Can we please stop pretending this is a normal election? Everyone’s at it. Gabbing about NHS funding, arguing over energy price caps. Everyone’s acting as if it’s 2015, or 2010, or any other election year of the modern period, when mildly right-wing parties and mildly left-wing parties argued the toss over fairly technical matters and voters decided which was most trustworthy. It’s pantomime, a performance of normalcy in an era that’s anything but normal. Because we all know, somewhere in the attic of our minds, that this is an election like no other, and that it’s about one issue and one issue only.
You don’t even have to name it. It hangs in the air, a perfume of liberty to those of us who like it, a foul stench to those who hate it. It infuses everything. It exercises the hopes of swathes of the public, and chills the hearts of much of the political class. It is the maker or breaker of politicians’ fortunes. Theresa May is doing well from singing its praises; Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron are suffering because they’re scared of it, or hate it. We all live in its shadow — its vast, beautiful shadow — and yet we behave as if everything’s normal. ‘Should we build 100,000 or 200,000 new homes?’, politicians ponder, as if the entire make-up of the nation in which those homes will be built hadn’t just been shaken to its core.
It is Brexit, of course. Music to some ears, a tinny wail to others. This is the Brexit Election. Nothing else matters. You can pretend it does, if you like. You can talk about housing and nukes and how to stop children eating so many hamburgers. You can say, ‘There are other issues!’. But you’re kidding yourself. And you know you’re kidding yourself. Eleven months after That Vote — the first time in the history of our getting the franchise that we used it to reject not just a particular party but the establishment itself — the aftershocks are still being felt. We all live in the aftermath of the Brexit quake.
We should accept this. Actually we should embrace it. Our political leaders know this election is all about Brexit, even as their technocratic instinct is to drag politics back to the familiar, dull terrain of public spending and transport and childhood obesity etczzz. Theresa May kicked off the election brilliantly outside Downing St last month, when she had a pop at the wannabe usurpers of Brexit and promised to make this a Brexity election. She’s also twigged that where being pro-Brexit invites social death in the media bubble, it’s a vote-winner in the country at large (talk about Two Britains). And yet in recent days she’s lost some of that daring, that recognition that this election is unique and scary and strange, and has drifted robotically back to the small fry of normal politics. Mistake, Mrs May. Do Brexit.
Corbyn says Brexit is ‘settled’, yet the tragic look in his eyes says something else. It says: ‘This is all about Brexit, isn’t it? And I have to choose between Labour’s metropolitan supporters who hate Brexit and its working-class supporters who love it, don’t I?’ Yes, Jeremy, you do. Because you and your party, like the rest of us, have been thrown into glorious disarray by Brexit. He knows Brexit isn’t settled. Anyone who over the past 11 months has opened a newspaper or watched the news or talked to another human being knows Brexit isn’t settled. Rich, annoying people are in open warfare against it. It has split the nation, pitting London against the north, city against country, the educated against labourers. It’s the least settled thing in Britain right now. Of course it stalks the election.
Even Tim Farron, promiser of a second referendum, the last hope of irritated bourgeois voters who still can’t believe Brexit happened, is getting antsy about this being a Brexit Election. Perhaps because he’s discovered that being anti-Brexit, being anti the 17.4m, is not popular: the Lib Dems aren’t doing well. Be brave, Tim, be honest: your party wants seats in parliament so that it can stymie Brexit. You know this. And we know it too. This is also, of course, what Gina Miller, Tony Blair and Open Britain are up to: using the election to try to put Brexitphobes into power. They know and we all know this election is about one thing; the thing.
Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Brexit ripped the country in two, brilliantly exposing social, class and geographical tensions that for too long had been hidden under the happy-clappy lid of consensual, technocratic politics. Let’s not bury those tensions again by pretending this election is about the economy or junk food or welfare or whatever. This election is about whether Brexit should happen, how it should happen, and more fundamentally whether people or experts, plebs or Brussels, should shape Britain’s future. Polly Toynbee isn’t right about much, but she was right when she said there is a ‘whiff of Civil War cordite’ in the air post-Brexit. Yes ma’am. Big, burning questions about power and democracy burst back to life thanks to Brexit. And that’s great. Let’s put them front and centre. I know who I’m voting for at this election: the candidate most committed to Brexit. I’m voting for Brexit. Again.