Print Edition - 2019-04-03  |  The Guardian

The Brexit calamity

  • Our response to the crisis has been too English
- JOHN HARRIS

Apr 3, 2019-

In the classic sense of a very modern word, we are being trolled. Yet the outward mood of many people opposed to Brexit remains subdued, weary and fatalistic. As austerity grinds on and the social fabric carries on fraying, the impossibility of leaving the EU without truly dire economic and social damage is self-evident. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and—no, really—Dominic Raab are jostling to get the keys to 10 Downing Street. Our system of government has creaked to a halt; the official opposition is divided, confused and often mute. Anger might seem like the most apposite response, but what we have mostly seen is a strange passivity.

Even on the march for a second referendum a week ago, the now-customary humour captured on the placards and banners too often seemed to capture a certain weariness, and the expectation of defeat: “If EU leave me now, EU’ll take away the biggest part of me”; “Think about the halloumi prices”; “I’m not one to make a fuss but the past couple of years have been, quite frankly, farcical”. By the time I came upon an ad hoc sound system blaring out Kool & The Gang’s Celebration in Trafalgar Square, the dissonances had become too much to bear. I was in a party of five, and we all awkwardly joined in. But why? What was there to celebrate? How exactly were we actually meant to feel?

The answers, perhaps, lay in the fact that we were in England. Undoubtedly, there was a certain fury in many people’s minds, but the carapace of irony and self-deprecation that obscured it brought to mind one of the ingrained aspects of national identity pointed out by the social anthropologist Kate Fox. In her classic book Watching the English, she writes about the deep layers of performance and self-mockery that smother even heartfelt misery and anger.

People have spent two years calling for a “people’s vote” when what they actually wanted was the cancellation of the whole thing. Pro-remain MPs and campaigners now fixate on Norway-plus, common market 2.0 and MVs 3 and 4, but too often avert their eyes from the deep questions of history, culture and what kind of country we are that ultimately define what this is all about.

Perhaps the framing of an issue of almost unprecedented importance in terms of arcana shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. At the start of this whole saga, let us not forget, the official remain campaign could bring itself to say little more stirring about the prospect of leaving the EU than the warning that people would be “£38 a week” worse off and that house prices would fall by “10 to 18%”. And so it has gone on. Brexit demands to be debated in the most fundamental terms—but England being England, it is too often reduced to the political equivalent of small talk.

That said, recent(ish) history has had no end of political causes that attracted an altogether more passionate response, from the struggle against the far-right upsurge of the late 1970s, through massed shows of support for CND and the miners’ strike, to the poll tax riot of 1990—the last time that street-level politics forced a change of government policy, and an event. Thirty years on, we face the final completion of a Tory project started back then, and the recasting of Britain—or,rather England—as a crabby, racist, inward-looking hole, and to what response? Jokes, mutterings, clicks, sporadic Twitterstorms, but nothing remotely comparable.

Some of the explanation lies in two missing actors in this drama: the Labour leadership—and, with one or two exceptions, big voices in what is left of the trade union movement. But there are also even bigger forces in play. Forty years of post-Thatcher individualism have done their work, so that protest is now not a matter of collective agency (in other words, “we can stop this”), but the kind of atomised conscience-salving I first glimpsed at the time of the Iraq war, with the appearance of that deathly slogan “Not in my name”. Moreover, in a world as over-mediated as ours, each day brings a different spectacle—a march, a parliamentary vote, some or other drama at the top—so simultaneously ubiquitous and short-lived that joining everything together and having any sense of clear meaning becomes all but impossible. Politics becomes fidgety; strategy is lost amid tactics. To take that down to brass tacks, even if six million signatures on the petition to revoke article 50 represents a creditable achievement, what should everyone do next?

It is part of the tragedy of Brexit that the opportunists now pushing the country towards disaster have not only been better at making their case with big stories and emotional oomph, but have not been convincingly challenged on that terrain. Whether we are talking about Tory ultra-leavers, that indefatigable chancer Nigel Farage or the new English fascists among those who turned up last week in Parliament Square, the same basic point applies: claims of treason and betrayal—let alone their ludicrous readings of history—must be contested.

Put another way, I am not sure that the best way to answer this grim coalition of wreckers is with irony and understatement, an obsession with parliamentary procedure, and platform lineups featuring Michael Heseltine. Going back four decades, there might be something in the example set by Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, and a bold, popular, singularly un-English approach memorably summed up by one of its activists: “For a while we managed to create, in our noisy, messy, unconventional way, an emotional alternative to nationalism and patriotism, a celebration of a different kind of pride and solidarity.”

Out in the everyday world, the ongoing Westminster drama feels like it only scratches the surface of what is actually going on. And so the  mad riddle of these times goes on, complete with one key mystery: that as the country drifts and the government falls apart, even the people involved in anti-Brexit protest and dissent seem confused, and far too quiet—and by the time our passions finally start stirring, it is likely to be far, far too late.

Published: 03-04-2019 10:01

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