Tue 11 May 2021

Otto English on why the Brexit Party MEPs’ decision to turn their backs on the EU’s anthem is more worrying than just being a mere stunt.

On Monday night, on the eve of the opening of the new EU parliamentary session, Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party MEPs gathered at a restaurant in Strasbourg and had a slap-up meal. Over dinner, presumably at taxpayers’ expense, they plotted.

The following morning, as MEPs from the 28 EU nations gathered at the Parliament, the Brexit Party MEPs began to tweet furiously. 

The aptly named Dr David Bull, former host of Living TV’s ‘Most Haunted Live!’ and his colleague Martin Daubney – former editor of Loaded magazine – both seemed perplexed to find that that, having been elected as MEPs, they were now in a ‘parliament’.

“You cannot grasp the sheer excess of this until you sit here,” Daubney wrote. “It’s like something out of Star Wars: an interplanetary nightmare all funded by taxpayers.”

“We enter to arm ourselves with democracy’s weapons. If democracy is foolish enough to give us free railway passes and salaries, that is its problem”

Joseph Goebbels

And then, having said their bit, they fell silent as the opening of the new parliamentary session began.

Sitting right at the back of the chamber, the Brexit Party MEPs including Claire Fox, smoked fish tycoon Lance Foreman and Brian Montieth – up for the day from his home in the South of France – waited. And then, as a small youth orchestra struck up with the first chords of “Ode to Joy”, they rose as one and turned their backs on the Parliament in a solemn and dignified protest at, well, to be honest, it wasn’t very clear.

Usually these stunts go quite well for Farage, but this time it was different. The universal consensus, even in Brexit quarters, seemed to be that it was all very moronic.

Taken aback by the reaction, individual Brexit Party MEPs took to the airwaves trying to claim that it was “spontaneous”. But, given that UKIP had done exactly the same thing in 2014, nobody was buying that. 

“We turned our backs on a flag and anthem (sic) that nobody voted for that represents an institution with no mandate!” James Wells MEP tweeted excitedly – and quite wrongly.

“Ode to Joy” was adopted by the European Union in 2008 after a decisive vote in the EU Parliament by a majority of 503 votes to 96. Discussions around it and the flag were held as far back as 1985, with our then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher backing the decision. The piece, part of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, is considered to be one of the most affecting pieces in the classical repertoire. The words were added from a Schiller poem written in 1785 and they are literally what they say on the sheet music – an ‘Ode to Joy’, a celebration of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind.

Given all that, it was unsurprising perhaps to see Ann Widdecombe turn her back on it – but what of the convivial Mr Farage?

“I think it is really disgraceful and I am not going to stand to attention for this anthem, no way,” he told reporters, sounding every bit like a child who has been told he can’t have another ice cream. “I will show respect for any anthem of any other country in the world, but not a false creation like this one.”

“False creation”? Does Mr Farage think that the ‘sovereign nations’, on which he is so keen, are natural phenomena – like flowers, or hernias or Mark Francois? It’s persistently fascinating to note which parts of the EU Mr Farage chooses to “respect”. He’s happy to take home the €101,808 salary every year, and he’s even prepared to overlook the bit in the £39 billion divorce bill that includes his pension, but sitting quietly through a bit of Beethoven? Forget it!

There was a more ominous resonance in this otherwise wretched ‘demonstration’.

Twitter users, including myself, were quick to point out that all of this back-turning looked rather familiar. In 1930, members of the NSDAP (Nazi party) turned their backs on the German Reichstag as Fritz Lowenthal, a Jewish left-wing deputy, spoke and a picture quickly emerged of the scene which bore unnerving similarities.

Claire Fox and a number of Farage’s MEPs took gross exception to the parallel. 

“It is telling that gotcha journos and ultra Remain supporters seem to think that Nazism can be reduced to a visual demonstration,” she tweeted. “Really? Jeez, historical understanding, depth and complexity really suffers when political argument becomes reduced to trolling abuse.”

Usually these stunts go quite well for Farage, but this time it was different. The universal consensus, even in Brexit quarters, seemed to be that it was all very moronic.

Brave words from a woman who had trolled an entire Parliament just hours before. Ms Fox had perhaps forgotten the words of her great hero, Karl Marx, who – writing on Hegel in 1852 – argued that all history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, the second time as farce”.

One of those NSDAP members who turned his back on the Reichstag in 1930, a certain Joseph Goebbels, once justified his party’s reasons for standing in elections – in what they saw as a ‘fake democracy’ – in terms not unfamiliar today.

“We enter to arm ourselves with democracy’s weapons,” he wrote in April 1928. “If democracy is foolish enough to give us free railway passes and salaries, that is its problem. It does not concern us. Any way of bringing about the revolution is fine by us.” 

Frightening huh.

Much of this ongoing Brexit pantomime can seem amusing or silly at times, and it’s as easy to dismiss the antics of Farage as it is to lambast those who invoke the Nazis. But, when you read quotations like that, it feels awfully like a warning from the history Claire Fox is so eager for us to study.

Meet Otto English at this summer’s Byline Festival

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