Notes From the Margins…

Why I’m Not ‘Moving On’

  • January 03, 2021
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Many years ago back in 2003, the Dixie Chicks played in London on the eve of the Iraq War, and their vocalist Natalie Maines had the temerity to criticise the war, and George Bush, while introducing one of their finest songs Travellin’ Soldier.  This statement dragged the group into a political storm.  The Chicks, as they’re now known, had their songs  blacklisted on American radio stations, fans publicly destroyed their CDs, and members of the band were called ‘traitors’ and subjected to the kind of vile abuse – including death threats – that we have now come to take for granted on social media.

Faced with the ferocity of this response, Maines initially issued a disclaimer and then apologised, to no avail.  In 2006, she withdrew the apology, and the group issued another powerful song I’m Not Ready to Make Nice, in which Maines sang ‘ Forgive, sounds good/Forget, I’m not sure I could/They say time heals everything/But I’m still waiting.’

I’ve often been reminded of that song in the last few days as we’ve stumbled into our post-transition Brexit, accompanied by calls to ‘move on.’  This chorus doesn’t sing in the same key.  On the one hand there are the familiar screeching notes of Brexiter triumphalism, such as this tweet from the deeply obnoxious Isabel Oakeshott:

Few Remainers will be surprised by this after four and half years of hearing exactly the same messages.  At the other extreme, we find Jess Phillips, writing in the Guardian about her decision to vote for Johnson’s deal.  Phillips recalls with regret how the Brexit debate ‘ placed us all as Leavers and Remainers, as if this was the single most defining part of our personality and nothing else mattered.’

Yet now, Phillips also wants to move on, because

From today, it is my job, as always, to get the very best for the UK for the future. I am not a Remainer, my constituents are not Leavers – we are all just people who want peace, safety, security a decent job and a nice place to live.

Meanwhile Keir Starmer, one of the architects of the ‘six tests’ that Johnson’s deal has failed to meet, also insists that the UK is ‘ forging a new path in the world’ and that its ‘best years are still to come.’

It’s easy to see why, from the point of view of its party political interests, the Labour Party has taken this position.  It wants the votes that were lost to Johnson, and believes that the best way to get them is to make the best of a bad job, without actually saying that Brexit is a bad job.

One can quibble with that calculation.  But behind this positioning there are also legitimate questions to be asked: At what point do we put the divisions of the last four and half years behind us? Is reconciliation between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ possible?  And if so, on what terms?

Needless to say, these questions demand a great deal more from the losers, who marched, wrote, campaigned, and issued warnings about Brexit, all of which were entirely ignored by a Tory Party that only listened to Brexiter extremists, and only abandoned May’s ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ mantra at the eleventh hour, because the damage that would have ensued was so horrifying that even Johnson couldn’t contemplate it.

So we have no choice now but to adapt to the fait accompli that has been forced down our throats.   But that doesn’t mean that we have to like it, or acc-en-tuate the positive., simply because the negative is too depressing.  If we hadn’t believed that Brexit was a gratuitously retrograde step and a pointless act of national self-harm, we wouldn’t have opposed it in the first place, and we aren’t obliged to embrace this sour ‘victory’ and shake hands with the victors.

To do that would require us to pass over the lying, the chicanery, the scamming,  the grifting, and the dark sleazy machinations that brought about this outcome, and ignore the moral transformation of the country that has taken place these last four and half years.

Writing in the New York Times today, Peter Gumbel, the child of German Jews who found exile in Britain in the 1930s, described a country that his parents ‘would be heartbroken to see… today. Inward, polarized and absurdly self-aggrandizing, Britain has lost itself. In sorrow, I mourn the passing of the country that was my family’s salvation.’

Millions of us also mourn  that passing, which few Brexiters – either from the right or the ‘Lexit’ left – have even recognised, let alone condemned.  As Gumbel put it:

The vote to leave the European Union in 2016 and the surge of national exceptionalism that accompanied it revealed deeply held prejudices about migrants. Xenophobia and racism, presumed to be banished to the margins of public life, made an ugly return to the mainstream. And anyone with an international mind-set was suddenly at risk of being tarred, in the words of the former prime minister, Theresa May, as a “citizen of nowhere” — an ominous phrase not just for a family like mine that was once stateless.

Indeed it is.  And it is very difficult to make common cause with those who supported or tolerated this outcome.  Because contrary to Phillips’s suggestion,  ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ – even allowing for the nuances and complexities that these categories include – are not superfluous identities that can be set aside so that we can all get on at Christmas.

Brexit has made millions of us strangers to each other, and millions of us strangers in our own land, because Brexit has come to represent fundamental differences about what kind of country we want to live in, about the new forms of global citizenship emerging in the 21st century, about who belongs in this country and who doesn’t, about pooled sovereignty, tolerance, and national identity, about the legacies of the British imperial past, and our relationship with our closest neighbors.

To some extent, the ‘European question’ has always been about questions that had nothing to do with Europe, and now we must all ask them, in a new context that nearly half the country never wanted, and which is almost certain to disappoint many of those who did want it.

It’s often been said that Leavers and Remainers share the same desire for decent healthcare, public education, housing, meaningful and well-paid work,  but these shared aspirations were not enough to transcend the divisions of the last few years, and it may well be some time before they are able to do so in the future.

Like Trumpism, Brexit has shown how ‘cultural’ and ‘national’ divisions can triumph over economic considerations.  Now all of us are obliged to navigate a post-Brexit future which is likely to produce economic stagnation, diminished international influence, reputational decline, and even the disintegration of the United Kingdom.  This week the Brexit-supporting Morning Star recognised that EU employment rights gave basic protections to British workers, which Johnson’s deal now threatens to diminish or take away.

As the Brexit right pursues its fantasy of a deregulated Singapore on Thames, and the Johnson government revisits the deal which it signed in bad faith and seeks to redesign the UK as a libertarian tax-free dystopia,  it will be very difficult to ‘move on’ from Brexit.   This doesn’t mean there won’t be times when Leavers and Remainers find themselves on the same side, and perhaps in the course of these struggles, some of the brutal divisions of the last few years may be overcome.

But it is equally possible that the far-right, in partnership with a Tory Party that has staked its own future on a nationalist culture war whose consequences it did not understand, will seek to widen and intensify these divisions in order to conceal and distract from their political failure, incompetence and fanaticism.

Given these possibilities, it is not incumbent on ‘Remainers’ to ‘shut up’ or jump on board the Brexit calamity train for the sake of an easy life.  On the contrary, it is up to us to continue to hold the architects of Brexit to account, and campaign for the open, generous, tolerant society that the Brexiters claim to want, even as they have gleefully destroyed it.

That doesn’t mean gloating whenever things go wrong, when Brexiters find the money they were promised doesn’t materialise, and jobs and prosperity bleed away.  Many people voted Leave because they believed what was promised.  And if – when – they discover that they were used and cheated, it is not for those who warned them to mock them or say ‘we told you so’, but to find ways to work together again to build the country we all deserve.

I hope I live long enough to see that happen, and that one day we may rejoin the EU, purged of our political toxins, our prejudices and our foolish grandiosity and exceptionalism,. At the same time I see the European Union not as an end goal in itself – but as a by-product of a new political and moral transformation.

In other words, whether we rejoin, and recover from the political tragedy of Brexit,  depends on whether we are able to become a different country that reflects our best traditions rather than our worst.  That has always been our challenge, and it still is.  And in the meantime, as the Dixie Chicks once sang:

It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
‘Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

Amen to that.

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4 Comments

  1. Richard Carter

    3rd Jan 2021 - 2:58 pm

    Meanwhile, we’re enjoined to celebrate the new Global Britain, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Does anyone have any idea ? I don’t think even the most rabid Brexiteer can explain what ‘Global Britain’ is, just as they can’t, however much you ask them, spell out the benefits we’ll get form Brexit, other than the useless, content-void Sovereignty trope.

    So no, I’m not going to give up “moaning,” as that noxious fool Oakeshott bleats. And sadly, I can’t see our rejoining the EU in my lifetime, though I shall do my best to help set the process in train. And keep up the posts, Matt, they were never more needed.

  2. Viv Loveday

    3rd Jan 2021 - 6:28 pm

    I’m not “a rabid brexiteer” but all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that the most significant part of Global Britain is its globularity. i.e. Its a load of balls

  3. Mike

    5th Jan 2021 - 5:25 pm

    Once again Fintan O’Toole says some of the right things in an excellent short review of big steps taken during the almost 50 years since the UK joined the EU :
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/27/so-long-we-will-miss-you-we-europeans-see-how-you-have-helped-to-shape-us
    Tragically the Hungarians, Poles and other nativists in the EU are moving fast in the wrong directions… Anyway, check it out! and don’t move on…

  4. Guano

    19th Jan 2021 - 12:11 pm

    Freedom of Movement did not suppress the income of the lower-paid. The rules of the EU were not imposed on the UK. Freedom of Movement was not imposed on the UK (it was a natural outcome of the Single Market, as promoted by Margaret Thatcher, and its scale was a natural outcome of the adhesion of southern and eastern European nations, as promoted by successive Conservative governments). There are now many more hurdles to trade and cooperation with an FTA than being in the Single Market. There is now a trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as a result of the deal the UK signed with the UK. The Brexiteers claim that they could leverage the EU into giving the UK a good deal (by which the UK could be in the Single Market while not following its rules) has not come to fruition, which was predictable because German car-makers are more interested in the integrity of the Single Market than they are in whether the UK is in it and were never going to pressure the EU into giving the UK a great deal.

    It is important that we (the public) keep repeating these facts, because if we don’t we lose sight of reality. Politicians are unlikely to repeat the facts because they want the votes of people who have been misled, and don’t want aggro from the Murdoch press. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should talk about rejoining the EU, because the first stage is to show people how they have been misled.

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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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