This is a post about Brexit.
I didn’t mean to write it, honest.
But I keep on having nightmares.
Proper waking at 6 a.m. cold sweats.
And because my brain is wired to write, I know sometimes that I’ll only get back to sleep if I do that.
So here we are. Sorry….
My night-terrors keep on spinning round the same old yarns, but it basically boils down to this: we appear to have lost the capacity for reason.
Let’s break that down.
The Office of Budget Responsibility, the government’s own department, thinks that we’re economically in for the toilet. Oh, I know that the stock market is doing ok and unemployment has held steady, but given that the stock market says nothing about average wages (stagnant for ten years), inflation (rising), wealth inequality (catastrophic), rising crime, increased debt, food bank dependency and lack of hospital beds, I think we should query its value as a social metric. Turns out money doesn’t buy you happiness – or at least, it doesn’t by everyone happiness. As for unemployment, the link is frequently made between it and immigration, and again… it’s way more complicated than that. (For a decent breakdown of how complex it is, including the pros and cons of migration, I heartily recommend fullfact.)
So ok, the value of the pound has plumetted, meaning our imports now cost more. This isn’t just making food more expensive; it’s medicine, goods and daily consumables. In a week in which Tory MPs have derided the government for not having stockpiled emergency resources for the eventuality of a hard Brexit – because when the Leave campaign toured the country in 2016 it made such a big deal of how we’d need to stockpile baby food and antibiotics – it’s hard not to feel a wee tingling of asthmatic alarm.
Our government, of course, wants us to ‘believe in Britain’. The spirit of World War Two is invoked, in which Plucky Britain went to war against a genocidal, tyrannical war machine that massacred millions in its abhorrent march across occupied Europe. The EU, with its democratically voted for rules on such pesky matters as worker’s rights, human rights and environmental laws (which we incidentally choose to ignore in the UK, because clean air is so bad for industry) is a somewhat different beast, and every time the spirit of ‘believing in Britain’ is invoked in the same breath as the history of the bloodiest conflict of the 20th century, we are, in fact, utterly dishonouring the past, by manipulating it for our petty present. It is a grotesque abuse of history, and a grosteque invokation of the past to blot over the realities of the present.
Alas, believing really hard won’t keep us part of the EU security system, allow us to share intelligence with European agencies, or share medical and scientific research, or let us pick and chose which rules we want to obey today, and which we don’t. Wanna export to the EU? The £240 billion pounds in goods and services we sell will still need to conform to European standards, no matter how much we wish they didn’t. Even if your squeeze your eyes really tight and cross your fingers, we are one nation; the EU is 27 member states. Together they are bigger and richer than us. Turns out you get better deals when you work together.
Sovereignty is one of the big buzz-words of the day. ‘Take back sovereignty’. This sounds good, but again, is complicated. Since joining the EU, the UK government has lost around 2% of the votes its participated in at the European level. 2%… out of over 2000 votes. In fact, the UK has been damned good at both writing and passing European level laws, participating democratically (because we elect our MEPs and our government) with such sovereignty-crushing legislation as the Human Rights Act. Which… frankly… has nothing to do with sovereignty. Because… human rights. Not the British Rights Act. Not the Belgian Rights Act. Human rights. All humans. It is a declaration that the world gives two monkeys about habeas corpus, and that my government does not have the right to arrest me, torture me or silence me just because it’s having a bad day. For those who cite World War Two as proof of the Excellence of Britain, all in Big Letters, let’s be careful about taking on the mantle of human excellence, while simultaneously deriding the intervention of foreign bodies in the name of humanity.
Moreover, Europe does not control such pesky things as, say, the NHS. Or income tax. Or council tax. Or our parliamentary processes. Or freedom of the press. Or freedom of the judiciary. Or how we spend our budget. Or the educational system. Or our goddamn railways. In fact, one of the very few areas where the EU’s rules affect our budget is on VAT, where there is a European-wide minimum rate of 15%, dropping to 5% on sanitary products, with a motion currently going through the Parliament to allow nations to set their own VAT rates. Weirdly, as if nations across Europe are keen to control their own budgets, and the EU represents nations.
Rather, the laws passed by the EU constantly remove our freedom to, say, abuse our workers. Or have toxic water. Or sell dangerous food. Stuff which you’d hope we’d be all over anyway, but which, alas, we’re not. Although interestingly, it’s far more easy to enforce massive fines against companies that are screwing with the consumer, if you’re acting on behalf of dozens of nations than if you’re a small island scared of losing tax income. The same principle applies to tax avoidance and money laundring, two areas that the British feel we can really go for, once the EU is no longer giving us a sad face.
So the sovereignty argument… nah. Not really swinging it for me. The EU is made of nations, run by nations, voted for by people. It’s ridiculously bureaucratic and spends a fortune on its MEPs, and needs kicking in the nuts, but hey… so do our MPs. Hello the expenses scandal, anyone? Again, it’s almost as if the EU reflects the nations that make it, and that changing it requires social awareness and debate, not throwing out the baby and the bathwater.
So fine. That’s a fair old trot of reasons why leaving the EU makes me feel sick inside.
But what keeps waking me up at 6 a.m. is this: that we appear to have lost our capacity to discourse reasonably on any of this.
Take the government. It has flip-flopped from one impossible negotiating position to another, holding to that great maxim that if you just wish for it really really hard, it’ll happen. Everything about its negotiating position has been ridiculous. But they won’t admit that we are weak and the EU is strong. The government lies to us either directly – with Boris Johnson doubling down every thirty seconds on old deceits – or by omission, by not daring to say that we’re in trouble. Instead we’re told to ‘believe’ that there’s a solution for the Irish border, or for Gibraltar, or for British planes no longer being able to enter EU airspace, or for the mass exodus of industries and companies abroad. It is an act of gross political cowardice, and gross social negligence.
A psychologist in America once followed a doomsday cult, who were predicting the end of the world. When the day came for said end of everything, they gathered… waited… and the world did not end. Rather than admit that hum, maybe something was wrong here, the cult reassembled and doubled-down on its beliefs, becoming more fanatical, more hard-line in the fact of overwhelming evidence.
It feels that this is what we’re doing now. Every time the EU says ‘no, that won’t work’, our government and our papers double down and blames… well… the EU. For following its own rules. Rules we helped to write. The EU has been entirely consistent in its position. We might not like it, but it’s never been obscure or difficult. It’s us. It’s our representatives, flailing around in cowardice and bombast. We are to blame.
But there’s the second part of it – blame.
The country is hurting. It’s been hurting for a long old while. Wealth inequality is a cancer that allows the government to say that we are all getting richer while in fact, the cost of living for most of the nation has just got harder and harder. The NHS has been crippled by funding cuts, while Council Tax and VAT are raised – taxes which disproportionately afffect the poor – as corporate tax has been cut and the inheritance tax threshold increased.
Local government funding has been slashed by around fifty percent across the country. That’s the end of youth services and libraries, of social care services, mental health and sexual services, environmental and housing services. It’s a drop in funding for your local schools and students. Refusing to fund these doesn’t make problems go away. It simply means that the ambulance service is overwhelmed with the social care cases that are no longer being tackled; that crime rates are up and teachers are overwhelmed. All we’ve done are buried social problems, made it harder to get help early, and exacerbated everything that was already there.
And people are hurting. The country is hurting.
But rather than talk about the reality of why – about decades of selling off assets, of stripping back social care, of transforming our cultural contract from one of community into one of ownership – we blame.
We blame the EU. We blame each other. We blame leavers. We blame remainers. Traitors, we shout. Traitors! We blame immigration and legislation. We blame experts, and choose to dismiss science, statistics and data that we don’t like. Report come out that we disagree with? Written by paid cronies! Electoral Commission says the referendum was both terrible and that Leave broke the rules? Allegations from Remainers! The institutions we created to protect ourselves – detached, impartial bodies – we condemn for saying something we don’t want to hear. We only trust the people we want to trust, and that way there is only division. We blame everything and anything that is simple and makes a good headline. We call each other traitors. We do down people, rather than ideas. We have ceased to debate reasonably, to respect science and logic, and find solutions together.
Instead, we march down a road of our own making, full of pain, led by cowardice, fear and rage. And until we cease to be on opposite sides of everything, until we become reasonable people talking to each other as though everyone was fundamentally deserving of our attention, we will never find a better way.