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On Not-Brexit Day – a Remainer’s lament

March 29, 2019

Today was supposed to be the day on which Britain regained its sovereignty and took back control. Instead, political chaos has become the new normal.

Cast your mind back five years, to before the referendum, and before David Cameron even promised a referendum. At that time there was a coalition government, and outside, on the fringes, a UK Independence party that was incapable of getting even one of its members elected. Most of us took it for granted that we were members of the European Union. We might have griped about the EU, but life outside it seemed unthinkable.

As a political talking point, except among a small minority of right-wingers in the Conservative Party and the ever-vocal chippy Kippers led by their bantam cock of a leader, Nigel Farage, leaving the EU was a non-issue. Nobody had heard of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Boris Johnson was a reasonably successful mayor of London whose reputation was as much for buffoonery as for political sagacity. Theresa May was an authoritarian Home Secretary who made an enemy of the police as she presided over cuts in numbers.

Jeremy Corbyn was an insignificant figure at the far left of his party, known mainly as the whipping boy of right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail for his links with Irish republicans, Hamas and socialist Venezuela. The Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland was the throwback creature of the swivel-eyed Reverend Ian Paisley.

Members of Parliament did not regularly receive death threats, and the prospect of one of them being murdered by a right-wing thug would have been unimaginable. Anti-Semitism lurked in the closet. The leader of the Labour Party was Jewish. Islamophobia was obvious enough but open expression was mainly confined to the far-right fringe groups.

We British took for granted that we would be able to travel where we liked within the EU, and when we came back, we could walk unchallenged through the blue channel at customs. Most of us were blissfully unaware of the procedures that enabled us to import and export foodstuffs, medicine and parts for industry without delays. As the result, our food was cheaper than ever, drugs were always available and our manufacturers benefited from alliances with partners across the channel.

London was the sixth-largest French city in terms of population. Baristas from Latvia, Romania and Poland rubbed shoulders with locals. Yes, we were becoming increasingly concerned about immigration, but an increasing number of British citizens made their homes in EU countries such as France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Our politicians failed to distinguish between immigrants from the EU, who would come and go, and from people who were not EU citizens, and were likely to stay put. Many of the latter were refugees, but others were allowed into the country because they had skills we lacked.

Crime was more or less as it is today – violence, drugs, gangs, fraud, theft and sexual offences – with one significant difference: knife crimes didn’t occupy the headlines on a daily basis.

As a nation we couldn’t be described as totally at ease with ourselves. But we rubbed along together reasonably well, and when we identified issues that concerned us, such as the widening inequality gap, usually – give or take a riot or two – we debated it with civility.

What the hell has happened to us since then?

Well, obviously, Brexit.

But Brexit was merely the convenient vehicle for discontent. The ground was already fertile. It was waiting for the seeds of anger to be planted and to flower as hatred. A large section of the population was suffering from the economic consequences of the 2008 crash, in the sense that their lives were not improving as they might have expected in an age when economic growth was taken for granted. Austerity – the cutting back of services the government provided in exchange for taxation – exacerbated the problem, and in some areas made hardship and resentment far worse than before.

If Brexit had not been mooted, where else would the resentment have broken out? Against the wealthy most likely. In fact it was Labour’s commitment to end austerity and redistribute the nation’s wealth that most likely caused the upset in the 2017 General Election, depriving the Conservatives of the handsome majority the opinion polls had led them to expect.

If the root cause of Brexit lies in economics, it could just as easily be argued that the same applied to the rise of Nazism in Germany. Although Hitler had gained some traction before the crash of 1929, it was surely the Great Depression that gave him critical mass. I’m not comparing the Brexiteers with Nazis, though some of them undoubtedly are, but I wonder how many Germans in the late 1920s expected their government to turn into genocidal gangsters within a few years. Was anti-Semitism so deep-rooted in German culture that it was inevitable that they would swallow the Nazi message of blaming the Jews for all of the nation’s agonies? I doubt it, just as I doubt that the European Union was the natural scapegoat for Britain’s problems.

Assuming that economic hardship was the seed, then the fertilisers for what we have become were many and varied. The toxic role of the social media in spreading lies and hatred at lightning speed; the platform the referendum campaign coverage gave to minority opinion on the far right both within and beyond the Conservative party; the BBC’s role in giving disproportionate weight to those minority opinions in the pursuit of a doctrine of balanced coverage; the normalisation of political lying by the likes of Donald Trump; the virulence, bordering on incitement to breach public order, of the Daily Mail and its paler imitators. And finally, a Prime Minister whose Thatcher-like doggedness and determination was leavened by inflexibility and the inability to persuade, whose shyness denied her the Churchillian virtues of wit and charm.

So today, on Not-Brexit Day, we are no clearer about our future than we were on 23 June 2016. I have consistently argued for a second referendum. That may or may not happen. But my overwhelming feeling on what was supposed to be an epic day is one of loss. My country is broken, and it will not easily be fixed whether or not we remain in the European Union, as I fervently hope we will.

Just as survivors of the First World War remembered the summer of 1914 as the golden finale to a hundred years of peace and prosperity (for some at least), will we look back to 2014 as a time of relative equilibrium that was shattered by an ill-considered act of national mutilation?

The first decade and a half of this century was far from a golden age. It was mercurial and brutal in many parts of the world, and we in Britain did not escape the consequences. But although I’m a natural optimist, and I believe in our ability to adapt to adverse circumstances, I can’t find much to celebrate on Brexit Day.

All is not doom and gloom, though. It’s a glorious sunny day where I’m writing this. England has a promising football team; the cricketers aren’t bad either. And thanks to today’s vote in the Commons, we’ll be able to get hold of cava and camembert for a few more days. All is not yet lost.

From → Politics, Social, UK

  1. Brexit hqs been q complete disaster from beginning to end — going right back to David Cameron’s idiot idea of holding a referendum, and then making it all about him, in the first place.

    Any optimism I may have had about the UK has been thoroughly burned off by now. If Britain is to avoid crashing out in two weeks, Parliament is going to have to make a decision. This is something that they have proved singularly incapable of achieving.

  2. Stuart Herd permalink

    A large number of our MP’s simply were not prepared to carry out the wishes of 17 million voters. Hopefully all those who did not will be facing de-selection for the next election.

    • Perhaps, but you could also argue that some of them were carrying out the wishes of the other 16 million voters, including me. S

  3. Abdullah Wallace permalink

    As usual, Steve, a brilliant and (in this case) frightening analysis of events with a peek into the future by a jaded optimist. Oh God, how I wish it were different.

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