On Sunday, more than a million people marched in London to protest against the debacle that is the UK’s Brexit process, demanding a referendum on whether or not to proceed with Theresa May’s negotiated exit deal. Unfortunately, I was not able to be there – so this is an alternative photographic commentary on the current state of Brexit and British politics.
Viewed from abroad, Britain has become an international laughing stock. Its former reputation as a bastion of cool headed rational politics has been turned on its head as ministers have repeatedly demonstrated an absence of intelligent thought and a lamentable lack of understanding of international trade, negotiations and diplomacy. Its government and opposition parties are now driven by toxic national-populist narratives, where the key measure of success is adherence to group ideology rather than competence. Theresa May’s constant talk of the “will of the people” or phrases such as “they need us more than we need them” are almost definitively populist and are intended to shut down debate by provoking strong emotional responses. They are the antithesis of cool headed rational governance.
Life for much of the British people in the former industrial heartlands of the UK has become extremely difficult. Decades of neglect following the Thatcher era’s destruction of the industrial and manufacturing base was pushed beyond a tipping point by the austerity policies that followed the 2008 financial crash. The result is a large part of the country that is in social and economic ruin, and where for many people – in the 7th largest economy in the world – food banks are a necessity. Rather than accept that these problems are the result of governance in the UK, national-populist narratives are constructed to deflect blame to those that are “not British” and in particular the EU. Those narratives are false, and Brexit will make conditions far worse – partly because of its economic impact, but also because by transferring blame UK politicians are under much less pressure to find a solution.
The advocates of Brexit claimed that the UK could retain all of the benefits of the EU with none of the costs. This is self evidently false precisely because the “costs” (shared laws and institutions to provide frictionless trade) are fundamental to delivering the benefits, and so any Brexit is inherently a trade-off between prosperity and a rather less tangible concept of sovereignty. This is true of all trade arrangements, no matter who they are made with.
The Brexit process has only be sustained because politicians have so far refused to confront this reality. Now, with literally days left, it is no longer possible to put your head in the sand or “keep all options on the table”. Brexit and its consequences are about to become real and irreversible.
Facing up to this reality is what is driving the fault lines through current UK politics. Parliament was historically structured along lines set by the traditional left vs right approaches embodied in the traditional political parties. But it is now equally defined by a divide between those that believe in rational policies, and those that believe only in faith and ideology. It is a split that runs through the heart of both main parties, creating a political paralysis that leaves the UK looking like a rabbit staring down the headlights of an approaching juggernaut, unable to decide which way to jump. There is much speculation today about bids to oust Theresa May as Prime Minister, but this is as much a symptom of the problem as a solution.
All possible Brexit choices are now politically toxic. But, if you believe in putting the interests of UK over those of the two main political parties, only one option makes sense: namely to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.
Such a move would ideally be authorised through a second referendum. This would not be a repeat of the 2016 vote, nor is it simply asking people to vote again “until the right result is achieved”. Instead, it would be a referendum grounded in the concrete reality of what Brexit actually means, as embodied by Theresa May’s almost universally reviled “deal”, against the deal that the UK currently has as a full and democratic member of the EU.
But time is impossibly tight, and so there are now calls to unilaterally revoke Article 50 even without the backing of a referendum. Such a drastic measure might seem undemocratic, but the same could be also be said for proceeding with either Theresa May’s deal or a no-deal Brexit, neither of which bare relation to the promises that were made in the original 2016 campaign.
An online petition suggests that there is massive support for a unilateral exit from Brexit, gathering an astonishing six million signatures in only a few days. It is unclear if anyone in the Theresa May’s blind, deaf and dumb administration is paying attention, but anyone who cares about the future of the UK should consider adding their signature as the result will influence thinking in parliament.
This is the worst period in politics that I can remember in my lifetime. National-populist politics do not just underpin Brexit, but also Trump, the Catalan Independence Movement, Salvini’s Italy, Orbán’s Hungary and many others.
History suggests that failing to counter this will have profound consequences. Fighting against Brexit is an important step in the right direction.