‘I’VE been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.” Thus did the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, wring some extra harrumphing (is that even possible?) from the Brexitannia Chorus the other day.

But I detect a jolt of extra outrage, coming from the specific imagery that Tusk deployed. Coincidentally, as the news flashed everywhere, I was listening to the excellent Talking Politics podcast from the London Review of Books.

There, two otherwise dispassionate intellectuals regularly referred to the “hell” or “hellish” consequences of a no-deal exit.

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It’s a staple of journalistic foreign reporting – that an area torn apart by civil war or conflict is described as a “hell-zone” or “hell on earth”.

The Westminster Government has used the threat of social breakdown to herd MPs (and voters) to accept their deal – everything from right-wing uprisings to troops on the streets, from food riots to evacuated royalty. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Tusk reached for such an absolute term.

The “special place in hell” line itself has a robust history (Tusk is nothing if not urbane). The phrase fits in the mouths of self-conscious “deciders”.

Madeleine Albright is the most recent notable user. She shouted, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” at a 2016 election rally for Hillary Clinton.

History tells us that its most illustrious user was John F Kennedy, who regularly studded his campaign speeches with the trope in the 1960s. Take this one from Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1959: “To sound the alarm is not to panic but to seek action from an aroused public.

“For, as the poet Dante once said: ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.’”

Were those the great Italian medieval poet’s exact words? No – but a little literary digging repays hugely.

A translation from Canto 3 of the Inferno reads: “This miserable way is taken by the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise. They now comingle with the coward angels, the company of those who were not rebels nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.”

Essentially, Dante is saying that those who had only watched the way the wind blew, as the affairs of the world rumbled on, deserved an especially painful place in hell.

This cuts across Tusk’s version somewhat. He is consigning Gove, Johnson, Farage and Rees-Mogg to the flames for their incompetence and clumsiness, rather than for their indifference or quietism. They craved Brexit, but didn’t expect to win. Therefore they simply hadn’t properly considered issues like the Irish border and its delicate status, or frictionless trading relations with Europe.

The National:

Indeed, JFK’s version of Dante’s “special place” might be better applied to Corbyn’s constructive ambiguities around Brexit.

The Labour leader has been worried about his Leave-voting constituencies. So has he properly “sounded the alarm” about the economic and social damages that follow any form of exit from the European Union? And haven’t the SNP and the Greens, at the very least, avoided that particular hotspot in Tusk’s hell?

There’s more cultural context around this hellish phrase that could explain why it’s caused such a fuss. As an ex-Catholic altar boy and reader of scripture, I have conjured with enough cautionary images of hell in my life. In student years, I was delighted to finally consign them to the flames of my atheism and materialism.

Or for that matter, my pragmatism. BBC News’s Laura Kuenssberg, never short for a cliche, popped up at a Theresa May press conference during the week. She asked the PM if the Brexit process was “more of an endless purgatory than a special place in hell”.

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May’s aspiration may well be to pass across the deadline of Brexit in a cloud of blurred red-lines and cloudy compromises. But if it is a purgatorial pseudo-Brexit, lost in the gray zone, this implies a slow return to the “heaven” of the acquis communitaire (May didn’t embrace Laura’s distinction).

If you read some of the core Christian definitions of hell, you begin to wonder whether Tusk has invoked the symbol with some precision.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church tells us that: “Hell is but the local consequence of an ultimate adherence to the soul’s own will, and thus rejection of the will of God. Because God cannot take away free will, this necessarily separates the soul from God, and hence from all possibility of happiness.”

Cast Brexitannia as a wilful, self-determining soul, and the EU as the will of God, and a shaft of light illuminates one of the core anxieties of the Brexiteers.

An arbitrary, lofty superstructure, suffused with a sanctimonious sense of its own destiny and rightness, assumes that its writ should eventually overrun any of its fallen, forked and rebellious subjects… No wonder John Bull, straining his Henry the Eighth gussets, has swelled up to his full spherical dimensions. Tusk has theologically damned Brexit by association. In particular, he has used the full authority of his Brussels pulpit to deliver a “Particular Judgement” (as the theologians would put it).

Let loose the galleons, Commander Drake! Etc, etc. But the scholarship on hell actually throws up a very beautiful alternative metaphor for a particular hell (and a particular heaven).

This metaphor very much suits a Scottish national polity getting ready (hopefully) to make its leap to the side of Europe, to avoid the Brexit juggernaut. We may face dialogues with urbane Polish Eurocrats. And this may require rhetorical fuel.

So let us consider the parable of the long spoons. The story actually appears in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Japanese and Chinese folk legends. So it must be getting at something. The eager student wants to know: what is the difference between heaven and hell? The teacher explains: “In hell, hungry people sit around a table, that spills over with food. But they are starving, because they are trying to feed themselves – and the spoons are too long and unwieldy.”

What about heaven? “Well, in heaven, the hungry people are using the spoons to feed each other”.

Does the EU deserve such a parable? As the renegade economist Yanis Varoufakis has already pointed out, some Eurocrats should certainly be cast into a particular furnace of Hades. “It’s that place reserved for those who designed a monetary union [the Eurozone] without a proper banking union”, Varoufakis tweeted. “Once the banking crisis hit, they cynically transferred the bankers’ gigantic losses onto the shoulders of the weakest taxpayers”.

Touché. And no indy-minded Scot should go into the next stage of this process with blue eyes dripping yellow stars. But let’s start to imagine the stories, the traditions of ideas, the conceptual and intellectual resources, that we can bring to the European conversation.

We’re not short of them. And we should try to inspire, as a means to reform. Big, long spoons at the ready.