Sleepwalking toward the exit to the broom cupboard
So this week the UK parliament voted to give the prime minister the power to start the process of Brexit.
For some people it’s a step in a process they’re convinced they want. For others of us it’s a surreal rollercoaster ride with no safety inspector. True to the character of the process, the white paper on the government’s approach to Brexit came out the day after the vote.
How did we end up in this alarming parallel reality? And why is there so little outcry from those in a position to influence it?
Since this Conservative government came to power in 2010 one of its central strategies has been constructing a false mythology and hammering it home by brute repetition.
At the same time the Labour party has appeared to be spectacularly oblivious to the need to challenge the story, let alone construct one of its own. Far too often it has simply bought in to the Tory story and quibbled with the colour of the paintwork.
And of course we have had a captive media, with almost every major outlet operating a right-wing or establishment agenda, so that as a whole the function of holding the government to account has shrivelled away. Even the venerable Guardian became lost in the swamp of its hatred for the leader of the opposition. News by social media may be highly filtered and unreliable, but it has been almost the only way to get glimpses of reality and hear challenging voices.
The combination of these things has propelled us into the kind of world people label ‘post-truth’. There is no one, it seems, with a watching brief to stand up and tell us when public ‘facts’ are falsehoods. There are very few in parliament prepared to attempt to anchor proceedings in reality. And even when they do, they may not get any coverage so people know it’s happened.
So here we are with Brexit. A cocktail of false mythology leading the country to major change at massive cost, both in the process and the probable consequences.
‘The will of the people’ has become a totemic meme, frantically pumped up with all the symbolic power of democracy itself. The reality of the referendum was a slight margin of 2% of votes, emerging from a process unsuited to this scale of change and a campaign of openly admitted lies and misdirection. If the people have spoken, what they said was, ‘We don’t know.’
Yet the meme has been so successful that even clear-thinking, progressive politicians and commentators have refused to challenge it. Perhaps there is a perception that the racists, UKIPpers and people desperate for the whole thing to be done with would riot in the streets, whereas the more or less equal number of people who wanted to Remain will behave themselves. (Perhaps that should tell us something about who’s more likely to have a clear view.)
Did David Cameron really oppose Brexit? Did Theresa May? I don’t know these people well enough to tell. Future histories of this time will, perhaps, shed more light. I’m starting to wonder whether they saw it as a win-win situation.
Certainly May’s actions after the event have suggested personal enthusiasm for the idea, to the extent that she’s now the de facto leader of UKIP. She could have paused, called for reflection and reevaluation, done many things differently. She could have stood strong on the advisory nature of the referendum, and taken it as a wake-up call to address the vital concerns people had about the way their lives are that boiled over in the vote. But then again this is the person responsible for immigrants go home vans, who wants to spy on all our activities and remove our human rights.
I suspect Brexit is one of those high-hanging fruits that Conservative strategists never dared to dream they could pluck, but then keep finding ladders left lying around.
The Conservative agenda since 2010 has been all about control. Not yours and mine, in the face of phantasmal European oppressors, but theirs.
In the face of a shifting world that threatens order, wealth and power — a century that threatens equality and empowerment in a way their worldviews cannot accept — they have cast caution to the winds to enforce as much control as they possibly can. At every turn they have sought to siphon power and wealth from the many to the few.
And of course the EU has been an obstacle to that, because it is a layer of protection for the British people. In many arenas of life it holds our country to higher standards: working rights, environmental management, social provisions. It restricts the British government in what they can do to us. That’s exactly what the UKIP mindset rebels against (‘I want to do what I want!’), and it’s inconvenient for more mercenary neofeudalists.
So it gets cast as a loss of ‘sovereignty’ that is somehow taken from us against our will. Rather than a partnership with our neighbours that we engaged in voluntarily, in which we build consensus by giving ground on some points to gain on others.
Collaboration got reframed as war, following the lead of people who take large salaries to sit in the EU process and try to stop it working. The root of Brexit is some people’s abhorrence for partnership.
So of course when the chance to prune that branch presents itself the Tory neofeudalists are going hell for leather at it, without giving us time to think.
It even gave them a shot at perhaps the highest fruit of all. In the crusade to restore some nebulous ‘sovereignty’, the UK government almost managed to remove the sovereignty of Parliament. Had it managed to bypass the highest decision-making body in the land for something as major as Brexit, how easy would it be to argue that MPs don’t need to be bothered by smaller things?
That was stopped by the UK legal system. Which has led to many fevered voices claiming that is not a proper part of our sovereignty either. It rather exposes the psychology of Brexit: for many, not about the primacy of national institutions at all, but about sore-edged worldviews hunting for peace but not knowing the way.
This path has led us close to the edge of dictatorship. It seems many in our complex and troubled world crave the simplicity of being controlled.
Here’s the thing to remember: all this won’t solve any of the big genuine problems that face us. Brexit itself is a massive red herring. It didn’t need to be invoked. But it gives politicians an out.
They can spend huge amounts of time and money (found down the back of the sofa; incidentally giving the lie to austerity once and for all) on pursuing this made-up process, instead of working to address the many real challenges of the early 21st century — economic, social, environmental — that would lead us toward the kind of world most of us want. And in pitch black irony, these are the reasons many people cast their vote for Leave — in protest for political inaction while their lives are trapped in stories that no longer work.
We are in desperate need of truth, vision and enlightened endeavour. And we’re working through a time where we see that those we were taught to look up to are fundamentally incapable of giving us that. It’s a tough experience that merits acknowledgement.
But if the institutions that are supposed to look after us are sleepwalking, individual people are waking up. The contrasts are so great that we can no longer tell ourselves that we are being served.
Maybe we should have some sort of process to take back our sovereignty.