Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The Agnostic Brexiteer

Nothing has changed.

Brexit is one of my least favourite things to talk about, but like that cousin who is constantly planning some hair-brained scheme, it always finds its way back into the conversation. One thing I have found very positive about Brexit, I will admit, is how healthy it has been for our political discourse. I’m sure a great many people will disagree with that diagnosis, but I can only speak from my experience: when one is willing to listen, to politely challenge, and to accept that in times of great uncertainty – political or otherwise – all ideas may hold some water, the true colours of this country emerge.

Some of these ideas I vehemently disagree with. But, and this is hardly an original critique, there is little to be gained from embracing one’s tendency towards the ideas of those whom you agree with. I have spoken to a journalist from a true blue constituency who sees common incompetence amongst all politicians; I have spoken to a die-hard Labour supporter who felt Hilary Benn was the solution to all our problems; in a Wetherspoons I engaged in a fascinating discussion with a retired lawyer who, several decades prior, claimed to have predicted the raise of the European project, and saw Brexit as the solution. That last person was, if you’re curious, self-described as, “not a liberal.”

I have heard the arguments for Lexit, discussing, and often agreeing with, the arguments that the European Union is a deeply undemocratic, protectionist set of institutions, and I have preached my own diagnosis of this situation. Namely, we as a nation are trapped in a Churchillian national mythos which has left us unable to accurately understand the United Kingdom’s place in the world.

These discussions I consider invaluable. Indeed, I urge everyone to engage with others, be it about Brexit or other ideas. Nothing aids us in understanding our perspective on the world better than by understanding someone else’s. My issue, returning to Brexit, is this: despite all this discourse, positive or otherwise; despite all the rhetoric, the commentary and the sassy comments; despite all the debate, argument and legislating here and in Europe; despite all these things, nothing has changed.

Perhaps that’s because, in the most perverse way possible, Theresa May is genuine in her convictions (nothing has changed is personally my favourite of Mrs. May’s quotes), but we will return to her in due course. Let’s begin with the recent votes in parliament.

The government’s withdrawal agreement has been rejected. Everyone considered this outcome obvious – even the government back in December. This evening, the deal has passed… with an amendment that demands the now infamous backstop be removed and the withdrawal agreement altered to facilitate this change. Of course, Ireland specifically and the EU more broadly are refusing to reopen the question of the backstop or renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. So, once again, nothing has changed.

Let’s think about this. Brexit was, by definition, a vote for change. Whether one agrees with that change or not, the apparently inevitable goal of the vote was to catalyse a systematic change in British politics, if not the British state. Of course, I say apparently inevitable. The reality has been a combination of encouraging bluster while establishment forces which produced the referendum have crystallised. The bluster was necessary, if really a con – as long as the discourse continued, and twitter accounts and news commentators were occupied with what often amounted to little more than gossip, the technocratic business of fixing what should have never been broken could be carried out.

That is a tremendous shame. We can all criticise the process of the 2016 referendum, and in hindsight a series of referenda were probably the best way to tackle this question. But hindsight is irrelevant when one faces chaos and carnage. In time, I have come to understand why some people voted in contrary to myself, to the extent that I dub myself (and I would dub many others) an agnostic Brexiteer. To be sure, anyone that has bought into this country is now a Brexiteer, for we all have an opinion on how we leave (even if that opinion is we don’t).

The agnostic part is that which I wish to linger on. In recent days I have stopped trying to predict what will happen with Brexit, and with this country. Not necessarily because I was frequently incorrect; but because, in the sheer honest light of day, no one knows how to Brexit. While a sad indictment of our current state of affairs, I believe an appeal to theological parallels is the most appropriate course of action. Democracy is, like almost everything else which commands the souls of people, the result of belief.

Nothing has changed because nothing can change. To pull one way rather than another does not simply risk tearing the Tory party apart or tearing Remain from Leave. The intricate web of social groups and ideas which make up contemporary Britain face decimation. It seems rational then, in such an environment, to display the level of intransigence the Prime Minister has. If fundamentally the role one occupies is predicated on the existence of a state, one would be unwise to risk the state’s destruction.

I may be accused of hyperbole, but I think such an accusation would be short-sighted. It has long been my belief Brexit has little to do with Europe, and more to do with economic disfranchisement, technological rapidity and societal changes. In other words, bog standard populism. As above, Brexit was a call for change, for upheaval. For control, of which the previously listed populist symptoms too frequently render in short supply.

When nothing has changed, that means nothing has changed. The forces and fears of economics and politics have not changed, nor having living standards, or job security, or wages, or – to put it simply – basic prospects for opportunity. This, more than anything, is why there is no solution to Brexit. The social turmoil and strife which plagues communities, both here and abroad, must first be tackled before the diplomatic behemoths of Brexit, of trade, of climate change and globalisation can be tackled.

Doing so will not be easy, hence why I believe the term agnostic Brexiteer is a useful one. How do we Brexit? How do we rebuild trust, cohesion and opportunity in our communities? How do we restore a sense of democracy and equality into that thing we call our democracy? How, on the most basic level, do we move forward together in any direction? This has always been a challenge of statecraft, but the arrogance of the end of history has left these questions to linger, and now voices, via radically different effigies, demand answers.

In the face of these challenges, which I believe leave many of us unsure how to proceed, the theory of nothing has changed will surely not suffice.

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