Una Mullally: Brexit, nobody knows anything
It’s rare to encounter a story like Brexit where those involved know how disastrous it’s going to be, yet keep pursuing it.
MEP and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage speaks at a political rally entitled 'Lets Go WTO' hosted by pro-Brexit lobby group Leave Means Leave in London on January 17, 2019. - British Prime Minister Theresa May scrambled to put together a new Brexit strategy on Thursday after MPs rejected her EU divorce deal and demanded that she rule out a potentially disastrous "no-deal" split. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images
I’ll tell you one thing about Brexit: no one can say the media overreacted from the get go. Newspapers, online news outlets and broadcasters are now in that rare position where the worst case scenario they outlined - often the first port of call for giddy journalists - might actually happen.
News needs drama, which is why the events of the last couple of years are so strange, because they don’t need any more zest to flavour them. They just play out, it all their head-spinning, topsy-turvy glory. This feeling is discombobulating. Very little is being blown out proportion. There is no Project Fear, just Project I’m Not Sure You Chaps Realise How Much Trouble You’re In.
To squeeze as much juice as possible out of a story, one of the media’s favourite thing to do is present scenarios, bad ones. At the most basic level, this desire to rinse a story for newsiness can be seen on the front of hyperlocal newspapers, where, bereft of actual news lines, sometimes pose hypothetical ones. It’s in local newspapers that the front page splash will occasionally just ask a question instead of presenting a fact. New Shopping Centre Will Attract Anti-Social Behaviour? But we see a version of this throughout media across stories that are tidal; a city’s preparation for an Olympics, housing crises, large construction projects especially public transport ones, and so on. Brexit is one of those.
In digesting such worse case scenario narratives, there’s a tacit piece of communication between outlet and consumer that the worst probably won’t happen. So what happens when it does? What does that do to our understanding of or hope in competence in politics? Well, it shatters what’s left of it.
Many of the devastating things that happen in the world either take us by surprise or are out of our control; terrorist attacks, catastrophic accidents, natural disasters. They are the bridge collapses and bombings and hurricanes. Apart from climate change, which is in a category of its own really, it’s rare to encounter a story like Brexit where those involved know how disastrous it’s going to be, yet keep pursuing it. Watching Brexit unfold is as if a group of people are told on what day a plane was going to fly into a mountain, and they then spend the next two years debating the type of jet.
The fact that the doom and gloom, worst-case-scenario-offered-as-first-case-scenario version of media got this right, the realisation that the mess really is this bad, is so damaging for faith in government. The ridiculous pantomime of British parliamentary politics is now an international laughing stock. The absolute - surely knowingly delusional - nonsense spouted by British Brexiteer politicians is an international embarrassment.
Theresa May’s attempts at faking authority and suffering through humiliation after humiliation evokes Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels wincing in a wheelchair as he’s being asked by Michael Caine “Do you feel this?” while being whipped on the shins with a switch. Carry on.
Most of us complain about politicians, and give out yards about how they don’t do as good a job as they should. But surely there is something akin to hope deep down that the people running the show do actually know what they’re doing. Brexit has exposed that competence at the highest level of British government is a pretence. Politicians in turn complain that the public’s judgement is overly harsh and distrustful. But just like how the media’s worst case scenario for Brexit turned out to be accurate, our worst suspicions about politicians have been realised too.
As a child or teenager, it is revelatory to realise that most adults don’t really know what they’re doing - that age does not confer authority, and that authority does not confer knowledge. Brexit is a crisis of education, of course, but it is also a crisis of competence. As Britain continues to flounder, “nobody knows anything”, William Goldman’s line in Adventures in the Screen Trade, comes to mind. Goldman died in November. At least he left the world knowing that although he was talking about movie-making, his quote will certainly outlast us all.