migrants. They came from countries where factories had been destroyed and currencies debased by an unfavourable exchange rate against the Reichsmark. It was work in Germany or starve at home, something the Greeks reminded Germany during the Euro crisis.

“Then came Germany’s post war boom, also driven by migration. First those millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe, then guest workers, primarily Turks. Some also came from Greece, ravaged by civil war it had received, compared to Germany, only a small share of Marshall aid and so missed out on the post war economic boom. It was never envisaged these guest workers would make their home in Germany, so no effort was put into integrating them into German society. In fact, even some of those ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe never fully intergrated.”

It is Thatcher turn again. “East Germany too had a labour shortage, in part due to young people voting against communism with their feet. The shortfall was made up with Vietnamese and African refugees. One would have thought these guest workers would have been treated as comrades in the struggle against Western imperialism. Instead they were kept separate from native Germans. If a female Vietnamese worker fraternised with a German comrade and got herself pregnant she was forced to have an abortion. Nor did these guest workers fare much better after German reunification, classified as illegal aliens, many were deported to Vietnam.”

Thatcher presses a button on the large screen display’s remote control. “This brings us on to Angela Merkel who, as you know, is herself East German.” A YouTube video clip from NDR News starts then freezes.

“I think you’ve pressed the wrong button.” Says Benn as he takes the remote.

Thatcher puts her glasses on and squints at the screen. “I must say Merkel’s Spitting Image puppet is more realistic than mine.” She says.

“Actually, Mrs Thatcher, that is a real video.” Says Clive.

Heath turns to him. “She knows that Clive, but you know Maggie and German politicians.”

With this Thatcher becomes energised “Oh, yes. Here’s another one about Helmut Kohl. Tell me if you’ve heard it.”

Heath sighs. “Would it make any difference if we said yes.”

Thatcher is unperturbed “Helmut Kohl is flying to Paris to meet Mitterand and tells his wife he is worried because he keeps forgetting Mitterand’s name. His wife suggests Helmut writes the name of the president on the label of his tie so he can glance down and remind himself of Mitterand’s name. Well they arrive at the airport and Helmut steps up to the microphone. I am so pleased to be here in Paris, he says, and to meet you Fran, er … Then he quickly looks down, adjusts his tie and says, ‘Francois Tie-Rack.”

Everyone around the table groans. Heath looks at Clive. “Thanks to Maggie eternity really does feel like an eternity.” He mumbles.

Benn has got the video running and everyone watches the tearful encounter between Angela Merkel and a young refugee who has been refused asylum in Germany. “Here we can see Merkel at her maternal best.” He says as the German leader explains to the young Palestinian girl why her application for asylum has been refused. At the end of the monolog Merkel puts her arms around the girl to comfort her.

“My God.” Says Thatcher. “She is actually pretending to care.”

Benn laughs. “Well they call her Mutti Merkel, Germans love their matriarchs, if fact I think they would have liked you as German Chancellor.”

“A lot of people in Britain felt the same.” Heath mutters under his breath.

Thatcher refuses to be distracted. “But actually pretending to care, how crass is that. I mean, Winston, did you care? The hundreds who died at Gallipoli and Dieppe, the thousands killed at Dresden. There weren’t any crocodile tears then. Did they ever keep you awake at night?”

“If they did Margaret, there was always this.” Winston says, holding up his glass of whisky.

“Unemployed miners and steel workers, the crew of the Belgrano, I never felt obliged to make public displays of emotion. It wasn’t my job to care.”

“I think, Lady Thatcher a lot of people would find that shocking.” Says Clive. “Unsurprising but shocking none the less.

“Only in the context of today’s virtue signalling politicians who spend all day Twittering, or whatever you call it, on their mobile phones.”

“Even so …” But Benn interrupts before Clive can continue.

“Margaret is right.”

Clive is taken aback. “I’m surprised to hear you, of all people, say that Mr Benn…”

“No listen Clive, I think what Margaret is saying is that the electorate ask us to do a job, to run the country, fix problems. They expect us to be driven by convictions not emotions. Perhaps I can explain this another way. Think of a company. It is owned by shareholders who expect its directors to maximise the return on their investment. In the past, of course, there was no consideration given to how much the company’s workers suffered to meet this goal. That is why we now have trade unions, why we have employment laws providing a legal framework within which directors must work. So, if a company director states ‘Our company will do no evil’ perhaps we should worry because being good or evil falls outside the director’s remit. They have merely expressed an aspiration. Unfortunately, this fosters the belief there is no longer any need for that legal framework, or trade unions, to protect workers’ rights. Likewise, a politician is not obliged to care because there is a legal framework, for example the convention on human rights, which forces on them a duty of care. And the pretence they care through some display of emotion can be dangerously misleading, especially if the electorate gains the impression tears render redundant a commitment to uphold fundamental human rights.”

“Thank you Tony.” Margaret seems visibly relieved and turns her attention back to the screen. “So let’s see if this outpouring of emotion was merely to mask something more pernicious,” She says, “Keeping in mind Frau Merkel is a product of the GDR, the rather less enlightened part of Germany. Basically, she is telling this young woman there are thousands of refugees in camps all over North Africa and Germany cannot possible offer asylum to all of them. Obviously backtracking on ‘We can do this’ which is what she said when, at her invitation, a million migrants poured into Europe, many of them, as was pointed out at the time, single men. This is something the young Palestine has failed to take on board. What does Germany want with a girl who will flip burgers for a year and then get married. After all Germany now has its pick of young men with a forty-year working life ahead of them.

“Like the rest of Europe, Germany has a demographic deficit. Not enough people of a working age to support an ageing population. It has the choice of importing foreign workers, as it has done since the beginning of the second world war, or suffering the economic stagnation Japan has endured for the last three decades.”

“Actually, even Japan is now considering employing migrant labour.” Heath adds.

Thatcher acknowledges Heath remark with a nod, but now she is on a roll. “One reason other European countries haven’t taken their share of migrants is because they suspect Germany will take first pick of skilled workers. Another is that their economies aren’t so buoyant, and they already have a surplus of cheap labour. In this respect Merkel’s gamble has failed. Now she has been forced to make a deal with Turkey, effectively paying the Turkish government to take refugees denied asylum. As well asylum seekers are given jobs while their applications are processed. So, what is the true criteria for being accepted; the probability you were persecuted in your own country or the likelihood you will become a productive worker in Germany? This rather makes a mockery of the whole asylum system, which it appears has no other purpose than to make immigration more palatable for the German public. Pander to that need German’s have to make amends for their grandparent’s participation in the Holocaust. A selfie with a refugee at Munich station, posted on the Internet with one of those #refugeeswelcomehere hashtags. So long Achmed, have a bottle of water and a blanket, enjoy your year in the camp, see you again when I need my car valeted or a trip to the airport at 3am.”

“And is the British approach any less cynical?” Wilson asks. “We fund camps in Libya rather than open our borders. Select our skilled refugees out at source. Publish stories about the more photogenic ones in the press. A veneer of humanitarianism over what is ultimately just another forced labour program.”

“I would hardly call it forced labour.” Says Clive.

“Across the Middle East we are complicit in the destruction of the schools, factories and hospitals these people were working in. So what would you call it Clive? What choice do these refugees have?” Asks Benn.

“In the case of Syria I think that is mainly down to Russia.” Clive replies.

“Well perhaps Nigel Farage’s friend Trump can persuade Vladimir Putin to stop the bombing. I’m sure the Russian President doesn’t want to do anything that causes further instability in Europe.” Sneers Heath.

“I think the point is that immigration is a complex and much misunderstood subject.” Says Attlee. “How it is perceived is shaped by the cynicism of politicians and the fears and xenophobia of the electorate. And the Brexit campaign was hardly a suitable environment for rational debate. After all, is it clear whether or not migration depresses wages, as many in the Vote Leave camp suggested?”

“Maybe, but ...” Says Wilson, putting his pipe in his mouth and striking a match.

“Oh, we are having another ‘Bert’ moment.” Says Benn. “Whenever Harold is put on the spot, or just needs time to think, he says ‘bert’ and lights up is his pipe, leaving us all waiting for the punchline.”

“I somehow can’t see that working with John Humphreys.” Says Clive.

But now Wilson’s pipe is well alight. “When the economy is growing migrants have no impact on the working man’s wage and by filling gaps in the labour market migrants actually accelerates that growth. The wealth we used to expand education and create the ‘white heat of technology’ during the 1960s was, in part, generated by migrant workers from the Caribbean.”

“True.” Says Thatcher. “But there are occasions when migrant labour is used to meet shortfalls that rightly should not exist. Tony Blair’s government spent almost ten billion pounds on technology to modernise the health service. Technology that was rejected by both the BMA and trade unions. The failure to automate left a shortfall in capacity that was filled with migrant labour. On this occasion many of those migrants came from eastern European countries that had recently joined the EU. Good news for the trade unions who gained thousands on new members. In fact, it seems trade unions have a twin track policy on migration, immigrants in the unionised public sector are welcome while those recruited by non-unionised private companies are merely victims of exploitation and drive down wages…”

Churchill raises his hand. “Margaret, we have already discussed this and I’m sure Clive doesn’t want to sit there while we go through it all again. What is important now is how migration has impacted on Brexit. It’s obviously a complex subject. Far more complex than the public were led to believe in the run up to the referendum. The question now is whether, as the electorate have been promised, leaving the EU will reduce immigration. I think the conclusion is that it will not. Harold, would you like to explain.”

When Less Means More

Wilson reads a paragraph from the next page in the file. “Post Brexit, only migrants earning more than thirty thousand pounds a year will be allowed to enter Britain. It is envisaged this will restrict immigration to skilled clinicians, scientists and computer engineers. There is however pressure from some companies, particularly those reliant on low paid migrants, to be regarded as a special case.” Harold pauses, tapping his finger on the file. “Tony, do you want to go first with this?”

“No, after you, Harold.” Benn replies.

“Let’s start with those doctors and computer engineers. Post Brexit there will be a period of adjustment. True the pound is likely to fall and, as a consequence, exports may rise , even those to the EU. But the high tech and scientific community will be hit hard, first by the ending of EU funding and second by various challenges we will discuss later. The MedTech and BioMed sectors, especially, will struggle. As well if the pound falls scientists will find British wages less attractive and some, especially the younger ones, will choose to relocate to one of the remaining 27 EU states. To maintain its skill base some companies will themselves be forced to move. As well, during the transition period, while Britain negotiates new trade deals, the government will be forced to reign in public spending. It is quite possible the promise to spend more on the NHS will be broken. Britain may not, therefore, need all those extra doctors and clinicians. A contraction of the MedTech and BioMed would see medical personnel move back into a shrinking healthcare sector. So, perhaps, no need for those highly paid migrants. At the same time, predictions we will no longer need low paid migrants might also prove false. Tony?”

Benn snaps to attention and glances down at his Brexit file. Unlike Wilson he decides not to read straight from the page. “We know that since the 1970s manufacturing industry, already suffering from a lack of investment, went into rapid decline,” Benn glances across the room at Thatcher, “Britain has become increasingly reliant on its service sector. Low paid jobs in retail, leisure and catering are, in a large part, carried out by migrant labour. So too are certain jobs in manufacturing and agriculture deemed to be expensive to automate. British workers with families often find they cannot earn enough from these low paid jobs without additional support from the government. So, we have what is referred to as the family tax credit. This has created a class of people whose lives closely resemble those of forced labourers. Much like those German prisoners of war, supported by the state and used as subsidised labour. There has also emerged a new type of service company, principle high tech based, whose business model is only viable if the company has access to low paid workers.

“During this post Brexit transition Harold was referring to, economic growth will come primarily from the service sector. I think we can safely assume no investor will be interested in pouring money into the manufacturing until all the uncertainties surrounding Brexit have disappeared and Britain has struck those lucrative trade deals Liam Fox has promised. The car industry is an example of how this uncertainty is impacting on investment. An expanding service sector will suck in more low paid workers, some will be from the existing workforce. However, as Britain has close to full employment, companies will still need to employ migrant labour and will undoubtably claim they are a special case. I think from experience we can assume ‘special case’ is a euphemism for ‘Tory Party Donor.’” Thatcher and Heath scowl at Benn but make no comment.

“So, we can also assume that, post Brexit, the flow if low paid immigrants will stay much the same.” Says Benn. “In fact, as Britain attempts to become more competitive, immigration, could, through necessity, actually increase. We may attract a few doctors and nurses, desperate to escape the war-torn countries, but I have to admit taking them from areas where they are desperately needed seems morally repugnant.”

“And the claim that Britain has taken back control of its borders?” Attlee asks.

“I think the days are gone when fog in the channel cuts off Europe from Britain.” Churchill answers, “Those twenty miles of water may once have protected us from Herr Hitler, but, according to Clive’s friends times have changed.” Everyone in the room turns to the next page in the file. “Now we have the worst-case scenario. This sees Mr Farage and the Nazi’s granddaughter get their wish and the EU implodes as the AfD gains the balance of power in the German parliament. The victory of an openly Islamophobic party encourages SA style thugs to take their politics onto the streets. A mosque in …” Churchill pauses. “Clive, why do your friends insist on redacting the name of the city. Please don’t tell us we are not trusted.”

“We are hardly likely to tell anyone are we.” Heath chuckles.

“Cologne.” Clive whispers.

“Why Cologne?”

“Mentioned in chatter.”

“So,” Continues Churchill, “A mosque in Cologne is fire bombed giving rise to demonstrations by the local Turkish community. These demonstrations in turn spark counter demonstrations from a range of right-wing groups. Meanwhile the police suspect the firebomb attack was carried out by a member of a British far right group. A dispute breaks out over sharing of security information. As well, a request by the German police to have the suspect and his associates extradited from Britain leads to demonstrations in London by far-right groups. Within days the situation in Cologne is out of control with running street battles between right wing groups, left wing groups and Turks. There are also attacks on ethnic minorities across Germany. Some families, possibly up to a million people, seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Sorry Clive, but on what are you basing these assumptions?”

“Well sir, I mean Winston, following German reunification there were attacks on ethnic minorities in the former East Germany, beatings and arson attacks. Seventy five percent of the members of these minority groups sought refuge in the western Germany. There are four million Ethnic Turks in Germany and, of course, there are now at least another million refugees from other Islamic countries.

“Despite Angela Merkel’s ‘we can do this’ claim there are severe problems integrating Muslim migrants into German society. Germans expect foreigners to assimilate rather than integrate.”

“The difference being?” Asks Thatcher.

“They think feeding pork sausages to Muslims will turn them into Christians.”

“Does that work?” Thatcher asks.

“Well we fed over cooked vegetables to Asian immigrants and they finally relented and told us the recipe for curry.” Clive replies.

Thatcher laughed. “I must write that down.”

Heath raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Please, Clive, don’t encourage her.”

Clive continues “In the folder is a story from the Deutsche Welle website. The headline is ‘No Irish. No blacks. No dogs. No Galileo.’ The piece is about Britain exiting the European satellite project. It feeds into the narrative that Britain is an inherently racist country, and more so since Brexit. But, in fact, we have one of the highest incidences of interracial marriage in Europe. Our record on integration is far from perfect, but neither is it as bad as some paint it. It’s easy to pretend your record on race relations is good if different ethnic groups seldom interact with each other. In Germany there is, as already mentioned, a long shadow cast by the second world war. What Germans say to a Pew researcher with a clipboard, and what they say in the privacy of their home, is markedly different. Hence the assumption that things could become very volatile, very quickly if these attitudes spill out onto the street. Something far right activists in Britain are all too aware of. Why they campaign in Germany and why we, and the German security services, monitor their excursions.”

“Thank you.” Winston is staring at Clive over his glasses, lost in thought. “So,” He says eventually, “Everything gets buggered up. Poor Muslims running in all directions. Except into Poland, Czech Republic or Austria because they have closed their borders. The Danes already have border controls and, well, there is already fighting in the streets of Paris and at some point no doubt Schengen is scrapped. Where then do refugees head to, have done for the last five hundred years, when things kick off in mainland Europe. Yes, that little island twenty miles across the sea.” Churchill looks down at the file. “Your friends estimate up to a quarter of a million refugees in camps on the Belgium coast. How many were there in Calais, one thousand? We couldn’t feed 36,000 German POWs in 1945 so you’re looking at a massive humanitarian crisis. Nor does it make much difference that this is happening on the other side of the channel. Perhaps only two or three hundred making it by boat every day, but the rest posting pictures of starving children on social media and how will Britain’s Muslims react to that. A million people on the streets of London demanding we throw open our borders. Suddenly Europe looks like parts of sub Saharan Africa.” Winston stops while everyone else in the room takes this in. “I don’t suppose it said on the ballot paper ‘Vote Leave and Europe’s migrant crisis will simply go away.’”

“But it is the worst-case scenario, very unlikely to happen.” Margaret says.

“How does it go, Maggie?” Benn says. “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Isn’t that what Clive’s friends are paid to do.”

“And it doesn’t detract from the fact the electorate was asked to provide a simple yes no answer to a highly complex question.” Says Wilson.

“That is the next topic, the referendum itself.” Winston scans the room. “Would anyone like a break before we start?”

Thatcher starts to get to her feet “Yes, and while we get coffee, I’ll tell you the story about Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt.”

Churchill groans “On second thoughts let’s press on, I’m sure Clive is anxious to get home.”

The Referendum – Democracy, But Not as we Know it.

“Tony, you had some strong thoughts about the EU when we held the first referendum.” Says Heath “Would you like to kick off?”

“No Ted, the EU is very much your baby. You go ahead.”

“Well then, let’s start by pointing out the obvious, the Conservative Part has always been split over Europe. The 2016 referendum was merely at attempt to put a sticking plaster over what had become a gaping wound, putting off, in my opinion, the inevitable and permanent split in the party. Labour too, Tony, is divided on the issue. But we should address some of the comments made about the referendum itself. First the claim it was the highest form of democracy, practised by the Greeks no less. I realise someone here believes democracy is the worst form of Government.”

Churchill smiles. “Except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time, is what I actually said.”

“In this case I fear you are right Winston, because I somehow doubt the Greeks ever decided on something as complex as Brexit by dropping black and white stones in a bag. The only use for a plebiscite, within a representative democracy, is to gauge public opinion on a particular issue. If you make the result legally binding you set yourself up for a constitutional crisis, which is what Britain has now. Why we are sitting in this room rather than resting in peace.”

“One argument put forward in favour of the referendum Ted was that we had one in 1975 so why not let the public decide again?” Says Wilson.

“Agreed, but in 1975 we had only recently joined the EEC, as it then was.” Replies Heath. “There had been minimal integration or harmonisation. Also, voters could compare life inside and outside the EEC. Should the electorate have decided Britain should leave a 1975 Brexit would have caused minimum disruption. Today Britain is faced with unpicking forty years of treaties, laws and regulations. Some of this must be done within the two-year transition period, assuming, of course, we don’t simply crash out. Britain now has a generation of voters who have known nothing but life within the EC. And since 1973 the world has moved on, countries we once exported to and imported from, our colonies, are now part of other trading alliances. Consequently, the referendum was a huge leap into the unknown, even the known unknowns only became apparent once Theresa May started negotiating an exit deal.”

“Is there a place on this bingo card for Rumsfeld speak?” Asks Wilson.

“That is not to say I’m against referendums,” Heath continues, “After all they’ve helped shape the European Union. Except that, for some, reason Britain’s politicians have, until now, been reluctant to consult the electorate. The Danes, Irish, French and Dutch have all held plebiscites before ratifying important treaties that impacted on an individual states sovereignty.”

“According to Farage,” Says Thatcher, “The EU’s attitude is ‘Sorry, you’ve got it wrong, vote again until you get it right’”

Heath sighs. “Yes, one of his typical rants. Like the EU being a collection of unelected bureaucrats and its parliament having no power. When Danish voters rejected the Maastricht treaty their government was able to use the result to gain four exceptions. Likewise, Ireland’s rejection of the treaty of Nice. The Irish electorate only allowed their government to ratify this treaty after the Amsterdam declaration. A declaration that preserved Ireland's policy of military neutrality from the European Council. However, John Major pushed ratification of the Maastricht treaty through the British parliament without a plebiscite, interestingly enough fighting off objections from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father. Tony Blair did the same with the Treaty of Nice, which also had constitutional implications. Ironic now that Blair is pressing for a for a second referendum. In fact, Britain’s strategy for gaining opt outs and concessions was getting Maggie here to swing her handbag in Brussels.”

Thatcher seems surprised by the remark.

Heath carries on with his monolog “After Ireland’s citizens rejected the treaty of Nice the Irish government conducted a poll. It discovered that twenty percent of the electorate had said ‘No’ to ratification simply because they didn’t understand the implications. What followed was an education program to explain the workings of the EU and the impact of the treaty. Today over ninety percent of people in Ireland have a positive attitude to the EU. In Britain, widespread ignorance of the union enables politicians to blame the EU for failures of domestic policies.”

“And don’t forget Ted.” Churchill interrupts. “Politicians, especially those in countries with and imperial past, seem to prefer total control of an impoverished electorate to sharing governance of a relatively prosperous one. As well hubris plays a part. Tony Blair was elected with such a large majority he never felt the need to consult the electorate before signing off on EU treaties.”

“Then there was Gordon Brown.” Heath is drowned out by groaning from everyone else in the room.

Thatcher slams her hand on the table. “A man with so much contempt for Europe that he didn’t even bother turning up for the signing of the Lisbon Treaty.”

“Too busy ridding the capitalist system of boom and bust.” Mutters Heath.

“Or signing subprime mortgages.” Adds Thatcher. “What sort of signal did that send to the rest of the EU. The Treaty of Lisbon was drawn up under the German presidency of the Union. Of course it reflected Angela Merkel’s vision of Europe and Germany’s anticipation of a dominant role within it. And they got it thanks, in part, to Britain’s ambivalence. All that work Mitterrand and I put into containing a reunited Germany simply thrown away.”

“I think you are being a bit hard on Gordan Brown.” Says Benn.

“No, I am not. If we are looking for a point when British politics changed for the worse look no further than the contempt Gordon Brown showed for the electorate. That day he dismissed a Labour supporter as a ‘bigot.’ No wonder Britain’s working class feels the political class has abandoned them.”

“I think that’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.” Responds Benn.

Churchill raises his hand. “Now we’ve been over this endless times. I say again, Clive doesn’t want to listen to our little squabbles. Let’s we get back to the subject in hand.” He waits until the bickering has stopped. “Thank you, we’ll move onto economics. Putting aside that controversial figure of £350 million a week it was alleged Britain would save once out of the EU, let’s concentrate on something easier to calculate. According to Jacob Rees-Mogg Britain’s consumers will benefit from the elimination of EU tariffs on food and clothes, up to twenty percent in some cases. Now Tony you’ve some thoughts on that.”

Benn shakes his head. “We have a globalised market economy, the prices of goods are set at what the supplier believes the consumer will pay. Lowering tariffs will simply allow suppliers in exporting countries to increase their margins. I’m sure the people who handle Rees-Mogg’s overseas investments have explained this to him. But this is beside the point, and I want to come back to what Maggie was saying about that incident involving Gordon Brown because I don’t believe this is where Britain’s current problems started. For that we need to go back to November 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. A triumphalist capitalist West felt vindicated by the demise of communism. In its eyes communism had always been flawed, conveniently overlooking the frequent collapses of the capitalist system. Neoliberals tend to regard the 1929 financial crash and the two decades of death, destruction and misery that followed as some sort of anomaly. For the last three decades the West has ignored the obvious, that a combination of globalisation and neo-liberalism is taking us on a race to the bottom. Working families have seen the steady increase in prosperity they enjoyed during the three decades following the second world war, thrown into reverse. Something Mrs Duffy, in her encounter with Gordon, articulated perfectly. The image of a politician seemingly oblivious to her plight, racing off in a limousine, spoke volumes. Gordon’s unfortunate remark, was, I suspect, the result of the bitterness he felt towards someone who had exposed his impotence.” Benn turns to Thatcher, perhaps this explanation suffices.

“That’s no excuse.” Thatcher says huffily.

“Nevertheless.” Benn responds. “We should bear this in mind when deciding the reason why the electorate voted for Brexit. British politicians have found it increasingly difficult to come to terms with their inability to protect the electorate from the ravages of globalism. As Ted pointed out, far easier to blame the EU. In 1968 the Vietnam war became the catalyst for a wide range of issues young people had with the state. French students, for example, were upset at being prevented from cohabiting.”

“Never get between a Frenchman and his nookie.” Says Thatcher.

“Quite, Margaret,” Benn is temporarily thrown by the interruption, “Anyway, Brexit and, of course, the current French riots, are merely manifestations of widely held frustration with the status quo and the political class. Also the electorates fear that no-one is actually in control.”

John Bull in the China Shop

Attlee speaks up. “And while Britain and the rest of the EU inflicted austerity on its 500 million citizens the Chinese government lifted 500 million people out of poverty. In three decades the poverty rate in China has fallen from 88 to 6.5 percent.” Everyone in the room absorbs this remark in silence.

“Yes, something worth bearing in mind.” Says Churchill. “The imbalance between Britain and one of the trading partners it will be heavily reliant on post Brexit. By the way Clive, how are Liam Fox’s trade negotiations progressing? We understand there will only be one in place by the end of March. Not that it matters in the case of China.” He does not elaborate on this, or press Clive for an answer but, instead, changes the subject. “Before we get too far into this, am I right in thinking your friends noticed a drop in the number of cyber-attacks by China since Britain decided to leave the EU?”

“You might think that. I couldn’t possible comment.” Clive’s reference to ‘The House of Cards’ falls flat, even with Thatcher, who must be aware of the TV series. He is beginning to wonder if humour is exclusively the domain of the dead.

Churchill too has ignored Clive’s remark. “Perhaps the Chinese have stepped back while Russia and America, with the help of Vote Leave campaigners, tear Britain and the rest of Europe apart. Why waste energy when you can strike once the Lion has been subdued, so to speak.”

“I think Winston, they are already staking their claim. Or at least probing.” Says Heath. “In January 2017 a train arrived in Barking at the end of its journey from China. It had travelled along the route the Chinese are calling the ‘Belt,’ in effect, the new Silk Road. China sees its influence and expansion, its empire if you like, extending along such belts. Not just rail links but road and sea, even a digital belt. Chinese companies have purchased Piraeus Port in Greece and a Terminal at Zeebrugge as part of its sea belt. Harold, you have done some research on the digital belt.”

“Yes Ted. When British universities realised their funding from the EU was about to end and having little faith in the UK government replacing it, they turned to Chinese state backed enterprises to make up the difference. For example, one of the major research establishments on Cambridge’s science park is Chinese owned. Through various forums the city’s scientific community has become increasingly enmeshed with China’s own high-tech research groups. Deals like this will obviously sustain Britain’s scientific community while Liam Fox tours the world in search of new deals. Even so, it is not without risk. Cambridge University carries out a lot of pioneering research into Artificial Intelligence in conjunction with US companies such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon. These tech giants employ thousands of people in Cambridge and other locations in the UK. If the Pentagon suspect the Chinese military is experimenting with AI to detect US stealth fighters, or to disable US Navy battleships, then undoubtably pressure will be bought to bear on US high tech companies to cut their ties with Britain.

“In the 1970s, the US blocked technology transfers to UK companies to prevent advanced electronic equipment being sold to countries in the Soviet Bloc. We could see the same happen if we start supplying China with strategic technology. Oxford University is already following the US lead and severing of links with Huawei. In the absence of a trade deal with the US, and having lost EU research funding, British universities and the high-tech sector, will face an unenviable choice. Throw in their lot with China and cut links with the US or face the same sort of austerity currently endured by the mining and steelmaking industry. The fin-tech company, Worldfirst, is a prime example, it has withdrawn from the US market following its takeover by Chinese owned Ant Financial. And keep in mind that many of those US high tech companies are here in Britain to gain access to EU research. They may not take too much persuading to relocate to Paris or Berlin. To be honest this is a bad time for a country with only 4% of global wealth to leave a European union which has 21%. Or to get caught between a rapidly expanding China and an increasingly paranoid America, smarting after ceding control of the South China sea.”

“I fear Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are stuck in the days of the British Empire.” Says Heath. “The idea that by ridding ourselves of the burden placed on us by Brussels we will be able to claw back the 5% of global wealth we have lost is fancible to say the least. More likely we will see the 4% we have left eroded still further as we sail face wind into Asia where we will face a China that has expanded its share of global GDP from 3 to 15%.” He pauses to let this sink in and for Clive to finish taking notes.

“I think we should also consider the implications should, one day, St Pancreas station become a terminus at the end of the new Silk Road. By that time the Chinese will have visa free access to Britain, a condition of any comprehensive trade deal. The Chinese government, wary of dissidents leaving China and setting up bases in London, will want some form of joint security agreement. While this may sound farfetched, Chinese police already patrol the streets of Venice alongside their Italian counterparts. Ostensibly this is merely to assist Chinese tourist who get into difficulties. However, this is part of that probing I mentioned, forming a foreign policy based on what Europeans find acceptable. At foreign ports China owns, and regards as strategic, they will want a military presence, bases from which to defend shipping from attack. So imagine a Chinese military base somewhere on the coast of East Anglia to protect Chinese shipping in and out of Felixstowe. Again farfetched? How familiar are you with Djibouti, adjacent to the Gulf of Aden? You remember Aden, don’t you Winston, back in the days when Britain had an empire? Well, today the People's Liberation Army has a base there to protect the Chinese port at Doraleh.”

Thatcher bursts out laughing. “Not in my lifetime.”

“Remember Maggie your lifetime is over.” Replies Heath. “Seriously, consider for a moment the model China envisages for its relationship with a Britain separated from the EU? An island a few miles offshore from its former continental trading partner?”

“Hong Kong.” Mutters Attlee.

“Precisely, and coincidently that’s exactly how the EU will come to see us. We will cease to be a partner in an alliance and become a competitor a rival trading block. An irritant on its doorstep, a bridgehead for the EU’s largest commercial and political rival. If De Gaulle was unhappy with our relationship with America imagine how Macron will feel about our relationship with China. And if Brussels is unhappy with a soft border in Ireland how will it view a Britain that is effectively China’s open door into Europe?

“I’m not sure the people of Britain will stand for that.” Says Thatcher.

“I think you’ll find they are already half way there.” Attlee responds. “The people of Birmingham may have been desperate to take back to control from the EU, but they are fairly relaxed about handing that control to China, one football club at a time. And, in way, you can see their point. They’ve suffered as a result of years of chronic under investment. If a Chinese company pours money into Britain’s machine tool industry why should the people of the Midlands and North of England complain. Isn’t this just the sort of trade agreement Liam Fox is alluding to?”

“It’s also the erosion of sovereignty Vote Leave kept banging on about. And don’t forget the EU invested in parts of Britain our own government has neglected.” Heath is becoming agitated.

But Attlee presses the point “And it’s worth bearing in mind China’s attitude to Islam is much the same as UKIP’s and Germany’s AfD. Assimilation as opposed to integration, a Muslim is someone who can be re-educated. Surely that chimes well the British working man.” It is clear Attlee is playing devil’s advocate simply to provoke Heath. And it works.

“Let me get this right,” Says Heath, “The British voter rejects partial rule from Brussels, where it is represented in a parliament.”

“A dysfunctional parliament.” Says Benn

“So, Farage keeps telling us. But representation no less, and within Britain’s power to reform, at least until the 29th March. Instead they would rather be ruled from Beijing where we have no representation at all.”

“Again, I have to point out this all sounds very farfetched.” Says Thatcher.

“Not if you consider how we took control of India.” Says Churchill. “Soft colonialization. Not a military invasion but a series of deals with the country’s ruling elites. Taking advantage of fragmented governance. Our soldiers where there merely to protect the East India Company. We purchased India with wealth we generated during our industrial revolution. The modern parallel is plain to see. And just like the ordinary citizens of India it will be the British working man who eventually pays the price for all those deals Britain’s elites are doing with China.”

Clive is wondering how long this argument is set to continue and is relieved when Benn intervenes.

“If you don’t mind, I would like to return the point I made about 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the West’s embrace of neoliberalism.” Benn has the full attention of everyone in the room, except Thatcher who is rifling through the handbag she has placed on the conference table. “While the West celebrated the triumph of capitalism and the demise of communism,” Benn continues, “China created a hybrid of the two philosophies. For the Chinese this wasn’t the end of history but merely history postponed. They have internalised a conflict that has existed since the days of Marx. Obviously, China is still exposed to capitalism’s flaws, as evidenced by Trump’s trade war. Even so it weathered the 2008 global crash without resorting to austere cuts in public spending. Its privatised state industries still operate within a planned economy providing stability and allowing China to exploit flaws in the free markets economies of the West. But, in one area in particular, I feel it has been particularly successful. It has resisted the intrusion of the large American high-tech companies. And here is something I find puzzling, why has Britain, and the rest of Europe, not done the same.” Benn takes the remote control from Thatcher and brings up the first slide; the home page of Amazon.

Democracy’s Death by a Thousand Bytes

“One of the biggest companies in the world. Employs a vast army of non-unionised labour. Pays virtually no tax, arguing the government should be grateful for Amazon’s presence in Britain because it creates employment and its wage bill contributes to economic growth. Unfortunately, some of these employees, if you can call a freelance delivery driver an employee, also earn less than is required to support a family. Hence that controversial family tax credit, which a recent visiting United Nations official felt, like Clem, was forced labour in all but name.

“Amazon is helping bankrupt the conventional retail sector, which can only survive by copying the online giant’s business model. A business model dependent on low paid immigrant labour. In the race to the bottom Amazon has its foot firmly pressed on the accelerator.” Benn brings up the next PowerPoint slide, a collage of Google’s news page, YouTube and a typical Internet search.

“What started out as little more than a sophisticated reference library is now a dominant force in the media and advertising industry. British newspapers select and edit content to suit algorithms belonging to a company based in California. Google even impacts on cognition, it has changed the way people perceive the world, even how they view themselves. It claims to expand horizons while channelling interests and narrowing opinion.” The next slide is Clive’s Facebook page. Benn is about to speak but Thatcher gets in first.

“I must admit I found this appalling, and Zuckerberg particularly objectionable. The thought of everyone socialising using software first used to objectify female undergraduates at Harvard. I’m surprised people can’t see the connection between the use of this software and the election of a president who thinks its clever to grab women by the pussy.”

“That will be all Mrs Slocombe.” Says Wilson. Clive is amazed how quickly an intense political debate descends into farce. However, Churchill isn’t laughing, he pours himself a whisky and then fills a second glass, which he offers to Clive. Despite having promised himself he would stick with coffee and water, Clive now feels in need of something stronger. As he walks the length of the room to collect the glass everyone is studying the @MrsMThatcher Twitter feed.

The room erupts into laughter again as Benn logs into the @realDonaldTrump Twitter feed. Thatcher reads out loud some of the comments under Trump’s tweets. “So this is the president of the United States preferred communication medium, a bulletin board for dead politicians. Is John Major on here somewhere?” Benn asks.

“Actually, John is still alive.” Replies Thatcher.

“Really.” Says Heath. “Has someone found a pulse.”

Churchill and Attlee scowl at their respective successors and order is eventually restored.

“If we take all these companies.” Says Benn cupping his hands in front of him. “Then collectively they form an entity far larger than the state. Individually they are beyond the control of any one country. Amazon is an industry in its own right. Google embraces and eclipses the media, Facebook and Twitter have replaced what once passed for society.” He glances accusingly at Thatcher. “None of these are constrained by political borders. Why is it no-one thought of limiting the power of these organisations before they grew bigger than the state? Before political discourse in Britain was highjacked by foreign companies and then opened up to individuals and agencies beyond its borders, rendering the country ungovernable?

“All the warning signs were there, right from the beginning, three decades ago, when the Internet was little more than a laboratory. Cyberspace, it was called back then, a virtual space free from references anchored in physical space. Once liberated from the rigid frameworks and structures forced on them by the state, philosophers and political scientist were free to experiment with different ways in which society could be organised. Then commercial companies used the Web to popularise the Internet. Eventually everyone was enjoying the freedom of virtual space. But this freedom came at a price because those real-world frameworks and structures no longer acted as either anchors or restraints. Instead society is now merely an intermittently coalescing mob whose thoughts, perceptions and personal relationships are owned and controlled by a handful of large US companies. A mob which is also manipulated by political chancers and exploited in a winner takes all geopolitical battle.

“Throughout history companies been broken up when they became too powerful. That is why the US government reigned in Standard Oil. Why IBM had its wings trimmed and both the US and EU have limited the growth of Microsoft. Brexit, and the rise of populist parties in Europe has come about as a result of inertia on the part of politicians, their failure to control networks. China’s success, and certainly its social cohesion, is in no small part due to its keeping online activity within its political borders.”

“But at the cost of individual freedom.” Says Thatcher.

“Is that, as Tony pointed out, freedom to become part of a mob organised by companies and individuals who are beyond the control of democratically elected politicians.” Thatcher is surprised by the chairman’s intervention. Even though Churchill and Benn have spent half the day discussing the Internet Thatcher felt the technology had remained beyond grasp of the wartime leader. “A lesson from history.” Churchill continues. “There was once a young Austrian with some rather unsavoury views. Rejected in his own country he moved to Germany and wrote a book that was to become infamous and the basis for laws legalising torture and execution …”

“I think we know this one Winston.” Says Heath. “Out of your history of the second world war. Perhaps if they ever hold a seance in Waterstones you can sign a few copies.”

“No Ted, not Hitler, not Mein Kampf and not 1925. This was 1487, the person in question Heinrich Kramer and the book Hexenhammer, also known as Malleus Maleficarum. Kramer produced a treatise on the identification, torture and execution of witches. His 500-page work drew on superstition and misogyny, rife at that time, and was used as a basis for laws to legitimise the persecution of women. Hexenhammer should have remained an oddity, the work of a crank, left to gather dusk on the shelf in the library of a monastery somewhere. Unfortunately, just a few years earlier, in 1439, Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press and Kramer was able to churn out hundreds of copies of his vile book. In fact, for two hundred years Hexenhammer outsold the bible. During the Renaissance no respectable Royal Court was without a copy and for the next two centuries the book contributed to the increasingly brutal treatment of women accused of witchcraft.

“So now we come, almost half a century later, to Herr Hitler and his shabby little book of rants. Mein Kampf, like the corporal himself, would have been quickly forgotten had it not been for Faraday, Marconi and the Lumiere. Amplified sound, radio and cinema enabled Joseph Goebbels to broadcast Hitler’s ideas to a wide audience, far greater than the readership of obscure books. The medium was new, it also brought film stars into people’s lives. The people of Germany projected their hopes, fears, and latent antisemitism, onto the evil icons of Nazism. Eventually this new media would bring us a second enlightenment. But it did so via the gas chambers of Auschwitz, in much the same way as Gutenberg’s press bought us the first enlightenment via the torture chamber and ducking stool.”

“And now we have the Internet.” Mutters Benn.

“Yes.” Churchill confirms. “What is it Marx said about history repeating itself? First time as tragedy the second time as farce. Once again people seem unable to differentiate between politicians and TV stars. Perhaps because social media encourages politicians to act like TV stars and TV stars to behave like politicians. Fortunately, unlike Hitler and Goebbels, today’s pariahs lack persistence. No-one is famous for more than fifteen minutes.”

“Or famous for 140 characters of hate, bile and islamophobia. If they use Twitter.” Says Benn.

Churchill picks up the iPhone laying in front of Attlee. “At least this new medium has solved a mystery that has puzzled mankind for centuries. Just turn this thing off and stare at the screen and there it is, your own reflection. Gone are the days when you project your fears and hate onto some jumped up dictator. Time to take responsibility, ourselves, for the evil residing within us. Germans understand this. Understand that you can overcome your fear of the dark by becoming darkness itself. Why they are happy to dominate Europe but still reluctant to lead it. That was always down to us. For the last seventy years Britain has been Europe’s moral compass, its restraint. Damn that man Cameron for attempting EU reform while his own party was so divided. Punching above his weight while stumbling around in Brussels like a wounded animal.” Churchill’s voice trails away.

“Of course, there will come a time when the rest of the world follows the Chinese example and builds their own version of the Great Firewall of China.” Says Ben.

“You mean the digital version of Nazi book burning.” Suggests Heath

“It’s obvious.” Churchill seems to snap back to life. “These populist parties fully understand the value of the Internet as a campaign tool. Once in power they will quickly move to control it. Isn’t that what Jeremy Corbyn hinted at with Momentum’s digital strategy, an online industry independent of US companies.”

Wilson taps his pipe on the rim of an ashtray. “Unlikely a European country could do that on its own. If it was possible France would be using Minitel rather than the World Wide Web. Maybe at some point in the future there will be a Great Firewall of Europe. But from what Ted is saying it seems by then Britain will be behind one built by China.”

Clive coughs and glances at his watch. “Sorry but interesting as this is could we get back to the subject of Brexit. Do I take it that you feel the government or parliament should either cancel article 50 or, now voters fully understand the implications of leaving Europe, hold a second referendum?”

“Neither.” Says Churchill. “Perhaps Theresa May’s deal if she can get it through parliament and accepted by the EU, but Britain cannot stay in Europe, not for now. It would be worst than all the alternatives, a deal with a transition period or even just crashing out.” There is unanimous agreement from everyone else in the room.

Heath turns to Clive. “Britain lost all that remained of its influence in Europe when Theresa May triggered article 50. If it changed its mind Britain would forever be regarded as a junior partner, like Portugal, Greece or the east European states. The gap left by Britain has already been filled. The Aachen treaty pledged enhanced cooperation between France and Germany on European policies, and with that Europe’s centre of gravity shifted east. We are now merely an offshore island. As I said, on our way to becoming Europe’s Hong Kong.”

A Second Referendum - Divided We Stand, Fragmented We Fall

Attlee takes over what sounds like a pre-prepared speech. “A second referendum would merely provide succour for Nigel Farage. He is hoping a divisive people’s vote will relaunch his political career and lure more voters away from both the Conservative and Labour parties. And, if this time the vote was remain it would split the country in two. It is impossible to prove a negative, so half the electorate would forever believe their lives would have been better with Britain out of the EU.”

“Leave or remain the Conservative Part is finished.” Sighs Heath. “As the Economist magazine pointed out, back in the nineteen seventies, Europe will be the death of the party. Brexit has split it down the middle. Out of Europe, Leavers will be disappointed Britain hasn’t been magically transported back to the 1950s, while those who voted Remain will be disappointed because they feel it has. If Brexit is cancelled Leavers will feel betrayed and Remainers will blame the Conservative party for pointlessly diminishing Britain’s role within the EU. Harold what to you feel?”

“Much like you Ted, I don’t feel Labour will fare well out all this either. Stay in Europe and half of Labour’s voters will migrate to Farage’s new party. Leave and the young activists, who are after all the future of the party, will feel betrayed.” Wilson shifted in his chair. “I think many of us have forgotten the mood during the 1960s which brought Labour to power. Young voters then were seeking something new, a progressive, more egalitarian society, they rejected an older generation of politicians which seemed stuck in the monochrome world of the 1950s.”

“That is what Jeremy Corbyn and his backers in Momentum are offering today.” Says Benn.

Again Wilson lights his pipe, slowly, obviously struggling with what he is about to say. “Let’s take one of today’s pressing problems, food. Some of you may have read the article published last week in the Lancet. The food supply chain is dysfunctional, not fit for purpose, a disaster from one end to the other. We harm the environment producing food which itself damages the health of those who consume it. Distribution is inefficient, even in Germany, the most prosperous state within the EU, there are nine hundred food banks with one and half million people dependent on them. Problems like these transcend traditional politics, they need a radical shift in economic thinking. And you can’t negotiate your way out of climate change, mother nature won’t let you remove the backstop. These challenges cannot be met by individual countries acting autonomously. In fact they may have to wait until we have this expanded Chinese empire Ted is talking about. After all it was China’s renewable energy strategy which drove down the cost of solar panels from hundreds to tens of dollars.”

Wilson paused to draw on his pipe, perhaps anticipating an interruption. But everyone else in the room remains silent so he continues. “Of course, there is a young generation of thinkers with ideas on how the food industry can be reformed, starting from the premise that access to food is a basic human right. They suggest like air and water, and NHS healthcare come to that, food should be free at the point of consumption. One of the commons. And they want to exorcise the ghost of de Gaulle and overhaul the common agricultural policy.”

“Commons? As in Communism?” Thatcher asks, appearing as if she is about to faint.

“We can’t keep dismissing everything that isn’t neoliberalism as communism, Margaret. We do that and we will wander blindly over the edge of a cliff.” Wilson retorted. “It is not as if the idea is a million miles away from what Macron’s finance minister is suggesting. This is from a group of young people active within the EU, they call themselves DiEM25 and aim to reform the EU by 2025. The sort of reforms the Tories should have encouraged instead of striking alliances with unsavoury parties in eastern Europe.”

Benn takes over “These reforms are based on ideas put forward by Yanis Varoufakis. Currently the only constructive new thinking within the EU and a refreshing alternative to the nihilism of Mr Farage and Frau Stork.”

Wilson turns to Churchill. “If you are looking for a way for Britain to re-enter the EU and regain its influence, then I believe this is it.”

“Well it is pointless going back in the way we came out. It would as disastrous as landing troops at Dunkirk on D Day.” Churchill’s speech is slurred, whisky and a long day are taking their toll.

Oh (No) Jeremy Corbyn

“Jeremy Corbyn is building bridges with Varoufakis and I understand Labour’s campaign group, Momentum, has already set up an office in Cologne in anticipation of working closely with like-minded groups within the EU.” Says Benn.

“Really.” Sighs Wilson, “Before we get too excited perhaps it is worth looking at this. Margaret, if you’ve finally mastered the remote control, perhaps we can have the last video.”

Wilson and Benn turn in their chairs so they can watch the YouTube clip. Yanis Varoufakis interviewing Jeremy Corbyn at the Edinburgh Book Festival from August 2018. Varoufakis is explaining to the audience that Corbyn mounted a sophisticated campaign prior to the Brexit referendum. Not enthusing about the EU but subtly suggesting Britain remained within it. The word ‘sophisticated’ takes Corbyn by surprise, as it does everyone watching the video. “Duplicitous might be a better description.” Says Wilson.

“Varoufakis is being polite,” Says Benn. He is trying to keep Corbyn on side. He like many others pushing for EU reform has been imploring Corbyn to campaign harder for Britain to stay in the EU. Momentum is perhaps the only left leaning group to make headway against far-right populists. A Corbyn led Britain within the EU would, pardon the pun, add real momentum to DiEM25. The leaders from a coalition of European socialist parties has even sent Corbyn a letter begging him to keep Britain within the EU.”

“Except that isn’t going to happen is it Tony?” Says Wilson. “Unfortunately, Corbyn is, as we were in our days, beholden to trade union leaders. He needs the support of Len McCluskey, leader of Unite. This is already an issue with Momentum who see the democracy Varoufakis envisages for the EU incompatible with the influence union leaders, such as McCluskey, retains within the Labour party. This conflict also manifests itself as a split between younger labour Remainers and older trade unionist Leavers. Also many of Labour’s younger members are employed in the high-tech sector and non-unionised industries and regard trade unions as an irrelevance. As trade unions now seem powerless to improve the working conditions of employees with mini jobs or on zero-hour contracts it appears neoliberalism has reduced them to little more than the capitalist’s gang masters.”

The video has moved on and Corbyn has steered the conversation with Varoufakis away from Brexit. After monologues on oppression in Franco’s Spain and Allende’s Chile, Corbyn is now half way through a long drawn-out account of the formation of the National Health Service in 1946.

“Have your friends explained to him that in 1946 a Labour led Britain was still rounding up and imprisoning communists in Varoufakis’s homeland?” Thatcher is addressing Clive, but the jibe is aimed at Attlee, Wilson and Benn.

While Wilson seems unperturbed, he is now slightly less critical of Corbyn. “Jeremy is in an impossible position.” He says. “He’s brought hope to a generation ignored by the Tories, told them that his is a new sort of politics. I just fear these young people will be left feeling very disappointed when Corbyn is prevented taking Britain back into the EU. In their eyes he will be just another twentieth century politician trying to fix twenty first century problems using nineteenth century political theories. No different from Theresa May, Boris Johnson or even Claude Junker, come to that. I know you thought highly of him Tony, but Momentum needs to accept that while Jeremy may have been in the right place at the right time, but he is now the wrong man to lead Britain back into Europe and spearhead EU reform. Asking him to step aside would also remove toxic links with failed socialist states.”

Thatcher turns off the large screen display.

“Well Clive,” Churchill says as he arranges the papers in front of him in a neat pile, “I’m sure we’ve given you a lot to think about. I understand that Varoufakis is taking his DiEM25 group on a roadshow across Europe this month. I take it someone from the British embassy in Berlin will drop in on one of the meetings to gauge how Germans react to his ideas.”

“I understand they already have.” Clive replies as he gets to his feet, surprised that no one else in the room does the same. He says goodnight, but there is no response, everyone stares at him as if he was the ghost. Halfway up the stairs a series of load bangs echo in the room below. Clive turns and retraces his steps. Just as he is about to re-enter the War Room there is another bang and a champagne cork bounces off the wall and lands at his feet.

Then come raised voices, Heath’s rasping laugh and the unmistakable voice of Thatcher. “Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt are in Berlin and they decide to visit the aquarium at Berlin Zoo ...”

Clive catches the 22:21 from Kings Cross and his wife, Karen, picks him up from Hatfield station. He washes down a microwaved pizza with a large glass of red wine, a bad idea given the whisky he was drinking earlier in the evening. No surprise he wakes next morning with a headache and as Karen takes him to the station, he mentions this rather strange dream. Back in the office he starts preparing for an afternoon meeting at the German Embassy.

“Bit of a flap on down the road.” Says Vineeta, an officer working on the French desk. “Someone broke into the War Room last night. Either there was a party or it was some sort of prank.” She lays her iPad on Clive’s desk, it is displaying a page from the Metro’s web site. Expanding the picture Clive recognises the handbag stood on the conference table and the pipe laying in one of the ashtrays. There are several empty champagne glasses and what appears to be streamers from party poppers strewn across the floor. Then Clive notices the map behind Churchill’s chair has been defaced. Across it in large letters is written. ‘Stay calm and just keep buggering on.’