Politics

Welcome to Brexit Britain: the self-preservation society

Article published on March 29, 2017
Article published on March 29, 2017

This afternoon Theresa May formally began the Brexit process, starting two long years of negotiations with the EU. It's a very difficult job, and the only way to get through it is to all work together as a team. And according to her, that means we do everything she says. [OPINION]

When people who voted Remain talk about Brexit, they like to use bus metaphors. Particularly, the metaphor of a bus flying off a cliff - I like to think it’s the White Cliffs of Dover. Sometimes the bus is being driven by Theresa May. Sometimes it’s Nigel Farage, or Boris Johnson, or David Cameron. Quite often, the bus is on fire. If you look very closely, you can make out the words "£350 million a week" painted on the side in peeling letters.

But there’s an even more appropriate bus metaphor: the ending of the 1969 classic The Italian Job, in which a bus (painted red white and blue, fittingly enough) full of criminals and their recently stolen gold is left hanging over the side of a sheer drop in the Alps. As the gold sits heavily over the abyss and his crew huddle at the other end as a counterweight, the inimitable Michael Caine - laid flat on his stomach with fingers outstretched - gives a winning smile. "Hold on a minute, lads… I’ve got a great idea."

I’d like to think that Caine and his band of thieves found an ingenious method of escaping that perilous situation. And I’d like to think, in years to come, that I was wrong to feel the anxiety and the pessimism that I feel now. But if the nine months since the referendum vote are anything to go by, I have very few reasons to be cheerful.

Lest I be accused of painting all Brexiteers with the same brush, I’m aware that many of those who voted to Leave had many valid reasons for doing so. The EU is an unwieldy beast, in need of reform from the ground up. But there are many more who voted almost purely for reasons of hatred, a jingoistic attempt to rid the country of anyone that wasn’t like them, and the leaders of the Leave campaign (and then the leaders of the new Government) pandered to them. It may have started out as more, but by June 24 this was a debate about immigration.

But the victors in the referendum have not been without hyperbole either; any attempt to merely suggest that a post-Brexit Britain would be anything less than utopic has been met with scorn and disdain. Media outlets like the BBC have had accusations of bias hurled at them, while senior judges have been branded "enemies of the people" - a phrase also adopted by dictators and the new US President - for daring to suggest that Parliament should have a say in negotiations.

A stronger leader would have done well to recognise the slimness of the majority, or to acknowledge the divides that this vote brought about in an instant, and which will take generations to heal. But instead, terrified of showing even a moment of weakness, she doubled down on false images of unification; spouting phrases like "the will of the people" and "Brexit means Brexit" until they were completely devoid of what little meaning they once contained. She's insisted we have to be united, while doing nothing to actually unite us.

Most people who voted Remain don’t want a do-over of the referendum; we want reassurances, stability, a measure of nuance. Our leaders have completely failed to provide it. MPs shamefully declined to guarantee that the countless EU citizens living and working in the UK will be free to continue doing so. David Davis, the man who’s meant to be leading negotiations with the EU from our side, has taken a sort of perverse pride in his unpreparedness for the very real possibility that negotiations might break down and we might be left without a viable deal. And Jeremy Corbyn, pathetically absent during the campaign, has proved himself the weakest opposition leader in decades at a time when healthy opposition has never been more important. And God only knows how citizens of Scotland and Northern Ireland must be feeling right now, caught between a rock and a hard place.

I want desperately to be proven wrong. I want Brexit to be a success, to make Britain a safer and most prosperous country. But right now it feels like Theresa May has blown up the van when she was only supposed to blow the bloody doors off - and now she wants to take it for a spin.