Not much has stuck with me from my two years studying politics at A-Level. The word ‘quango’ and what it stands for (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation). And the couple of times when actual politics, the thing itself, knocked on the classroom door asking to be let in. I happened to be in a politics lesson when David Cameron was declared the new leader of the Conservative Party in December 2005 (‘He’ll never get it,’ our teacher had said a few weeks previously). I was there again in May 2007 when Tony Blair announced he was stepping down as prime minister and leader of the Labour Party. Both times we watched political history live on TV. I don’t recall anything about Cameron’s acceptance speech (telling), but I’ve never forgotten Blair’s farewell. ‘This country is a blessed nation,’ he said. ‘The British are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts, we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.’ Cue mad applause. I’ve never forgotten it because of the way it made me feel: if tears didn’t spring to my eyes, and I’m not prepared to say they didn’t, I undoubtedly brimmed with pride. The greatest nation on earth. Wowzers. Classic Blair, those staccato sentences – classically or performatively British, too, that little allusion (‘innermost thoughts’) to our habit of understatement, our dislike of showing off. And how like Blair to prefer honest modern feeling: showing off being permissible surely, just this once, in the circumstances. It occurs to me now that part of the reason I reacted as I did is that I’d never heard anyone say anything like this before. I’m not sure that I’ve heard anyone say anything like it since.
Grandiloquence, or chauvinism, of Blair’s type would seem to be the preserve, currently, of Brexiteer MPs and the unrepentant Leave voters flagged down by journalists on a depressed high street or sidled over to in a depressing pub. But patriotism gets everywhere, like sand or pine needles, and Blair’s vocal support for the Remain cause, barely concealed under the fig-leaf of the People’s Vote campaign, is suggestive. One of the unspoken assumptions on the pro-EU side is that it’s important for Britain to remain a Big Country sitting ‘at the top table’. (Since I’m in a confessional mood, I might as well admit that I feel this too.) Why it’s crucial that we stay important usually goes unexplained, leaving aside for the moment the question of whether we’re even now as important as we think we are. It’s not that psychological explanations don’t present themselves. No one esteems waste, or carelessness, and Brexit entails both; we might wonder at or be troubled by the historical process through which our influence was acquired, but it doesn’t make much sense to toss it away as an encumbrance. No one likes feeling less significant than they used to, especially if they were once very significant indeed. Still, it’s revealing that more people haven’t asked the question: why, really, does it matter?
It’s revealing too that so many Remainers currently pronounce Brexit to be ‘embarrassing’ and themselves to be ‘embarrassed’ by it. (Again, I’m one of them.) Embarrassment is a social condition and ultimately an unthreatening one: no one dies of embarrassment, except figuratively. That we feel this emotion so strongly suggests that more of our amour propre is tied up with a projected idea of Britishness than we might previously have admitted. It’s also an indication of the ease with which most of us have felt able to distinguish between the temporary internal state of the UK, whatever that may be, and the UK in the abstract, understood as a consistent set of qualities, eternal verities. How ‘embarrassed’ have we been by the ideological savagery of the Tory-led governments since 2010? How many of us were ‘embarrassed’ by the UN poverty envoy’s statement last year that the UK’s poverty levels were ‘not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster … patently unjust and contrary to British values’ and that the proliferation of food banks was like something you might expect to see in the wake of ‘a natural disaster or a health epidemic’? There is a corollary in our propensity to judge the political class by their handling of Brexit as ‘incompetent’. ‘Competence’ as it was understood before 2016 – the ‘competent’ administration of a demonstrably counterproductive and socially crippling economic policy – is a low bar. The implication would seem to be that so long as you carry a briefcase and put your trousers on the right way round and don’t leave the EU, you’ve got things nailed down. For a certain kind of person (Chuka Umunna, say), the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 represents the Britain the referendum ruined: quirky, multicultural, outward-looking, ‘at ease with itself’. Even ignoring the backdrop of austerity, the fact that this was a minutely calculated, essentially propagandist, publicly funded spectacle doesn’t seem to have called into question its suitability as a symbol.
My point isn’t just that there’s plenty of smugness and myopia among the good guys, but that, since everyone tells themselves stories, we need to be equally suspicious of all of them. That includes the one that involves us slipping from being embarrassed about Brexit to being embarrassed about being British. Or English, since we’re the ones who are properly responsible. (An account of the complex varieties of embarrassment about Britishness and the English which might be felt in Scotland and Northern Ireland would take up the rest of this piece. And that’s without considering Wales, which plumped for Leave but doesn’t get it in the neck to the same degree.) Brexit as it has lurched along to its uncertain destination has increasingly been seen to encapsulate, or express, a nation drunk on its own mythology and self-satisfaction; or, as Patrick McGuinness memorably put it in the LRB of 3 January, one ‘high on its own supply’. We have been told that Britain – for which read England, for which read English people and English politicians (though two of the worst offenders, Michael Gove and Liam Fox, are Scots sitting for English seats) – is in thrall to imperial nostalgia, has delusions of Great Power status, has never felt itself to be European, has a victim mentality, has a contemptuous attitude to Ireland as its former possession, has lost any talent it once had for compromise and pragmatism, has become unmoored from reality. Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times drew a straight line from decolonisation to the ‘aggressive ignorance of English Brexiteers’: ‘none of this would surprise anyone who knows of the unconscionable breeziness with which the British ruling class first drew lines through Asia and Africa and then doomed the people living across them to endless suffering.’ Westminster is seen to be in ‘chaos’, the system to be ‘broken’. The New Yorker ran a cover showing a teetering Big Ben as a cuckoo clock.
Viewed through this prism Brexit looks less like what it was and is – the shock result of a referendum – than the working out of malign fate. It’s not that I don’t think there were wider forces at play. Many unexpected events look plausible in retrospect, and with thought can become comprehensible. Brexit is one of these things – we might, for instance, cite the rabid and longstanding Euroscepticism of the British press and the collusion with it of successive governments. I don’t want to pretend, either, that Britain isn’t having a shocking day at the office. I do wonder though if some of us – and some of our friends and neighbours abroad – haven’t been a little unforgiving. There is surely a danger of swapping a London 2012 version of Britain for a June 2016 one, replicating the predisposition to see static truths where there can only ever be contingent or at least confluent ones. After all, Cameron promised a referendum in 2013 believing he would never have to call it, because he didn’t think he could win a majority at the next election. The result of the 2015 election was, as this implies, far from ordained, and was anyhow shaped more decisively by other factors, like Ed Miliband’s popularity or lack of it. (The EU routinely polled very low on British voters’ lists of concerns in the years before the referendum.) The 2017 general election also failed to deliver what was anticipated: a Tory landslide that could be interpreted as representing the nation’s settled will for Brexit meaning Brexit. The actual result – a minority Tory government dependent on the backing of a minority party, liable to be defeated if it loses the support of a fraction of its own MPs, and yet tasked with a monumental political challenge – was guaranteed to produce disorder and instability. It has also had the effect of grossly enlarging the influence of minority figures, and of giving their opinions gross prominence. How many people had heard of the European Research Group (est. 1993) two years ago? Nigel Dodds? Even Arlene Foster? The preponderance of moderate opinion in Parliament has been muffled. Who speaks for England? Those who have least claim to. What commentators chose to characterise as ‘chaos’ at Westminster in March and April this year was actually the routing of these extreme, unrepresentative forces by a series of parliamentary sorties testifying to the solidity of the middle ground, as well as to the large reserves of strength in the British constitution (the contention of Jonathan Parry in the LRB of 18 April).
Of course, the UK – the English and Welsh parts of it anyway – is the only country that has voted to leave the EU. It’s also the only country to have been offered the choice. If we accept that this latter fact was contingent on choices made by Conservative politicians – if we accept that even the referendum result was contingent (if only Jeremy Corbyn had taken an interest!) – then why are we, or our external examiners, so sure we’re a unique case? Wouldn’t it be more honest, on all sides, to admit that any government charged with leaving the EU – and it’s hardly impossible to imagine other countries voting the same way, at least prior to Britain’s experience – would have aimed high, in one way or another, and would have been brought low? (Wouldn’t this, looking closer to home, have been Scotland’s experience of leaving the Union if ‘Yes’ had won out in the referendum of 2014?) There is something unfair, and in the end misleading, about drawing grand conclusions from the behaviour of a nation, or political system, placed under severe stress. Even worse when they have the dull ring of stereotypes. If, next time it has the chance, and as seems ever more likely, Britain votes for a Labour government in defiance of the negative trend for social democratic parties across Europe, will we still be the nation with its head stuck up its arse? Or will it become apparent that there was always something more complicated going on?
Brexit so far can fairly be read as proof of the terrible lure of good storytelling, with the moral that reality eventually comes up trumps. (The US version has reality coming up Trump.) The Brexiteers peddled a series of seductive lies about Britain’s bargaining power and its weight in the world, and told their very worst fibs – about the non-importance of the Irish border – simply by saying nothing at all. All of these have been publicly exposed by harsh experience. Cameron described Britain in 2015 as ‘the most successful multiracial democracy on the planet’, but it turns out there’s an awful lot of racism and thuggery around. The Tories, who had miraculously recovered their reputation for credibility and responsibility, have been outed as the bunch of imposters they always were: reckless, short-termist and ideologically unsound. Nigel Farage, who we were encouraged to see as a pricked balloon, has risen again.
But it’s also possible to see the vote to Leave another way: as a moment when reality triumphed over storytelling. The referendum was an opportunity for a section of the population to signal that they didn’t believe in the existence of the country they were told they lived in – a land of high employment and opportunity, a prosperous and just nation at ease with itself – and that the gap between everyday life and everyday rhetoric had become too great. That disillusion is now, happily, general. Brexit, whatever the dangers, is forcing Britain to get to know itself better. Not all countries are given that opportunity.
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