A na­tion ‘bored of Brexit’ risks sleep­walk­ing into disas­ter

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - John Har­ris

Just be­fore Christ­mas, I spent a day in Cow­ley, a work­ing­class sub­urb of Ox­ford where a fac­tory now owned by BMW man­u­fac­tures that great Bri­tish icon, the Mini. The plant closes its doors for an an­nual “main­te­nance pe­riod”, usu­ally timed to co­in­cide with lo­cal schools’ sum­mer hol­i­days. But this year, amid the com­pany’s con­cerns about Bri­tain’s fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with Europe, the shut­down will not only be longer than usual but is sched­uled to be­gin the day af­ter we for­mally leave the Euro­pean Union – a de­ci­sion taken, says the com­pany, to “min­imise the risk of any pos­si­ble short-term parts sup­ply dis­rup­tion in the event of a no-deal Brexit”.

You might imag­ine the sur­round­ing streets would be full of anx­i­ety and ur­gency. But once BMW had de­clined my re­quest to visit the fac­tory and I had re­signed my­self to long hours spent vox­pop­ping, I was not en­tirely sur­prised to find the com­plete op­po­site: ques­tions about Brexit be­ing met with an ex­as­per­ated in­dif­fer­ence, as if it were some­thing in which peo­ple were barely in­ter­ested.

Those who men­tioned the fac­tory as­sured me that it was in Cow­ley to stay. Among a cou­ple of diehard leave sup­port­ers there was men­tion of Win­ston Churchill, and a sug­ges­tion that an­other ref­er­en­dum would be an of­fence

against democ­racy. But most of my in­ter­vie­wees con­firmed polling that has sug­gested a ma­jor­ity of both leavers and re­main­ers now find Brexit bor­ing, greet­ing any men­tion of it with gri­maces and eye-rolling.

“It’s a pain in the back­side,” said one man. “No­body seems to know what’s go­ing on. Ev­ery chan­nel you turn on, it’s all they talk about. I’ve had enough of it.”

In 2016, he had voted leave. Did he have any sense of a way through the cur­rent mess? “I don’t know what the an­swer is now,” he says. “They’ve con­fused it so much.” He ap­peared to tilt to­wards stay­ing in the EU, then leaned the other way.

At the start of a week when the par­lia­men­tary drama around Brexit will reach fever pitch, all this is worth bear­ing in mind. What­ever the noise from West­min­ster, for mil­lions of peo­ple Brexit is some­thing that hap­pened two and a half years ago. It has since be­come syn­ony­mous with an in­de­ci­pher­able ca­coph­ony about cab­i­net splits, cus­toms unions and the kind of ar­cana that might con­vulse Twit­ter but leaves most peo­ple cold. Clearly, this high­lights a huge po­lit­i­cal fail­ure – not least on the part of the sup­posed party of op­po­si­tion – and a de­bate so dis­tant from the pub­lic that any res­o­lu­tion of the coun­try’s malaise seems pretty much im­pos­si­ble.

To out­siders, it must look like a kind of bizarre col­lec­tive deca­dence: a wa­ter­shed mo­ment, re­plete with huge dan­gers, that will de­fine our fu­ture for decades to come, be­ing played out in the midst of wide­spread pub­lic bore­dom. Some of this is un­doubt­edly down to the fact that the re­al­i­ties of Brexit, whether with a deal or with­out, have yet to ar­rive. But much deeper things are at play: age-old traits that run par­tic­u­larly deep in Eng­land, and much newer changes in how pol­i­tics reaches its au­di­ence.

For both good and ill, Eng­land has long been a coun­try where the rev­o­lu­tion starts af­ter the next pint, most politi­cians are viewed with scep­ti­cism, and the na­tional motto might as well be “Any­thing for a quiet life”. The vote for Brexit ap­peared to mo­men­tar­ily break the rules, but it was only a cross in a box, and it did not take long for peo­ple to re­vert to type. And now we find our­selves in the worst of all worlds: car­ry­ing out an act of self-harm we are told is the peo­ple’s will, when mil­lions of the same peo­ple seem to have all but switched off.

Pop­u­lar dis­en­gage­ment is made worse by the speed at which in­for­ma­tion now pours into peo­ple’s lives, and a po­lit­i­cal cul­ture where day-to­day pol­i­tics amounts to white noise, any­thing and every­thing might be fake news, and pre­cious lit­tle seems to ac­quire any trac­tion. Any­one who has had Brexit ar­gu­ments with friends or rel­a­tives will prob­a­bly recog­nise the es­sen­tial story, en­acted when­ever some or other rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an in­dus­try or pro­fes­sion that has much to fear ap­pears on the tele­vi­sion to warn of the con­se­quences of ex­it­ing the EU only to elicit the crush­ingly pre­dictable re­sponse: “That’s just an opin­ion.”

As proved by talk of the best hope for Theresa May’s deal ly­ing with peo­ple termed Bobs (“bored of Brexit”), a mix­ture of te­dium and dis­be­lief in warn­ings about its down­sides could be her sal­va­tion. One can imag­ine the sce­nario: even if she loses the vote on Tues­day, enough of her op­po­nents on the right and left might re­alise that their pas­sions are not shared by the elec­torate, and give up. If that hap­pens, the im­me­di­ate fu­ture of Bri­tish pol­i­tics will be just as dead­ened by Brexit as it is now – and in the midst of con­stant tech­no­cratic chat­ter about trade deals and the like, the pub­lic’s alien­ation from West­min­ster will deepen.

There are, of course, dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties. If a no-deal Brexit hap­pens, maybe the re­sult­ing chaos will at last shake Eng­land out of its tor­por. In the event of an­other ref­er­en­dum, should the re­main side be­lat­edly im­prove upon the hope­less cam­paign that led to disas­ter in 2016, peo­ple might fi­nally hear about things that should have al­ways de­fined the na­tional con­ver-

Bri­tain is a hor­ri­ble lit­tle coun­try filled with in­cor­ri­gi­ble racists and led by in­com­pe­tent big­ots. That is the im­pres­sion you get from the news, any­way. That it hates im­mi­grants. That it is in­ward-look­ing, small-minded, in­tent on self-de­struc­tion. Some of that is true, of course. There is no deny­ing that Bri­tain is on the verge of a self-in­flicted eco­nomic disas­ter and in the mid­dle of an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis. There is no deny­ing the gov­ern­ment has cre­ated a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment for im­mi­grants, and racism has been stoked by Brexit. But you know what? I am tired of con­stantly hear­ing about how in­tol­er­ant the UK is. Be­cause I don’t think that’s the case. De­spite a small but vo­cal con­tin­gent who wish to take Bri­tain back­wards, the coun­try is still one of the most pro­gres­sive places in the world. While I live in New York now, I still think of the UK as “home”, and I am proud to be Bri­tish. We may be fac­ing bleak times, but, amid all the doom and gloom, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the UK is a di­verse, lib­eral so­ci­ety that has plenty to be proud of. The likes of Tommy Robin­son and Nigel Farage may loudly claim to rep­re­sent Bri­tain and its val­ues, but they don’t. So, strap your­self in tightly, be­cause we are about to em­bark on a whirl­wind tour of Ac­tu­ally, That’s Pretty Great Bri­tain.

Our first stop is the NHS. Ob­vi­ously. Ac­cord­ing to the mar­ket re­search firm Min­tel, the NHS is the UK’s most cher­ished in­sti­tu­tion, top­ping the list of “Bri­tish things” Bri­tons are most proud of. The NHS is far more than a health­care provider – it’s a sym­bol of fair­ness. Grow­ing up with the NHS, I didn’t fully un­der­stand how in­cred­i­ble it was; then I moved to the US, where health­care isn’t con­sid­ered a hu­man right and medicine is mer­ci­lessly pri­va­tised.

Free mu­se­ums are an­other thing I took for granted. It is amaz­ing to be able to pop into a world-class mu­seum with­out hav­ing to shell out a for­tune, as you do in much of the US. There still seems to be a be­lief in the im­por­tance of pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions in the UK. Not to men­tion orderly queues to get in­side. And while we may joke about Bri­tons and queue­ing, the stereo­type rep­re­sents an­other ex­am­ple of a con­cern for fair­ness.

Then there’s Mar­mite. There is some­thing spe­cial about a peo­ple who can get so ex­cited about con­cen­trated yeast ex­tract. Mar­mite’s pop­u­lar­ity, I think, speaks to a charm­ingly Bri­tish pro­cliv­ity for self-loathing that binds the coun­try stick­ily to­gether.

An­other im­por­tant em­blem, I reckon, is In Our Time, the un­apolo­get­i­cally in­tel­lec­tual Ra­dio 4 se­ries hosted by Melvyn Bragg. When it launched in 1998, Bragg didn’t think a se­ries where top aca­demics had in­depth dis­cus­sions about a sin­gle sub­ject would last more than six months. But it has run for more than 20 years. Two mil­lion lis­ten­ers a week tune into hear about top­ics that range from free rad­i­cals to Agrip­pina the Younger or the eman­ci­pa­tion of the serfs. In Our Time’s pop­u­lar­ity is a won­der­ful tes­ta­ment, I think, to Bri­tain’s in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity. Proof that the coun­try hasn’t had enough of ex­perts, as some politi­cians would have us be­lieve.

Fi­nally, there is the Bri­tish sense of hu­mour. The coun­try may be im­plod­ing, Brexit may have turned us into an in­ter­na­tional joke, but we can still laugh at our­selves. De­spite every­thing, that is some­thing to smile about.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Nathalie Lees

‘Eng­land has long been a coun­try where thena­tional motto might as well be “Any­thingfor a quiet life”.’ Pho­to­graph: Alamy

Com­pos­ite: Alamy/Tim An­der­son/Guardian De­sign

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