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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Mrs May's Curtsy

I have no idea how many people in the UK yesterday watched the live BBC presentation of the scenes near Ypres, where a solemn commemoration was rightly being held to mark the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres. As a child, I was soon aware that almost every older man in my circle had served in the First World War: they were tight-lipped about their own roles, but they all shared reflections of the sheer horror of the Somme and what I heard as 'Passiondale': the battle that was commemorated yesterday. What was really remembered - unashamedly - was the absolutely unnecessary slaughter that marked such events.

There has been a long-running debate about the generalship that sent tens of thousands of men to be [literally] drowned in mud, for no military gain whatsoever. It has fascinated me that there have been defenders of the supreme commander Haig - of the whisky family - and his colleagues, other than their own descendants; and that a sort of stalemate has been reached on the historiography of events like Ypres III. When it started to rain, heavily, on the third day of fighting and it became blatantly obvious that over the ensuing wet days the artillery shells from both sides stirred the land into deep mud, the campaign should - at the very least - have been suspended for long enough for the suitability of the ground to bear a battle to be reassessed. But no, the 'donkeys' at HQ threw more and more men into the slaughter: and no gain could be made for over a month, until dryer conditions returned.

The centenary ceremonies yesterday and on Sunday did not re-open the historiographical debate, directly; but the general direction of commentary was that the battle stood as an example of the utter waste and devastation that war can cause. In attendance were the King and Queen of the Belgians, the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, the German Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister, various Belgian luminaries, Commonwealth representatives, and Mrs May: who read from the old testament of the Bible. For once, the prime minister's clothes were not bizarre: she had chosen to wear a smart black suit, with a hat that looked like it could accommodate a substantial beehive.

Had the prime minister been a man, he would have greeted the various royalty with a handshake and a 'neck bow'; which can be made to look like a friendly nod: but Mrs May went the whole hog, and curtsied: which is a pretty abject form of submission. It seemed normal for the Duchess of Cambridge to curtsy to the Queen of the Belgians - it's what royalty do, within the trade - but for the prime minister of Great Britain to make such obeisance to junior royalty in a foreign country in the second decade of the twenty-first century seemed strangely out-of-place and out of time.

It was even more surreal, for me, when the news bulletin that followed the broadcast from Belgium cited  a 'Downing Street source' as shutting down the open Cabinet rift over how Brexit is to be implemented. The prime minister had, apparently made it clear [before or during her trip to Ypres] that the free movement of EU citizens into Britain would end on the day in March, 2019, when the two-year negotiating period begun in March 2017 would end.

So while she was showing anachronistic subservience to present and future kings and their consorts, the prime minister was wielding the muscle of a modern head of government in the most damaging possible way. It will not be practicable to shut the ports and airports in March, 2019 without absolutely devastating the economy. There is no way a government committed to austerity that is working with a quantitatively and qualitatively devastated civil service can set up the border posts and the equipment and trained manpower that would be needed to effect a 'hard Brexit'. Far from reasserting her authority, Mrs May has again demonstrated her uncomprehending irrelevance.

This is not a matter to gloat about: it is as tragic for the people of Great Britain as were the events that the prime minister went to Belgium to recall.

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