Brexit Brings Out Some Gallows Humor in Britain

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Brexit is turning into a national humiliation. To see just how desperate the situation is, look at how some Britons are trying to make light of it.

Two videos went viral this week. In the first, BBC political commentator Chris Mason simply threw up his hands and admitted he simply hadn’t the foggiest idea what could happen next. “You might as well get Mr. Blobby back on to offer his analysis, because frankly I suspect his is now as good as mine,” he said, referring to the pink-suited, clown-faced television stalwart last seen sometime in the 1990s.

In the second clip, viewers seized on a sign-language interpreter’s take on the Brexit news — her animated expressions seemed to capture perfectly a national mood that oscillates between disbelief, disgust and denial.

The arrival of a 500-page divorce deal after nearly a year and a half of negotiations shouldn’t be a laughing matter: Britain’s government is on the brink of collapse; leaving the European Union without a deal risks economic dislocation on a scale unseen for a generation; yet Brexit’s opponents haven’t produced a workable alternative. Some want the deal ditched, others want to get rid of the prime minister, and still others think they can renegotiate. The EU, meanwhile, is saying, “Talk to the hand.”

With the stakes so high, the humor serves a coping mechanism of sorts: At a time of unprecedented uncertainty, it’s one of the only ways left for Britons to — as they were promised in the referendum — take back control.

Laughter in adversity is nothing new. The culmination of the Brexit negotiations happened to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. One clip from “Blackadder Goes Forth,” a BBC sitcom set in the trenches of the western front, resurfaced on social media. The genius of the final scene is the gut-punching power that comes from sarcasm and repartee serving as a mask that gets suddenly dropped.

The jokes about Brexit began whimsically, but have been getting more pointed by the week. Back in August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest arts festival, the subject found its way into plenty of skits, including a burlesque cabaret and a one-man show that explored the tensions between remainers and leavers. The punchline: What do Brexiters drink in the morning? Sovereign tea.

Then there were the visual gags on Twitter.

Even a local bookstore got in on the act:

The tenser the politics have grown in recent weeks, the heavier the flow of wordplay, jokes and irony. The resignation this week of Dominic Raab as Brexit secretary, the second holder of that office to walk away, really got the creative juices flowing.

“Was it not Andy Warhol who said that in the future everyone would be Brexit secretary for 15 minutes?” tweeted comedian Ian Stone.

Fellow comedian and author Shappi Khorsandi offered her services:

Meanwhile, the London Evening Standard, a newspaper edited by former Chancellor of the Exchequer and arch-remainer George Osborne, screamed on its front page: “Will the last person to leave the Cabinet please turn out the lights?”

The jokes can reveal the shifting political sands. They also help to explain why public trust in government is at such a low level.

Take one meme Brexit has spawned, a 2015 campaign message from former Prime Minister David Cameron: “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice — stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.” Cameron won; the rest isn’t quite history yet.

Yet when politicians themselves have attempted to make light of Brexit, they have mostly failed. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt — who, in all seriousness, likened membership of the European Union membership to the Soviet gulag in a recent speech — tried to joke that Brexit discussions are more straightforward than the maze at his official residence, where he posed for a photo shoot with fellow foreign ministers.

The twitterati seized on the irony of someone watching a blaring report on Brexit in the waiting area for mental health services. Or “watching the country fall apart as I sit on the floor of my overcrowded train.” Or the absurdity of it all: “Only the British could colonize half the world and then leave the EU because they don’t want immigrants.”

Brexit is full of ironies: the irony of MPs in favor of staying in the EU voting against a deal that might be the only way to prevent a costly crash-out with no deal; the sad irony that the parts of the country that most bought into the Leave campaign’s promise that Brexit would be quick and profitable stand to lose the most from leaving the EU; the shameful irony of the Labour Party, for years Britain’s pro-European party, now unable to state clearly what it wants; and the perfidious irony of Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg’s calls for, if you will, a second confidence vote on Theresa May’s leadership, but not a second referendum.

Columnist Dan Hodges noted that the people who have threatened May for months, and so far failed to topple her “are the same people who are demanding to be put in charge of the most complex international negotiation in U.K. political history.”

For all the whimsy, sarcasm and ironic asides, Brexit is no laughing matter. Behind the humor is real bitterness.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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