A nation ‘bored of Brexit’ risks sleepwalking into disaster
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