Notes From the Margins…

Brexit: Clowntime is Over

  • January 14, 2019
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‘In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do,’ wrote Charles Mackay in his classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852).  ‘ We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.’

For 2.5 wretched years we have watched the UK go mad in pursuit of something that is objectively impossible: leaving the European Union without losing the rights and privileges of membership.

This fantasy was a central component of the Leave campaign, repeated again and again by some of the same people who accused anyone who said anything to the contrary of promoting ‘Project Fear.’

For most of the last two years the most incompetent government in British history has accepted and promoted the idea that nothing would change for the worse and that everything would change for the better, because it was politically convenient to demonstrate to Brexiters in and out of her own party that she was delivering on the referendum result, and because even to suggest that leaving the EU might leave the country worse off was regarded as a violation of democracy and the ‘will of the people’.

The Labour opposition more or less followed the same trajectory, repeating the same mantra that ‘the referendum result must be respected’ while insisting that it could extract a withdrawal agreement from the EU that was better than May’s.

Throughout this tormented process neither the government nor the Labour leadership dared to suggest that the country might be carrying out an unprecedented act of national self-harm.

Instead ‘Global Britain’ and ‘Empire 2.0’ unicorns have mingled with leftwing unicorns in a Disneyland of the national imagination.  Now, after more than two years attempting to sideline parliament, the government is effectively trying to blackmail parliament into accepting a  flawed agreement opposed by Brexiters and Remainers alike, by running down the clock and forcing MPs to vote in its favour or risk crashing out of the EU without a deal – an outcome that all except the most fanatical proponents of Brexit regard as a national calamity.

Mackay once noted episodes in history in which ‘Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper.’

This is exactly what Cameron did when he gambled the country’s future to win an argument within the Tory Party, and this is what May has been doing for the last few weeks with her own ‘piece of paper’.

Tomorrow parliament is poised to translate the 2016 referendum into a political reality that almost no one wants.  Or it has to reject May’s gambit, in which case parliament or the government will  have to have to come up with a new political reality that neither parliament nor the government can agree on.

This political and constitutional car crash is likely to get worse before – if – anything like normal traffic begins to move again.   As Mackay once observed ‘ Men…think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.’

There is nothing to suggest that the UK is on the road to recovery.    Last week the government demonstrated that it could not even organize a traffic jam.  Today it emerged that the Minister of Defence threatened to attack the Spanish navy with paintballs in order to ‘humiliate Spain.’

As John McEnroe might have said, ‘ You cannot be serious.’  But the terrifying reality is that the government thinks it is.

Meanwhile the political atmosphere in the country oscillates between boredom, indifference and febrile anger, with fascist thugs ranting about ‘traitors’ outside parliament and threatening civil war, and supposedly respectable newspapers describing parliament’s attempts to oppose executive fiats as a ‘coup’.

Rudderless and directionless, we are swirling in a whirlpool of our own making, unable or unwilling to resolve the contradiction between what the referendum supposedly demanded and what is actually obtainable.

This isn’t something that parliament can resolve by itself, and contrary to what Labour have been suggesting, I don’t believe a general election can resolve it either.

A referendum brought all this about, and given everything that has happened, and everything that we now know, a second referendum may be our only way forward.

A second campaign could be brutal, and may not produce the result that its proponents want, but it still seems to me to a better alternative than continuing with this destructive folly simply in order to ‘respect’ a flawed referendum result.

And I hope that MPs will show the courage and backbone, not only to demonstrate the primacy of parliament, but also admit to parliament’s limitations – and find a way to ask the British public once again, if this is, after all, what it really really wanted.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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