This mural on the south west end of Waterloo Bridge makes me sad.
Nine months on, Brexit is still something that makes me feel bereaved. Maybe it always will. It felt like a knife turning in a wound when the letter triggering article 50 was delivered to the EU. The same week that letter was written, Nicola Sturgeon announced she would be calling for second referendum on Scottish independence. That call has now been endorsed by the Scottish parliament. Sturgeon’s critics shrugged and rolled world weary eyes. Of course she wants another referendum they said, the Scottish Nationalists are party with just one goal. which is by and large true, and it certainly would have been a big surprise had the Yes vote won by a narrow margin and the Scots Nats wanted a second referendum just to make sure the country hadn’t changed its mind.
Teresa May’s rebuke about disunity, and Scotland’s foolish notion of leaving the UK, her greatest trading partner, caused some hollow merriment, as that is exactly what she and her sidekick David Davis are determined to to do taking the UK out of the EU.
When Remainers point to the narrowness of the margin by which the UK voted to leave we are jeered as Remoaners, caricatured as members of a rich metroplitan élite, living in a rarified bubble far removed from the ordinary people for whom Nigel Farage claims to speak. Farage is so very ordinary that his friends laughed at him for collecting a paltry £85k as leader of Ukip. Meanwhile the government in a mindbending take on wealth has decreed that as a self-employed person who makes more than £16k pa I am well off. Tell that to a mortgage lender in London. I wouldn’t get a loan for a pair of Theresa May’s shoes, let alone her trousers.
May also calls for the country to unite while making no effort to build bridges with the 48% of us who feel disenfranchised. Brexit, or rather hard Brexit, will be imposed because the government must respect the will of the people, a people that has spoken. So the people comes to mean the 52% who voted leave, which is not to be confused with 52% of the electorate, because not everyone bothered to vote. You may have been one of the 48% who said stay, but your voice is not heard. In normal times we might expect to be represented in the Commons by the Opposition. But these are not normal times. There is effectively no opposition. MPs are simply rolling over and giving May and Davis a free run. Some of them wring their hands and say they are voting for things they believe to be catastrophic for the country, but that impending catastrophe weighs little against the fear they might lose their seats at the next General Election, or be deselected by their local party.
To those who say we should have another referendum where the decision to leave would only be taken if a sizeable majority wanted it, say 75%, the Brexiteers shout foul. But do you honestly believe that if ‘the will of the people’ had voted remain by such a narrow margin that would have been the end of it? that the leavers would have said ok, fair enough, the will of the people must be respected, we need to accept this and move on? Not on your nelly. The calls for another referendum would have resurfaced time and time again.
Brexit has revealed any number of cracks in our flawed democracy, but none so scary as the intransigence of a government which is using its authority to trample on any attempt to debate. There is no honesty about the lack of road map. Phrases are flung about, not just the will of the people, but restoring our sovereignty, as though it’s some sort of shampoo we haven’t be able to buy for a while. But the question that looms largest to me is who is it that that ‘our’ refers to? Whose country is this?
John Crace, the Guardian political sketch writer, wrote this in his piece on Friday: On the day Theresa May triggered article 50, YouGov published a survey of the things people would like to see brought back after Britain has left the EU. Top of the list was the death penalty, with 52% of those who voted leave wishing for its return. Just as well we didn’t have a referendum for that, otherwise we might be up there with China, Saudi Arabia and the US for killing offenders. Other things that leave voters were significantly more keen on than remainers were the return of dark blue passports, pre-decimal currency, imperial measures, incandescent light bulbs, smoking in pubs and restaurants, and corporal punishment in schools. The idea that voting to leave the EU was a vote for an exciting new world of 21st-century British sovereignty, rather than a desire to head back to a nostalgic, rose-tinted vision of 1950s and 60s Britain, is becoming harder to sustain. The mystery is why anyone who lived through 50s austerity Britain – I write as someone born in 1956 – would want to go back there. As far as I remember, it was all a bit rubbish.
It actually appeared in print on Saturday, and I’d love to think that survey was an April Fool’s day joke. But it’s not at all funny, unlike the real April Fool story about George Osborne which was a cracker. Read it here.
Jonathan Freedland of the same parish replied to me in a tweet telling me that another survey revealed that only 15% of UK residents think of themselves as European. That sounds unlikely to me, and about as reliable as Boris Johnson telling the truth if a good fib is handier. Or maybe I just know the entire 15%.
Postscript: I now learn, via another tweet that that survey dates from 2015. Maybe the number has gone up, maybe it has gone down. As the country wakes up, too late, to what it is leaving the European connection may seem more precious. However, in today’s paper there is a report on how pro-Brexit MPs on a committee dealing with the future refuse to acknowledge there will be any negatives to the departure. It’s all about making the UK great again, putting the Great back in Britain, and all that blah. Blame culture has another victory, and you can be sure when the future is not as rosy somehow it will be blamed on our erstwhile EU partners, or fifth column Remainers.