NUL POINTS

EUWhen recalling his first meeting with Yoko Ono, John Lennon often remarked that the avant-garde artist’s exhibition he received a sneak preview of contained a tiny message at the top of a stepladder that could only be viewed with a magnifying glass. The message read simply ‘Yes’, something that sold Yoko to Lennon because he claimed it was the first positive statement he’d seen at an art show in years. Had that message read ‘No’, pop cultural history could possibly have been quite different. In a very roundabout way, this seems to me one of the problems the Leave campaigners have had in the Referendum wars that have resumed following a moment’s pause for Jo Cox.

No, Out or Leave as Brexit buzzwords can’t help but come across as negatives, the linguistic equivalents of the pub bore bemoaning everything new or innovative, forever giving the thumbs down and dragging the drinkers down with him. True, one could also attach positive attributes to No, Out or Leave; they could represent the teenager preparing to fly the family nest, stand on his own two feet and take control of his own destiny despite a smothering mother wanting him to stay; but the overall feeling I’m getting from the message of Brexit is not one that inspires positivity.

A great deal of the pro-Leave propaganda, certainly online, appears to emanate from very angry people, some of whom are old enough to have voted No in 1975, and who have had a bee in their bonnet about Europe ever since the vote went against them 41 years ago. By comparison, the most passionate advocates of Remain within social media outlets would appear to be mostly those who weren’t even a twinkle in the milkman’s son’s eye at the time of the EEC Referendum, and they don’t exhibit quite the same frothing-at-the-mouth fanaticism emanating from the most vociferous of the Brexit brigade.

I once heard it said that Britain was more or less offered governance of the embryonic Common Market in the 1950s, but spurned the opportunity to sit at the head of the European table because it was still too attached to the remnants of the Empire and was more concerned with gracefully bowing out of its colonial commitments than focusing its attention closer to home. That may or may not be true – and I would imagine French historians would probably dispute it; but it does perhaps reflect the half-hearted nature of our relationship with our Continental cousins. Not belonging to the Eurozone and not adopting the Euro is something that underlines a consistency running throughout our 44-year European adventure. We have always had one foot in and one foot out. But it’s possible this has been to our overall advantage since 1972.

Nigel Farage’s determination in constantly reducing the debate to the solitary subject of immigration, and proudly standing beside that dubious poster, has only reinforced his one-trick pony reputation and seems to have put the brakes on the progress of the Brexit horse that was racing ahead of Remain this time last week. With big business and big names on the Remain side lining-up to sing the praises of EU membership, Leave has been painted as the true voice of ‘the little people’, the choice of the brave and the bold outsider; but if Leave is presented as the ‘radical’ option, this could well prove to be its undoing, as the British are by nature a conservative people who are more likely to stick with the status quo than venture into the unknown.

Yes, we have a proud record of radicals and rebels throughout our history, but these tend to be isolated individuals rather than representative of the masses. A maverick such as Farage is in many respects a liability to the Leave campaign; but so skilled is he at generating headlines that it’s been hard for the less incendiary members of the Brexit persuasion to overshadow his rapacious capacity for publicity. Farage is the first pupil in the class that the new teacher gets to know the name of because he’s incapable of shutting up.

Initially, it was the Remain camp that appeared to be alienating public opinion with their pathetic insistence on horror stories, something that had relented a little until Gideon’s own-goal last week; but whether or not the tasteless threat of an emergency austerity budget will do for them what Farage’s billboard could do for the opposition remains to be seen – for the next couple of days, anyway. Farage’s accusation that Remain have exploited the death of Jo Cox for political gain may have a grain of truth to it, but evoking her name so soon after re-boarding a campaign express momentarily derailed by her shocking murder might prove to be another mistimed comment in a campaign that has had its fair share of them on both sides.

Tonight we have the grand finale of what has been a largely ineffective series of TV debates, and one that promises to be the most ludicrously showbizzy of the lot, staged at Wembley Arena. I envisage a cross between a rock concert and a Billy Graham rally and I doubt a single viewer still undecided will probably be persuaded either way. As things stand, just 48 hours from polling day, I’ve a distinct feeling the public are slowly edging away from Brexit. But don’t quote me on that. I’m not a betting man.

© The Editor

AND IT’S GOODNIGHT FROM THEM

2 RonniesLast Sunday, BBC Parliament transmitted one of its occasional themed evenings, when it dips into the well-preserved political archives of the Beeb and offers viewers the opportunity to compare then and now. The theme this time round was, unsurprisingly, the EEC Referendum of 1975. We had snippets from news broadcasts and ‘Nationwide’, campaign ads from both camps, the full two-hour results programme from the day after the vote, and even an edition of ‘The Rock n Roll Years’ reviewing the sights and sounds of the year when the British public last had their say on Europe.

For those of us who have a strange addictive fascination with beige backdrops, purple ties and black-rimmed specs, these evenings are binge viewing experiences unlike any other. It’s also unmissable when the studio presenter cuts to a man on the street – in this case, two much-missed political reporters, Charles Wheeler and Vincent Hanna. A glimpse of the public crowding around behind them and occasionally being asked their opinion on developments is a curiously unique insight into not only the way Joe Public thought 40-odd years ago, but also how he looked. A cornucopia of Dickensian hairstyles, and not a piercing, tattoo or ‘casual’ outfit in sight; everyone looks like they’re on their way to a night at the theatre.

For me, the two stand-out programmes on Sunday night were the Oxford Union Debate and the ‘Panorama’ clash between Labour Cabinet Ministers Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn.

The former was televised to a huge audience in the absence of cameras at the Commons, and as well as a bizarre mix of students, from the anticipated King Crimson roadies to 20-year-olds who already resembled 50-year-olds, the case for both sides of the argument was put by Barbara Castle and Peter Shore (The ‘No’ camp) and Jeremy Thorpe and Ted Heath (‘Yes’). All four put their case across in a way that was largely devoid of the meaningless Birt-isms that plague political speeches in 2016, speaking plainly and passionately without recourse to a familiar collection of words in a specific, road-tested order that appear to say everything whilst actually saying nothing at all. Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, a year away from the scandal that cost him his job and killed his career, was immensely entertaining. Always a somewhat theatrical orator, he stole the show with a witty, flamboyant performance that nevertheless made the point in a manner that held the audience’s attention. It’s hard to imagine any of the contenders in the upcoming Wembley bash having either the ability or the allotted time to state their case with such panache.

As for the famous ‘Panorama’ heavyweight bout between Jenkins and Benn, it often reminded me of the equally famed showdown between former Leeds Utd boss Don Revie and his just-sacked successor Brian Clough, broadcast the year before. As Austin Mitchell did during that encounter, presenter David Dimbleby gradually sat back and allowed the opposing colleagues to simply get on with it. And they did, delivering a compelling master class in restrained antipathy. Benn had yet to fully develop the more eccentric extremism that contributed towards Jenkins’ eventual exodus from Labour five years later, and both men were true to their core convictions, able to argue the toss free from being consistently interrupted by an egocentric host clearly seeking his own chat show.

It’s a pity the programme makers of today haven’t used this example of televisual political discourse as the template for the now-customary leaders debates instead of the stop-start American Presidential model.

This format was in evidence on ITV this week, when David Cameron and Nigel Farage were invited to persuade the public that their personal vision of Britain either with or without the EU was the right one. Only, they didn’t go head-to-head; both had around 20 minutes to get their point across alone, as well as engaging with the token and obligatory studio audience and a selection of utterly predictable questions to which they gave utterly predictable answers. Farage was accused of racism by a black woman; Cameron responded to every question by falling back on his standard Churchillian script that only required ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ in the background to complete the patriotic picture. The whole exercise was flatter than a transsexual’s pre-op chest.

Tomorrow, we’re promised a six-way Remain/Brexit debate, which means even less time for the participants to get their scripted points across as well as the prospect of some truly foul-tasting broth; however, if Tuesday’s idea of a two-hander was anything to go by, it hardly seems worth investing in that as a means of seriously debating the issue. It’s difficult to believe that any don’t-know will have their mind made up by these essentially useless interventions into the argument on the part of an industry too rooted in the fast-cutting MTV school of broadcasting and the need to give every subject a Cowell-esque makeover for fear of audiences switching over. At least in the days of party political broadcasts, those that did switch over were confronted by the same programme on all channels. Viewers had no choice but to listen, and maybe minds were made up that way.

© The Editor