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Damage and disillusion
December 2018 / January 2019

An unnoticed feature of Brexit is that the people who must make it work are the same people who think it one of the worst mistakes Britain has made. This is obviously the case with the Prime Minister and Chancellor. But it does not stop there. The senior civil servants and diplomats who must somehow find a deal that is acceptable to Brussels and the Conservative Party, the junior public servants whose working lives are dominated by the crisis, businesses who must plan for the future and reassure their anxious European staff, university and NHS administrators working out where their lecturers and nurses will come from, are struggling with a crisis most of them never wanted.

Journalists who commentate rather than manage, most notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, drove Brexit. Pensioners, who have stopped work, voted for it by a margin of 2:1. They have left the task of delivering it to men and women who in large part voted to remain in the EU. They cannot just walk away from their duties as Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab, Steve Baker and so many of the other men who brought us Brexit have done. They must stay and cope, and inevitably be blamed for the failure of an idea they knew was predestined to fail.

The Brexit vote is usually presented as a division between the people from somewhere and the people from nowhere, or the globalists and the left-behind. There’s a grain of truth in both caricatures. But they are as nothing when set against the division between those who can escape responsibility and those who cannot. And from where I sit in the liberal press, the responsible middle classes are becoming radicalised in the process. They once treated politicised artists like children, assuming, that is, they noticed them at all. To practical men and women, the arts, or at least artists who addressed politics, appeared bound by rules as tight as Aristotle’s classical unities. They would watch a play that showed the white British as irredeemable racists, and shrug and think, “We’re not that bad.” They would know they only had to see the chief executive of a corporation to guess that he would be revealed in the final scene to be the villain of the piece, or that the banker mentioned in passing would be a criminal. As for politics, everyone who knew about it realised artists not only had no idea how their country was governed, they felt no obligation to find out.

Two years ago, they would have scoffed at Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (Viking, £16.99), the latest in what I am sure will be a line of Brexit novels that will stretch on for decades. A journalist is interviewing an adviser to Cameron just before the referendum. “You know who hasn’t lost a single thing?” the aide cries. “Do you know who’s won everything he’s put his mind to? David Cameron. David’s a winner, Douglas. He’s a fighter.” Of course Cameron would win, and by 2017 the country would have moved on and forgotten the referendum.
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