Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 April 2019

Brexit might be a slow poison, eroding belief in the political process, but life goes on in Britain

What the polls don’t seem to reveal is how heartily sick the average Briton is of the whole business.

The British government has been accused of not following the will of the public – of the 71.8% that voted in the June 2016 referendum, 51.9% voted to leave the EU and 48.1% voted to remain. EPA
The British government has been accused of not following the will of the public – of the 71.8% that voted in the June 2016 referendum, 51.9% voted to leave the EU and 48.1% voted to remain. EPA

Life goes on. For millions of households across Britain it is the daily routine of the usual pleasures and frustrations. Feed the kids, walk the dogs. What’s on at the cinema this weekend? How’s my team doing in the league? My boss is being a pain. Where should we go on holiday this year? Ouch, I need to make a dentist appointment.

Life, then, as it has always been. Except that always in the background is an irritating whining noise that can’t quite be ignored and constantly demands attention.

It could be the phone has not been properly hung up, or the refrigerator door alarm. But it’s not anything you can so easily fix. It’s Brexit.

It is 940 odd days since Britain narrowly voted to leave the European Union and exactly 190 days since I returned to the UK after a ten year sabbatical in Abu Dhabi from the reality of life in the mother country.

It is to find a country weary of the whole business. Brexit is like a persistent winter cough that won’t go away. It’s an endless grey day, filled with damp and drizzle. It’s like being trapped at a dinner party next to a trainspotting enthusiast.

Except that it’s actually worse than that. Brexit – for or against – has become a slow poison, an energy-draining toxin that is eroding belief in the political process and all politicians in general.

The House of Commons, the legislative body for the UK, has simply lost the plot. On the right is a vision for Britain that most thought had vanished with the last gunboat, led by a gang of harrumphing overgrown public (ie privately educated) posh schoolboys who somehow managed to harness the support of some of the country’s most deprived communities to take the country out of the EU.

The love affair between the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg (Eton, Trinity College, Oxford) and the voters of Oldham (Britain’s most deprived town, where 65 per cent voted leave) is the most peculiar since the scholarly American playwright Arthur Miller led Hollywood blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe up the aisle.

On the left, Britain’s official opposition, the Labour Party, has literally no policy on Brexit. Its grizzled semi-detached neo-Marxist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has long been against the EU as a capitalist plot to crush the workers, but can’t admit it because his young supporters want to stay.

Much of the parliamentary Labour party is against leaving the EU, but also can’t admit it because so many of their constituents voted to leave. The result has reduced the opposition to a series of pointless stunts, like this week’s vote of no confidence in the government, aimed at embarrassing the Conservatives, but ultimately doomed to failure.

In the middle is a splintering of opinion that varies from a fresh referendum called the “People’s Vote” (because the last one was restricted to cats?) to something called Norway Plus Plus. Or is it Plus Plus Plus?

"How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?", General de Gaulle once asked of France. Substitute “solutions to Brexit” for cheese and you have the House of Commons today, but infinitely less appetising.

Some people are loving Brexit, though. For the British media, the issue has become an obsession. Every morning, the country’s flagship news programme, BBC Radio 4's Today show begins at 6am with a three-hour bombardment of Brexit developments that rivals the First Battle of the Somme in its intensity, and achieves just as little in terms of territorial gains.

Outside the Houses of Parliament, on College Green, the small public park that also borders Westminster Abbey, broadcasters have set up a kind of media Glastonbury to follow events, accompanied by a throng of assorted attention-deficit disorder drum-banging loonies dressed either in Union Jacks or the blue and gold stars of the EU.

If they are all loving Brexit, I can tell you no-one else is. Opinion polls show that the country is almost exactly as divided on the issue of in or out of the EU as it was in 2016. What the polls don’t seem to reveal is how heartily sick the average Briton is of the whole business.

On the rare occasions when the media step away from Westminster to engage with what might be called the average voter, the view is rather different.

Among the political elite and what is sometimes called the “chattering classes” (liberal intellectuals inside the London bubble), the consensus is that Prime Minister Theresa May is an incompetent failure who needs to go as soon as possible.

In the country there seems to be a rising view that this is a woman trying her best, in spite of the best efforts of her colleagues. “I don’t like her to be fair, but I feel like she is under a lot of pressure so she shouldn’t be hated on as much as she is,” one 17-year-old student told a reporter recently.

“She has gone through hell and back,” Bernard Chapman, 83, told the same journalist. “I feel desperately sorry for Theresa May because she is trying so hard, and you don’t mind being stabbed in the back by the opposition, but not when you are stabbed in the back by your own people.”

It is coming to two years since Parliament voted to invoke Article 50, the mechanism for leaving the EU, and barely ten weeks till it becomes effective.

And what do most people want? My impression is that they just want it sorted.

They have developed immunity to the apocalyptic warnings from both sides about life either in or out of the EU, the so-called “project fear” strategy. Worse, they are hardening against politics and politicians in general.

Their elected representatives, chosen to sort this mess out, have shown to be both incapable and out of touch. They have put their ideological positions above the good of the country. My concern is that at the next general election, millions will look at the ballot paper and feel there is literally no one they want to vote for.

At a time when populist movements are growing in support in Europe and beyond, this is dangerous stuff. It is adding fuel to flames that already flicker too bright.

The British, it seems to me after ten years’ absence, are still essentially a good-natured bunch. The expression “silent majority” is often overused by politicians, but a version of it does exist. People are pleasant to each other, as a rule, I find in the daily interactions of the UK in 2019. They are tolerant, easy-going and want to get along.

They don’t all think the same way, and they certainly don’t all want the same things, but they do understand the value of consensus. The Brexit debate does nothing for any of this.

Perhaps the increasingly obvious public exhaustion over Brexit will now force politicians of all parties to be a little less selfish in their conduct and a little less self-important.

In my new home in Shropshire, local League One side Shrewsbury FC have just knocked Championship team Stoke City out of football’s FA Cup and the critically acclaimed Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan and Ollie has just opened in town.

We need milk for breakfast tomorrow and there’s a dental appointment this afternoon to fix a broken filling. In the garden I notice the first snowdrops have opened. Brexit or not, life still goes on.

Updated: February 25, 2019 04:58 PM

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