Brexit, complexity and the tangle of European minds
British debate is dumbing down arguments to misleading simplicity
An anti-Brexit demonstrator outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster: May’s deal has proved too complicated for those fed on a diet of straight bananas rather than straight talk. Photograph: Simon Dawson
One of the most worrying features of Brexit is that the UK seems to have lost the capacity to manage complexity. Many individuals in Britain can, of course, still grapple with difficult issues as well as anyone.
But the UK system, taken as a whole, seems to have become unable to understand and manage the complex issues arising from the country’s efforts to disentangle itself from the EU.
This incapacity to deal with reality is evident in the ongoing fiction that there are serious negotiations going on to change the Northern Ireland backstop.
There seems to be a growing need in the British public debate to boil arguments down to a level so simplistic that they end up somewhere between misleading and meaningless.
Suggestions from a few Irish people recently that Ireland’s approach to the Brexit negotiations is driven by hostility to the UK are false
This in turn has given birth to the preposterous political narrative which presents a plucky UK as struggling bravely to win its independence from what is in fact a democratic organisation which it freely joined, significantly shaped and to which at least half of its citizens still wish to belong.
The process of infantilisation has reached its lowest ebb in the presentation of the UK government’s less-than-impressive negotiating performance as a glorious rematch of the second World War.
Nothing better illustrates the dismissal of complicated reality than that laughable metaphor.
This is not said out of any disrespect. Like most of us in Ireland these days, I have admiration and affection for the British people.
It is my strong wish that the recent unprecedented warmth of the British-Irish relationship can be restored and developed further. Suggestions from a few Irish people recently that Ireland’s approach to the Brexit negotiations is driven by hostility to the UK are false.
It is the making of such tendentious allegations, rather than their spurious content, which risks damaging the relationship between our two countries.
The UK’s inability to manage complexity has reached its nadir in recent months. However, the problem has been brewing over several decades. It could be seen in the utterly oversimplified presentation of the EU and its negotiating processes. To some extent this could be said of every member state.
However, our nearest neighbour raised to a fine art the presentation of competing views as half-witted, shared achievements as national victories, compromise as national defeat, and above all childish fiction as gospel fact.
On the path which led towards Brexit, the unwillingness of the UK tabloid media and many politicians to absorb, or even admit the existence of, complex detail led to David Cameron’s abandonment of any effort to sell the deal he had painstakingly agreed with EU partners.
The popular British perception is that Cameron was offered next to nothing by the EU; the truth is that, in terms of the balance of interests involved, the deal was reasonable and significant. Cameron, having negotiated the package, decided on the basis of the initial media reaction that it was just too complex to sell.
Much Brexiteer argumentation, is not just that they were ludicrous but that they gave further momentum to the dumbing-down of public debate in Britain
The level of debate on both sides of the Brexit referendum itself was generally superficial. The dismissal of all experts by some Brexiteers graphically illustrated that. Most of the arguments deployed muddied waters rather than shedding light.
The years since the referendum, which cried out for a return to wise reflection and careful analysis, saw the further rise of off-the-cuff thinking and breezy soundbites.
Liam Fox famously proclaimed that the Brexit trade deal would be the easiest negotiation in history, a prediction which puts him in the running for the most foolish prediction in history.
Boris Johnson compared the Irish Border to the boundaries of London’s traffic congestion charge zones. The point about such propositions, typical of much Brexiteer argumentation, is not just that they were ludicrous but that they gave further momentum to the dumbing-down of public debate in Britain.
Not surprisingly, the deal which Theresa May negotiated, shaped and signed up to in the autumn, with its necessary compromises, has proved too complicated for those who were fed for many years on a diet of straight bananas rather than straight talk.
The rejection of complexity has even led to attacks on the British institutions charged with managing complex issues including parliament, the judiciary and the civil service.
The EU has generally managed the immensely difficult Brexit negotiations with calmness and reason, qualities which will continue to be greatly in need in the coming weeks. The balances of the Belfast Agreement are subtle and, yes, complex. They cannot wished away.
Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons wrote that God “made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity; but Man he made to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind”¨. I have great admiration for the many British politicians, journalists and, dare I say it, experts who continue to work courageously to serve their country wittily in the tangle of their mind.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the EU, Britain and Italy