Adam Foulds is a British writer living in Toronto. His books include The Quickening Maze, a finalist for the Booker Prize, and Dream Sequence, which will be published next month.
When the news was finally confirmed, the faces on the screen were exhausted, grey and hesitant. I was already living in Canada and so watched through the evening relatively untired as the presenters and commentators struggled into the early hours of the British morning to explain the now irrevocable fact that the country had voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union. Nearly three years later, everyone who has followed the fallout day by chaotic day and has laboured to understand what form Brexit might actually take and when and how it will be delivered feels that exhaustion.
No one has been so visibly fatigued and broken down as the Prime Minister, Theresa May, this past Tuesday in the House of Commons. Pale and puffy-eyed, though with the familiar hard, narrow stare that might be withering if she retained any authority, she was sick with a sore throat and barely able to speak in response as her proposed Withdrawal Agreement was defeated by the fourth-largest margin in British parliamentary history. The first time it was voted on, in January, it was defeated by the largest margin ever in British parliamentary history. In normal times, a vote of no confidence would now be passed, triggering a general election, or the Tory party would depose Ms. May. But these are far from normal times. A vote of no confidence would fail because the Conservatives really don’t want an election and quite amazingly, nobody in her party, usually typified by a culture of ruthless self-advancement, wants the job of prime minister. Currently, it seems to offer only the prospect of impotence amid the endless strife of Brexit.
Before Thursday’s vote to extend Article 50, Britain was due to crash out of the EU on March 29 and faced the very real possibility of shortages of foods and medicines. Now, it awaits the decision of the 27 EU member states on whether to grant this request for Britain to keep the impasse as it is and struggle for a solution a while longer. British politics has broken down. Its broad coalitions have splintered. The only majorities that exist are against various proposals, not for any single plausible course of action. In the wider public, those strongly for either Leave or Remain are equally incensed, suspecting imminent betrayal. Those for whom this is all an ugly wash of noise in the background of their lives don’t know why it isn’t over yet and are more disenchanted with politicians than ever. Over recent months, they may well have had the same experience I have of turning on the TV or radio to see journalists unable to answer news anchors’ questions because they have no idea at all what is likely to happen next.
It is easier to say what has happened. In the past few years, I have watched my homeland lose its mind. I’ve watched the grinding collision of the referendum’s direct democracy with a parliamentary system. I’ve watched politicians lie and obfuscate, to themselves and everybody else. I’ve watched anger infect the population and spiking reports of insults and attacks on foreigners and immigrants. I’ve watched Britain lay waste most thoroughly to its reputation for reason and pragmatism. I’ve watched the country convince itself it has no other choice but this prolonged self-harm. Turmoil and paralysis have combined in a most remarkable way, daily convulsions while nothing changes. This state will end soon – time really is running out to come up with a plan or call the whole thing off – but for now, I can look around at the wreckage and simply marvel.
I hadn’t seen it coming – pretty much no one had – but its causes are easy enough to identify. For years, into an increasingly unequal society, a right-wing media, owned mostly by billionaires who are either foreign or keep their money offshore, had poured out outrageous and fact-free stories of European Union interference in British affairs and had stoked anti-immigrant feeling. The accession of Eastern European states into the EU, giving their citizens the right to work and settle anywhere in the union, did produce some very rapid demographic changes in parts of Britain, particularly those suffering from the weak economy and brutal cuts in public services. Polish shops sprang up on their high streets. A disconcerting unfamiliarity had arrived and the media encouraged their British readers to misidentify the causes of their suffering with their new European neighbours. This all existed in a feedback loop of rhetorical escalation with the so-called Euroskeptic wing of the Conservative Party that has long campaigned against further integration of Britain into the European Union and against the result of the first referendum on Britain’s membership in 1975. They have caused serious problems to several Conservative prime ministers. David Cameron, to buy them off, promised a referendum in his manifesto for an election he possibly didn’t think he would win. More likely, he blithely assumed the referendum would be won by reasonableness and Remain, much as people assumed Hillary Clinton’s victory over Donald Trump.
But, like the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the referendum pitted grievance and simplicity against the status quo and complexity. It too was riddled with bad faith, deception, anti-immigrant rhetoric, baseless and manipulative Facebook stories, criminal campaign-finance violations and covert Russian involvement. Indeed, there are some shared personnel between Mr. Trump’s world and the Brexiteers, an affinity of wealthy individuals pretending to be men of the people, with Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage and others shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic. Of course, many people voted to leave in good faith and independent of the campaign’s false prospectus. One of the ways the argument has become toxic subsequently is the insistence of some Remainers that Leavers were all dupes and patsies. That said, I’ve yet to encounter a Leave voter who doesn’t hold a naive and unrealistic vision of national sovereignty in our complicatedly globalized world or who has a realistic plan for Britain’s future trading relationships. Amazingly, Euroskeptic politicians who have spent years obsessing over the subject have come up with no version of Brexit that is both likely to be agreed by the EU and that they can agree on.
There are a number of reasons for the immediate dissipation of visions of Brexit on contact with the blustery air of practical politics. In part, the movement was never truly serious. It was a line of rhetoric, a weapon in a culture war. Its supporters never expected to win. Now that they have, they oppose the versions of Brexit on offer and continue to brandish their image of Britain as it used to be (though never was) and ought to be again. It is perhaps inevitable that British anti-EU feeling is refracted through false memories of the British Empire. Freed from the pesky bureaucratic interference of Brussels, the argument goes, Britain will again bestride the world stage as a great trading country, doing its own deals, particularly with the grateful members of the Commonwealth. What this nonsense overlooks is that imperial Britain never was a great trading country. It was an empire, a network of resource extraction and economic dependence enforced by violence. Britain didn’t overtake India as the great textile-producing country of the 19th century with innovation and the wild self-belief of the Brexiter. It expropriated India’s raw materials, brought them to the cotton mills of the North of England and destroyed India’s weaving industry, literally breaking the hands of Bengali weavers so that they could not compete.
No, the international Britain the Brexiters remember is a nostalgic false memory, a hazy image of the 1950s before significant immigration and while the country enjoyed the afterglow of victory in the Second World War. At least those who voted for Brexit enjoyed that period: They were mostly children at the time, too young to have fought themselves. The Leave vote skewed heavily to the elderly, beneficiaries of the postwar economic order built in part on EU membership. Younger people, with futures to worry about, voted Remain. Even as the fragmentation of the country and its stagnation becomes pathological, I can almost feel grateful for the unsparing way in which Brexit has exposed Britain’s divisions – between the young and the old, the English and the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, the wealthy south and the postindustrial north, the university-educated and the educationally deprived. Brexit has always been the wrong answer to the right questions: How can prosperity be shared? How can the political class regain the trust of the electorate? Answers will have to be found.
After the initial vote in 2016, I had friends express their envy that I was now living in Canada. Canadians are, I think, used to hearing liberal Americans threatening to try and move north when the Republicans come to power. This was the first time I’d heard the same fantasy from British people. I’m now a permanent resident here and very happy to be one, but I can’t say that it mitigates my pain and frustration at the situation in Britain. It does, however, sharpen my appreciation for the improved version of Britain that Canada is at is best: liberal, rational, welcoming to immigrants, committed to well-resourced public services and equality of opportunity. Brexit can stand as a warning. Canada, like every democracy, should be vigilant against populist rhetoric offering simple solutions to complex problems, historical amnesia and subversions of the electoral process. A sane political order, a temperate public discourse, even in the mother of all democracies, turns out to be much more fragile than I had thought.