Midsummer madness: Brexit

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In general I try not to include anything too overtly political or religious in my blog as I know it can either cause offence or lead to fruitless argument as respective parties take up a stance one way or another. But the recent political earthquake in Britain — with its continuing aftershocks — has at the moment left me bereft of much enthusiasm for literary matters, at least until I begin to recover some equilibrium. Hence this exception to my rule.

I’ve already made some of my position clear in an earlier post “No Man is an Island” where I talked a bit about xenophobia. A Pandora’s Box has been well and truly opened now with the 52:48 vote in favour of Brexit: already racist attacks — mostly verbal so far — show a sudden and alarming rise, no doubt because many see the result as validating their appalling behaviour.

Just as alarming is the political vacuum that has emerged with the shock result. The so-called protest vote (at least a million but probably a lot more) that sought to punish certain Westminster politicians — the Prime Minister in particular — assumed from polling predictions that the Remain vote would, even if with a narrow margin, win the day. It only, as many are now acknowledging too late, pushed the Leave voters into the majority. But much more alarming is the meltdown that is happening in the two main parties, sidelining the issue of what happens now. The fact is that — with the leadership of both left and right parties being questioned — it is apparent that there is no Plan A, let alone a Plan B.

Here we have a classic sequence of political blunders. Anti-European sentiment (so-called Euroscepticism) has long been rearing its head. It contributed to the downfall of Labour prime minister Gordon Brown (remember him?) and the rise and rise of demagogues like Nigel Farage (ironically a descendant of Huguenot and German immigrants). To deal with the Eurosceptics in his Conservative party current prime minister David Cameron offered a referendum to follow his attempts to wrest concessions from the EU in favour of the UK. This was his major miscalculation, thinking he could assuage the public like this. He had underestimated the power of the scaremongers: all the talk of ‘floods’ of immigrants ‘swamping’ the country, taking jobs, draining the social and health services (to be fair, Cameron had himself used similar language) was willingly played on by a poisonous rightwing press, whipping up fear in many of the less cosmopolitan and traditionally disadvantaged areas of the UK.

The question one should always ask when your average politician weighs in on an issue is “What’s in it for you?” With a few honorable exceptions most of them are self-serving, acting with an eye towards further or future self-advancement. Too few have real altruism in their blood, just as too few care that not only has the UK’s reputation been severely tarnished but that the wishes of younger generations have been disregarded, the prosperity of its citizens jeopardised and the stability of the world order compromised, all for — what? That Britain becomes “great” again? So that Britain “takes back control”? For a United Kingdom that may well break up into its constituent parts? That power continues to shift inexorably towards the obscenely rich? (That’s who will be really taking back control.)

I may be ranting. I’m sorry. In common with 48% of UK citizens I’ve run the gamut from shock to despair, from anger to depression. If you ask a stupid question you will get a stupid answer: by offering the option of leaving the European Union this government (which we look to for leadership, not game-playing) suggested that this was a perfectly sensible choice. But when you have a citizenry who have not been properly educated in citizenship they may not realise the consequences of such a choice; and this is exactly what has happened here. All the fine talk of working out a favourable deal with the EU after Brexit ignored this truism: when in a marriage one partner out of the blue says he or she is thinking that divorce might be on the cards it’s hardly likely the other is going to like it, and instead may well want to make any break as awkward as possible.

There is a possible lifeline, and sadly it’s not a second referendum. That is the question of sovereignty. Not the UK sovereignty so puffed up by Brexiters, but Parliamentary sovereignty. The referendum is not binding, merely a sounding-out of opinion or preferences. Only Parliament can trigger Article 50 giving notice of the UK quitting the EU. Most Parliamentarians favoured remaining because they collectively knew what advantages accrued from EU membership, unlike the Great British Public. The crucial thing is, will they have the guts to stand up for what they know is right, or will they cave in to worries about their political future, the anger that will undoubtedly face them from some members of the public?

It’s an uncertain future for all of us, at home and in the wider world. Unlike a general election, where the country can if they so chose periodically change who governs them, this referendum — if followed through to a true Brexit — is a one-way door: there’s no going back.


42 thoughts on “Midsummer madness: Brexit

  1. The crucial thing is, will they have the guts to stand up for what they know is right, or will they cave in to worries about their political future, the anger that will undoubtedly face them from some members of the public?

    And this is why it is very important for politicians to hear from their constituents at the moment. We can’t just assume they know that there’s a bunch of us out here who’re sane. They might know that, but they don’t know whether we’ll speak for them.

    1. Absolutely, Nikki. I have written to my constituency MP before, but as he gave a bland government statement before in answer to a query and favours leaving the EU I don’t have high hopes. A concerted approach is what’s needed, and I’m keeping my eyes peeled for that.

  2. Hi Chris, I understand you, I am still in shock myself. My humble opinion is that this kind of matters should be discussed in parliament only. The referendum was not a display of an advanced democracy, but rather the political shortsightedness of the Prime Minister.

  3. Like most of my friends, in the US as well as the UK, I’ve been watching the run-up to the UK vote, and then the vote, with a great deal of worry. Already, on this side of hemisphere, there’s talk of whether the UK vote hints at how the US Presidential election will turn out. It’s a world gone mad.

    H L Mencken wrote this nearly 100 years ago: “When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

    1. H L Mencken seems to have had it right, Lizzie, being prescient not only about presidential candidate Trump but also the present incumbent of the UK’s premiership. Let’s hope the madness stops now before we descend into utter chaos — or violent revolution — as nations get split right down the middle on their radically different principles.

  4. earthbalm

    I worry about the future. I liked Lizzie’s quote from H L Mencken (I need to look him /her up) and worry how the rest of the world now views UK citizens.

    1. Well, the comments here so far range from the US to the antipodes and back to Italy, and the voices suggest the rest of the world is equally stunned. We’re not the only ones to be worried.

  5. Chris, you should write about politics more often – that was one of the most eloquent, exacting and precise opinion pieces I’ve seen on the subject.

    I’m with your 48%, swearing I would emigrate to the ROI on Friday morning, seriously thinking I don’t belong here anymore if the majority of my fellow citizens feel so opposed to everything I believe is right.

    The entire campaign (on both sides) was so filled with scaremongering, is it any wonder the public felt ill informed and went with their gut? Many people voting leave didn’t seem to consider the economic implications, that we may now face another downturn, that countless projects and groups have been built or run on funding from the EU. And did they really believe that fabled 300 odd million a week would go straight to the NHS? Farage back tracked pretty quickly on that one.

    Unfortunately, I can’t see anyone blocking Article 50. They will be too scared for their futures, they’ll say it would be ‘undemocratic’ to go against a public vote.

    As if it wasn’t undemocratic to scare, misinform and mislead people into voting for your side.
    Dark days.

    1. Thanks, Lynn, I just wish I didn’t have to be so eloquent and precise about such a dreadful result. I know there was some exaggeration on the Remain side — I don’t see World War III happening just yet — but I despaired of the downright lies that were perpetrated by the Leave campaign, not just the NHS spend (which pretty much all of them have disavowed) but on Turkey’s imminent EU membership (not true) and the rest of the world welcoming us and our trade with open arms (what have we got to trade when businesses go under?).

      Dark days indeed.

      1. I don’t think Remain helped by joining in the scaremongering – people needed facts but all the politicians were so worried our poor inadquate brains couldn’t cope with anything too complex, so they mushed up the truth and popped it out to us in headline grabbing terror bites. 🙂 Now, won’t SOMEONE take control of the situation, for heaven sake? All sense of responsibility has left the building, it seems. All we can do now is hunker down and enjoy the weather and the football. Hang on …

        1. Ah, the football … at least Wales are hanging in there! Not that I follow it. 🙂

          The facts were there, if one looked for them but the whole issue was too complex to reduce to a simple for/against choice to which most people would go with their gut feeling anyway.

          I think what we needed was a proper debate, where people’s concerns were answered with straight facts from one of those experts so dissed by Michael Gove. Questions like how much money do we actually send to the EU after our rebate, and what proportion of national spending does it truly represent? (Miniscule, in the scheme of things.) What do the prominent supporters of Leave stand to gain from Brexit in terms of money, influence, power? Why do some leading campaigners peddle blatant lies and yet are not called to account for them?

          1. All good points, Chris. Just signed a petition calling for politicians to be held to account if they run their campaigns on lies. We rely on these people to inform us on difficult issues – misleading us to swing votes is despicable.
            Now it looks like Gove is in the running for PM, lord help us. And I see Boris has run away back to his corner – I wonder if that really was shock and shame at the result?

            1. It’s hard not to be cynical about career politicians, Lynn, but they really do their utmost to confirm our suspicions, don’t they. 😦

  6. Oh God I despair! I was concerned before hand that even if the remain campaign had won, it was clear that there are so many people in the country that are not just hard done by but that are then willing to take it out on others through hatred. That’s what so much of the campaigning was about too – whipping up more and more hatred. One of the worst things is that is splitting up friends and families along the way 😢

    1. I agree, Alastair. It’s been an absolutely divisive decision to run this ill-conceived and unnecessary referendum. If you have sixteen million on one side and seventeen million on another (let’s ignore the millions who didn’t bother to vote one way or another at all) how are we ever going to heal the rift? It’s not like general elections where you hope that family, friends colleagues and acquaintances who voted differently to you may see the error of their ways before the next election: this is forever. There is a huge democratic deficit going on in the UK, and it comes from ignorance about how true democracy should work and the responsibilities that attach to enjoying this system.

  7. It has been very concerning here in Aus to read about the rise in public racism, the divide between young and old, between London and the north, the apparently cavalier way in which Boris Johnson has gone into this without any planning as to how it will be handled, and the backtracking on the claims that money now paid to the EU would be freed up for the NHS. There have been some great pieces on the LRB blog if you care to seek them out, the latest entitled “Bullxit” and discussing Johnson’s recent newspaper claim that Britain (?England in future) will be able to keep all the good things and throw out the bad. Good luck with that, Boris.

    1. Bullxit is exactly the right term to describe what has been going on here, Gert; if only all those voting Leave had the same perspicacious overview that Australians seem to have demonstrated.

  8. Been a bit shocked here, mostly by the level of ignorance displayed in voting (according to Google’s published search results).

    Had a bit of a funk last night as I came across a collection of social media updates (collected by a 48%-er) reporting verbal abuse, threats, and the like. It hit rather close to home as some of those targeted could easily be distant relatives–I have some distant cousins of my grandparents still in Poland (or they could, potentially, be in the UK).

    Here’s hoping Parliament gets it together and listens both to what’s best for the UK, Europe, and the world as a whole.

    1. Thanks for your hopeful words over Parliament, Brent, though from the tone of many in the public eye sense doesn’t seem in generous supply. Do hope none of your distant cousins have been in the firing line as it were, and that a halt has been called to the belief that thugs now have carte blanche to vent their thuggery over all and sundry.

      1. Not a whole lot of sense in our political figures here either. But, one can hope and vote at the very least. Really hoping this doesn’t bode well for a certain presidential candidate I refuse to name.

  9. Thank you so much for an intelligent thoughtful discussion about the Referendum results! Britain’s ‘Brave New World’ is so broken it has made me feel unable to write. What’s the point of writing fiction when my country feels like a ridiculous farce?
    I don’t write dystopian stories, but on Friday I felt like I was living in one. However, reading the posts on your blog and the positive, hopeful journalism elsewhere I am feeling slightly better. If the lunatics have taken over the asylum, we all need to find ways to escape and art and literature are the best ways! Hope you agree.

    1. I don’t write dystopian stories, but on Friday I felt like I was living in one. It did indeed feel like a living nightmare, Yasmin. Art and literature have always been ways to both escape and to venture forth — if either can help salvage what little remains from this fiasco then it’s all to the good. It pointless wishing they can rewrite what’s happened, but I hope they can help us fashion something positive over the coming days, weeks, months and years. Somehow.

  10. I was intending returning to blogging with a piece on how the referendum has affected me. I may not have to bother. This piece goes a long (and eloquent) way to expressing my feelings as well as yours. Best wishes, Simon.

    1. All best wishes to you too, Simon, and to all of us. I think the value of such posts — and there will be others, though I’ve not looked for them yet — is that they show that each of us as individuals are not as isolated as this dire result suggests, and that with a collective will and a lot of hope we may be able to shape through the expression of our feelings a future that is less bleak and less daunting than at present appears.

  11. Great post Chris!

    It might surprise you that this has been a hot topic of debate here in the states. We are paying more attention to the referendum than our own current political nightmare. And, just like in the U.K. many who argued that leaving is the answer are shocked to find the emperor has no cloths, no plan. I can only hope that this serves as a wake up call to those who think Trump is our answer.

    Has the world gone mad? It certainly seems that way. I assumed that the U.K. would have voted to stay in, and that the racism and fear-mongering would be drowned out by sensible voices. So much of what is going on over on your side of the pond mirrors our own politics. Sadly it shows me that we are globally connected not just by economics and culture but the ugly side of human nature. I am stunned to hear people admit they voted in favor of leaving but really don’t want to go. This is what happens when we allow our emotions to rule our minds.

    We can only hope that your Parliament steps up and becomes the collective “grown up in the room” and does what is right, not what feels right. Lizzie’s quote is chilling, as we see its truth in action everywhere we look.

    1. I’m not surprised the US public took notice, Sari, this referendum was potentially a massive game-changer to the world order — and a game-changer I expect it to be. Whether it will wake up Trump supporters (remember that he was all for Brexit, and crowed about the result as he arrived at his Scottish golf course) I don’t know — the impression I get is that, as with thoughtless UK voters for Leave, he appeals to those who want to give a kicking to what he calls the Establishment, and that they don’t really listen to whatever non sequitur pops out of his mouth.

      That certainly was largely the case here over Brexit. But it seems that too many people like clownish demagogues and not enough respect true statesmen and stateswomen. Especially when they’re in short supply.

  12. I agree, Chris has written an excellent, measured opinion piece. Like you, I can’t see anyone blocking article 50, and the EU have made it clear they won’t tolerate backtracking anyway.

    1. The ameliorating avenues are closing down fast, aren’t they Sue? Thanks for your appreciation — as I said earlier, I just wish I didn’t have to be in the position to write this piece.

  13. I agree with you about xenophobia and the current political vacuum….I feel sick to the stomach and more than a little fearful for the future….

    1. I too keep rising towards equilibrium and guarded hope until yet more negative news sends me downward again. There’s an astute phrase written by Michael Frayn for the film Clockwise that encapsulates it all for me: as John Cleese’s character says, “It’s not the despair — I can stand the despair — it’s the hope!”

  14. Thank you for this concise and well-ordered post. As I read through so many thoughtful articles, I am struck by the sickening parallels between the Leave folks in the UK and Trump supporters here in the US. When has isolationism, ‘building walls,” closing off borders and so on, ever been a solution to the challenges a country faces? And they are certainly unworkable as solutions in the global marketplace of the 21st century. We cannot go backwards to some idyllic time (which was never so for the majority) when we were all the same, because we never were! And that only sparked revolutions, anyway, so it’s a ridiculous circle and not the way forward.

    1. Some of the rhetoric has certainly been the same on both sides of the Atlantic, Laurie, which too often stokes up fear of otherness as much as it evokes a Golden Age that never was. It’s mostly irrational, and certainly doesn’t allow for nuance.

  15. Hello Calmgrove,

    I was led to this post by my friend and fellow Australian writer, (writing duo, actually), Gert Loveday. Congratulations on a very sensible, as well as heart felt post. I was amazed to wake up this morning to find that Boris Johnson isn’t going to contest the Conservative Party leadership. Surely this will be seen as an act of cowardice?

    1. Hi Dorothy, good to hear from you — Gert has admirable coterie of friends it seems to me! Boris Johnson, it was suggested by one interviewer, was/is “a nasty piece of work” and I suspect — nay hope — that he’s been hoist by his own petard. The best I can say about him is that he’s disloyal; disloyal to his erstwhile friends, his wife, his party, his country, Europe, all of which he has espoused (literally or figuratively) but abandons as sacrifices to his own vanity and vaulting ambition. Nevertheless I bet that he’ll be jumping up again at some future point and that he’ll still command a sizeable following, such is his buffoonish charm. Let’s hope he doesn’t fool too many people.

      Of the other contenders I despair: we have one candidate who has five times denied he’d ever stand for leadership and who singlehandedly further demoralised the already demoralised teaching profession (the pro-Brexit campaigner who said the country had “had enough of experts”; another who’s in charge of health but believes in homeopathy and who’s further demoralised an already demoralised cadre of junior doctors; another whose stance is in the mould of Margaret Thatcher (the less I say about her the better); another who though brought up in a council house is keen to betray all those who are reliant on social welfare … I could but won’t go on.

      You’ll gather I’m not altogether happy!

  16. Thanks for responding to my comment. We may despair, but these politicians do make us laugh.

    You may be aware that here in Australia we had a double-disolution election yesterday, and the winner’s still unknown, but we’re going to have an extraordinary collection of buffoons and crack pots in the Senate.

    I watched an item on the French news about Theresa May, whom you mention as possibly stepping into Thatcher’s shoes. And referring to shoes is appropriate, because it seems she had something of a fetish for them!

    1. Ah, I didn’t know about her shoes — I’m sure there’s a joke or apt metaphor there if I didn’t fear that for the intolerant further rightwing direction she would take her party and thus the country. Oz politics always has me confused and bemused, Dorothy,especially as it’s really clear who one should cheer for. But then that’s true of most politics … We’re a great fan of Aussie comedian Adam Hills over here (he hosts a satirical tv show called ‘The Last Leg’) and I’d welcome his take on politics downunder anytime!

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