After nearly three agonizing years, the people are fed up. What’s next — recession, civil unrest or another referendum?
Mr. and Mrs. Average are said to live in this southwestern English town better known as a political bellwether than for any charm. Its 54.7 percent vote for Brexit in 2016 was one of the first results announced, an early indicator of upheaval. Now, with less than a month until the March 29 deadline for Britain to leave the European Union, it’s again aligned with most of the country, this time in its cluelessness as to what is about to happen.
To paraphrase Churchill, much invoked by Brexiteers as a symbol of the rule-Britannia greatness they believe will return once Britain is freed from its European shackles: Never was so little known by so many about so much.
Britain is in a funk. “Just get this over with,” is a plea I heard often from Brexit-battered Brits, as if they were waiting to have a limb amputated. After nearly three years, they’re done. All the oxygen has been sucked from the room by the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s floundering attempt to end the country’s 46-year membership in the European Union.
It’s not easy to make an egg from an omelet, as Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organization, has observed. I grew up in a Britain where “the Continent,” a faintly distasteful geographical mass associated with rabies and garlic, was far away. The E.U. changed that. Now, through finance, trade, law, values and culture, Britain is mixed into a borderless market of 28 nations and more than a half-billion people that has brought peace, stability and an unprecedented, if uneven, prosperity to Europe. Britain’s decision to break from that is a curious act of self-harm, linked, like the election of Donald Trump, to the desperation of our times.
The country’s main political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, buffeted by the Brexit maelstrom, are in crisis — beset by desertions, insurrections and division. As elsewhere in Western democracies shaken by the failings of liberalism, hard-line factions to the left and right have gained sway. They offer rekindled socialism or make-Britain-great-again nationalism as the answer to inequality and ennui.
The center looks weak, even if defectors from Labour and the Conservative Parties last month formed an Independent Group to try to resurrect it. Parliamentary democracy, which is what Britain is, and democracy-by-plebiscite, which is what the 2016 vote was, are in a standoff: A sovereign Parliament has rejected May’s proposal while advocates of Brexit, on time and at any cost, bay about the sacred irreversible “will of the people.” Britain today poses the question of what 21st-century democracy is.
May and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, have both made desperate concessions in the past week. They did so from weakness. May’s acknowledgment that Brexit could be delayed (the union would have to agree to that and would want to know why) and Corbyn’s support for a second referendum (a grudging move from a lifelong Euroskeptic heading a pro-E.U. party) added to the mayhem.
Anything is possible. That’s now official. Britain could approve an amended May deal (essentially a fudge preserving British participation in the single market and customs union for now); crash out of the union like a lemming over a cliff; defer a decision; hold a second vote; or some weird combination.
I met with David Renard, the Tory leader of Swindon’s borough council. He’s getting impatient. He says he wants British sovereignty back, rescued from a web of European Union regulations. He thinks Britain should get out, even without a deal. “The British people voted to leave. It would be an affront to democracy if we do not on March 29,” he told me. “Let’s get on with it! A lot of people would see a delay as the liberal elite establishment trying to find a way to stay in the E.U.”
As a paid-up member of that establishment, I would see a delay and a second vote (one does not necessarily follow from the other) as an act of very British common sense.
By focusing the zeitgeist’s every frustration on Brussels, the “Take Back Control” campaign in 2016 was a brilliant exercise in emotional transference. “Remain” equaled the status quo. To many people, for reasons that had little or nothing to do with the union, that was an unattractive proposition.
As a practical matter, however, the decision to leave has been a disaster. “Fantasy Brexit,” was based on lies, like the imminent invasion of 80 million Turks. (Turkey joining the E.U. is about as likely as Saudi Arabia becoming a democracy.) Now Britain has had a three-year crash course in “Reality Brexit.” This has involved slower growth, lower investment and the collapse of the illusory idyll. Some 40 free trade deals were promised to replace free trade arrangements Britain benefits from as a union member. The government has concluded a handful, one of them with the Faroe Islands.
Trump is not forever. Brexit is. Britain’s youth oppose it. A decision of this import should be grounded in reality.
I sat for a while outside the Debenhams department store in downtown Swindon. The scene was not a happy one: stores for rent, people struggling to get by. Swindon is an hour by train from central London, the purring hub of pro-E.U. sentiment. It might as well be on another planet — and it’s still far better off than many towns in Britain. No wonder, I thought, that a majority here did not want to “remain.”
Last month Honda, Swindon’s second-largest employer, announced the closure of its plant, with the loss of 3,500 jobs. There were various factors. They included a free trade agreement Japan has concluded with the European Union (making manufacture in Japan more attractive). Honda did not cite the elephant on its production line: Brexit.
Imagine you’re in a board meeting in Tokyo looking at fathomless uncertainty in Britain for the foreseeable future: What would you decide? One angry Honda worker, with 24 years at the Swindon factory, had no doubt about the real culprit for his job loss: “The government’s completely incompetent handling of the whole thing doesn’t help either, does it?” he said in a Channel 4 interview that went viral. “They can’t even decide for themselves what Brexit means. This is idiocy of epic proportions.”
Idiocy aside, it’s not easy to execute a decision based on mass delusion. As Robert Smith, a Swindon-based marketing director for a law firm, told me: “The gig economy is not Europe’s fault.” Nor is the large flux of migrants across the world, billionaire-favoring taxes and stagnant wages.
“The European Union is our national scapegoat,” Sam Gyimah, a Tory M.P. who quit May’s government last November, told me. As minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Gyimah labored hard to make Brexit work. The more he labored, the less it seemed to make sense. “We get 1.5 pounds from the E.U. for every pound we put in,” he told me. “The University of Cambridge gets more than all of Romania.” Britain had invested heavily in Galileo, a global navigation satellite system created by the European Union. Now it has been shut out.
When May produced her “deal” — in fact a proposal to defer for at least two years all the difficult decisions — Gyimah quit. “Look,” he told me. “There’s no majority for any option in Parliament. Therefore this has to go back to the people.”
The people are restive. Renard told me the Swindon council is “making plans for civil unrest as a precaution,” should Brexit be delayed.
Liberalism worked well for a while. It was good at freeing people from bigotry, sexism, racism, nationalism and prejudice. It was less good at providing people with meaning to their lives, beyond hedonism and materialism. In 2008, with the financial crisis, the wheels came off. Those responsible walked away. A lot of people felt empty, and were drowning in debt. What had the elite ever done for them? Bigotry and nationalism made a storming comeback. That’s Brexit in a nutshell.
The reality, however, is that Brexit only compounds the problems. Will Dry, a student, voted for Brexit in 2016. He was 18 then. All his family toldhim Europe meant unemployment and refugees.
Now Dry has taken time off from Oxford University and works to fight Brexit in London. He came, he told me, to “the realization we did not have a plan.” His new view is that “it’s far better to cooperate with neighbors and allies than ditch them.”
With Lara Spirit, another student on leave from college, Dry is a co-president of O.F.O.C. (Our Future Our Choice — don’t try to pronounce the acronym), a youth movement that has sent a blue bus around Britain emblazoned with the words “Please stand up for our futures. Signed, young people.” The bus is a rebuke to the Brexiteers’ notorious red bus that, in 2016, spread the lie that more than $462 million a week going to the E.U. would be spent post-Brexit on the National Health Service. “I’m confident there will be a second vote,” Spirit told me.
Polls suggest Britain would now vote to stay in the European Union, perhaps by a 54-46 percent margin. Hugo Dixon, the deputy chairmanof a grass-roots movement for a second referendum, suggested this slogan: “Fix it. Not Brexit.”
That’s good. Liberal democracy has failed too many of its citizens. Brexit and Trump prove that. The elites of these societies have to acknowledge their arrogant inattention. The answer is to fix problems — in education, the health service, taxation and uncontrolled immigration, to name a few.
To return to Churchill, he declared in 1936 at another moment of British wavering: “So they go in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent.” Three years into its agonizing Brexit odyssey, Britain is finally realizing that scapegoating Brussels has gotten it nowhere. It's going to have to fix its national problems — and the European Union could help.
This article has been republished from www.nytimes.com