They will talk of June 2016 as the month the country got kicked out of Europe twice. Once by Iceland, and once by the people who shop there.
They will, because the gloves have been taken off and the fear of offering offence to others, the idea of politely watching your tongue or taking a moment to empathise with the feelings of others, has been well and truly Faraged.
Just as one side of the Brexit argument believed the referendum meant that they could at last talk about immigration without being accused of racism, so the other side felt the result meant they could talk about the disenfranchised and least privileged as xenophobic fuckwits without being accused of snobbery. Political yes/no, in/out, polarities only drive us to extremes; moderates are forced to make bed fellows with the abhorrent and extreme. We know that this country is no more home to seventeen million racist idiots as it is to an oxymoronic sixteen million elitists. And yet… all of us were required to make deals with our devils. Our elected decision makers washed their hands of their responsibilities and divided the country almost exactly in two as quickly and as farcically as Laputa.
In Gulliver’s Travels (1726), following a freak breakfasting accident, the tiny minded Lilliputians split into two factions on whether it is better to crack a boiled egg on the pointy end or the round end. The dominant Little-endians then fell into perpetual war with the Big-endians and with their neighbouring country Blefuscu where Big-ending was de rigueur. And even within the Little-endian political elite there were high-heelers favoured by the emperor, and low-heelers who fought for people’s rights. In a vain, third way, attempt to smooth things out, the emperor’s son walked with a limp: sporting one low and one high heel. It was satire but if it all sounds strangely prescient it is because we have utterly failed to learn from history.
So don’t tell me: “Accept it and move on.” One of a number of unhelpful phrases to become the memes of this summer; the anxious cry of our very own marginally dominant Little-endians. Should we? Indeed could we?
Whether we trigger Article 50, whether we leave the EU or not, the severity of the divide that has been unmasked in this country will not heal in a few days with a thin “just buck up” message. In the end it’s not that “project fear” has somehow infected the panicking minds of the Big-endians, as Boris Johnson suggests. It is probably not the money markets or the coming scarcity of good cheap cleaners. It’s the certain death of the cultural expectations of half the country and the realisation of how fragile our parliamentary democracy actually is, and how easily it fell vulnerable to extremism, that has brought on what can only be described as grief.
Classically, grief’s five stages are, denial, anger, bargaining and depression before, apparently, acceptance. Certainly those first four have been more than evident but, on a national level, no one knows how long it might take to get to stage five. If jokes are what we do to try and nullify the despair of grief, even seventy years after WWII we haven’t reached the acceptance stage. We’re still finding it funny to imagine Angela Merkel visiting Greece and, when the passport official asks, “Occupation?” she replies, “No, just visiting.”
So please don’t tell me to “Stop banging on about the referendum,” as if I had a choice. Brexit has triggered something psychologists call ‘frequency illusion’. A phenomenon that occurs when your mind has focussed on something and then you consciously start noticing its occurrence more often. For example, when you’re thinking of buying a particular model of car, you suddenly start noticing that there are far more on the road than you thought before. The bitterness of our divided country has created a mass inextricable ‘frequency illusion’, it has become a prism that almost every view following it is inevitably seen through. Days after the referendum the Archbishop of Canterbury was interviewed about the vigil in remembrance of the Somme. “What do you think was the main cause of such bloodshed?” asked the interviewer. “Massive political misjudgement,” he replied, barely able to disguise the sub-text.
So don’t tell me, “There were lies on both sides.” Yes there were, but Gove, Johnson and Farage’s were just far fatter. An objective observer might conclude that our government’s greatest failure, highlighted by Brexit, is depriving generations of a solid education that might encourage empathy and equip us to spot lies and consider consequences as clearly as the private school educated, despised, liberal elite that many Little-endians were protesting about with their votes, and which accounted for much of London’s Big-endian position.
So don’t tell me: “What’s done is done.” Of course, with a narrow majority, the last thing you want is another go. “Move on” is the politically motivated advice of the victors and it will do nothing but infuriate those who are grieving.
So don’t tell me, “If it was the other way round you would say we were undermining democracy if we campaigned for another referendum.” And yet, another referendum, just to make sure now we’re more aware of the outcome, would, of course, be no less democratic than the first, and perhaps more so.
So give up the platitudes, and the urgings to move on. Let the Big-endians grieve and hope. It is a pyrrhic victory. We allowed our politicians to ignore their fundamental duties in this representative democracy, the mother of parliaments, and we all will pay for it. What are they if they are not, after all, employed by us to research, comprehend, and take time to consider as well as debate the merits of plans for our good. And yet they gave up and left the country to split down the middle. But in the turmoil that follows, that political elite which so many were voting against, will not fold or disappear but, like Dr Who, simply take on a shiny new face.
So don’t tell me, “it’s just a period of uncertainty,” because there is one thing that is certain. This country, our institution of representative government, the whole idea of a United Kingdom, will never be the same again.
First published in