On Thursday 15 November Theresa May presented an incomprehensible draft agreement for the UK to leave the European Union. Ever since, members of Theresa May’s cabinet have been jumping ship. It looks like the British government is heading towards crashing out of the European Union with all the blind and majestic hubris of the Titanic sailing confidently towards that lethal iceberg.
An “ominshambles” is how the author Misha Glenny described it on Twitter Thursday morning. He is spot on. This absurd situation has been three years in the making. When I arrived in the UK, the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union was gathering momentum on this small, fractious island which is divided between wealthy cities and depleted towns, between young and old, between rich and poor.
There was a great deal of voter anger against precarious jobs and stagnant wages and – as in the United States – the feeling that the prosperity of a small elite section of society had been at the cost of ordinary people. A social tinderbox into which venal politicians carelessly tossed the Molotov cocktail that is Brexit. Then, Brexit seemed to be at once irrational and an exercise in extreme passive aggression. Now, after almost two years of inept negotiations, it looks like Olympic-level stupidity. For three years a country with numerous social issues – rising knife crime, child poverty, falling education standards – has expended all its energy in shooting itself in its collective foot.
The campaign to Leave the EU was both xenophobic and mendacious. It was spearheaded by the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) repugnant leader and Trump fan-boy, Nigel Farrage, along with members of the Conservative Party. Tories like Boris Johnson, an entirely principle-free man, Michael Gove and, latterly, the ludicrous Jacob Rees-Mogg – a man so posh he names his children after Roman numerals – are no better clinging as they did to the coattails of Farrage’s naked racism.
The vote for Brexit – which played on division, on people’s fears – has left this supposedly United Kingdom deeply and perhaps permanently divided. (The police are now investigating whether the British businessman, Arron Banks, illicitly bankrolled the Leave campaign. Leave sentiment was certainly inflamed by the now notorious company, Cambridge Analytica, and malignant Russian bots.)
The margin of the vote for Brexit was less than two percent but a rigid form of majoritariansim has been invoked in the name of “The Will of the British People” by political leaders who lack the imagination and the backbone to tackle this social and political impasse. In place of thought and compromise, ridiculous slogans like “Taking Back Control” or “Strong and Stable” or the absurd “Brexit means Brexit” are chanted by Brexiteers and invoked by some sections of the British press. This has been reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm where meaningless slogans are used to drown out both reason and common sense. (My apologies, people, an Orwell reference again – they are unavoidable these days and take it from me, Kafka is going to be the next go-to writer for columnists.)
The rhetoric for “Leave” is nasty, narrow and racist but it has been glossed with a sickening form of nostalgia that has allowed “Leave” to stand in for a range of political desires: that Britain could rule the waves again, that the Empire could be restored, that sovereignty – a word often used when, I suspect, supremacy is meant – would be restored and England would be England, as it had been in the mythical Olden Days before uppitiness broke out among the natives and the women and the youth.
Other less nameable, and therefore more powerful political fantasies, have been surfaced by this rhetoric used by Farrage and others. The most chilling has been the promise that if the UK voted to Leave the EU all the “foreigners” would leave. This was, perhaps, the greatest appeal about the word Leave: that “they” – the not-us, a concept that has been increasingly narrowly defined – would go back to what was once the Empire (where “we” could go and conquer and pillage); that “they” would go back to Poland, Romania, Albania, or whatever place is currently designated as the place of the “Other” comes from.
It is a dangerous notion, this one of the restoration of a mythical Origin because it is premised on a vicious fantasy of racial purity. The Leave campaign released a dangerous genie from the fragile container of British reserve, liberalism and tolerance, bringing the far right out of the crevices where they had being lying dormant. It should not be forgotten that during the Leave campaign, a vibrant young Labour MP, Jo Cox, was shot dead on a quiet Yorkshire street by a man with British National Party sympathies. Her murder was attributed to mental health issues despite the fact that her killer, a reclusive white man with a chip on his shoulder and a twisted heart, said he had done it because Cox supported Remain (in the EU) and that she was soft on immigration.
Nobody has come out of this looking good. There was enthusiastic support for Leave in working class areas with a clear swing of voters towards UKIP in traditional Labour areas. There are sections of the Labour Party that support Leave; despite the protections that membership of the EU has afforded British workers. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has, at best, been equivocal about the European project. However, because of the spectacular incompetence of the Tories and the imminent implosion of the current government, apart from a few MPs, the Labour Party has been able to sit back and watch this slow-motion disaster unfold.
Perhaps a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister will bring down the government in the next few days. Perhaps there will be an election. Perhaps there will be a second referendum, which will give the UK a chance to save itself, but I keep on thinking of an event – it could be apocryphal – that sums up current British thinking. The story was about dreadful weather (what else?) in the 1950s when an impenetrable fog blanketed the English Channel for days, slowing shipping and trade with Europe to a standstill.
The Times of London, or so it is told, ran the story under the headline: FOG IN CHANNEL, CONTINENT ISOLATED. DM