A na­tion bored by Brexit risks sleep­walk­ing into dis­as­ter

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - John Har­ris

Just be­fore Christ­mas, I spent a day in Cow­ley, a work­ing-class 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 vox-pop­ping, 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 a ca­coph­ony about cab­i­net splits, cus­toms unions and the kind of ar­cana that might con­vulse Twit­ter but leaves most peo­ple cold. 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 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-to-day pol­i­tics amounts to white noise. 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 to­mor­row, 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 con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing this coun­try and its place in the world: the inar­guable ben­e­fits of an open econ­omy; the com­plex and of­ten frag­ile trad­ing ar­range­ments that keep the econ­omy in busi­ness and peo­ple in work; the fact that our his­tory is not one of iso­la­tion from Europe but of be­ing at its heart.

Even as I write those words, I am aware that any of our cur­rent politi­cians manag­ing to get a hear­ing from peo­ple is an un­likely prospect. Even if May falls and we get a gen­eral elec­tion, the sense of a pol­i­tics that is nei­ther con­nect­ing with vot­ers nor deal­ing with Bri­tain’s ten­sions could eas­ily go on. Jeremy Cor­byn is among the politi­cians most scep­ti­cally viewed by the kind of vot­ers he needs to get on­side, and the fact that the Labour lead­er­ship has so far avoided any mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion about Brexit – let alone the deep ques­tions tan­gled up in it, about what kind of coun­try we ought to be – sug­gests that even if the party man­aged to win, the delu­sions that led us into our cur­rent predica­ment might be left to fes­ter.

Think of a term such as “na­tional dis­as­ter” and you imag­ine burn­ing cars and vi­o­lent crowds. But a na­tion of sleep­walk­ers, lit­tle in­ter­ested in its politi­cians and eter­nally unim­pressed by their warn­ings, is un­likely to do any­thing nearly as dra­matic. Be­yond the cur­rent sound and fury, where we are headed could well be summed up by an old Pink Floyd lyric sung in crisp Home Coun­ties tones: “Hang­ing on in quiet des­per­a­tion is the English way.”

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: NATHALIE LEES

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