A Divided Nation
I’ve heard some journalists and political pundits refer to Brexit as an insoluble problem. Technically that is not the case. A Hard Brexit would effectively meet the criteria of the 2016 referendum result and its binary question. What is insoluble is the government delivering a result that pleases all parties and more importantly doesn’t put the UK economy at risk. Brexit is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with UK politics at the present. The original very straight forward question on the ballot paper did not indicate in any way the logistical, procedural and legal complexities of extricating the UK from the EU after over forty years of major harmonisation and integration. The leave campaign openly stated that this very process would be easy and getting a good deal was not an issue. Both were lies. Hence, we now find ourselves in a situation where the realities of what Brexit entails are manifestly clear, and no one agrees as to what is the best way to proceed. And all of this is panning out against a background of broken, tribal and hostile politics. It is a recipe for disaster and now that the Brexit Pandora’s Box has been opened, there is no scenario that doesn’t lead to future problems and unrest.
The UK is a divided country. Its political parties seem to have abandoned very specific parts of society and entire regions have been neglected by successive governments. The gap between rich and poor is increasing, and the middle classes are no longer insulated from the country’s economic woes. Social changes over the last fifty years have seen a shift away from traditional political doctrines and the sense of being part of specific communities and groups. Consumerism has led to politics being seen as a means of personal gain and that is what often shapes the electorates position on major issues at elections. There is also an ever-widening gulf between the generations and the way they view the world. The young are happy to embrace a global market and are not constrained by past prejudices and cultural baggage. They also do not fear social change. Where as the Baby Boomer generation are very much entrenched in a mindset born of their time. Hence foreigners cannot be trusted and fantasies about British Exceptionalism are still harboured. A fictional past is mourned, and a modern future is feared.
Possibly the most worrying development in recent years is the shift in politics from fact based, intellectually driven debate into wanton tribalism. The “politics of feelings” has emerged as a result of social media and the internet. Equal access to online platforms has fostered an environment of false equivalence and the mainstream medias obsession with balance has perpetuated the myth that all views, no matter how unfounded or extreme, are of equal merit. Then there was Michael Gove’s misquoted statement that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Although he was referencing a very specific group of tail chasing think tanks, the point was embraced in certain quarters. There has been a growing pushback of late against academia because it is by its very nature exclusionary. Some people simply do not like the idea that having no knowledge or experience of a specific thing, somehow keeps them from the top table and that their views are not treated with the same deference of those with a deeper understanding. The current socio-political changes in the UK go hand-in-hand with the spreading intellectual blackout throughout western democracies.
A great many people are legitimately unhappy with the way politics and social change has bypassed their concerns and wishes. The UK has an ageing political system that seems to be ill equipped for the modern world and more importantly an increasing diversity of opinions and views. Both the major political parties seem to be far too self-obsessed and removed from the reality of most of the electorates daily experience. Parliament needs to be overhauled, relocated and divested of many of the patrician traditions it is steeped in. Proportional representation also needs to be embraced. Yet sadly, none of these things appears to be immediate propositions. The growing disillusionment with mainstream politics leaves much of the electorate politically homeless. The major concern here is that the gap left by the demise of the only UK protest party, UKIP, may drive some into the waiting arms of the hard right or the extreme left. Are we looking at a return to the violent and tumultuous political times of the seventies? Because politics and governance driven by either extreme of the political spectrum seldom benefits the country.
And so the UK continues to act out of character with ongoing acts of protest and catharticism. Journalist Agnes C. Poirier, the UK editor for the French weekly magazine Marianne recently said on the BBC news discussion show Dateline London, that the UK “was behaving in a very un-British way” in so far as after decades of not cleaving to strong ideologies it is now doing the opposite over Brexit and also by being “passionate”, which is not a trait usually associated with the UK populous and their relationship with politics. It begs the question where will it all end? Well I think with regard to Brexit, the answer is not well. I believe any outcome available will be broadly unsatisfactory to the UK electorate. A Hard Brexit comes with potential economic turmoil, job loss and more. The Prime Minister’s compromise deal pleases neither side of the debate and entails the risk associated with a finite transition period and a dependency for the government to negotiate “good trade deals”. And the prospect of cancelling Brexit and retroactively remaining will cause social unrest and a further loss of faith in the UK political system. No one group is going to win, because there’s nothing to win. Brexit has simply removed a plaster from a festering national wound that has been neglected for decades.
As we as a nation are navigating uncharted territory politically and socially, it makes it very difficult to make any accurate predictions. I have never held the view that we cannot leave the EU. I have simply maintained that it cannot be done quickly and yet expected to yield the economic results that some politicians claimed. If the referendum had asked a more detailed question, stating a staged exit over several parliaments, then the very small leave result would be more palatable and practical. But it wasn’t and that is why we find ourselves in this mess. And Brexit is just the tip of the iceberg. It is simply a distillation of ongoing divide in opinion that is rife in the UK. Over the last two years it has become increasingly clear that many of the so-called shared “British values” are not universally embraced. The public do not all think in the same way regarding racism, equality, empathy and shared economic prosperity. And due to the “footballfication” of these sorts of issues, there is no scope for concessions, compromise of “agreeing to disagree”. You simply pick a side and hate the other. If you dare to opt out, then by default you’re an enemy because the prevailing mindset is “it’s my way or the highway”.
I am expecting a Hard Brexit and the consequences that go along with that. One can prepare to a degree but so many of the potential issues that could arise are out of our personal control. I fully expect the UK public to be in turmoil as a result and for there to be a series of minority governments in the immediate years to come. If there are hard economic consequences, then many who voted for Brexit may well be surprised that they are suffering as a result of their actions. Naturally blame will be placed at every door bar those who are genuinely responsible. The divide between rich and poor will grow, and social unrest increase as a result. As for the thorny issue of immigration, we will simply see European migrant labour replaced with international or, more than likely, Commonwealth migrant labour. That will not be well received in certain quarters. The systemic failing of our educational system and the cultural snobbery regarding many service-related jobs will leave us ill equipped to maintain the status quo regarding the way we live and consume. I suspect that the resulting backlash that is coming will end in violence and even fatalities. I believe the political classes will be at increased risk. But maybe Brexit and what proceeds it is a much needed and long postponed reality check for a nation. Perhaps we can finally lay to rest the myth on British Exceptionalism as well as put our colonial past and glory days behind us and find a new appropriate role in the modern world. However, if such a lesson can be learned it will be long, extremely painful and come with a significant price.