A nation bored by Brexit risks sleepwalking into disaster
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.”