Fintan O’Toole: The UK is taking back not control but tedium
Sense of danger hides fact the UK is repatriating boring stuff the EU excels at
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker shakes hands with UK prime minister Theresa May. Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP
Those ships have already sailed. Since last Friday, freighters leaving UK ports for Australia and New Zealand are sailing into the unknown. Their voyage will take 50 days, so they will arrive after March 29th, which means they have departed with no idea of what trading regime will apply when they try to land their goods.
From next Friday the same will be true of ships leaving Britain for ports in Asia. In its own weird way, Brexit is already replicating the conditions of heroic 18th-century imperial exploration. Every captain is a Captain Cook. These stout mariners may know where they are going in a literal sense, but they have no idea what awaits them. Quarantine? Tariffs? Demands for papers they do not have? They have left a place of legal certainty and are going into the trading equivalent of terra incognita. The 67 trade arrangements the UK has with and through the EU could lapse overnight on March 29th.
Who, at some level, would not wish to run away and join a crew of jolly jack tars, setting out on the high seas with a yo-ho-ho and several bottles of rum
In the abstract – if you’re not a real exporter actually engaged in trading tangible things – there is something thrilling about this. A little bit of Brexit is about boredom. The great problem with the EU is its day-to-day tediousness. Viewed as a historical whole, it is extraordinary, even epic. But on the mundane level, it is a bureaucratic machine. Its language is fluent acronym-ese, its methods slow and consensual, its outcomes compromised, its treaties unreadable. Who, at some level, would not wish to run away and join a crew of jolly jack tars, setting out on the high seas with a yo-ho-ho and several bottles of rum to keep reality at bay?
In truth, this question of boredom is rather more complicated. One of the things we’ve all had to learn since June 2016 is precisely that we don’t have to think about the boring stuff because the EU does it for us. Only when it is thrown into doubt do we realise how much tedium the EU has taken from us. Life is too short to spend it thinking about customs codes and VAT regimes and safety standards for light bulbs and roaming charges for mobile phones. The word “frictionless” has bubbled up into the Brexit lexicon as a desirable future state. But what we’ve all been forced to remember is that we have come to take frictionlessness for granted, not just on borders but in everyday life.
The more boring the EU has become, the less boring work has to be done in the back offices of companies. Most firms no longer even have customs departments
And of course in business, too. If the EU is bureaucratic – and it is – it is because it has lifted vast burdens of bureaucracy from businesses and transferred them to itself. The more boring the EU has become, the less boring work has to be done in the back offices of companies. Most firms no longer even have customs departments. Most don’t have to think regularly about technical standards. The EU is Tedium Inc. If it’s not boring, it’s not working.
Another word for “boring” is “predictable”. In our culture, it’s a very negative word – who wants a predictable response or a predictable plot twist? Part of the appeal of the reactionary politics currently in the ascendant round the world is the allure of the unpredictable. Bored by the predictability of bland centrist politics, many voters become like readers of a good thriller for whom the highest compliment is: “Well, I didn’t see that coming!”
And yet, those same voters also expect predictability in the food they eat, in the safety of goods in the shops, in the supply chains for the factories they work in, in their right to retire to the Costa del Sol and in a million details too dull to think about. They are at once sick of predictability and hooked on it.
Here we meet one of the inescapable paradoxes of Brexit. Its member states, including the UK, have outsourced the tedium of trade regulation to the EU. Brexit presents itself as a liberation from all of that dullness. But in fact it is a repatriation of boredom. What it takes back is not “control”, but all the bureaucratic monotony, the form-filling, the box ticking, the acronyms, the technical specifications, the “sorry, mate, we don’t have your WTF-666 declaration and the office is now closed until Monday”. It will not be a bonfire of red tape; the tape will simply become red, white and blue instead.
For many people in Britain, this huge event is already excruciatingly tedious. Who can blame them? It is the same damn thing every week, every promised climax collapsing
This is why Brexit itself has already become history’s most boring revolution. Once, in the reverse alchemy of negotiation, you transmute its golden aspirations into the real world of international legal agreements, you end up with very leaden stuff. For many people in Britain, this huge event in their national life is already excruciatingly tedious. And who can blame them? It is the same damn thing every week, every promised climax collapsing into anti-climactic over-familiarity.
In this atmosphere, the allure of danger is strong. The air rushing up your trousers as you plunge from a great height is, I imagine, very invigorating. The voyage into the unknown, away from the dreary dockyards of predictability, is exciting. Until, after a long time all at sea, you arrive at some dismal port only to be kept in quarantine, unable to land and unwilling to go back where you came from.