Brexit and the politics of subtraction

Josh Cowls
Jan 27, 2020 · 7 min read

So that’s the end of that. After three-and-a-half years of bitter wrangling—an argument foisted on the nation, like a crying baby, after three decades or so of bitter wrangling within the Tory party—Britain will leave the European Union later this week, not with a bang, nor even a bong. I suspect, in fact, that it will be a strikingly solemn moment: not for the Brexit ultras, to whom this will be the climactic moment of a lifetime of increasingly aroused passions on this issue; but for the rest of us, the Brexpats, including those who thought it was fair, or at any rate inevitable, that that fateful vote to Leave in 2016 really did mean we should and would eventually leave.

This is because never in the history of these islands has so much been surrendered for so little. The 2016 campaign to remain was fought using the “Project Fear” playbook, a strategy successfully deployed during the Scottish independence referendum two years previously. It appealed to voters’ heads, while the Leave campaign appealed to their hearts (backed up by some fictional bus-based arithmetic about NHS spending). But what the Remain campaign lacked and the Scottish referendum had was a last-minute intervention from an elder statesman, Gordon Brown, whose impassioned plea, the day before the referendum, might just have been what persuaded sufficient Scots to vote to stay in the Union.

It’s instructive to return to some of the perorations in Brown’s speech:

The vote tomorrow is not about whether Scotland is a nation — we are: yesterday, today and tomorrow. It’s not about whether there’s a Scottish Parliament — we have it. It’s not about whether to increase [its] powers — we have all agreed to increase powers. The vote tomorrow is whether you want to break and sever every link …

What we have built together, through sacrifice and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder ever. And let us tell also those people who‘ve been told unfairly by the nationalists that if you vote No, you’re a less than patriotic Scot. Tell them that this is our Scotland — tell them that Scotland does not belong to the SNP, Scotland does not belong to the Yes campaign, Scotland does not belong to any politician..

Have confidence. Stand up and be counted tomorrow. Have confidence tomorrow and say to our friends, for reasons of solidarity, sharing, justice, pride in Scotland, the only answer for Scotland’s sake and for Scotland’s future, is [to] vote No.

It does not take much squinting to see the parallels here to the decision Britain faced in 2016. And whether or not it was due to a tragic lack of effective messengers — David Cameron’s damaging association with austerity and Jeremy Corbyn’s scarcely closeted europhobia made the leaders of Britain’s main two parties uniquely incapable of winning people over — this message never cut through.

Brown’s speech was an ingenious and ruthless exercise in reframing the issue. With a single address, he seemed almost to turn the referendum debate on its head, reclaiming the mantle of Scottish national pride from the nationalists themselves. Patriotism need not mean taking pride only in what makes you different: it can and should mean taking pride in shared values and shared achievements. And voting to remain a member of a larger club, part of a common cause, represents a renewal, not a renunciation, of national pride.

Whereas Brown was able to draw on three centuries of friendly (if sometimes reluctant) partnership, and the shared possession of an island, the history and geography of Britain’s place in Europe was open to manipulation by those favouring separation. Not for nothing was Winston Churchill voted by the public as the greatest ever Briton at the turn of this century; not for nothing is the longevity of the Queen a source and symbol of national determination; not for nothing is England’s World Cup final victory over Germany the dearest-held national memory, at least south of the border. But memory can be fickle, and nostalgia misplaced. Lesser known, or at least less spoken of in polite society, is that Churchill once backed a proposed union between Britain and France; that the Queen’s lineage is German, and her husband’s Greek and Danish; and that Germany has won four World Cups. We are more entangled with Europe than we care to admit, more enmeshed than a cursory glance at history or geography would permit.

Such niceties and nuances were obscured during the referendum campaign, a nasty and brutish affair whose shortness was all it had going for it. Punctuated by the shocking murder of the promising young MP Jo Cox by a knife- and gun-wielding man shouting “Britain First” — marking the first assassination of a sitting MP since the Troubles — the campaign brought latent populist and nativist sentiments furiously to the foreground. Canvassing on well to-do Surrey high streets, I was called a traitor many times over, mostly by little old ladies to whom you’d instinctively offer your seat if they got on the bus.

It was as if the rich, complex national self-portrait so elegantly painted in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony in 2012 had been put through Banksy’s shredder. In its place, a new picture was commissioned, but this time caricaturists were put in charge. Formerly fringe elements like Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks were allowed to craft an image of Britain that claimed to celebrate, but intended to sacrifice, exactly those qualities that it now stands to lose: easy trading with near neighbours, with deals developing with those further afield; a health service that serves citizens not shareholders; and a reputation for empiricism, pragmatism and coolheadedness, even — or especially — when the rest of the world seems in thrall to demagogues and dictators.

At the heart of the caricature was the false claim that anything was really at risk. We were told that “hoards” of migrants, fleeing poverty and conflict (much of it in parts of the world that Britain had once sought to “civilise” but had more recently satisfied itself with merely invading) would soon be on our shores — never mind that protecting Channel borders will if anything get harder and more costly after Brexit. We were told that as a “trading nation”, Britain’s future lay only in striking trade deals far afield — even though the EU has concluded far more substantial trade deals than Britain since Brexit, President Trump is eyeing the UK as another target for a post-Brexit trade war, and even former prime ministers of kindred spirit Australia have poured cold water on any real bilateral trading benefit from Brexit. And we were told — we are still told — that Brexit will be a uniting moment, a centripetal force bringing the nation together. Instead, Brexit threatens to blow a hole through the finely balanced arrangements, not least Scottish devolution and the Good Friday agreement, that keep us notionally united as a nation.

This is the politics of subtraction: the false promise that progress is only possible if we as a nation removing ourself from existing partnerships. This idea has been in vogue at several points throughout history — the tragedy is that it has arisen at a time that cooperation, coordination, and a common purpose is needed more than ever before. And it comes with a more emotional toll to those, like myself, who have never known anything other than EU citizenship, and all the possibilities for partnership and prosperity that it brings.

I don’t doubt that the opinions of many of those who wanted and still want us to leave the EU are sincerely held. I do doubt that those who hold these views are any longer in the majority (a glance at an actuarial table may be sufficient evidence of this), even if our skewed voting system has now given them a majority in Parliament. But during that summer of 2016, everyone from the cocky coterie then in Downing Street to millions of voters fell for what in my view was quite simply a category error. This error was to see the referendum as closer in spirit and potential consequence to a local by-election, rather than a singular, once-in-a-generation reorientation of Britain’s place in the world. It was the geopolitical equivalent of deciding to end a decades-long marriage with all the breeziness of someone cancelling a gym membership. And I fear that this breeziness — which has inexplicably continued into the divorce negotiations — will come back to haunt us, as Europe moves on from Brexit, we try to move on from Europe, and the world, perhaps, moves on from us.

It was a beautiful early dawn by the time I gave up and got the train home from a hubristically named “victory party” on the morning of the June 24th 2016. It’s now three-and-a-half years, multiple postponements, thousands of column inches, and millions of arguments across dinner tables around the country later. Brexiteers are looking forward to another moment in the sun this week, but the meterology-as-metaphor this time will be closer to the mark. With or without Big Ben’s bongs, on a cold, dark, inauspicious January night, it will start to become clearer for whom — for where — the Brexit bell truly tolls.

Josh Cowls

Writing about the ethics of data and AI; political…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store