Sunday, 10 February 2019

Dispatch from Brexit Britain

Brexit is exciting. The UK is slithering down a political mudslide towards a major historical catastrophe -- and I get to ride along with it! Wheee!

I realise this may not be fun for everyone. For example, the Europeans in the UK who will be either hounded to leave or hounded because they stayed. I wonder which will be worse? A more interesting grouping are the poor and unskilled, regardless of where their birth certificate was printed. Is it worse to be foreign and driven to leave, or British and unable to?

Among these unfortunates are of course the unrepentantly xenophobic and stupid who voted for Brexit. I am trying to shed myself of any sympathy for them, but even someone of my limited empathy knows perfectly well that most of them were duped into voting for their own misery by wealthy scumbags who are as certain to make a tidy profit out of this as their supporters are to suffer. If they (the poor unfortunates) have not yet understood their folly, should that drive my sympathy up, or down?

As you can see, there are many fascinating questions to ponder.


And what of myself? How will I fare? For a start, I am not British, so I am spared their aching shame and collective guilt. It is hard to imagine how humiliating and embarrasing it must be to be British right now, even with the sight of so many of them at such close range. Also, as a perfectly comfortable university professor, I expect to be cushioned from the worst of the economic blow. In fact, I am even better off than that. Usually you have to be a billionaire tech asshole to be able to make plans to run away to the most distant corner of the world in the event of an apocalypse; I, however, am already blessed with a New Zealand passport. I agree that it is somewhat repugnant to wallow in your good fortune and privilege but, on the other hand, isn't that what it's for?

Perhaps I should clarify, for outsiders, the nature of the crisis ahead. The UK will cease to be a part of the European Union on March 29th of this year -- a mere few weeks away. This may sound like some dull political formality, and it would be, if there were a plan to disentagle the two entities' legal, financial and political ties on that date; the flow of money and the operation of business, for example, or, perhaps more striking, the flow of food and medicine.

Surely, you complain, there must be a plan! Politicians cannot be that stupid! Ha ha, yes, of course there is a plan! After March 29, all of these practical connections will continue as normal for two years, or longer if necessary, until long-term arrangements have been made.

The only problem is that the UK parliament does not like this plan, and refuse to approve it. The politicians who are in favour of Brexit fear that this plan will lead to a "Brexit in name only" that will last indefinitely. This is a fair point. The politicans who are against Brexit essentially agree, with one additional observation: if we are not really going to change anything, why don't we ditch the whole Brexit thing entirely? This is also a fair point. And so we are at an impasse. At least, until the UK slips through the Brexit event horizon, into the twilight zone, via, as my favourite Brexit commentator regularly reminds us, "the automatic operation of law". 

One of the lovely things about Brexit, as a continuous breaking-news drama, is how simple it is. The situation I described has been unchanged for many months. Despite yelling in parliament and talks of meaningful votes and amendments and the Prime Minister periodically nipping off to Brussels and returning with "concessions", which I think are the name for those perfume and booze samples they foist on you as you rush through Duty Free, not a single substantive thing has changed. I have zero training in UK political processes, global economics, or international law, but I have had no trouble following. It is a dream combination for the media networks: pure spectacle, but still with real consequences to add dramatic bite. It is the most brilliant ratings winner ever devised. Forget voting contestants off an island. Let's vote the island off the list of major Western economies! And the audience lives on the island! What genius! Any moron can enjoy it, and many are. The tension is ratcheting up, and we are loving it!

I am told that the shits who are pushing for this have a dream: that the UK become a bargain-basement tax haven moored conveniently off the coast of continental Europe. Tourists to the UK who venture beyond the swish environs of Kensington will concur that the country already has exactly the right look. In many cities high street shops are already closing to make space for even trashier merchants than were previously there. In the mean time, the empty store fronts are guarded by pamphlet-wielding Christian evangelists (there was some book they used to give away, but who reads books anymore?), and homeless people in tents.

We should not give the Brexiteers too much credit. The closed shops and the homeless tents are in fact the result of a decade of economic austerity. Since choking the economy has so utterly failed to energise it, we can only assume that if we peer into the homeless tents, we will discover that one of them is occupied by David Cameron. We can also assume that their number will multiply over the next two years, and ultimately they will also provide minimal shelter to Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the rest of their band of bandits. Of course, this is not how the world works. Although they have learned little about responsible governance, informed decision making, or even such basics as honesty and compassion, they have learned how to insulate themselves against their own incompetence. That almost makes it sound like an achievement.

What does this mean for the rest of us? That is one of the other marvels of Brexit: it is a beautiful lesson in the meaning of the word "uncertainty". No-one has any idea. A reasonable guess at present would be that parliament ultimately caves in and approves the Withdrawal Agreement, then the EU agrees to shift the March 29th deadline to allow remaining necessary legislation to pass and arrangements to be made. But that is almost identical to the reasonable guess one might have made in November, but without the need for any deadline extensions. And it arises from the same rational observations that would have presumed, back in July 2016, that no sensible government would trigger Article 50 before agreeing on what to do next, or, only a few months earlier, that no sensible electorate would vote for Brexit in the first place. "Reasonable guesses" do not have a good track record on this topic.

This is why it is so easy to be both cavelier about the whole thing, and unceasingly petrified.

For example: if the dreaded No Deal Brexit occurs, there are predictions of significant food shortages. Even if I cannot bring myself to believe that will happen (through lack of imagination), I can believe that the thought of it will drive people to panic and they will strip the supermarkets down to their last sprout. And finally I start to properly worry and face the hard reality of painful questions.

Stockpiling food will be no problem for the British -- they like baked beans. They will be whooping and farting through April with gleeful abandon. My sophisticated palate will not be so lucky.

Will I still be able to drink a gimlet before dinner? I can stock up on gin and maraschino cherries, but fresh limes will not last in the fridge more than two weeks. Will I really have to downgrade to Rose's lime juice? And will I have to make my morning cappucino with -- shudder! -- frothed UHT milk?

And what if none of it comes to pass? How silly will I feel then? Sure, I can fill up the spare room with sacks of flour and rice and tins of fruit, but I am going to feel pretty stupid when guests come over in six months' time.

"Ha ha! Remember those suckers who panicked and stockpiled food?"

"Yeah, what a bunch of losers."

"So I'm sleeping in the spare room, am I?"

"Don't be foolish! Take the master bedroom!"

On the other hand, I do not fancy my chances of breaking through the line of soldiers guarding the Tesco warehouse.

That's what it has come to. We have no idea whether this is a drawn-out comedy or an even longer tragedy. Pre-Brexit Britain is like living inside the Schroedinger's Cat experiment. It cannot be possible, and yet here we are.

Is this what other critical moments in history felt like? And did the participants also make flippantly aloof jokes, right until the axe fell?

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