In case anybody had forgotten, it’s about a week to go until Brexit. Or Bregg-zit, as Tony Blair would say.
It wasn’t that long ago that we couldn’t go for ten minutes before the subject of the impending Euro-divorce gate-crashed the conversation like a Burberried community service delegate looking for ‘Steve’.
Leave and Remain is so passé though. What tickles my fancy about the whole UK-EU shitshow is markedly how the whole argument has developed or shifted. With Brexit, it’s not just a game of musical chairs within a specific context. People have ended up jumping from argument to argument. It’s whatever bandwagon looks to be gaining the most momentum. It is truly an apt debate for our twisted modern society. Most of the commentators are so bent, they could sleep on springs. We are told that the UK is now a divided nation, but the truth be told, that has always been the case. It’s just that the opinion-cake is now cut to different proportions.
If you wind the clock back to pre-2016, the country was split three ways: those vehemently anti-EU (about 5%), those vehemently pro-EU (about 5%) , and those who really didn’t give a toss and had far more pressing concerns to consider in their lives (the remaining 90%). These are approximations that reflect the margins of the extreme positions taken on the subject.
Once a referendum was placed on the table, a proportion (but by no means all) moved to one or the other camp. By the time the vote took place, it looked like this: Leave 37.5%, Remain 34.75%, Don’t give a toss (27.75%). We know this from the turnout percentage and the subsequent voting split.
Now, for those of you who remember the campaigning, there was no distinction between any hard or soft Brexits. This was a straightforward choice of In vs Out. The fascinating part of the argument was that each of the Remain and Leave camps moved from being on a highly emotionally charged plain (and I mean both sides were driven by this) to a real mix of rationales and different drivers for choice of vote.
And it was at this point that the truly insightful people were mobilised. Individuals who knew enough about the complexities of our interwoven existence with the EU to see the practical risks as well as the considerable opportunities for leaving.
The problem was that as the campaigning spluttered into life, nobody really got into the facts. Everybody played on emotions, both Leave and Remain. Leave spoke heavily about freedom and used war rhetoric, while Remain played on fear of the unknown. Nobody drilled down into the detail to sell the tangible benefits of either choice.
Now let’s not be too critical of this. I would argue that for most major purchases, we buy on emotion. How many people read the small print on their mortgage? Hey, if a surveyor’s report came back on a house you were buying that raised doubts, you’d probably look for gaps so that you could still validate your decision to buy, even though you had commissioned the report for your own protection.
It’s what psychologists are pleased to call confirmation bias.
You also have to acknowledge the sheer complexity of the EU question. It’s just too gargantuan in nature to boil down into a simple Yes or No conclusion that you’d be happy with.
So, all unwelcomed detail is filed under ‘too hard’ or ‘too troubling’ and emotion trumped facts. After all, emotion is a natural high and takes us to new and exciting places, whereas with facts we tend to be constrained by the limits of our knowledge and imagination. You only live once, eh? Or twice if you’re James Bond. At least that wasn’t EU only live once...
So, once the decision was made, the Remain camp could not believe their burning orbs. The other side’s choice contradicted not only their choice, but their soul. What they actually felt within. And that is difficult to comprehend because it’s all based on emotions, which can’t be deciphered.
The Leavers were thick. Though of course, the Remainers were arguably thick themselves for having run a campaign that singularly failed to highlight any factually based rationale for their own chosen leaning. Well, that’s what you get with emotionally charged debates. You’re so convinced, you don’t think through your own arguments. Or you don’t even have any.
So, after the bombe surprise, everybody had to reach for the facts, which ironically was the first point that facts had come into it. People actually looked into and found out more about the EU and what it was all about. Rather like the homeowner who discovers they have purchased a pile of shite and suddenly familiarises themselves with the work of surveyors and solicitors.
Horse and stable doors, my friends.
The camps then split again as the sub-debates changed. The Leave nutjob fraternity persisted on their initial plan – to leave immediately and irrespective of any other considerations. The Remainiacs (as they soon came to be known) wanted to thwart the whole process and force either a revocation or a second vote. The majority moved back to a pragmatic centre to explore what flavour of Brexit might work best in terms of how close everybody wanted to bunk up with our erstwhile European bedfellows?
At this point, we didn’t really know where we were going, which put us at an immediate disadvantage in our negotiations with Brussels. Continental European opinion-splits have a much lower ambivalent percentage because the EU plays a more central role in everyday life. You see EU politicians speaking on TV and quoted in newspapers on a daily basis. They have Schengen and the Euro. Most of us had never even heard of Tusk and Juncker before 2016. And probably still don’t realise that they are now off centre stage.
And this ambivalence is reflected in the whole negotiations piece. We have now shifted away from and In vs Out, to a sliding scale of Out but In, or In but Out.
The problem with this is that the more we all discovered, the harder we realised it was going to be, and the argument for a second vote became more relevant for two reasons:
Firstly, as a confirmatory rubber-stamp of the first vote. As time dragged on, the argument to check whether people had changed their minds became a strong hat to hang on the common-sense peg. After all, if people were sure that nothing had changed, what harm would it do? If things had changed, then the implication was that we would be continuing down a path that the people didn’t want. That all starts to stack up.
The second argument though, which didn’t gain so much traction, was that this was no longer an argument about whether we wanted to leave or remain. But more one about whether it was now possible at all. In over 40 years of intricately close co-operation, the world had arguably changed to a degree that leaving per se was simply no longer viable. At that point, you then have to consider whether the power to revoke was a decision to be taken by the incumbent executive (i.e. Cabinet), elected lawmakers (Parliament) or put it back to the people.
All seemed viable options for consideration – depending on the level you believe democratic decision-making should take place. But Parliament was always going to be the middle-of-the road and risk-free flavour for the career politician who still sought power after the last breath had gasped from the iron lung of the Brexit debacle. Revocation would be just too toxic (only a party contemplating electoral suicide would plump for that one – yes, that would be you, Lib Dems) and a second vote would look like pandering to the elite or at least an implied recognition of the obvious. But while a lot of people were quick to suggest that voters in the first referendum did not know what they were voting for, that is not necessarily the obvious that seemed to be the first resort of the Remain post-referendum rationale.
The problem is that what people voted for was never on the table in the first place.
I can tell you first-hand about the Civil Service paralysis on the week after the vote because I was there. There was no Plan B for Leave. Nobody had a clue what to do next. Remember Chernobyl?They first thought it was a fire and dealt with it accordingly. But it wasn’t a fire and was in fact something that nobody else had ever seen before. And though they worked through it and got on top of it, it was at a tremendous cost. There is still a massive exclusion zone in the heart of eastern Europe. Or as we sometimes think, a massive exclusion zone withing a massive exclusion zone. But I digress.
The real starting point of Brexit takes you back one step prior to a Leave vs Remain binary choice. It started off as a fait accompli; a paper exercise. Something that should have changed nothing. And ever since that point, the whole argument has continued to evolve, with the end result an apparent societal paradigm shift.
So, while it looks like we are going to leave, that was never the intention. We all needed an education first before we even got to conclusion mode.
Well, we’ve certainly had that now.
So, what next? Well, the truth is nobody will be heading for disaster. And that is because the we are dealing with both theoretical constructs and pragmatic facts. Membership of the EU aligns both. Outside the EU and while facts are facts, they can be spun any which way to ensure that the theoretical narrative remains uncorrupted. It is what government does. Do not think for one moment that magicians stop sawing ladies in half because we’ve worked out that it’s a trick. They just find a more improved way to dress it up. You’ll still be impressed by the result.
There’s business to be done and security to be maintained. And it will all continue to be rolled out.
And in a few years’ time, you’ll almost have forgotten about Brexit. Just like we almost have in the last 6 weeks.unsplash-logoHabib Ayoade