People are rightly calling the foreign secretary out for his ludicrous World War II analogy, which has offended our friends and neighbours. It’s a sad feature of the UK’s engagement of the rest of the European Union that our stance is too often determined by a feeling of superiority that dates back to the 1939-1945 conflict and which is based on not having been invaded (thank you very much, Royal Air Force and English Channel).
As far as I can see, Johnson’s comments have been defended by only one other serious person: Michael Gove. (I know. If you can find a better word than ‘serious’, please suggest it.) Gove started the week as a cheerleader for Donald Trump and seems to be having the time of his life defending the indefensible. Of course, for Gove, there is a small matter of a bridge to be rebuilt and standing up for outrageous analogies is just the price he has to pay. Michael, a tip: you can do all you want but it’s going to be a while before Boris and his fanclub forgive you for that stabbing.
But all this kerfuffle is hiding in plain sight the re-emergence of a different symbol and one which really does signify how entitled some of the Leavers believe the UK to be: the queue.
President Obama seems to understand the queue rather better than many British. He said the US was already working on trade deals and therefore if the UK wanted a post-Brexit deal it would need to start from the back of the queue. This is basic queuing etiquette and you’d think we in the UK would welcome this and embrace it. Not a chance. The Leavers threw their toys out of the pram. How dare the UK not be immediately placed at the front?
Since the Leave vote, rather too much attention has been placed on the UK’s queuing position. Trump’s victory in the electoral college was welcomed by many as providing the opportunity for the UK to jump the queue. Gove himself prostrated himself in front of the president-elect to try to have our queue status reviewed. Trump very carefully (especially for a man who is fairly happy-go-lucky with his syntax) declined to say that the UK was now at the front of the queue, but Theresa May decided that he’d said it anyway. She’ll be disappointed when NAFTA is the first trade deal to occupy the new president’s attention.
Why all this fuss about the queue? Clearly it shows a real anxiety about the UK’s standing in the world. You can twin it with the moronic statement that ‘they need us more than we need them’. It is demeaning and desperate stuff. But it is also un-British. It misunderstands what a ‘queue’ is and how fairness (remember when that was supposed to be one of the uniquely British values?) applies to it, and it lacks any self-deprecation whatsoever.
Let’s not forget that the UK is quite comfortable with the idea that other countries should have to queue up. Johnson this week wrote in the Telegraph that countries are ‘queuing up’ for deals with the UK, and Liam Fox today wrote the same thing. I wonder who is first in the queue and who is at the back, and whether the countries concerned are going through the same angst?
In the real world, one without mythical queues but other ways of demonstrating status, the White House has today issued a press release. Barack Obama is making his final phone calls as president to other world leaders. His final call was to Angela Merkel and the press release makes it clear that it is she whom the outgoing president sees as his most long-standing and valued ally. Now Frau Merkel has been in office for the whole of Mr Obama’s presidency, but it is clear that it is Germany, the country that remains at the heart of the European Union, that is the US’s strategic priority, rather than the country that has chosen to wrench itself out of its current relationships. The US special relationship is with Germany until tomorrow, Russia thereafter, while the UK stamps its foot and demands special favours until no one will listen.