A country gone wrong

By Martin Vogel

The Britain that leaves the European Union tonight is not the same country that voted to leave on 23rd June 2016. The result was a shock, but it was still possible then to imagine that the Government would help the country process it in a mature way and facilitate the emergence of a consensus about how to discharge the mandate. Indeed, in that alarming period when we were a hair’s breadth from the Conservative Party giving us Andrea Leadsom as prime minister, such appeal as Theresa May held was chiefly that she might approach Brexit in a way that could elicit losers’ consent. These hopes were soon dispelled by her speeches to the Conservative conference disparaging “citizens of nowhere” speech and charting a course to a uncompromisingly hard Brexit (a course, it subsequently emerged, she did not understand she was embarking on).

“No state in the modern era has committed such a senseless act of self-harm,” The Irish Times opined yesterday. It spoke of Britain becoming poorer, diminished on the international stage and its citizens’ freedoms curtailed.

All true. But we have lost more than our participation in the European Union and the benefits that flow from that. We have abandoned the norms and etiquette of respectful disagreement, evolved over centuries, which gave substance to our sense of ourselves as a society founded on democracy and the rule of law. From the hasty rush to start the Article 50 countdown with no clear destination in mind, to the demonisation of the judges as “enemies of the people”, the suspension of Parliament and the intimidation of MPs (which began, let us remember, with the murder of one of their number in the days before the Referendum), this has felt like a country recklessly flirting with the darkest of forces.

Since last month’s general election, there has been more than an air of resignation among Remainers. There’s a turning away from the public realm. Chris Grey, in an elegiac blog post, identifies this in the mood that he senses among friends. He says they are “simply withdrawing from political engagement, to concentrate on personal or perhaps local issues, and in some cases leaving the country.”

I recognise aspects of myself in this observation. I began the process of securing my European citizenship in the days after the referendum result – and not just because of the early signs in the Brexit process of the abandonment of moderation. Another defining factor for me in recent years has been the capitulation of the Labour Party to populism and antisemitism. It’s not just the way the Government has pursued Brexit in the most partisan of ways, but its coincidence with the fecklessness of the Opposition that fills me with despair about political engagement. I have, indeed, been focussing my attention elsewhere.

And yet.

We are beginning to see new and wise forms of politics emerge. Extinction Rebellion, with its self-organising model and non-violent protest, has brought climate change to the forefront of the agenda in the past year. Perhaps I see what I want to see but, as I walked around London when they closed roads and bridges, I did not sense public frustration with the inconvenience but forbearance and appreciation. Extinction Rebellion is interesting also in its promotion of citizen’s assemblies, an approach to deliberation that has helped Ireland move forward with consensus on contentious issues.

In the United States, there are encouraging initiatives by which citizens take it upon themselves to bridge polarisation and find their commonality again as a nation. Better Angels is one such example. Here in the UK, Compassion in Politics is has won the support of Parliamentarians across party lines for a different kind of politics.

Brexit may be far from done but, for all the rancour of the past years, I sense in the impetus to get it behind us, a desire to find a way to come together again as a nation. Speaking on Radio 4 this evening, the political historian Peter Hennessy outlined five potential areas of consensus (15 minutes in) that could create some healing if politicians can find a way to work together on them. They were: social care; the housing crisis; technical education; climate change and the constitution.

For those of us who feel dejected at this closing of a chapter in British history, it is worth remembering that Britain is not exceptional in being convulsed by the populist turn. But also, and perhaps paradoxically, we remain part of a European culture whose values of liberalism and democracy need defending but still hold.

Given the subject of my post here yesterday, I was struck by Chris Grey’s personal observation that this has been the only time in his life that he has “experienced political events as personal trauma.” My and his generation, growing up in Briatin in a long period of peace and prosperity, has led a charmed existence. Perhaps it is our lack of recent exposure to the dark upheavals of history that caused Britain to be cavalier about its settlement.

As well as those turning away from political engagement, Chris identified others who are “fighting to keep alive in Britain the liberal values“ of our European inheritance. This too resonated with me. Disaffected as I may be with orthodox political channels, I’m approaching this new decade exploring new ways of applying my professional skills to the challenges of our age. I see this in some way as staying connected to my European identity. I felt more European than English before even we joined the European Union, and leaving it now will not take that away from me.


Image courtesy Rocco Dipoppa.

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