Explaining Brexit

New Yorker Cover

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s point of view to see a situation more clearly.  Recently, the New Yorker magazine starkly showed how the United Kingdom is now viewed by the rest of the world.  On its cover was a rendering of Big Ben: its venerable dial was open, and a hysterical cuckoo had popped out.  The Mother of Parliaments appears to be losing the plot: it’s clear what it doesn’t want, it’s less clear what it does want.  Theresa May is adhering to Einstein’s definition of insanity, repeating the same process and yet expecting different results.

I have lived in the United Kingdom since 1988; I recall the Poll Tax riots.  I remember the protests against the Iraq War.  I don’t recall Britain being ever so angry and divided: Leave versus Remain, old versus young, city versus rural.  I also don’t recall a time when facts were ever so secondary to raw emotion, particularly on the Leave side.

How did we get here?  Why is our political system simultaneously in freefall and meltdown?

I think we can begin by examining what has happened to the global economy since (approximately) the late 1970’s.  It used to be that if you didn’t have a university degree, you could get a job at a factory, and that factory would give you a decent wage for working on assembly line, putting together anything from cars, to television sets, to widgets. Working this way, you could sustain, more or less, a reasonable lifestyle.  Britain’s inability to control inflation eroded this, however, up until the middle of the 1970’s, most working people experienced a steady improvement in their standard of living.  The last time inequality went down in the United Kingdom was under Harold Wilson’s Labour government.

The world changed: deregulation and privatisation were factors.  Also, vast new swathes of labour, from China to Eastern Europe, opened up due to capitalist reforms and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Another key element is technology: thanks to robots, it became possible to produce more stuff with fewer workers.  The remaining workers needed better skills and more education. 

Governments, blinded by the idea that globalisation and technology are good for everyone, rushed headlong into programmes to stimulate both.  Meanwhile, the ability to achieve the material progress to which people had become accustomed slipped away.  The promise underlining nearly every Western society was, “Our children will have it better than we do”: while these kids have smartphones, this promise of progress is largely no longer true.  People perceived to be elites told those disadvantaged by change that there was no alternative.  Anger was a result.

Meanwhile, not everyone had it so good under the previous order. They began to demand change: ethnic minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, and others all began to push for their rights.  The laws relaxed, eased and moved in the direction of equality, albeit equality appears to be a journey rather than a destination.  Those bewildered by the collapse of the previous economic order may have associated social changes with the deterioration of their economic situation.  This impression was probably enhanced by the same elites saying again in the name of equality and justice, there was no alternative; in that instance, the elites were right.

Monty Python once illustrated the distance between the elites and those resistant to change by deploying a curious inversion: they did a skit which showed a typical Northern scene. In it, Graham Chapman is drinking a glass of ale, dressed in braces and a sporting a working man’s mien.  Terry Jones is dressed as a frumpy housewife.  There is a knock on the door: Eric Idle shows up wearing a grey suit and tie.  His hair is long.  It quickly emerges that it is Graham Chapman who is part of the elite, albeit speaking with a strong Yorkshire accent. He has written a play about a “nymphomaniac homosexual killer involved in the murder of a well-known Scottish footballer”. It’s due to be performed at the National Theatre.  Eric Idle has just come from Barnsley, where he works as a coal miner.  Chapman’s character suffers from a dramatic seizure of writer’s cramp; Idle’s character retreats out the exit shouting that there is “more to life than culture…there is good honest sweat”.

If anything, the distance between these two Britains has grown since the sketch was first performed.  Those left behind became more susceptible to the siren songs of demagogues: Vote Leave promised that they could “take back control” via the magic of departing the European Union.  The European Union has admittedly not helped itself by being a rather dull and distant institution: generating rules for regulating trade, as would be necessary in any long-term economic relationship, is not a likely recipe for generating affection. The British are anarchic souls as it is, and bristle against rules they perceive to be unfair; tabloids looking for cheap headlines exaggerated and distorted the impact of the EU’s rules.  The vicious brew boiled and overflowed in June 2016. 

Now we are met with reality versus expectation: Vote Leave’s promises cannot be achieved.  There is no magic formula for “taking back control”: the EU is not the source of the problem.  Yet, some feel compelled to follow this bitter illogic to the end.  Others want to say, “stop the madness”.  The noxious mixture is not soluble; hence Parliament cannot make up its mind, whether to indulge fantasy to breaking point, or gather its courage and tell the public they’ve been sold a pup.

Theresa May has only made matters worse.  If she had any sense, she would have realised the folly of trying to bring about the impossible.  Furthermore, as neither David Cameron nor the leaders of Vote Leave had a viable Brexit plan, she could have said to Liam Fox, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, et al, and said, “Go away and form a viable Brexit plan; if you can come up with one which will satisfy the country and pass muster with the EU, then I’ll trigger Article 50.”  The end result of this would have been likely some squawking, but nevertheless, it would have kicked the issue into the long grass for a sufficient amount of time for the heat to dissipate. Furthermore, she could have introduced measures under existing freedom of movement rules, such as Belgium has, requiring any EU migrant to secure a job within 3 months else they have to leave.  This sense of control would probably have the effect of taking even more heat out of the issue before May was able to cancel Brexit altogether.

Instead, she chose to trigger Article 50 without any idea of what kind of agreement would emerge at the end.  This is rather akin to jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, thinking that there must be a haystack somewhere below.  She has run in fear of the far right of her own party which is still trying to catch unicorns with a butterfly net and insists that the mythical beast is just over the next hill.  She is also fearful of the DUP, unreconstructed doctrinaire religious fanatics directly from the 16th century who merely have upgraded their wardrobes.

So here we are.  No one in charge has the courage to call out the situation for the madness that it is.  Until someone does, the insanity will continue.  One of the oldest democracies in the world has been laid low by its failure to deal with the consequences of change, and its inability to summon up the courage to stand up for facts versus feelings.   The consequences are still being counted and not just in terms of the economy.  Scotland is being dragged out against its will: that may very well tip the balance in favour of it becoming independent.  Northern Ireland may opt to join the Republic: this is unlikely to be an easy process, and I suspect that the men of violence will come back if it happens.  Gibraltar will be isolated.  In short, things will get worse, and the United Kingdom we know and have loved with all its imperfections and problems may be no more.  Is it worth it?

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