Britain needs a day of reckoning. Brexit will provide it
It’s a country paralysed, polarised and falling apart, yet deluded about its global status. A humbling must come to pass
Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the rear entrance of Downing Street, London, after spending the weekend in her Maidenhead constituency. Yui Mok/PA Wire
There is something surreal about these last days before Brexit – just 39 now. There is still no visibility on a deal, and no clarity on a no deal. There is no parliament that seems to have a grasp on managing the slide into the unknown, other than humiliating the prime minister in vote after vote and then proposing little as an alternative. The scene outside parliament is a collection of Brexit doomsday soothsayers and naysayers, each with chants and flags and signs and regalia. Elsewhere, stranger things are happening: pro-remain campaigners have started stripping off, we are arguing about Winston Churchill and Boer War concentration camps, and children are marching in the streets chanting: “F**k Theresa May.” It feels like the last days in the compound of a cult that once flourished but is now finally and fatally besieged.
The end of such a cult, that operates outside the bounds of common sense, is inevitable. Not only that, it should be welcomed. It is time. It is time for the country to come to terms with the fact that it has for too long been in denial about some of its fundamental flaws – and if a messy unplanned Brexit is the way to do that, then so be it.
These past few weeks are proof that Brexit, maybe even a hard Brexit, is now looking more likely. Yet, counterintuitively, it also looks like it is necessary. The country is paralysed and polarised ahead of next month’s deadline in a fever of predictions, lies and anticipations that will only break when the reality bites. But already Brexit has kicked off important discussions about Britain that we were otherwise probably never going to have.
If it appears that all we have been doing over the past two years is talking in circles about a backstop, or a meaningful vote, then think again. Brexit has revealed an unaddressed xenophobia – and the immigration system that stoked it – on the right and the left. You hear much less of Britain being a tolerant nation and a soft touch for migrants, now that the Home Office has been exposed by Brexit as it sends threatening letters of deportation to EU citizens who have lived in the country for decades. It has been an education.
It has laid bare our political class, squirming pathetically and uselessly under the micro-scrutiny of Brexit. To paraphrase Jeff Bezos, Brexit rolled over the log and we saw what crawled out. The cavalier incompetence of David Davis, the dissimulating of Boris Johnson, the utter pointlessness of Michael Gove, the existence of Jacob Rees-Mogg and the dishonest and regressive elitism he represents. We have seen ministers entrusted with the future of the country learn on the job, and then flee the scene – revealing Westminster in general, and the Tories in particular, as a Ponzi scheme, a confidence trick. We now realise that the business of serious politics in this country rewards those whose only skill is keeping up the appearance of having a skill.
The referendum aftermath has exposed an exceptionalism verging on delusion. It is no coincidence that Churchill’s legacy has become a matter of public debate. It is an argument that reflects Britain’s inner turmoil on whether it is uniquely apart from the rest of the world, or cannot thrive on its own. It is a soul-searching, long-overdue questioning of the conventional account of Britain’s history. Is the country especially endowed with that historical grit and determination that helped to vanquish its enemies in two world wars and run an empire; or is it a country that ran that empire by means of brutality, and only won those wars as part of an alliance? Can we go it alone? Did we ever? Are we, as the heavily memed Peep Show quote goes, the baddies?
On this, the academic Paul Gilroy pointed out to me that it is, ironically, Britain’s global profile that has diminished its ability to focus on internal nation-building. “The British state is a machine for running and exploring the world,” he said. “It doesn’t work very well when it comes to the business of the modern nation.”
Also finally exposed is the unbridgeable gap, both economic and cultural, between centre and peripheries, between the winners and the losers. There is a double nihilism about Brexit. There are many who feel like they have nothing to lose from a no-deal scenario, while also savouring the prospect of trouble ahead. This is what happens when a country is fed a diet of crisis as glamorous film reel. You cannot fight this appetite for martyrdom with technical arguments about processing times at Dover: these perverse fantasies can only be vanquished by an actual crisis.
And that is why the Brexit reckoning must happen. A humbling must come to pass. From the beginning, Brexit created its own momentum. Once the question was asked – in or out? – all the grievances, justified or not, could be projected on it, with “in” being widely seen as a vote for the status quo. Within this frame, nothing else matters – not economic predictions, not warnings about medicines running out, nor threats of the need to stockpile foods. The remain campaign could not have done anything differently: it lost the moment the question was asked.
And so, maybe, in the end, we will finally believe that immigration is necessary for an economy and an NHS to function, that the inequality between the south-east and the rest of Britain is unsustainable, that our political class is over-pedigreed and under-principled. We might even believe that other crises, such as climate change, are real, too.
Maybe, in the end, the country outside Europe will find its stride by confronting its issues rather than blaming them on others, and forging its own way. But there is only one way to find out. What a shame Brexit is that path – but better to have a path than none at all.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist