American anglophile writer Bill Bryson once explained why British people talk about the weather: they have such a lot of it. On any given spring day in the UK, it’s as if God is channel surfing through the weather settings with his cosmic remote. Unfortunately, some time in 2016 this also began to apply to British politics. The UK referendum of June 23, 2016, on whether to leave the European Union, involved some despicable campaigning, outright lies, enormous xenophobia, and — on one horrifically sobering day — the murder of Jo Cox, a pro-Remain MP.
After the shock victory was announced for the Leave campaign, the hysteria continued. Those who wanted to remain in the EU were heartbroken, and the pro-Leave newspapers — being the vast majority of the British press — became ever more hectoring and hysterical about anything but the most extreme interpretations of how Brexit could be arranged.
It’s like taking an astrophysics exam when nobody wrote the textbook and the laws of physics are a little fuzzy.
In spring 2017, sensing that what the country needed right now was definitely more politics, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap election. Having taken over after the resignation of David Cameron following the Brexit vote, May was acutely aware that she had no electoral mandate of her own. She chose her timing with laser-sharp cynicism. At this point, two things seemed certain: the left-of-center parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, were in such disarray that May would sail to victory with her right-wing Conservative party. Secondly, that upon sealing her status, May would have a clear mandate to see through the Brexit negotiations any way she damn well pleased. For this reason, it was billed as the “Brexit Election.”
There is a problem with this, however. On all ends of the political spectrum, barely any British politicians knows the faintest thing about Brexit, nor do they seem to want to. To give an idea of the complexities, I turn to Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
Now substitute “space” for “Brexit” and “the chemist” with “this election.” This is roughly the comparative scale of the tasks ahead: Brexit is simply not, by any metric, election-campaign-shaped or sized. Nothing like this has been done before. It’s like taking an astrophysics exam when nobody ever wrote the textbook, and even the laws of physics themselves are a little fuzzy and apparently gravity happens anyway, and as long as it’s that convenient, it had better not be questioned.
Brexit is referred to in purely totemic terms, a distant fate with the quality of the will of the gods, or, well, the weather.
Of course it’s not as easy as pressing a reset button, no matter how over simplified the arguments may have been around the referendum to leave or stay in the EU. The European Union is made up of 27 countries, any of which had the power to veto a trade deal, and 44 percent of the UK’s current exports go to the EU. Not only this, but everything, literally everything, from human rights law to freedom of movement, to the regulations on what qualifies as a Cornish pasty are affected by this. It must now all be renegotiated from the start, and there is no way to hurry this process, particularly given the UK’s chronic lack of negotiating personnel. The UK does have a position of some leverage —offering a well developed financial services sector, massive cultural clout, contributing a lot to the intelligence community, and possessing a relatively large purchasing power — but this must be done with a body of countries whose main interest is to discourage anyone from leaving the EU ever again.
Brexit is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big Brexit is. And the problem with knowing just a little bit about the scale of the task ahead means one can quickly become the equivalent of a madman running down the high street with their pants on their head shouting that the end is nigh.
The party leaders know it, and this is not a good election look. The only party willing to face it — the Liberal Democrats — will pay dearly today for even daring to point it out.
Accordingly, the tone of the “Brexit election” has been quite studiously about anything else — Did Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn give a speech at a rally attended by Muslim extremists? Will Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron allow his homophobia to influence his politics? What exactly is Theresa May’s idea of fun? It also doesn’t help that, beyond Brexit, the UK’s domestic political questions are at red-alert levels of urgency on their own. Brexit, when spoken of, is referred to in purely totemic terms, a distant fate with the quality of the will of the gods, or, well, the weather.
So no matter how the vote goes today, one thing is certain: the country will emerge no more equipped to look Brexit in the eye than it was after the EU referendum. This problem is gargantuan in terms of its practical and economic outcomes, but Britain’s inability to face things goes deeper than that.
The shock of the Brexit vote last year was intensely emotional. I blame the nineties. When a progressive citizen comes of age in a culturally upbeat era, i.e. early New Labour, her political consciousness is imbued with the sense that the arc of the universe really does curve towards progress. After that time was over, the setbacks were experienced more politically than emotionally. In the Tory governments that followed, great institutions of tolerance and fairness were being unworked through austerity, but one could assume this was fixable via policy within the relatively short span of a few electoral cycles. My default assumption was that, if inequalities like racism were on the return, it was probably part of a silly anti-PC backlash that would eventually tail off. This depended on the idea that because it was “only” a culture war, it was a surface-level phenomenon.
The UK will emerge from this vote no more equipped to look Brexit in the eye than it was after the EU referendum.
Brexit is basically irreversible. On the morning of the result I shoved this knee-jerk post onto Medium and was surprised to find that more people than usual shared my intense anger. It wasn’t just the dismay that I had felt upon the Conservative victory in 2005 that ushered in an era of disastrous austerity measures. It was a rage almost directly at the generation above me, who had decided on my behalf who I would be for the rest of my life. It was no longer “merely culture” (culture never is). This “who we are” bound us not only to constitutional questions we’ve basically never had to answer, but to a statement on the very character of the country. Through the result, the worst thing possible had crept up on those of us Brits who are skeptical of borders and nation-states: these two defining matters of nationality and culture had become fused, inseparable, and irrefutable, in a single decision.
Brexit made it very clear to the world what “we” Brits are. We are the kind of people who can look at immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean and think about cockroaches. We can look at one of the longest and most prosperous peacekeeping alliances in history, and query how to split the bill because we didn’t order a starter and only had one glass of wine. We are the kind of people who, despite all evidence to the contrary, found it best to pin our failings on foreigners. We are so ill-educated about our own past that we’ll sulk in the face of anyone who suggests the empire is not something to be proud of. We are the kind of people who can be whipped into a self-righteous frenzy by utterly irresponsible political talk about a war for Gibraltar. We are the kind of people who would rip up our own human rights and privacy laws in order to create the exact fear-filled society that terrorists would like us to. And when nobody is left to recognize our odd little fantasies about ourselves, we get up and leave.
The petty attitudes above are largely aimed at British people out of political expedience, but this is also what the EU sees and hears, and this is what it will come to the negotiating table prepared to face. The tone of British political and media debate throughout the year — with its crushing of saboteurs and enemies of the state — made it very clear that if you feel differently, you are in the margins. You are only 48 percent of the UK, and any vision you have counts neither in the eyes of our political leaders nor in those of the rest of the world.
In a 2007 essay about the effects of globalization on the western mindset, novelist Rana Dasgupta describes a curious foreshortening of the imagination. He talks about two different versions of HG Wells’ science-fiction classic The Time Machine. In each case, civilization has divided humankind into an underclass and an effete ruling class, bred to an attitude of total decadence, indolence and futility. However, while in the original 1937 story this decline took hundreds of thousands of years — hence needing a time machine — in the 2002 rendering of the story, it came about as a much more sudden collapse (by 2037, to be precise, though in reality of course Dasgupta’s readers only waited a few short months for the financial crisis of 2008 to hit, so, go figure). When faced with ever more ungraspable forces of change, there appears a brick wall in the imagination: an absolute inability to think through the playbook and envision, step by step, what it might take to get through this.
Britain’s politicians have cultivated a population too narrow-minded to take on board the scope of what must come next. No matter what this election brings, the UK will wake up tomorrow with no better idea of what Brexit means on any level.