'I imagine this must have been what Munich was like in 1938,' Alan Bennett wrote in his diary on 24 June, 'half the nation rejoicing at a supposed deliverance, the other half stunned by the country’s self-serving cowardice'. Four months later, on 15 October, Matthew Parris made another historical comparison. 'We British are on our way to making the biggest screw-up since Suez and, somewhere deep down, the new governing class know it,' he wrote in The Times. 'We are heading for national humiliation, nobody’s in charge, and nobody knows what to do.'
Munich, Suez: these are big British cock-ups, no doubt – though you could argue that appeasing Hitler at least gave Britain more time to re-arm – but I wonder if, in terms of a needlessly self-inflicted catastrophe (absolutely nobody’s fault but our own), either of them approaches the scale of Brexit. The problem is our love of the 'the worst/ largest/ wettest/ hottest’ formula, which really only works with the phrase '… since records began’. We have to get used to the idea, both in climate and in politics, that disasters don’t necessarily have a comparable precedent.
I wasn’t around for Munich but I do remember the Suez invasion, which occurred when I was in my first year at Dunfermline High School. One morning we gathered for the morning hymn and prayer to find a large radio – I imagine names such as Hilversum and Holme Moss were marked on its dial – placed centre-stage on the assembly hall platform. The rumour spread that we were about to hear the prime minister say something grave, but that didn’t happen. Nothing much happened at all, in fact; by the next morning the radio had gone. Suez may have demonstrated that Britain was no longer the world power it thought it was, but the big change to local life was that the petrol shortage reduced the frequency of our village’s bus service from three to two an hour, which was how it remained ever after. Like the empire, there was no bringing the extra bus back.
A historian friend has invited me to lunch at the House of Lords. I have never been to lunch there before. 'M’lord, your table is ready,’ the waiter announces. More m’lording follows. 'The menu, m’lord, the beef, m’lord, thank you, m’lord.’ This shouldn’t come as a surprise to me – it’s called the House of Lords after all – and yet it does. I find it excruciating. Are the waiters mocking my host, who lives humbly in Walthamstow? Are they like the staff in gentlemen’s outfitters who, despite their mean wages, seem always to be looking down their noses at you while all the time calling you 'Sir’? The House of Lords, like the shirt emporia of Jermyn Street, is no place for the socially insecure.
Shirley Williams, aka Baroness Williams of Crosby, once said that, in politics, men always felt happier if they could put their women colleagues into one of four categories: the dragon, the sexpot, the carer, or the chum. 'And you were the chum, deliberately the chum?’ Peter Hennessy asked her in one of his Radio 4 extended interviews (recently published under the title 'Reflections: conversations with politicians'), to which Williams replied she was most certainly was. She didn’t fancy the maternal role in Labour cabinets, while the trouble with being a sexpot was that you’d be 'an unsuccessful and unsatisfactory sexpot once you pass the age of 45 or 50, which is exactly when you’re likely to get positions of responsibility in politics…’
The categories don’t seem very progressive; really, we should be considering the opposite – the four kinds of men that would flourish under a matriarchy. But the fact that a woman came up with the idea allows us to pursue the following question: where would the new, more powerful generation of women fit? Nicola Sturgeon as the sexpot, Ruth Davidson as the chum, Theresa May as the dragon, Kezia Dugdale as the mother? That doesn’t seem to work, but nor does any other variation, not completely. The one persuasive constant is Davidson as the chum – 'Hello boys, what are ye having? The next round’s on me'. Long ago, I think I may have met her as the cheery girl in charge of the picnic hamper in Enid Blyton’s adventures of the Famous Five.
On a recent Saturday we took the train to Herne Bay, a resort (or more accurately an ex-resort) that lies on the Thames estuary between Whitstable and Margate. 'One of the prettiest and best of the smaller watering places on this coast,’ says my 'Guide to Seaside Watering Places' for the 1903 season. 'The aspect is delightful, there is a fine open sea [and] the esplanade extends along the front for about a mile.’
The station is quite a way inland. We walked through streets of sometimes unkempt 1930s bungalows until we found what remains of the pier, the far end of which has stood isolated and rotting in the sea after a storm demolished the connecting walkway nearly 40 years ago. Waves the colour of dishwater broke on the pebbles. A few people muffled up against the damp walked up and down the promenade, stopping to look at a new statue of the aviator Amy Johnson, who died (her body was never recovered) when her plane crashed offshore in 1941. This is Johnson’s only connection with Herne Bay, if, that is, death somewhere at sea amounts to a connection at all. The town has obviously been advised – I imagine by 'consultants’ – to make the most of it, Herne Bay-connected celebrities being in short supply.
At the café near the bandstand I had quite the worst sandwich I can ever remember eating – and my memory stretches back to the days of golden syrup and potted hough (not together). Two pieces of ready-sliced white had been spread with margarine. In between lay a thick slice of cheese so flavourless, so chewy, so lumpen that I imagine it arrived in a giant block labelled 'English-style cheese’ from a plastics factory in Moldova. All around us, customers were forking their way through baked potatoes heaped high with vivid fillings. Nobody looked rich.
The rain that had held off now began.
'Say what you like about the Clyde,’ I said, remembering the wetness, 'but it has nowhere as depressing as this'.
'You haven’t been to Saltcoats recently,’ said my son, who lodged for two successive winters in Largs.
'At least from Saltcoats you can see Arran…’
We argued amiably on our walk along the front. Here and there a flag of St George flew from a house or a garden. The flatlands on either side of the Thames estuary, here in Kent and in Essex across the water, have recently seen some momentous events. It was on this muddy and neglected coastline that two Tory MPs defected to UKIP; that Nigel Farage nearly won South Thanet; that Emily Thornberry came close to ending her career as a Labour MP by tweeting a picture from a housing estate in Strood. When the history of Brexit comes to be written – a tragic history, in my view – at least a chapter should be devoted to the sociology of the Thames estuary: geographically the closest part of England to Europe and emotionally the furthest away. Forget Saltcoats. There is no stranger part of these islands.