There are few things that command agreement across the main political parties these days, but there is one that does. MPs claim that their constituents, whether they voted Remain or Leave in the EU referendum, are now telling them, in reference to Brexit, “Just get on with it!”
Let’s assume that they are telling the truth. It is plausible. I’ve seen voters in vox pops telling reporters as much. Opinion polls show some movement towards Remain, and the second referendum option, but the pace of movement is glacial, even as the staggering ineptitude of the Conservative government becomes ever harder to hide. The voters really do want politicians to get on with it.
The only problem is, what do they mean?
To answer this, and many other questions, we need to do something that Remainers like me are very bad at doing – we have to remember back to before the referendum was called.
There was no popular clamour to leave the EU. Fed on a diet of press fabrications (many apparently the result of one of the Foreign Secretary’s various incarnations as a breezy gentleman-amateur having a laugh, in this case as a journalist), the public may not have learned to love the EU, but most of us had no strong feelings about it either way. It just was, like the A38, or the Large Hadron Collider.
But the referendum campaign – at least, the Leave campaigns – seemed to ignite a spark of previously unseen anger and resentment, and to pour ever more fuel upon those fires. There’s no need to revisit just how nasty it got, what damage it has done, and how much still remains to be healed. That much is more than apparent.
But what is less remarked upon, buried under hyperbolic rhetoric about “the will of the people”, is how slim was the margin of the Leave victory, given the near civil war atmosphere provoked by the vote. This is partly because we don’t look at it in context.
The road to the Leave victory started in 2014. The Scottish Independence referendum was a peculiar thing outside Scotland, but on the rest of this island. Its passion was often reported in incredulous terms to the rest of us. Before 2014, I suspect that most English and Welsh people had an essentially romantic attitude towards Scotland, sometimes affectionate, sometimes incredulous, as in why they seemed so over-invested in sporting victories over England. But the media coverage of the referendum fed a sense among many, especially in some parts of England, that it was they, not the Scots, who were the oppressed, the culturally marginalised, the economically disadvantaged. It released a latent sense of English grievance that expresses itself as nationalism.
The 2015 general election campaign weaponised these resentments.
All expectations were of another hung parliament, and another coalition of some sort. But Cameron, Osborne, and Lynton Crosby made brilliantly effective use of English nationalism (and the SNP rode the wave of their own nationalism, depriving Labour, in particular, of seats, and inadvertently gifting Cameron his win). It was, we were told repeatedly by the Tory campaign, a case of keeping calm and carrying on, strong and stable, with Cameron – or a “Coalition of Chaos” with Ed Miliband and Alex Salmond. It struck a chord with those areas of England and Wales, and those demographic groups, which voted Leave a year later.
The slogans of the EU Leavers have now become a discourse we hear on phone-in shows. The parroting of lines about ‘trade deals’, ‘WTO rules’, ‘customs union’, ‘single market’, a whole language freighted with meanings other than the literal ones, has become a sort of patois for English nationalists to signal their in-group membership.
And on the other side are still people like me; people who have also learned an awful lot about the EU we didn’t know before, simply because we feel we have to counter nonsense with facts and evidence. Which may be to misunderstand the problem, if not the necessary task.
Occupying the vast, majority terrain between those poles are people who still don’t know too much, and don’t care too much, because they have other, more immediate matters on their minds. There’s no point telling them they should care, that their lives, their futures, will be affected. They are hearing white noise from both sides, and they just want it to stop.
And that is what “just get on with it,” means. Make it stop. Make it all go away. Let’s just get back to normal.
But of course the only road to ‘normal’ is to stay in the EU. Stay in the EU, and call the bluff of the rabble rousers. For behind them lurk the ‘disrupters’ beloved of the gamblers, speculators, and smash and grab merchants who bankrolled, and stand to benefit, from the impoverishment of our country. Brexit means normal will be gone for as far as we can see.
There wouldn’t be riots in the streets if Brexit was halted. There’d be grumbling in Wetherspoons, followed by a game of darts and a curry.
And unlike actually going through with Brexit, which will prolong the whole nasty, dirty, Brexity business for years to come, rescinding Article 50 and resetting the clock will rapidly do what most voters want.
It will make things go back to normal. So, just get on with it!