Upset by fuel-tax hikes and betrayed by President Macron’s empty promises for economic reform, the French have taken to the streets to take part in the angriest protests in decades. It’s almost remarkable that in Britain, where two years of political incompetence and infighting has brought Brexit to its knees, there has been nothing similar.
Then again, perhaps it is not so surprising. The desire for a quiet life is a crucial part of the British psyche as George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn:
British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, the radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led. However much one may hate to admit it, it is almost certain that between 1931 and 1940 the National Government represented the will of the mass of the people. It tolerated slums, unemployment and a cowardly foreign policy. Yes, but so did public opinion. It was a stagnant period, and its natural leaders were mediocrities.
Distinct from “nationalism,” Orwell understood English identity as a unifying set of sentiments and preferences: “In England patriotism takes different forms in different classes, but it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them. Only the Europeanized intelligentsia are really immune to it.”
Certainly, it was the Europeanized intelligentsia who were the least able to understand the Brexit referendum result as an expression of patriotism. Instead, they preferred unseemly explanations such as “racism” and “xenophobia.” But as has been noted, the disconnect between ordinary people and the ruling classes especially in matters of borders, laws, and trade is what brought about the vote to leave the European Union, whose bureaucratic overreach is, if nothing else, a symbol of a compromised sovereignty. That is well understood by those who went into a ballot box in 2016 and — faced with two choices — “remain” or “leave” picked the latter.
However, now many are claiming that “leave” never really meant “leave” in the way the public understood it; that the relationship between the EU and U.K. is simply too complicated to be divorced; or, that leaving the EU was merely a fantasy cooked up by crooks with bad haircuts. It is now broadly agreed that the Prime Minister’s draft deal with the EU will leave Britain worse off than remaining in the EU would have. Brexit has been sabotaged, clearly, but by whom? The House of Commons can’t decide. “J’accuse Boris.” “J’accuse Theresa.” “J’accuse . . . j’accuse . . . j’accuse . . . ”
More importantly: Can Brexit be salvaged? And if not, how shall the British react to this betrayal?
No doubt, politicians are banking on the English temperament as described by Orwell: the desire for a quiet life and the willingness to settle for mediocrity in order to get it. But there is also a possibility that the British people might just lose their nerve on Brexit. And that a sigh of resignation might, as it has in France, become the angry cry of protest.