After Life, Brexit and the sad comedy of self-delusion

Ricky Gervais’ big comic insight was the way the dreams we all need to sustain ourselves quickly shade into self-delusion. It’s an idea with history (the sad comedy of Billy Liar, Steptoe and Son and others) and has plenty of vitality in it yet.

After Life walks a tightrope by continuing to work this comic seam while noticing that there might be cause for compassion here as well as scorn. Grief has locked the Gervais character Tony into uninhibited disdain for the many petty stupidities he finds all around him. The series’ story of his recovery (as yet incomplete) charts how he regains control of his tongue (and exasperation).

It’s fair to say Gervais is pretty much playing himself, and the drama at the heart of his comedy is a reflection on his own ready disgust, and the need to take a more humane view, a corrective to himself as it were.

Both positions are defensible, and moving between them requires a delicate balance, a delicacy which Gervais often fails to achieve. The Office was at its best when invoking both extremes (of disgust and humane sympathy) while David Brent was musing on his life, rather less so when it collapsed into more obvious joke-making. After Life has the same problem, with the second series featuring an execrable performance from the local AmDram society. It’s the comedy of mockery, and feels like an unnecessary filler in the wider and subtler unravelling of the story. (I wonder too about the idiot psycho-therapist; while no one can doubt the existence of his “locker room” bluster about women, a reality only too obvious in the gross form of the US president, it’s too pathetic to need satirising, and disturbs the balance of realism in the series.)

Brexit: the idiot child
Self-delusion could hardly be a more topical issue. Although Brexit has been understandably pushed to one side by the pandemic crisis, it sits still as the elephant in the political room, and Brexit is above all the idiot child of semi-national self-delusion.

(The delusion was surely fostered from outside by a small clique of politicians with their own deluded agenda, but it was already there to be manipulated and amplified.)

Brexit is firmly in the political room right now because we are apparently sleepwalking towards another crunch date; the UK only has till the end of June to shape a negotiation that could be completed by the end of the year. Otherwise the UK will leave the transition period on WTO terms.

The most deluded in the Brexit camp apparently believe that such terms would be an acceptable price to pay for the UK’s “freedom” (even if they’ve never been able to say what such freedom would look like, or how it would actually bring any benefit; how it would differ from the freedom to sit in the gutter).

A crisis of hubris
If the British government was not so influenced by the deluded it might have noticed that the coronavirus crisis gives a forcible and universally comprehensible reason to extend the transition period, and come to something like a workable divorce with minimal pain on both sides. Such an extension is apparently not on the table, because, because… Johnson said it would happen before the end of the year. This is the arrant stupidity of false pride.

The other plausible reason is that the government (and its media backers) seems to think this is “playing hardball” and will force the EU to give it what it wants (which contradicts the agreement approved by parliament before the last election, particularly in relation to Ireland). Once again it seems, we are like Monty Python’s Black Knight, armless and legless on the ground and demanding that the EU should come and fight. I’m sure the EU would rather have a deal, but not one that damages its own integrity.

This is something again that the true fools who represent us appear not to be able to get their heads round. They say the EU is blocking an agreement that asks no more than other free trade agreements it already has with other countries, which conveniently ignores the way the UK is not like those other countries in its proximity to the EU, with neighbouring fishing waters and established frictionless supply chains (not to mention the huge issue of a border between northern and southern Ireland).

The bad faith here is entirely on the British side, and I seriously doubt the EU will back down. At which point the argument from the hardcore Brexiteers that all we had to do was stand up to the EU will be shown as the delusion of grandeur it always was.

A criminal recklessness
It gets worse, because the faction that recognised (correctly) that the only way to achieve complete separation from the EU would be WTO terms, seem to have embraced the idea that the virus crisis will provide cover for the economic damage they acknowledge will occur. This is a criminal recklessness with people’s lives; the last thing the UK can afford right now or the foreseeable future is new barriers to the passage of goods, including medicines and other health-related necessities.

There’s a further irony which they don’t seem to have accommodated in their “thinking”. Despite non-credible denials from Johnson and his friends, access to the NHS was supposed to be a bargaining chip in negotiating a compensatory megadeal with the US. But the virus has rendered the NHS politically untouchable. Along the way it’s made the hardcore vision of a buccaneering free market standalone UK look even more far-fetched than it always was. Whatever does emerge from the crisis, the idea of minimising cross-border co-operation and minimal state intervention is not likely to have much traction.

The virus crisis comes hard on the heels of the most divisive issue in modern British history. This country was fractured and angry. Johnson promised healing, which now looks like an interesting metaphor for what has not happened, and nor does it look likely to happen as long as the deluded minority continue to push us towards ever direr straits. Although the virus has brought a welcome sense of common purpose and the common good to much of the UK, that coming together will not withstand the strains that are about to be placed on it, if Johnson and his friends fail to recognise that the old normal is neither attainable nor desirable.

The strains are already showing. The government has much to answer for in its handling of the crisis. It is a hard fact that many thousands are now dead who might have been saved, had this government followed what was known to have been best practice in February. They should be held to account, at the very least through the demand that they now do everything possible to make things better for those who survive.

But it seems this demand is being held back by the fear of undermining Brexiteer myths. The self-deluded cling to their delusion as if their identities depend on it (as they too often do). The blind are leading the sighted.

There is no adequate compensation for the lives that have been destroyed or fractured by the crisis, but the very least we can do in their memory is take the opportunity to build something better than we had before; better ways of doing work, politics, and not least caring for our environment. That’s undoubtedly a challenge to the EU itself, which has also hardly emerged from this crisis covered in glory.

A more statesman-like prime minister than Boris Johnson would now see the opportunity to build a relationship with the EU that enabled both sides to do better in the future. That would require powers of honest self-criticism and imagination that sadly seem far beyond Johnson and his circle of dunces.

And that’s a problem for the rest of us. Like Ricky Gervais’ Tony I would like to be able to see these people with compassion and care, to be able to work with them to make something better for all of us. But as long as they continue to behave like scoundrels and blockheads, it’s hard to put aside the scorn. I want to see hope, but I fear we’ll have to go through more (and unnecessary trouble) to get to it.

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