Brexit via exhaustion

My interest in “Brexit,” at this point, is mainly entertainment. I suppose it always has been. The points of comparison between British and American politics are interesting—sometimes downright eerie—but mostly I look at Brexit news for a diversion from our domestic dysfunction. A friend and I refer to it as The Daily (Shit) Show.

This week, at last it’s more or less official. Years after the referendum the UK is leaving the European Union, with a replacement trade agreement being rolled through a political system which seems mostly to be reacting with sheer exhausted resignation.

Far more informed people have already analyzed this from countless angles and will go on doing so for years. My primary “take,” as such, is the same one I arrived at two or three years ago: the key word for interpreting all the thrashing and contortions of Brexit is “plus.”

In an earlier season of the show, the word “plus” was an indispensable suffix. What practical model for relations with the EU should follow the egregiously vague 2016 referendum verdict? The answer was always something-plus. Canada-plus. Norway-plus. Etc.

The repeated insistence on some model different and better than any which existed seemed, and seems, to encapsulate the denial which produced years of fumbling to little apparent purpose, which turned the English left inside-out, and which may disunite the UK.

Perhaps this perspective comes more naturally to me because, as I have grown older, “don’t reinvent the wheel” increasingly guides my search for solutions, particularly in public policy. There is little genuinely new under the sun; there are many governments confronting similar problems; most of the time reusing an existing answer is probably good enough and a more efficient approach than trying to dream something up. This may be pessimistic, although I think it’s also incredibly realistic for an American. No society is perfect, but on most issues the standard “best practice” of actual modern countries would represent a big advance for our backward failed state. Anyway.

It has long seemed obvious to me that the “plus” era of Brexit discussion represented a denial, which began before the referendum and continued up through this month, that any kind of drawbacks to Brexit would ever become unavoidable reality. Ha ha sure.

In 2016, my dilettante perspective from across an ocean was sympathetic to the idea of a member state exiting the European status quo, which had in the preceding several years shown a distressing amount of callous bullying and open disdain for democracy. I don’t think that concern is what drove most of the voting for Brexit, or that the Conservative Party which now dominates British government is an improvement. One can argue whether or not the referendum should have been accepted as binding. Something that vague should not have been put to a vote, but it was, and majority preference seems to have emerged since in favor of accepting Brexit as an obligation and moving on.

If that’s a starting point, I felt rather more confident that the obvious solution was to drop the plus fantasies, pick a real-world model, and get on with it. But that has never really happened in almost five years since.

Broadly, from what I can tell:

  • The Liberal Democrats stood firm for overturning the referendum and staying in the EU, and got basically destroyed
  • Teresa May tried to sell a “soft Brexit” which avoided many downsides, but kept too many conditions of EU membership for her party’s Brexit enthusiasts, and out she went
  • Labour squirmed around, hoping to move the national conversation elsewhere; eventually Jeremy Corbyn gave grudging support to “do-over and perhaps stay in the EU” and got the party spanked last year
  • Boris Johnson, after much stalling and dodging, has essentially bluffed, bullied or boxed-in his own Conservative Party and most of Labour to support a half-baked deal which exposes at last years of fraudulent fantasies… but so what it’s this or no-deal and most people just seem worn down by the whole thing so whoosh it goes through token debate.

The only winners as-such from Brexit, other than Johnson, seem to be nationalist campaigns in non-English Britain. The pro-EU Scots may at last secede; Irish reunification seems one step closer even if by no means imminent; Welsh independence seems premature even to discuss, but Brexit does seem to have strengthened the nationalist party there too.

All of which is a good transition to Transatlantic observations, as I fully imagine any secession from the United States would also swiftly become fractal.

Of less speculative relevance, Brexit has for quite some time seemed like a glaring parallel with the American right’s long, dishonest campaign against the Affordable Care Act. In both cases, the Anglophone right has responded to the proven toxicity of their agenda with a combination of cynical lying, and denialist fantasies that two and two actually can add up to five.

The fact that in both cases this dishonesty seems effective and sustainable—every liberal Briton hoping that now at last reality has caught up the Conservatives and the reckoning will come due is in for sore disappointment I fear—is one of the very discouraging larger implications. As is the hopeless collapse of the English left into a broken mess which I’m not sure has any real “Dems in disarray” parallel yet. For everyone who believes, correctly, that the stale and senescent Democratic Party is in bad shape, Britain warns us that even worse is alarmingly still possible.

This Twitter post about Brexit seems entirely relevant to American politics as well:

The American right is having incredible success—even during dire, mass disruption of everyday lives—at keeping politics away from the real world. I don’t think Democrats are going to get close to reversing that wholly in the near future. I’m not too sanguine about the chances of getting a lot better at storytelling, but I think that’s less impossible.

Meanwhile, identifying how to navigate the gap between the real world and our dysfunctional politics’ fictional one(s) is the day to day lot for nearly all of us, in some sense.

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