I wonder how History will judge this period in the story of the British nation(s). Living through it, the predominant impression is of directionless chaos, with all the usual certainties about the State we live in suspended, not least that unspoken national belief that disasters happen elsewhere.
Having encountered grass-roots continentals on an annual basis for the last couple of decades, it has only reinforced my view that by comparison there are some very ugly, uncivilised characters in Britain. We’re not the only ones of course: there is a segment of German society which is pretty brutal too, and no doubt most countries have their equivalent – otherwise we would not have seen the rise in far-Right support that we have. How do you respond to such threats?
When Theresa May became Prime Minister, I suspect like many, was prepared to give her space, if only because the alternatives were worse. Despite her secretive and authoritarian instincts, she is no fool, and at least projected the right image. It doesn’t need me to describe what has happened since.
But I wonder whether History may still judge her more kindly than we currently suspect. When I was teaching, I sometimes used a form of reverse psychology with difficult pupils. If one creates what is admittedly an illusion between the consequences of two courses of action, it is possible to deflect people from self-destruction without a loss of face. It uses a classic cognitive flaw where people fall for a false dichotomy.
I find it hard to understand May’s trajectory on Brexit without recourse to one of two explanations: either she was a closet Brexiteer all along, and she simply kept her powder dry during the referendum campaign – which is disingenuous enough that if true, she deserves to lose her position on the strength of it alone; or she is playing the same cognitive flaw with the nation. Realising the democratic impasse created by the referendum result, could she be giving the nation a taste of the consequences that it will face if hard Brexit goes ahead, in the hope that enough people will recoil before it actually comes to pass, that a rethink becomes possible? Why else would she still be playing hard-ball? It is like my teacher-strategy of outlining consequences to a difficult pupil and then asking, “Do you REALLY want to go down that path? Are you SURE?”
Meanwhile, prominent characters on the EU side seem to be doing as much as they can to leave the door open for Britain. Their motives may be less than pure, of course – but my admittedly-biased impression is that they are showing a concern for the people of this country that many do not show for themselves, and nor indeed do their national leaders. Will they yet save us from ourselves?
The current debate in Britain is not just the one that should have happened before the Referendum, but the one that should have been happening for the last forty years. But maybe at last, the British are starting to realise what the European project is really about.
Events in the interim have clearly not gone to plan for May – but there are some signs that public opinion is indeed beginning to shift about what outcome it prefers. Maybe the brinksmanship is starting to have an impact. There’s a long way to go, and I offer this theory without much confidence that it holds water.
But if it turns out to be correct, May could still go down in history as one of our most courageous Prime Ministers after all.