England and the English after the referendum

by Mary Riddell

20 Jul 2016

Nations alter incrementally, but they splinter fast. The vote for Brexit was a consequence of many forces. Among them were a global capitalism that had served the rich well and the poor badly, a domestic austerity programme that had helped to destroy security and communities, a growing populism and a politics that had lost the trust of the people.

Those influences were well-known, but few foresaw how they were forming an explosive mix. Brexit turned out to be the burning fuse that would blow apart the foundations on which England rested so precariously.

Post-referendum, few certainties remain – and most of those are far from reassuring. The union with a Scotland which voted strongly to remain in the EU looks frailer than ever. The distance between a pro-Remain London and a wider England intent on Brexit looks unbridgeable. The patient stoicism of the English has evolved overnight into a rancour harboured by winners and losers alike.

The uncertainties, meanwhile, are manifest. Politics, the cornerstone of any democracy, has been exposed as woefully inadequate to cope with the great task it faces. There is as yet no strategy to leave the EU on the part of a hastily reconstituted government, while the Opposition has effectively given up its constitutional role until such time as it can sort out its internal strife. The English have long suspected that their politicians are incompetent. They had not, however, expected such stark proof. 

Not everything has changed. Although England is embarked on a different and unknown future, it has in one way reconnected with its past. This is a country defined, among much else, by its myths. From the Arthurian legends to Robin Hood to the Beast of Bodmin Moor, the history of England is bound up with folklore.

A new set of wonders now prevail. Britain will be ready to trigger Article 50, which sets in train the two-year process of leaving the EU, by early next year, or so David Davis, the new Brexit Secretary, repeated to me recently. Yet with a brand new department to staff and run – and no plan in place – it is hard to see how that timetable is feasible or safe.

Britain can be just like Canada, says a second myth. But even if you strip away the European heritage that makes us culturally and geographically remote from one of the largest countries on earth, we lack the negotiators and the time to begin to cut the trade deals that Canada has forged. As for the further myth that we can do quick deals with our European partners, such arrangements would be contrary to our legal obligations.

Yet the Brexit fairytale should come as no surprise. Pro-Leavers knew that they were being offered a future based on fantasy, but they voted for it just the same. That is not a mark of stupidity or wilful recklessness. It suggests instead that a tomorrow based on illusion and unknowns seemed preferable to the grim conditions of today.

If true, that is an indictment of both Conservative and Labour politicians who failed to shape globalisation to the common good or to harness the new and hard-edged populism that replaced working class solidarity.

Political parties, and Labour in particular, must seize their chance to remake the connections they have squandered. If there is hope in the current turmoil, it lies in the fact that England has woken up. At a British Academy event I chaired early in July, both I and the panel were struck by the vigour of an audience prepared to voice its discontent, its passions and its unease.

It seemed, on the admittedly scant evidence of one roomful of people on one evening, that the national mood was finally reconnecting with politics, for better or for worse. This moment, when people are listening and speaking out, is the chance for politicians to help forge the new national story that will promote cohesion and inform a better politics

It is not clear when or how, or even if, we shall ever leave the EU. The only certainty is that, for now at least, a majority of English citizens feel they have reclaimed their country. What remains to be seen is whether the first chapter of England’s unwritten history is a story of pride, hope and rebuilt communities, or one of schism, venom and isolationism.

Politicians should seize this rare opportunity to turn myth into a better future. Such a chance may not come round again.

Mary Riddell is a journalist and writer. She chaired our England and the English after the Referendum event on Monday 4 July 2016.

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