Alan Finlayson

Talk with Brexit enthusiasts for long enough and you begin to perceive the outlines of an unusual political philosophy. It makes use of the concepts you would expect – freedom, equality, authority and so on – but has, at its core, something surprising: the conviction that the future is unknowable. ‘You don’t know what will happen,’ these Brexiters will say if they catch you speculating as to the likely negotiating position of Estonia or the prospect of continued passporting rights for London-based banks. ‘Nobody can know the future.’ For the confirmed Brexiter there is no such thing as a more or less reasonable judgment of things to come. If you don’t know everything – about climate change, the economy or the political trajectory of Slovenia – then you know nothing. A line unambiguously divides the known from the unknowable. Cross it and you confirm the Brexiter’s prejudices: that you are a liar, an arrogant liberal intellectual, a ‘virtue-signaller’. The passionate intensity of Brexit’s true believers comes at least in part from their certainty that you can’t and don’t know what you are talking about.

This political philosophy – call it Brexitism – has congealed into something about so much more and yet so much less than Brexit. It is now a central feature of our political landscape: an anti-political politics organised around resentment at past losses and scepticism about promised futures. Modern politics has been intrinsically concerned with the future: with the way actions and decisions taken today could make tomorrow better or worse, safer or more threatened. ‘Progress’ and ‘development’ have been among its guiding concepts (in 2005, Tony Blair was able to win a general election with the vacuous campaign slogan ‘Forward not back’). In rejecting knowledge of the future, Brexitists are saying no to such a politics and to the assumptions about social change on which it rests. Theirs is an inquisitorial politics which fixes on the past in order to identify the crimes and betrayals that happened there, to name the guilty parties and demand that they be punished.

In rejecting the possibility of making reasonable judgments about the future effects of our actions, Brexitists implicitly (and sometimes, in my experience, explicitly) favour submission to Providence. Edmund Burke and Brexitists ought not to agree on much, but Brexitists do seem to share Burke’s belief that ‘the awful Author of our Being is the Author of our place in the order of existence … Having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us.’ The Brexitist senses that we can and will be judged by how well we play that part and by how faithfully we embrace our fate. The righteous are cheerful and optimistic. They don’t talk things down. With their doubt and caution ‘Remoaners’ expose how much they are gripped by a fear common to sinners and unbelievers. They are treasonous, enemies of the people, saboteurs.

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