Simon Usherwood / Sep 2018
As we close in on the final six months of the Article 50 period, it’s worth lifting our eyes from the day-to-day of the Brexit process and reflecting on the bigger picture.
Strikingly, much of that picture is made up of debate about what has happened, as opposed to what is to come. We talk about the failings of the 2016 referendum and what that vote did or didn’t ‘mean’ at least as much as we do about what we might do now.
And even when do we talk about the future, we seem stuck in a narrow argument about customs arrangements, rather than comprehensive models of EU-UK relations.
And entirely absent in this is mention of what kind of country the UK wants to be, in the most general of terms. No one seems to have answers for the (oft-unspoken) question of ‘why’ the UK is leaving the EU.
Living in the past
The reasons for this are varied.
Part of it comes from the trickle of discoveries about the conduct of the referendum that sustain and feed the discontent a substantial number of Remain supporters felt even before the vote: the manipulation of campaigning rules, the links to external forces, all grounded in a sense that this simply can’t be the right outcome.
That disbelief and incredulity remains. Most times that I speak about Brexit, I get someone sidle up and ask if I think it’s ‘really going to happen’, as if there’s been some kind of mass delusion from which we must surely wake, before it’s too late. Fix the past and we’ll fix the future back to how it should have been.
Partly, there’s a distinct lack of knowledge and capacity among politicians to talk about the big questions of the future. Caught with their metaphorical pants around their ankles by the vote to Leave, almost all the time since has been an exercise in catching-up and managing a crisis that reaches into every area of public life. Even a small part of it – customs, to pick an obvious example – turns out to be very complex and fraught.
Relatedly, those smaller parts are still important points, so to focus on something else risks leaving them under-considered, or even not considered at all. You can see echoes of this from those parts of policy where the political spotlight hasn’t fallen. Regional development has been one such an area, where the looming end of Structural Fund income has still to be addressed by the UK’s central government.
Oddly, hardly of this is due to the standard view of British politics as a space that is inimical to grand visions. Theresa May herself built part of her bid to become Prime Minister in 2016 on the back of a wide-reaching programme to recast society and economy in the Brexit era to become more inclusive for those ‘just about managing’. If that agenda has faded, then it has been due to the aforementioned bandwidth issue and to the lack of strong connection that she made between the general and the particular.
The past is another country
If this is all rather understandable, then that should not be confused with being appropriate.
The energy that has gone into raking over the coals of the referendum is energy that has not gone into trying to have a debate about the Aristotelian good life of the UK should now consist of.
Often in politics we hear talk of not letting a good crisis go to waste, but in this case the primary response of the government has been to seek out ways of keeping as much as possible the same as before, even as the country’s most consequential strategic relationship is being fundamentally recast.
Even with the best will in the world – and we seem to be quite some way from having that – to imagine that ‘nothing has changed’ even as everything is palpably changing looks blinkered, rather than principled.
The perversity of it all is brought home by the failure of both Remainers and Leavers to even attempt to project a constructive vision of where the UK could be heading in all of this. The former look more obsessed with finding ways to overturn the referendum; the latter reduced to phatic invocations of the bulldog spirit and British greatness.
To obsess about the past for the past’s sake is to cede control of the future. Yes, we need to discuss and debate where we are and how we got here, but always with an eye to how we can make the best of our situation.
Yes, the narrative of how politicians lied in the 1975 referendum did feed into securing a second popular vote in 2016, but ultimately that has just brought us back to where we were: not further in our understanding of where we are going or why. That confusion has been the hallmark of British European policy throughout the post-war period, with its series of unsatisfactory compromises and false polarisations of debate.
Only if the UK can engage in a more substantive and mature debate about its role in the world will it be able to break out of this vicious circle. Unfortunately, the signs of that happening have been few and far between.
That shouldn’t stop us trying though, for otherwise we risk running aground, with even more serious consequences than those that already confront us.