Brexit is only a big deal for politicians
On 23 June 2016 I was on a train, hurtling across the English countryside. Like every good law graduate, I was making a pilgrimage to see Lincoln Castle’s Magna Carta.
Conspicuously absent from my journey was any indication that the dawn of the Brexit malaise was imminent, despite Britons heading to the polls that day to vote on whether to leave the European Union.
In fact, most conspicuous for my entire visit was the apathy toward the referendum displayed by all but the political class.
By happy coincidence, I was in Britain for the five weeks before the Brexit referendum, and for about a week thereafter. During that time I met with many people — friends, family, colleagues and strangers — but Brexit was not the hot topic one would expect.
In London, what should have been the epicentre of all things Brexit, there was no buzz, no excitement, no desperation for what UKIP’s Nigel Farage described as the United Kingdom’s “independence” from Brussels. I was able to walk down Whitehall, from the House of Parliament, past Downing Street, to Trafalgar Square without having placards and flyers waved in my face.
The small group of cyber-activists I met at a pub in Marylebone worked in different fields. Some wanted to leave the EU, some wanted to remain. Discussion was limited to a few succinct and respectful statements of their positions. Drinking and banter resumed without argument.
This was a situation I encountered everywhere. No matter where I was, no matter the pub, no one was arguing over Brexit.
Inevitably conversations would turn to the matter of the referendum, but they were always quiet discussions.
While staying with friends in West Yorkshire, I was invited to their weekly pub outing. When the topic of Brexit was first raised I was mildly alarmed. They have a reputation for stubbornness in t’North (and I know they won’t mind me saying that), but even the most stubborn of northerners had little to say.
I also attended two parties; one for a friend’s birthday and the other for the Queen’s birthday. I don’t think I heard the word “Brexit” uttered once at either occasion.
People simply had better things to talk about.
Two days before the referendum I visited relatives in Dorset. My elderly distant cousin was, as expected, quite aloof to the politics — that’s an illustration, not a criticism. Her son, a nature conservationist, was perhaps the most politically-engaged person I spoke to about Brexit in my time there. Even he limited himself to a few remarks indicating his scepticism about leaving the EU and his concerns that Brexit would have a negative impact on the British environment and agricultural industry.
On the day of the referendum I was in Lincoln. On the day after the referendum, when the votes were being counted, I was probably in the local pub. Everywhere in Britain, life was moving on.
Brexit has been an almost three-year process, but at every stage limited progress has been made, with those in Westminster playing political games while the rest of the country gets on with their lives.
The Tories have decided to keep Theresa May as their leader, and she will not be able to be removed before the end of 2019. Parliament has also voted to retain her as Prime Minister, despite voting down her proposed Brexit agreement. The next election is scheduled for May 2022 — three years away.
There have been more than two-and-a-half years to work out the details of the post-Brexit relationship with the EU, but it seems that every politician was so swept up in the idea of leaving that they forgot how much work had to be done.
While Theresa May has insisted that the referendum result must be actioned by Whitehall and Westminster, the referendum did not ask Britons what the post-separation relationship between Britain and the EU should be. No terms were attached: the choice was simply between remain and leave.
Because attempting to resolve that question by referendum is not feasible, the Government has significant control over what shape Brexit takes, but it can’t even get its own MPs to agree.
When Theresa May talks about owing it to the British people to deliver on the democratically-decided referendum, her rhetoric is only to convince those in Westminster.
The people made their view known, and although many have changed their view, people want their representatives to be decisive, as they have always wanted, far more than they want a second referendum.
Brexit has become an issue far removed from the public. At the moment it’s just 650 MPs kicking the Brexit football about ineffectually, repeating the mantra that Britain must leave the EU, while the public is too weary to care whether it happens or not — they just want it to be over one way or the other.
The people want their politicians to shit or get off the potty.