Earlier this year I was approached at a party by a prominent and slightly oiled ‘Remainer’. Amid other pleasantries she asked me, interrogatively:
‘You voted “Leave”, Douglas. Can you give me one good reason why we should still leave the EU?’.
Having watched the last two-and-a-half years from the sidelines, depressed by almost the entire political debate in the UK, I could think of no argument that would be new to her. We’ve all been round this too many times before, and almost no one has conceded anything new on the subject for years. So I decided to relay the feeling that was (and still is) foremost in my mind. The feeling which has disturbed me the most. ‘If we don’t leave the EU, or if we somehow get tricked into remaining in everything but name’, I said to my friend, ‘I just don’t think I’ll bother voting again.’
It isn’t the most original observation, but it is sincere. And I don’t say it in the chuntering spirit of malice and fury that has dominated the Brexit debate since the referendum, but only in a spirit of sadness and regret.
There are several reasons for that regret. The first is that the period since the Brexit vote has shaken several fundamental presumptions I had held about this country. For instance, before now I have always been irked by people who talk about ‘the establishment’ in Britain. That lazy term has always seemed to me not only a sort of chippy, let-yourself-off-the-hook, piece of British conspiracy fodder, but a phrase which signals an ignorance of how this country actually works. Britain is not run by a cabal of men in smoke-filled rooms. To the extent that an establishment exists there are several establishments, and all far more complex and morphing than the word suggests. In any case, I thought, they are unquestionably subservient to the people.
Well in the last two and a half years it has become clear that though there is not ‘the establishment’ in Britain, there clearly is ‘an establishment’. And while it is not able to control absolutely everything, it can do very basic things like make certain people’s lives very difficult if they have been on the wrong side of a democratic vote. And it can, if not thwart, then at least tie-up all efforts at fulfilling the wishes of the people. From the moment that the British people voted ‘leave’, any and all ‘establishments’ in this country might have pulled together for the national interest. Instead many chose to wage war on the decision of the people, in the hope of reversing that decision, or to conceal the fact that what the people asked for was not going to happen.
The second reason why this fills me with regret is that when I speak with friends across the continent (even those who are ardent opponents of Brexit) they occasionally express a degree of admiration at the fact that the British government has appeared to be at least trying to fulfil the will of the people. Earlier plebiscites in Ireland, France and The Netherlands, after all, were ignored by those countries’ establishments. The people were told to vote again until they got the ‘right’ answer (as we too may yet be asked to do). In such countries there was never any intention of doing what the public wanted. And so the fact that the British government seemed to be trying – loathe though some of them may have been – to do what the public had asked elicited a batsqueak of admiration from some friends on the continent, in a way that permitted an uncommon squeak of pride in return.
But that brings me to the real reason why I say all this. I am not the world’s most ardent Brexiteer. I voted to leave because I could see what the EU now wanted to become, and whether or not that direction was right for the rest of the continent it was not right for the UK. We were always going to be an awkward and aggravating presence holding back this project. We were going to have to divorce at some point. And for that reason – among others – I voted to ‘leave’. I have not spent the last two and a half years obsessing about this because having had my say I wanted the politicians to get it done. I also regretted the considerable hurt that many people took from the Brexit vote because of what they took to be its motivating factors. But once the separation agreement was agreed, and Britain left the EU, I was confident that the wounds that had been inflicted could begin to heal. I still hope that. But I avoided all this because I wanted no part in what I think has been a toxic period. One in which politicians and pundits have behaved in manners so furious and deranged that it should cause them to feel shame for years to come. A period in which even minor figures like Andrew Adonis and Anna Soubry have done everything they could to just keep pumping the most toxic behaviour and attitudes into the body politic. For my part I just hoped that the whole thing would eventually be done, the vote acted upon, and these toxins start to be evacuated from our system.
For some time, however, it has come to seem that although we were offered two choices in 2016, only one of those choices was ever ready to be implemented. For it turns out that ‘Leave’ could not be. Or it might start to be, but we will still have to spend our entire future negotiating our way out of the full thing. Something that may never occur and may well be attempted under a government with a very different set of views. The problem is that ‘Leave’ is just too complex, we are told. And so the same people who tell us that the EU stops war, creates peace, can unite a continent’s economics and simultaneously stand as a counterpoint to American and Russian power now also tell us that no way can be found for an EU member state to leave the bloc on agreeable terms. It’s all just too complicated, apparently. Perhaps it would have been more honest if the voting slip in 2016 had only offered us one box to tick.
Various accidents of time and geography have meant that I have seen politicians up close since I was young. Some have become friends. I still know good politicians – from various parties – who are also good people. I admire and am fond of people from all sides, including both sides of the referendum debate. Of course I have encountered some terrible people in politics, but I have also met people who are genuinely motivated by a desire to do good, to improve the lives of others and direct the course of their country for the better. So in this regard I am lucky. But I am also unusual. Most people have not met that many politicians. Let alone the good ones.
But what I said to that ‘Remainer’ acquaintance wasn’t an idle boast. It was – and is – sincerely and sadly held. If Britain doesn’t leave the EU or stays basically trapped inside the EU then I won’t take to the streets. I won’t wail or gnash my teeth. I certainly won’t take to insulting my friends, family or fellow citizens who voted ‘Remain’. Far from it. I will get on with things and with people. But I won’t see much point in voting again. I suppose that if there was an election soon and the choice was between the Conservative party (even though it has almost destroyed its reputation as the party of stability and competence) or Jeremy Corbyn then perhaps I will be reluctantly coaxed back to the booth for one last go. But otherwise I just don’t think I’ll bother. Because I will have been persuaded that at some level I had never expected, and in a way I had never previously seen, the whole thing is stitched up. While we members of the public might be allowed to make minor alterations to the composition of our local council, on the really important questions our opinion isn’t wanted and our say doesn’t count.
I’m sure lots of people will say ‘Isn’t that a bit over the top?’. And who knows, perhaps my attitude will change at some crisis point down the road. But the purpose of my saying this is not really to say what I am thinking, but only really to say this: if I am thinking this, what are millions of other people in our country thinking? And what is not imaginable after disenfranchisement on such a scale?