What is Brexit? It is, primarily, a blame game.
During the 2016 referendum campaign, those supporting Brexit laid the blame for an endless list of apparent humiliations squarely and often solely on the EU. The decline of industry in the UK, the neoliberal consensus, the left-wing hegemony, unacceptable levels of immigration, the changing shape of bananas, the relative poverty of fish stocks, the lack of funding for public services – no ill from any angle was not by someone at some time linked with our membership of the European Union.
Since then – since the morning after the referendum, when a pallid Boris Johnson attempted at a Vote Leave lectern desperately to hide his own terror at what he had wrought – the blame game has shifted: now, it is about why Brexit is or isn’t happening. For Remainers, Leavers lie; for Leavers, Remainers obstruct. Those who championed Brexit, like the current PM, cannot admit the challenges they now face in enacting it; those who opposed it cannot acknowledge the deep difficulties of obstructing it. This is why both sides are keen to place the blame for Brexit’s failure – for on its own terms it has already failed, having proven harder and trickier, and more damaging to British prestige abroad, than anyone save the most mocked Cassandras argued in 2016 – on the other. Too extreme, they shout at their opponents. Not I, they respond in unison. Deliberation is lost in the noise – more or less as the hard right’s most committed vandals might have hoped.
For what is politics? It is, ultimately, a conversation.
This dialogue is never-ending and irresolvable. Politics is not, fundamentally, about getting things done; it is about deciding on what to do (meanwhile, mere administration gets things done – until such time as politics changes its mind). Politics breaks down when talking turns to shouting. What Brexit has achieved is the rare – and dangerous – trick of crowding out all other topics of discussion, all other purposes of exchange, all pretence at courtesy. In part because the EU was made a lightning rod for every ill we face, Brexit has become the fierce focus of our political conversation, and in this way it has come to seem to many that it is the conversation that is the problem. Just get it done. Whatever “it” is, just do it.
Thus we arrive at today’s prorogation of Parliament, which achieves the cessation of troublesome chat. Oliver Cromwell’s pendulum-like reputation has swung again towards national hero: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you.” On dissolving the Rump Parliament, Cromwell ruled as a dictator until his death. The problem, of course, is that politics is by its nature procedural rather than instrumental; to do away with dialogue is to do away with politics – and replace it with fiat. This in turn stores up further tumult, as Cromwell’s predecessor in extra-parliamentary rule, Charles I, found to his cost.
Parliament isn’t the only place where British politics happens, of course; but it is, like it or not, where the conversation has teeth. Without the House of Commons, all the talk is mere ineffectual noise. The last week is evidence enough of why Johnson’s government has been tempted to prorogue: in the Commons, politics happens – and it has effects. In just a few days of sitting, Parliament has ensured that the government has the legal nightmare of the Benn Bill to deal with – itself an expression of the majority in the country who are against leaving the EU without a deal (a goal for which I’m not convinced Johnson – as distinct from Dominic Cumings – truly aims). Tonight’s extraordinary votes in the Commons – which seek to extract private correspondence from government employees and rather pyrrhically demand it adhere to the law – may in some ways be unwise; but they are responses in turn to an unwise stimulus. This sort of spiral is how states unravel.
The UK has no inalienable right to exist; Scotland comes closer to independence each day; there are riots in Glasgow in favour a unified Ireland. It is not hyperbole, then, to say that the country as it is currently constituted may indeed unravel. But the potential consequences of switching from deliberative to demotic governance are wider than these simple statements of current fact, and do indeed veer into the realms of what might a year ago have been panicked speculation. The electorate were told a decision was simple; it has proven far more difficult than that. The state now strains to contain the consequences.
What is, after all, a state? It is an imagined community.
That definition of Benedict Anderson’s rightly rests on human ingenuity. Countries, states, systems, conventions, rules, constitutions, policies and parliaments only exist because we agree to pretend they do. We agree to work together to ensure they exist. What, at this moment, do the inhabitants of this community imagine together? We hear much today about the will of the people, and of course the result of the referendum must be reckoned with. But the current blame game, the current silencing of the conversation around it, does not seek to reckon with anything – it seeks to gloss over the deep questions asked by Brexit and pretends to provide a simple answer. In one way or another, this will not hold.
In her Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, Isabel Hardman argues that MPs “want to be popular and on the pulse, but don’t want to do what their constituents have sent them to Westminster to do, which is to make difficult decisions.” This brings us back to the frustration of politics-as-conversation. The original sin of David Cameron’s Brexit referendum was that it attempted to make binary and straight-forward a difficult decision. It had long proven unpopular to argue thus, and so Cameron sought instead to court popularity through simplicity.
Simplism is, though, the natural tenor of demagoguery. Cameron has lived a charmed life, and approached questions of public policy with insouciance. The ferocity of the forces he would unleash were perhaps invisible to him. But this is no excuse. It is a commonplace that demagoguery finds in simplism a scapegoat – a succession of scapegoats – and purses each of them with uncontainable fury. Cameron’s government opened the space in which this vocabulary, and those who have chosen to deploy it, could not just take hold of our politics … but today, at least temporarily, silence it.