Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sherlock and the European catastrophe

Benedict Cumberbatch sat across from the prime minister in best thin white duke mode, a look of disbelief frozen on his face. “David, you do realise that I’m an actor? 'Sherlock' was just a TV detective show adapted for today's Britain. We've made too many seasons of it already. I’ve moved on.”

David Cameron fixed him with his fleshy, good-natured gaze. “Oh, I'm well aware. But you in particular seemed, well…just so natural as Sherlock. My predecessor-but-one was a thespian too, Benedict. And there's literally no-one else I can turn to: I’m in serious trouble on my Europe file.”

It was 2017 and a sunny May morning in Downing Street. PJ Harvey's anguished tones drifted down a corridor from a radio in one of No 10's over-stuffed offices. “Goddamn’ Europeans! Take me back to beautiful England...” The TV detective’s mouth turned up a corner. “What appears to be the problem, prime minister?”

“Well, as I say, it's my European policy.” He glumly nodded towards the desk. “Anyone who sits in that chair has Europe waiting for them like a great ugly toad from the first day they get in the door. I don’t see why I should be the one the whole thing finally caves in on...This EU referendum we promised: the vote is on Saturday.”

Fog rolling down behind the mountains,
On the graveyards, and dead sea-captains

Cumberbatch’s fingertips pyramided to his lips. “Yes, it’s all over the news, special debates on Newsnight for a month and all that. The newspapers are full of it. Everyone says it’ll probably be a narrow Yes to stay in.”

Cameron looked pained. “No. The Yes side is going to lose, Benedict.”

The actor stared. “But the polls look 50-50. Whatever about all the bluster, people hardly expect us to leave Europe, do they?”

Cameron went on, unhearing. “I suppose that I sort of, hoped – you know – that something would just turn up, as Mr Micawber says. I did everything I could to keep the Conservative party happy. I pulled my MEPs out of their cozy, chummy group in the European Parliament and made them hang around with a bunch of political wild-men instead, even before we got into office at all. Not that anyone here ever gave me credit for it. They noticed on the continent though. But the really serious trouble started when the eurozone crisis broke out and I vetoed their fiscal compact. That sent my thrill-seeking backbenchers into ecstatics. My God, it got the other leaders’ backs up something terrible. Before then, our usual policy was to be in the room for those kinds of discussions. I took a big risk walking away from that.”

“But how did that help the UK?” asks Cumberbatch, crossing his legs pensively.

“Well, it looked like the lights were going out all over economic advisers told me the eurozone was doomed. I mean I'm no expert but anyone can see the thing is hardly an economic miracle. We thought they'd be re-making the entire EU by now, that we’d have the chance to extract some concessions before having to hold the blessed referendum. You know, on social policy and so forth. So I wanted to show them I was prepared to block things early on. Can someone please turn that radio off – we’re trying to have a meeting in here!”

And the grey damp filthiness of ages,
And battered books

“And…what happened then?”

“Nothing”, lamented Cameron. “The whole euro crisis just went into a sort of political deep freeze after they cooked up some legal mumbo jumbo. I got a few helpful noises on immigration from the other governments after the European elections alright. Then I floated this ‘Regulation Treaty’ idea the year we got re-elected, but I just couldn’t sell it. The only thing I could point to in the end was pulling out of European policing. Gordon Brown already got that during the Lisbon talks though, before I got in.”

“David, you’re a PR man. Surely, you know not to take political risks on crime. Look how successful Sherlock and the other crime dramas are for goodness sakes.”

“Yes, but no-one ever asks the French police for help in them, do they Benedict? And we were getting ready for the 800th Magna Carta celebrations in 2015. I was hardly going to adopt the Code Napoleon the same year, was I? Even the main villains in Sherlock were only Swedish and Irish.”

Cumberbatch snorted. “Ha; well, our producers thought that was as foreign as the British viewer likes to go on a Tuesday night. Hang on, that's interesting. How have Sweden and Ireland done in Europe over the last few years?”

“Well, Ireland got bailed out by the other Europeans and us. After that, they got bossed around by the ECB for a bit. But then they started raising money on the markets at a better rate than the Treasury. The continentals even made Kenny, the Irish prime minister – or whatever it is they call it – European Council president. They called it: “a gesture to the Anglo-Saxons”. The Irish just loved that. We only got the pesky development commissioner.”

“Ok. Well, how did Sweden do then? We agree with them on most things too, don't we?”

“Fredrik? Obviously, he thinks the whole euro thing is bonkers as well. He told me Halley’s Comet will be here again before the Swedes sign up. But he just sort of sat on the fence at the Council meetings, pledged a few kronor to the bail-outs, even signed up to the fiscal compact. Says if the Danes can wear it, so can he.”

The sky move, the ocean shimmer,
The hedge shake,
And the last living rose quiver


“Let me put it another way, David. If Sweden or Ireland needed a leg up from Brussels or the other Europeans for some reason, would they be more or less likely to get it than us?” 

“Theoretically: more likely. But you don’t understand: the whole treaty change thing is a damned dangerous business. No-one wants it because it means referendums everywhere. Can you imagine that around Europe with the economy the way it is now? Angela made sure I got my ‘Declaration That Britain Has A Point, Whatever It Is’, at the December summit even though everyone’s already mad at her for taking the French to court over their national debt. But that won’t be near enough to get us out of trouble here. Can you believe the way this campaign has become such a godsend for Boris? He has all the fun running the No side while I just get abuse up and down the country. His tweets are sickening.”

Cumberbatch looked at the prime minister, wondering. “But David, it’s a bit premature to rehearse your resignation speech, no? Everyone says that the debate has turned out to be surprisingly cathartic; that the No side is split and on the defensive; that the country has quietly Europeanised since the last poll forty years ago. You know: we’re drinking drinkable wine, calling our kids Radek, letting Deutsche Bahn run the railways – all that. If anything, people seem bored with the whole EU thing at the moment.”

Cameron winced: “Exactly, Benedict: Turnout, turnout! I couldn’t get the idea of a minimum quorum into the referendum bill. The pity is we didn’t go back into government with the Lib Dems; they would have insisted on it, even after their demolition in the elections. I know the debate is lively: what with the fabrications from the No side and the counter-fabrications from the Yes side. The young people tell pollsters that they'd prefer to be in, so long as we don’t join the euro. But who’s going to get up out of bed on a Saturday morning to vote for Brussels?

Past the Thames River, glistening like gold
Hastily sold
For nothing

 “…only the hardcore anti-EU people, that’s who. We’ll end up leaving the Union in a fit of absence of mind. And Boris and his wild-eyed friends have fooled enough people into believing that only a No vote can get us “the real deal” from the bureaucrats. Well, if he wants my job so much, let him stay up all night arguing in that abattoir in Brussels. Nothing makes the continentals gang up together more than a good Brit-bash. They don’t have a bloody thing in common otherwise. But can’t all that be avoided somehow, even now?”

Cumberbatch’s grey blue eyes widened. He stood up and flicked on his high-collared Milford coat. “Prime Minister, this really isn’t my area, you know. But Sherlock would deduce that you’d missed something obvious and hidden in plain sight somewhere along the way. Anyway, my flight to Los Angeles leaves in a few hours.”

“Don’t remind me about the Americans; I’ve had HRC on the phone every week for the past two months asking me what my ‘strategic vision’ is for after the referendum. Look, couldn't you ask your brother in MI6, Mycroft Holmes? He was a great help to us during the Olympics.”

“You're scaring me now David...”

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow and the CER's Brussels representative.

NB: Lyrics reproduced from PJ Harvey’s ‘The Last Living Rose’.

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