Fool Britannia

Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
Protesters outside Parliament on the day the House of Commons rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU, January 15, 2019

From the ill-conceived Brexit referendum onward, Britain’s governing class has embarrassed itself. The Remain campaign was complacent, the Leave campaign brazenly mendacious, and as soon as the result was known, most of the loudest advocates for severing ties with the European Union ran away like naughty schoolboys whose cricket ball had smashed a greenhouse window. Negotiations have revealed the pitiful intellectual limitations of a succession of blustering cabinet ministers, the leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition doesn’t appear to want to oppose, and the prime minister has engineered her own humiliation by starting the countdown to Brexit without a plan that could command wide support, resulting in the heaviest parliamentary defeat in history. Despite breaches of campaign finance limits and lingering questions over the source of the Leave campaign’s financing, not to mention growing evidence tying it to the same web of influence operations that promoted Trump’s candidacy, there is no equivalent to the Mueller inquiry to bolster public confidence that the organs of state are capable of warding off corruption.

Britain is a country under self-inflicted stress, gripped by fear of the unknown. Remainers and Leavers—two tribes that have taken on the mythic stature of Roundheads and Cavaliers in a second civil war—are clinging together like drowning swimmers, each side convinced that the other is provoking an epochal disaster, neither side understanding why the other won’t submit to its version of reason and allow itself to be guided back to the surface. As the deadline approaches and the clock runs down toward the “No Deal” outcome that was supposed to be unthinkable, the divided nation faces what is, by any standards, a major political crisis. However, as British people like to remind one another, we are supposedly at our best in a crisis.

On December 16, the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab tweeted, “Remainers believe UK prosperity depends on its location, Brexiters believe UK prosperity depends on its character.” Faith in Brexit does indeed seem to correlate with belief in the existence of national character, an innate and invariant set of shared qualities that apparently includes an aptitude for governance. On December 30 an editorial in London’s Sunday Times spluttered:

After more than four decades in the EU we are in danger of persuading ourselves that we have forgotten how to run the country by ourselves. A people who within living memory governed a quarter of the world’s land area and a fifth of its population is surely capable of governing itself without Brussels.

The many unanticipated problems with Brexit are diagnosed by the Sunday Times writer as a loss of confidence, perhaps accompanied by a faulty memory—something happening not just to people but to “a people.” The…

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