Freddie Mercury was a man who believed in going all the way to the brink. Watching the film Bohemian Rhapsody on a long-haul flight last week, I was reminded of what an extraordinary risk-taker he was. As a rule, I am not a great consumer of rock band biopics. In fact, I used to think that This Is Spinal Tap had killed the genre for ever. Yet somehow you can’t stop watching Bohemian Rhapsody, mainly because of Rami Malek’s mesmerising performance as a rather-too-toothy Freddie.
Brinkmanship was the way Mercury lived his life — not only his bisexual love life, but also his musical life. Bohemian Rhapsody was as revolutionary a pop song as anything since the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper. I vividly remember becoming obsessed with it over the 1975 Christmas holidays. Borrowing a cassette recorder from my parents, I bootlegged it from Radio 1 so that I could explore over and over again its strange six-part structure and mock opera libretto.
It was indeed brinkmanship that led to the release of the song as a single. The film casts Mike Myers as a stereotypical record label executive. “What on earth is it about?” Ray Foster rants incredulously. “Scaramouche? Galileo? And all that Bismillah business. It goes on for ever — six bloody minutes!” To overcome this kind of resistance, Queen simply handed a tape of the song to the Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, who “accidentally” played it on his show. This was true musical brinkmanship. It must surely have breached the band’s contract with EMI. But, of course, it worked, forcing the record company to release one of the biggest hits in its history. So brinkmanship can succeed. The big question of 2019 is how far the Freddie Mercury approach can be safely applied to politics.
Brinkmanship is a word with a long history. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, described “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war” as “the necessary art”: “If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into a war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” For Dulles, brinkmanship meant that the United States must be willing to threaten nuclear war to resist communist expansion, whether it threatened Berlin or obscure islands off Taiwan.
This high-stakes approach was much criticised by liberals, who feared nuclear Armageddon more than they feared the consequences of appeasing the Soviet Union. Yet Eisenhower’s Democrat successor, John F Kennedy, gave a masterclass in brinkmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
When Kennedy learnt that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles on Cuba, he decided to impose a naval blockade to halt further Soviet shipments of military hardware to the island. In a television address, he issued an ultimatum, demanding the withdrawal of missiles. In case Moscow did not comply, Kennedy ordered the preparation of an invasion force — unaware that the Soviets already had enough battlefield nuclear missiles on Cuba to destroy any invading army.
Saturday, October 27, 1962, was probably the day in history when the world came closest to destruction. At 10.22am an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet SA-2 rocket, fired by the local Soviet commander without authorisation from Moscow. Meanwhile, another U-2 had unintentionally strayed into Soviet airspace near the Bering Strait. When Soviet MiGs took off to intercept it, Alaskan-based F-102As were scrambled.
Robert McNamara, the defence secretary, recalled stepping outside the White House after a harrowing meeting of the National Security Council’s “ExComm” to savour the sunset. He wanted “to look and to smell it”, he later said, “because I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see”.
We know now that Kennedy’s brinkmanship paid off. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was sufficiently intimidated to cut a secret back-channel deal, whereby he agreed to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba if the Americans withdrew theirs from Turkey. But did that seem the most likely outcome that Saturday night? No. One senior Kremlin adviser telephoned his wife and told her to “drop everything and get out of Moscow”.
The stakes are much lower today, it’s true. But the tactics are similar in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Thus far, President Trump’s brinkmanship has not served him well in his battle to force Democrats to fund his Mexican border wall. But he is still going to the brink with the Chinese. If there is no significant progress in the trade talks between the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and his Chinese counterpart, Liu He, Trump will raise tariffs on $200bn of Chinese imports from 10% to 25%. Without a stay of execution, that will happen at 12.01am Washington time on March 2.
Less than four weeks later, at 11pm UK time on Friday, March 29, the UK will crash out of the European Union with no transitional arrangements in place if Theresa May cannot get some version of her withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons. In each case, going over the brink means not war but significant economic disruption.
People in the City who are paid to attach probabilities to negative scenarios seem confident that Trump will postpone the tariff hike and Britain will avoid a no-deal Brexit. But the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody keep haunting me: “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide, / No escape from reality.” Are you singing along, Theresa May?
As March 29 draws inexorably nearer, will it be a case of “Too late, my time has come”? Perhaps this is the true meaning of the mysterious song, written during the period when Britain joined the European Community and released five months after the 1975 referendum: “Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go. / Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.”
Certainly, the way some members of the European Research Group conducted themselves last week recalled Freddie in full flow. “So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye,” they sang as they inflicted yet another defeat on the prime minister. “Oh baby, can’t do this to me, baby, / Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.”
The song ends fatalistically with a refrain of “Nothing really matters, / Nothing really matters to me.” As the short life of Freddie Mercury made clear, that “que sera, sera” state of mind is often associated with those who practise brinkmanship. High-stakes risk-taking made Queen one of the most successful rock bands ever. But it also meant that Freddie was dead at 45.
As I watch the games of political brinkmanship being played on both sides of the Atlantic, I wonder if people are underestimating just how quickly rhapsody can turn to ruin.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, is now available as a Penguin paperback