The calls from certain quarters for the nation to unite behind the PM’s Brexit deal is being treated with the disdain it probably deserves. Not because the sentiment is not necessary, but because it trivialises yet again the causes of the division. It represents nothing more than the diminution of the reasons people hold the views that they do, and treats them as little more than superficial differences that can be easily abandoned for the sake of patching up the nation.
It also relies on the assumption that the disagreement is symmetrical in ‘weight’: the irresistible force and the immovable object, perhaps. In a sense, that is why Leavers have been reduced to telling Remainers to ‘get over it’. There is simply no better argument available to them, as indeed there is not in the opposite direction; nothing that can trump the very different values of the opposite camp. It is stalemate.
But the two cases are not symmetrical. The belief of Brexiters that pro-Europeans should just get over their difficulties betrays a fundamental failure to appreciate or care for the nature of identity – of which, given their own claims, one might have expected them to have a better understanding. Nationalism (insidious or otherwise) is based on the call for people to identify profoundly with an identity bigger than themselves, to the extent that the two partially merge. And yet Brexiters simply fail time after time to appreciate that for pro-Europeans, what is being “untimely rip’d” from them is their own version of exactly the same thing.
Here, in one nation, Brexit has exposed two utterly incompatible readings of what our national identity is, or should be. The one cannot but exist at the expense of the other; the only fully practical resolution would be to divide the nation physically in two. And the only less drastic, less satisfactory – but more practicable – alternative is to hold a new vote now that the specific terms of the proposed settlement are known. Mrs May’s greatest error of many, is to fail to appreciate this; if she was really as concerned for the national interest as she claims, she would recognise that a new vote is the only real hope of reconciling the issue – and if that means that two years’ difficult negotiations, let alone the time and expense, are not after all needed, then so be it. A useful purpose will still have been served.
But I fear that is not likely to be resolved or patched up for many a year to come. I have had numerous encounters with people where (not at my instigation) the very first line of conversation sought to establish which camp I was in; that is the depth of division that has been created, and which I suspect will linger for decades.
Neither is the argument as practically symmetrical as some would claim. I challenge any Leaver to show what negative effects Britain’s membership of the EU has had personally on them. They have always had the choice simply to ignore most of the doings, let alone the cultural aspects of pro-Europeanism. While some may rail against the arrival of metrication, for example, the practical effects were small. Undoubtedly there are some whose livelihoods were affected by EU policy. But that argument is easily reversed – and while one might potentially feel sympathy with fishermen subject to quotas, one also needs to reflect on the reason those quotas exist in the first place. British domestic policy on this matter has shown relatively little inclination to deal with issues like the depletion of fish stocks, let alone the environmental aspects of the matter.
On the other hand, Brexit, if it happens, will cause significant real impacts on every single individual in the country. There will be no ignoring it. The increased cost of living, the lower incomes and opportunities, the increased difficulty of physical access to the continent – not to mention the cultural and identity loss for those to whom such things matter – will all be very real and immediate. If Leavers don’t understand this, it is nothing more than a product of their own insularity and limited vision; if they simply don’t care, it betrays the hollowness of their own vision of national unity.
In practical terms, living under the aegis of the EU, even for those who did not like it, had little negative impact on their lives – at least not in ways that were distinct and separable from the damage done by the domestic mismanagement of this country in recent decades. It arguably also balanced any negatives with benefits that were often larger in scope than locally-minded objectors might perceive. Clean air legislation, for example, is not easily appreciated from a determinedly local perspective.
On the other hand, the prevailing of their world view will have significant a personal impact on me and those like me. It will actively deprive me of things that I hold very important, and will make – indeed already has made – the leading of my life more difficult. Why I should suddenly forgive that gratuitous imposition I do not see.
That – apart from any of the bigger arguments – is I suspect why calls for reconciliation will not work, and why this will not be forgotten lightly.