We’ve voted for Schrodinger’s Brexit and now someone has to open the box
There aren’t many occasions when having a Joint Honours degree in English & Philosophy come in handy. But the last 48 hours has probably been one of them.
Not because I’ve been able to take inspiration from the Stoics to bravely accept the result — sadly not — but because this whole thing basically seems to have been a nationwide thought experiment turned into a chaotic reality.
If you’re not familiar with the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment there is a lengthy explanation here, but the essential things to know are:
- Imagine there is a cat in a box
- Until you open the box, you cannot know if the cat is dead or alive
- Because you cannot know if that cat is alive or dead it is — as far as Schrodinger is concerned — both dead and alive simultaneously*
And this, to me, is what the Remain campaign were faced with during the EU referendum.
Because there was no treaty at stake, no deal to leave, not even a clear proposal from the Leave side about what they would prioritise in the event of winning, Cameron and co were having to argue against all possible futures at once.
In contrast, the Leave campaign was able to use this lack of clarity to build a coalition of voters who all wanted — and believed in — contradictory things (less immigration, fewer regulations, more of that great intangible ‘sovereignty’ etc).
The old truism is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Johnson and Gove are smart enough to have known this all along but Cameron gave them the opportunity to obfuscate and make contradictory promises and they took it.
Leave was pretty shameless about promising that Brexit could be all things to all people. And the referendum was framed in a way that allowed this. Schrodinger’s Brexit: a future in which we could boost economic activity and free business of regulation and invest more in the NHS and limit immigration and keep funding all the things that the EU currently pays for and and and…
Of course, now that the Brexit coalition has won all of these possible futures are rapidly collapsing in on themselves. Leave campaigners are already backing away from promises made about NHS funding and freedom of movement and local councils are asking for guarantees that the Leave promises of matched funding will be kept.
Some people — possibly quite a lot of people — are going to find themselves holding a box containing a dead cat.
Ultimately, Cameron gave away a major advantage by calling for a referendum without defining both sides clearly. Instead he asked people to choose between the prosaic reality of the status quo and the multiple, contradictory (and probably fantastical) futures promised by Leave.
Brexit, and all that follows, will be Cameron’s legacy, along with another truism: ask a silly question, and you’ll get a silly answer.
*This is the tricky part and it’s down to what Terry Pratchett would call “quantum bollocks” but go with it if you can. You know, thought experiment.