It was never about Europe. Brexit is Britain’s reckoning with itself

Brexit is just the vehicle by which a fractured state has come to realise that its politics are no longer fit for purpose

Fintan O'Toole
January 18, 2019

At least the Sun thrives on chaos. The savage parliamentary mauling of Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union allowed Rupert Murdoch’s pet tabloid to unveil on Wednesday morning a front page of grandly gleeful malevolence. Under the headline Brextinct, it conjured a creepy chimera of Theresa May’s head pasted on to the body of a dodo. But the thing about such surreal pictures is that it is not easy to control their interpretation. From the outside, this one seemed to suggest much more than the immediately intended message that both May and her deal are politically dead. When, it prompted one to ask, did Brextinction really happen? Was this strange creature ever really alive or was it not always a grotesquely Photoshopped image of something else, a crisis of belonging that has attached itself to the wrong union? Do the events of this week point us, not towards the EU, but to the travails of a radically disunited kingdom?

The dodo, after all, may be proverbially dead but it has a vivid afterlife in that great trawl of the English unconscious, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is the Dodo, when various characters have fallen into a pool of tears, who suggests how they might dry themselves – the Caucus-race. “There was no ‘One, two, three, and away’, but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out, ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’”

This seems, this week more than ever, a perfect description of the state to which British politics has been reduced – a lot of frantically anarchic running overseen by a defunct creature, the Brextinct dodo. And who has won? Carroll’s Dodo, of course, decrees: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Having emptied Alice’s pockets to provide rewards for everyone else, the Dodo solemnly presents her with the only thing that’s left: her own thimble. “We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble.”

The Brexit game is patently not worth the thimble to be presented at the end of it. Yet in Theresa May’s humiliation on Tuesday, there were prizes for almost everybody else: a glimpse of opportunity for her rivals in cabinet; a revival of their sadomasochistic no-deal fantasies for the zealots; the hope of a second referendum for remainers; proof of the near-collapse of the Westminster order for nationalists; the hope of a general election for Jeremy Corbyn. But in truth nobody has won anything – it is a losing game all round.

For all of this is the afterlife of dead things. One of them is Brexit itself. When did Brextinction occur? On 24 June 2016. The project was driven by decades of camped-up mendacity about the tyranny of the EU, and sold in the referendum as a fantasy of national liberation. It simply could not survive contact with reality. It died the moment it became real. You cannot free yourself from imaginary oppression. Even if May were a political genius – and let us concede that she is not – Brexit was always going to come down to a choice between two evils: the heroic but catastrophic failure of crashing out; or the unheroic but less damaging failure of swapping first-class for second-class EU membership. These are the real afterlives of a departed reverie.

If the choice between shooting oneself in the head or in the foot is the answer to Britain’s long-term problems, surely the wrong question is being asked. It is becoming ever clearer that Brexit is not about its ostensible subject: Britain’s relationship with the EU. The very word Brexit contains a literally unspoken truth. It does not include or even allude to Europe. It is British exit that is the point, not what it is exiting from. The tautologous slogan Leave Means Leave is similarly (if unintentionally) honest: the meaning is in the leaving, not in what is being left or how.

Paradoxically, this drama of departure has really served only to displace a crisis of belonging. Brexit plays out a conflict between Them and Us, but it is surely obvious after this week that the problem is not with Them on the continent. It’s with the British Us, the unravelling of an imagined community. The visible collapse of the Westminster polity this week may be a result of Brexit, but Brexit itself is the result of the invisible subsidence of the political order over recent decades.

It may seem strange to call this slow collapse invisible since so much of it is obvious: the deep uncertainties about the union after the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and the establishment of the Scottish parliament the following year; the consequent rise of English nationalism; the profound regional inequalities within England itself; the generational divergence of values and aspirations; the undermining of the welfare state and its promise of shared citizenship; the contempt for the poor and vulnerable expressed through austerity; the rise of a sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class. But the collective effects of these interrelated developments do seem to have been barely visible within the political mainstream until David Cameron accidentally took the lid off by calling a referendum and asking people to endorse the status quo.

What we see with the lid off and the fog of fantasies at last beginning to dissipate is the truth that Brexit is much less about Britain’s relationship with the EU than it is about Britain’s relationship with itself. It is the projection outwards of an inner turmoil. An archaic political system had carried on even while its foundations in a collective sense of belonging were crumbling. Brexit in one way alone has done a real service: it has forced the old system to play out its death throes in public. The spectacle is ugly, but at least it shows that a fissiparous four-nation state cannot be governed without radical social and constitutional change.

European leaders have continually expressed exasperation that the British have really been negotiating not with them, but with each other. But perhaps it is time to recognise that there is a useful truth in this: Brexit is really just the vehicle that has delivered a fraught state to a place where it can no longer pretend to be a settled and functioning democracy. Brexit’s work is done – everyone can now see that the Westminster dodo is dead. It is time to move on from the pretence that the problem with British democracy is the EU and to recognise that it is with itself. After Brextinction there must be a whole new political ecosystem. Drop the dead dodo, end the mad race for a meaningless prize, and start talking about who you want to be.

This article was originally published in The Guardian on Friday 18th January 2019.

Fintan O’Toole is a columnist at the Irish Times and author of Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.

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