Reclaiming Britishness from the Brexit Debacle

EU and British flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, England, January 30, 2018. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Carrying on and a stiff upper lip won’t solve the U.K.’s current dilemma.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom called Britain, politics was considered a peculiar topic of conversation. One walked into a pub expecting a chat about the weather, or at best, some one-to-one time with a drink.

As George Orwell observed, we were always a nation of flower-lovers and crossword-puzzle fans, with our culture at its strongest when devoid of public influence. “The pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside, and the ‘nice cup of tea’” — the land where privacy was the greatest virtue of all.

Such privacy was always matched by incredulity from foreign onlookers — those who were keen to remind the protested flower-lovers that they were once the orchestrators of the world’s greatest empire. And strangely enough, that skepticism was accepted, even embraced. Britain ignored her past — both its horrors and its triumphs. Her reticence about military glory and ignorance of colonial exploit was paired with the illusion that a shared appreciation for Shakespeare can paper over the cracks of historical class privilege.

This is not to say that the British never cared about politics — you will be hard-pressed to find a country that has managed to sustain a weekly participatory debate program for 40 years. But the tone of conversation has always been polite to the point of patronizing: One states his view, and then shuts his mouth and pays attention.

A similar attitude marks the nation’s greatest universities. At some point during my first weeks as an undergraduate at Harvard, my entire class was beckoned into a great theater. We were told that we should be proud of our magnificent achievements and seize the opportunity to become the world leaders of tomorrow. For my friends at Oxford and Cambridge, opening days were very different. They were granted five days of drunken debauchery followed by an essay prompt, a twelve-book reading list, and a set of deadlines.

The approach hardly nourishes self-confidence, but it certainly smacks down any arrogance. It may not inspire great dreams, but it does instill a welcome dose of realism. If, as Tocqueville wrote, America is characterized by extravagant public opinion, Great Britain was always characterized by people getting their heads down and muddling through. If America is the land of the closed, coddled mind, Great Britain was the land of the permanently apologetic devil’s advocate.

In the words of Julian Barnes, our kingdom was “the land of embarrassment and breakfast.” That is, until Brexit came along and put the bacon in the toaster. Today, talk of milkshakes is more commonly associated with assault than dessert — the word “traitor” more likely to refer to the prime minister than Wayne Rooney. Street brawls, death threats, family divisions, and private abuse. Long gone are the days when the word “Brexit” brought to mind a soggy bowl of cereal.

When David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership in 2016, nobody could have anticipated our current cultural and constitutional quagmire. The vote was carried out without an agreed plan for implementation — lies on both sides and a question that promised to ask more questions that it answered. The result was a gridlocked Parliament set in opposition to a popular majority. MPs reluctantly agreed to implement the result, and Theresa May’s team went off to negotiate with Brussels.

What ensued was two years of distinctly unapologetic chaos: An unexpected election, a weak minority government, a revolving door of Brexit ministers, 43 government resignations. Delay. Delay. Delay. Delay.

In the wider country, Brexit found a series of deeply buried divides in the sand. Young versus Old; Scotland versus England; London versus just about everywhere else. The vote brought to light the country’s crisis of representation: Just as the parliamentarians in each of the two major party coalitions were fractured on the issue, so were their voters — and not always along the same lines.

As frustrations continued, bumbling British bashfulness was exchanged for fury. The corrupt politicians were enemies of the people. Either they had broken their promise or the vote had been won on a false promise. The more time passed, the more tensions rose. Suddenly, even that venerable weekly debate show had turned into a weekly audience screaming match.

Democracy became a powerful campaign slogan, and Nigel Farage’s shiny Brexit party became its brand-new owner. Meanwhile, Vince Cable’s Liberal Democrats decided to stick a middle finger up to the whole bloody thing — more accusations of betrayal, but now aimed at the architects of the Leave campaign. By the European elections, both the Tories and the Labour party were facing existential crises. But more significantly, British politeness had long since left the breakfast table.

By the looks of it, the EU may have left the table, too — we may have managed to make the world’s most bureaucratic bureaucracy tell us to bugger off. The 2017 election was such a hodgepodge that the negotiations got off to a weak start — and since the government couldn’t agree on the plan, they never even got going.

Those foreign onlookers that cried out at our imperial coyness would be forgiven for asking whether we’ve finally let the cat out of the bag. “You British are just as hysterical as the rest of us,” they might say. As a Brit residing in America, I daren’t protest too much.

According to the U.K.’s constitution, there must be a general election immediately — the governing party doesn’t command the confidence of the House of Commons. But the Catch-22 is that the government doesn’t hold the confidence of the people, either — and it has no chance of changing that until it implements the referendum result.

This all leads to a remarkable irony: In 2016, people campaigned for Brexit to leave the EU in order to restore parliamentary sovereignty. Now, the next prime minister might attempt to abolish parliamentary sovereignty in order to leave the EU.

Who’s responsible? Theresa May must share part of the blame, but she was handed a poisoned chalice. Cameron cocked things up before her, but he can be accused only of lifting the lid from a brimming pan. In reality, Britain’s divisions were long set in stone. Its relationship with the EU has always been a reluctant one — and more important, its cultural divides have been growing for years.

Orwell perceived these realities in the midst of World War II. In his famous 1941 essay England Your England (England was his preferred term for Great Britain), he wrote: “The English are outside the European culture,” but “the English intelligentsia are Europeanized.” The former refuse to take foreigners seriously and have a strong sense of national unity. The latter “take their cookery from Paris,” “their opinions from Moscow,” and make it their duty “to snigger at every English institution.” These labels are strikingly similar to the allegations heard on either side of the Brexit debate: Leave voters are isolationist, close-minded xenophobes. Remainers are elitist, cosmopolitan snobs.

Both caricatures are, of course, oversimplified. Many Brexiteers see the vote as an outward-looking opportunity for globalism; many Remainers see EU membership as a safety precaution in a future of American and Chinese hegemony. They do contain one nugget of truth, however, in that Brexit is partly a symptom of an identitarian divide. The immigration issue sets up this dichotomy in clear terms: People have long been concerned with the remarkable pace of change in their societies, and for a long time, concerns about integration were written off, ignored, or labeled racist. Accompanied by growing inequality and a perceived loss of control, a fractured sense of cultural belonging would always result in a popular refutation of the status quo. The Euro-elites lost touch with their nationals, and their chickens came home to roost.

English national identity is not a choice between global metropolitanism and imperial voyeurism — the very contrast of global and imperial is a contradiction in terms. Rather, the idea of English nationhood has always been defined in opposition, its origins lying in the country’s estrangement from a French court in 1066. As Cambridge political economist Helen Thompson points out, the Leave campaign’s “‘Take back control’ was such a potent message precisely because English identity has so often been premised on that very political imperative.”

The word “democracy” is having the same effect now — and new parties threaten to smash the old ones to pieces as a result. If Brexit was an assertion of control, delay was a recipe for disaster — it led some to harden in their definition of Brexit and others to harden in their belief that the vote was a reversible mistake. Hyperbole has reached new heights on both sides, and everybody is left with a different definition of democracy. British politics seems to be realigning, but the more pressing question is how British culture is changing beneath it — and which parts of it are still worth holding onto.

Compromise, it is often said, is a boring, beige virtue — but the distinctly British art of compromise is bound up with our identity. We do not have a Catholic Church or a Protestant Church, but a Church of England. We are not a monarchy or a democracy, but a constitutional monarchy. Even our title, “the United Kingdom,” is the name of a strange 17th-century political negotiation. We are suspicious of grand narratives, abstract language, and systematic world views — an attitude that, according to Orwell, manifests itself in an “incorruptible” respect for the law.

Clearly, Britishness is far more than the ability to persevere individual liberty, common law, localism, and freedom of speech. But it is worth recognizing that our parliamentary institutions are the very source of our eccentric ability to turn a dreadful disarray into a deal. What distinguishes Britishness is a calmness in the face of catastrophe — dutiful citizenship and rigorous debate, not tribalistic utopian triumphalism. Orwell wrote of a country that swings together “like a herd of cattle” in supreme crisis, containing a “code of conduct which is understood by almost everyone, though never formulated.” Disagreement is vital to the health of our democracy, but it will kill it if there is no civility providing support from below.

The word “tolerance” does not mean embrace, unison, or agreement; it means a respect for what is different and a celebration of what is common. In a western society, that means pluralism — people of different views existing alongside each other. British democracy, if it is to sustain itself in our age, depends on this capacity.

Where do we look for a way out? No doubt Orwell would tell us to dismiss those who want to rerun the referendum — if democracy is at an impasse, undermining a public mandate isn’t clever. But he would also warn us to stay away from anyone promising to repackage cracked eggs — anyone reducing complexity to soundbites and clichés. This situation requires an honest self-appraisal — coming face to face with our strengths and weaknesses on the world stage.

Anger may be justified, but it is also a weakness. The reality is that our politicians exist to win our votes. They themselves are not enemies of the people, but they can help set the people against each other. Brexit may have been a vote for parliamentary sovereignty, but personal sovereignty can only be granted from within.

Paralysis does not call for radicalism, but a Burkean epistemic humility; we must tone down our language and stare reality in the face. Some 124,000 Tory members will be choosing the next prime minister. Don’t be surprised if most politicians are playing into their emotions and not the country’s interests. What should be off the table? Anything that threatens parliamentary procedure, national unity, or the Irish border. Should we leave without a deal? We ought to prepare for it but realize that it would only be the beginning of more decisions and more agony. When you get divorced, you don’t throw the paperwork away and move to the Bahamas — because if you do, at some point you’ll have to go and pick up your stuff from the ex’s place.

From where I’m standing, there are only a handful of candidates telling it like it is: There was a mandate for leave, but no mandate for deal or no deal. That ambivalence was a mistake, but it would also be a mistake to rerun a split vote. While you may write off Rory Stewart (leadership hopeful and backer of Theresa May’s proposal), he is right on this point: When somebody proposes no deal, they should be told to explain exactly what their version of it looks like. Clearly, we need to leave, but we should do so in British fashion — gracefully, cordially, and with a hint of irony. If possible, make any final attempts to renegotiate in Brussels, and then find an exit path through Westminster.

Believing in Britain means believing in the qualities that got us here — not conjuring up embellished narratives of our past. This decision will dramatically affect people’s lives, and nobody knows exactly how — the how will largely depend on the way we treat each other in the months ahead. For once, the country is passionately politically engaged — that could be either the beginning of an overdue historical reckoning or the end of our civil society as we know it. Brexit now means far, far more than Brexit — our relationship with the European Union has never been the sole determining factor of our identity. The country is split, and Britishness is at stake. We’ve botched it up so far, and it would be bloody brilliant if we could become a wee bit boring again.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.


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