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Brexit: ten questions from a nation in crisis, (plus what we can learn from triumph and tragedy)

April 16, 2019

Gargoyle at Florence Cathedral

The British parliament is in recess. Time, you would have thought, for calm reflection. No such luck unfortunately. The Brexit storm rumbles on, even if it takes an unforgettable tragedy to drive it off the headlines for a day. So forgive me as I repeat myself. Under normal circumstances I would excuse my revisiting of previous themes as a symptom of advancing age. But in the case of Brexit I make no apologies.

Forgive me also for using the emotional language of an angry tweet, and for the rhetorical tone of this post. Again, I make no apologies.

As my mind hovers a few thousand feet over the ravaged landscape of British politics, these ten questions keep haunting me:

How is it that this demon unleashed by David Cameron has become a roaring, all-devouring monster?

When there are so many issues far more important than Brexit, how did it come to define our politics over the past three years?

How is it that an apology for a politician thinks it’s OK to describe references to raping Jess Phillips, a manifestly decent politician, as “satire”?

How is it that our state broadcaster, funded by the licence fees paid by you, me and millions and others, thinks fit to use a tin-pot demagogue who has failed five times to be elected to the UK parliament as its go-to interviewee on Brexit?

When an overwhelming number of businesses, public servants, research organisations, economists and academics predict a disastrous outcome if we crash out of the European Union, how come a significant group of Members of Parliament still advocate that we do so?

How dare those of us who castigate the EU for its institutional shortcomings continue to do so when our own institutions are crumbling? The situation might not have been so evident in 2016, but things have surely changed in the intervening time.

At what stage does the “will of the people” expire? After a year, three years, ten years? Or is the result of the referendum to stand immutable long after a large number of those who voted to leave are dead and buried? Will we still be gurgling about the will of the people as our country metaphorically sinks to the bottom of the North Sea?

Has nobody considered that if you held a referendum to determine the nation’s preference for oranges or bananas, those who voted for oranges might quite like bananas as well, but plumped for oranges because you made them choose one or the other? Or vice versa. And perhaps, on another day, that they might change their minds and vote for bananas? Unless of course they were bombarded with messages that bananas were bad for your health.

Why hasn’t anyone thought of hiring a bunch of electronic ticker tape displays that continually update the cost to the country of Brexit, and put them in every town and city? And while we’re at it, use the same displays to give a running count of the hospitals and schools that the ever-increasing number represents?

How come only a minority of politicians are treating the cocktail of lies, spending violations and social media manipulation that arose during the 2016 campaign as a profound threat to the future of democracy in our country? Regardless of which side we were on, are we really content to see our futures determined by bigots, data thieves and dark money?

Of course there are many potential answers to these questions depending on your viewpoint. I ask them out of a sense of exasperation and yes, anger, that our political discourse has become so coarsened by the single issue of Brexit.

I used to think that the root cause of what I see as an accidental act of self-harm was belief. Belief that a single issue would solve many problems. Belief in the idea, so cleverly inserted into our consciousness, of taking back control. Belief that we can become unbound from international obligations by gaining fictional independence. Belief that our multinational, multiracial, multi-faith present can be rolled back without damaging consequences.

But actually what I now sense is that we are beset not by belief but by disbelief. Disbelief in logic, in the view of experts no matter how compelling the evidence they present. Disbelief in what unites us as human beings rather than in what divides us as tribes. Disbelief that anything matters other than how we feel. Disbelief that what is broken can be fixed without breaking many other things in the process.

These voices of disbelief are what we hear most often these days, in private conversations, via the media and from many of our politicians. I’m a disbeliever too. I don’t believe in sunlit uplands. I don’t believe in the perfection of people, lives, societies and institutions, either past, present or in the future. Democracy, which I do believe in, is like marriage. It’s hard work. It needs nurturing, adapting and improving.

There’s a horrible message from Notre Dame, a cathedral that I adore, which tragically burned down yesterday. If you neglect a building, it will eventually fall down or, heaven forbid, go up in flames. So it is with human societies, which disintegrate through neglect, and sometimes explode into raging conflict.

There’s also an uplifting example in recent days of the power of positive belief. Tiger Woods, whose self-destructive decline led all of us golf fans to believe that his glory days were over, on Sunday overcame his physical and mental challenges to win the US Masters. In so doing he gained more respect and public affection than he ever did when he was winning everything.

Just as Tiger did, we can recover from our dark place, but only if we believe in the things that bring us together. Whether or not we leave the European Union, we can rebuild confidence in our institutions, just as the French will rebuild Notre Dame, but it will be a pointless exercise if at the same time we ignore the obvious signs of social degradation, not only in our country but in others with which we are bound together in a web of mutual dependence.

It won’t be easy, but at least we’re still standing.

From → France, Politics, Social, Sport, UK

  1. debby moggio permalink

    when is your book of collected blogs to be published?

    • Thank you for asking Debby. Trouble is, I write on a lot of subjects, and most publishers look for a relatively narrow focus. But who knows? Maybe one day I’ll self-publish. S

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