Brexit like it’s 1999

One of the big strands of my political geekery is a fondness for obscure party political broadcasts (PPBs).

We’re lucky in this country that – unlike the USA – you can’t buy television airtime if you’re a political party. All parties get is the occasional PPB allocated to them, with quite a few more during election campaigns. They’re generally in proportion to support, so big parties get a few, and fringe parties might only get one in an entire election.

It’s probably less of a hindrance to parties in today’s internet age, but it wasn’t all that long ago that PPBs were the only chance that parties had to put their unedited, unmoderated views on screen to the viewing public.

For me, the most interesting aspect of PPBs, in a United Kingdom that has been (especially pre-devolution) so dominated by two parties, was that they were often the only way in which minority parties could get their views over to a mass audience that might potentially have never even heard of them. And – as you might imagine from the fringes of UK politics – such parties did so with varying degrees of articulation and production quality. Usually such contributions were laughable or forgettable.

But I always remember seeing one minority party PPB on the television in the 1999 European Parliament election campaign which really struck a chord with me and made me think. And, all these years later, I’ve been thinking about it again – for reasons that will become apparent.

Give it a watch.

The broadcast is by the short-lived Pro-Euro Conservative Party, which was founded to campaign in the 1999 European elections. It was established by a group of Conservatives who wanted to provide a counterbalance to the Conservative Party’s opposition to the UK joining the euro. They represented a not inconsiderable strand of Conservative thought that has always been moderate, centrist and pro-EU, but they failed to attract any “big beasts” from that wing of the party, made little or no impression in those 1999 elections, and disbanded a couple of years later.

But that striking, powerful and simple party political broadcast is perhaps their only tangible legacy. I remember it so vividly for the very different feel it had from preachy, camaigning types of PPBs, ones that would sell you a message and attempt to persuade you. Instead, this one left the viewer to do the thinking; and rather than putting its political leaders front and centre, it went for a more abstract approach – the xenophobic, grumpy rantings of a destitute man on the street who was a metaphor for a UK outside the euro.

I love how his words – superbly performed – were left unchallenged in the short video. The lazy stereotypes about EU supporters being posh metropolitans, the Brussels bureaucrats stealing our power, the pride in one’s identity, were all we heard in the broadcast. No counter-argument was presented, just the silent form of the man at the end morphing into the shape of a United Kingdom isolated from the rest of Europe.

It was a memorable broadcast and a striking final image, not only because of its unusual production format, but also because its words echo into today’s debate about Brexit. And as I thought back to that video, and the way it hauntingly prophesied current British politics, I decided I had to hunt it down on YouTube and watch it again.

It could almost have been made for the Brexit era, couldn’t it? The man’s monologue could so easily echo those of today’s Brexiteers, and – with a bit of refinement – could almost be a script for a pro-Brexit politician talking about the strength and capability we have here in the UK and the ease with which we will forge our own future outside the EU.

I wonder if those who produced it could have ever imagined how accurate they would be, or how much more desperate the situation might be today for pro-Europeans as we not merely continue to avoid the euro but now stand on the brink of departure from the European Union as a whole.

Now, I confess I can see a few points of attack one might present against this video. On one level, it appears snooty and condescending – portraying opponents of integration as uneducated bigots. And it seems dated now to argue that avoiding the euro was a path to disaster, when surely so many other factors were at play in the UK’s current economic and political troubles.

But it is spot on with the idea that the UK is becoming a lonely, isolated and potentially destitute figure on the European stage as a result of adopting precisely this sort of deluded prejudice. With job losses in the headlines, our politicians being a laughing stock among their EU peers, and any goodwill the UK had at that level virtually exterminated, it is easy to see the parallel of a UK that is retreating into itself and self-destructing.

There are many tragedies about Brexit – the racism and hatred it has unleashed, the lives it has destroyed, and, yes, the deaths it has caused. There are many who foresaw exactly the knots the UK is tying itself into today over trade, food and medicine supplies, the Irish border, immigration, jobs and more due to this ill-thought approach to leaving the EU. But perhaps for me the biggest tragedy is that as long ago as late last century there were short lived, ignored voices on the fringe of British politics who were pretty much nailing where we are today.

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