The macabre excitement of Brexit

“My country is having an identity crisis. So am I.” A blog by Madelaine Pitt

, by Madelaine Pitt

The macabre excitement of Brexit
Photo by Madelaine Pitt.

The National Health Service running short of medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit seems a dimly remote, scarcely plausible prospect. That is, until a friend tells you they are stocking epipens.

Is this really what it has come to? A peaceful, prosperous and stable nation has woken up to find itself on the road to an unknown cliff edge, and, in trying to decide how to set the speed, where to turn the wheel and how to unstick the accelerator, it is tearing itself apart from the inside. And now we are counting our epipens.

Growing up in a stable democracy gives us a reassuring but perhaps also a dangerously apathy-inducing belief that, whatever happens, someone somewhere will do something. That’s why we elect people: so that when something happens, someone somewhere will do something. Yet the House of Commons has transformed into a theatre of children whose whims, tales and fantasies are not crushed, but glorified.

Smart suits paint a deceiving picture of maturity and calm, yet opposite benches screech with glee when one of “theirs” manages to land a neatly-worded jibe. Does anything remind us more forcibly of classroom cliques than Theresa May conducting supposedly “cross-party” talks by excluding Jeremy Corbyn, or Jeremy Corbyn refusing to attend? Somehow, Westminster has become a playground, and from their behaviour, anyone would think the game was a dispute over hopscotch or tag. No one holding the reins of power in the world-famous, century-old Houses of Parliament is willing to acknowledge that dreadful mistakes are being made, yet the sources of the most stringent denials are already washing their hands of blood.

All possible evidence points to the country being permanently poorer and weaker. The illusion that someone somewhere will do something is rapidly fading with every “he said this” and “it’s not my fault”. And all the time, the car is on its way to the cliff. And people are stocking epipens.

Permanent distraction is the only way I can describe my state of mind and reaction to the news constantly churning out of Westminster. Two separate moments of political upheaval stick out in my mind as whirlwind weeks of particularly deep anxiety. The first one was the week the country got its first glimpse at the 585-page product of two years of negotiations, and didn’t like it a bit.

Ironically, nor did the politicians. The then Brexit secretary Dominic Raab resigned over the deal he had himself negotiated. Other resignations, speeches, statements and rumours stormed in. I will never forget that Friday in the library, the essay I had to hand in before 5pm a blur on the Word document in front of me, and with an even worse hairstyle than usual after all the times I had run my hands through it. I was addicted to the stream of online updates in a horror-film style can-hardly-look-but-can’t-not. I was totally unable to focus and helplessly, blindingly angry at the injustice of it all.

The second moment was The Vote (capitals deliberate). Predictions that Theresa May would suffer the greatest defeat in parliamentary history came blessedly true. Fear a no-deal Brexit as I might, I was and still am hoping that no deal will be agreed, and the can will be kicked down the road. The longer the furious stalemate, the greater the chance of no deal, but the chance of a second referendum grows stronger too. I remember leaving campus early to get away from the muttered discussions on what was going to happen, calling a friend to talk about something, anything, else, and arriving at the sports centre only to discover screens live-streaming the whole thing.

Not everyone shares my anxiety. The prevailing sentiment on campus is boredom. I recently campaigned for my Students’ Union to publically support a People’s Vote, a question it put to students in the form of a referendum (a referendum on a referendum on a referendum – all very meta). I and a handful of others froze our fingers off attaching cardboard signs all over campus and distributing leaflets into largely unreceptive hands. Despite our fears, we hit quorum and won. I did, however, notice a split in the opinion of “young people” that we so often assume to be homogenous. Very young students, first- and second-years who are still teenagers and were too young to vote in 2016, are the most tired of the whole thing. They have inherited a mess which isn’t theirs. Postgraduates like me, mid-twenties and having had the chance, perhaps, to experience a little more of what Europe has to offer young people, are more likely to be concerned.

But there is something other than boredom and anxiety, something harder to identify, something apparently contradictory, stemming from subtleties of British identity which set me feeling deeply uneasy. For a large part of the country, mostly Leavers but Remainers as well, there is a certain macabre curiosity at the idea of leaving the EU without a deal. What will happen to the planes flying in that day? What will really happen to the lorries coming in and out? Could there really be shortages of food, like during the wars? I know somehow who lives in Belfast and is scheduled to catch a flight out of Dublin on 30th March. Will a border spring up overnight, like the Berlin Wall?

The more dire the warnings, and the more fresh ideas for a possible deal flounder, the stronger the curiosity and the likelier it is to be satisfied. No country has ever tried to leave the EU before. The establishment, including bankers, journalists, politicians and those wretched EU bureaucrats, have made their doomsday forecasts. The closer the eventuality of no-deal becomes, and the more details we glean on just how bad it could be, the more this curiosity is merging into excitement.

I maintain that statistics on the demographic of the Leave vote bear little relevance to the worldview they represent; a world in which Britain is powerful and can afford to be closed, economically and metaphorically, to the rest of the world. There is a morbid fascination of darker times of the past coming back to life. What should be a threat to be avoided at all costs is seen as a challenge. Brexit is a storm to be ridden out, a test of national character, and shall result in a hard-fought and worthy victory of freedom.

Britain will see its pitiful European neighbours, which it saved from occupation and dictatorships in the Second World War, and whose shackles it has proudly thrown off, come begging to its feet. The tougher Brexit seems, the more it appeals, not only to the desire to battle against the establishment which has beaten us down, but to the very British obsession with enhancing our perceived national greatness. Suffer we might, but a stiff upper lip will win the day.

You may have gathered that this is not the author’s point of view. It is, however, a very real, not uncommon and usually unconscious perspective. Leafletting on the high street when my campaign group, Our Future Our Choice, organised for our Battle Bus to come to York, I made the mistake of getting into discussion with a hardcore Leaver. “Britain’s a great country! Believe in Britain!” the sixtyish man shouted, with big gestures of his arms. I mentioned the impact on businesses and jobs. “All scaremongering, all rubbish! Might be tough for a bit, but they’ll come crawling back.”

It was confirmed last week that investment in the car industry halved last year and Nissan has decided to make its new model elsewhere. And yet the fantasy of post-Brexit wonderland lives on, both for people in whose hands I annoyingly shove leaflets in the street and for the politicians, who are wasting precious time by baiting and jeering each other in the playground of Parliament; many of whom seem hardly to have any more grasp of what is at stake than the belligerent man I argued with in the high street.

Then again, those who orchestrated this whole mess, including those for whom Donald Tusk believes there is a “special place in hell”, suffer the exact same illusion of British grandeur with a cumbersome lust for lost power. Some diehard Leave voters would relish the damage that would come from a no-deal Brexit, even if and especially if it includes a death or two due to lacking medicine. It will make the taste of freedom even sweeter; the harshness of battle making victory worthwhile. In the meantime, people are losing jobs and seeing their livelihoods thrown into jeopardy.

And people will continue to stockpile epipens.

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