As the damage from leaving the European Union became increasingly clear, it was confidently predicted by many Remainers that the country would eventually ‘wake up’ to the fact that it was a mistake. However, there has been no sudden dawning of this sort and the country remains bitterly divided. So how might it all end?
All things to all people
One of the strengths of the Leave campaign was that Brexit was never defined. It meant all things to all people. There was certainly an element of nostalgia for the great and global power we once were. And it embodied the powerful wartime image of Britain carrying the torch of liberty, standing alone against the dark forces which were engulfing the continent.
There was idealism too. Like Martin Luther King, Brexiters have a dream: to free Britons from enslavement to a bullying EU, and enjoy our rightful freedom and independence again. Successive prime ministers may have struggled to deliver the expected benefits, but the vision of a wonderful Brexit has persisted, tenacious and seductive. A little battered and tarnished perhaps, but hard to give up. Those sunlit uplands that beckon in the distance, that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if only we can get it right.
Some would say that these flights of fancy have taken the Brexiter zealots into cloud cuckoo land, but there is no denying their appeal. It is an appeal with which I can identify, as I too feel patriotic. I love the icons of our heritage. Red telephone boxes, Sherlock Holmes, cricket on the village green. I warm to the strains of Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory.
But a formative experience for me came in 1968 at an international workcamp in France. Here, mingling with other nationalities from all over Europe, my sense of personal identity was strengthened and I realised for the first time what it meant to be British. I suppose this is what differentiates me from patriots like Mr Farage, who feel that foreigners must be held at arms length. So the question for the future is: will our pride in our nation be enhanced or diminished by distancing ourselves from the European continent?
The cult factor
Another important factor is the cult status that Brexit has acquired. By cult, I mean a group of people sharing an excessive or quasi-religious devotion to a certain doctrine. I am not talking here about ordinary Leave voters, but about the ‘Brexit Ultras’ who now dominate British politics. You can see that in the way the contenders for the Prime Minister’s job, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, strove to out-do each other in proving their ideological purity.
If Brexit is a cult, maybe we can get a clue as to how it will end by looking at the fate of other cults. Though a comprehensive review of cults is beyond the scope of this article, I have chosen a couple of examples.
In the famine-stricken Soviet Union of the 1930s, a peasant called Trofim Lysenko claimed that weeds could be transformed into wheat or barley by simple methods.
This idea, unfounded though it was, was seized upon by Stalin. Opponents of Lysenkoism were branded enemies of the state and dismissed, imprisoned or executed, three thousand scientists among them. The unworkable doctrine caused enormous long term damage to Soviet science, agriculture and the economy.
For peasant Trofim Lysenko read man-of-the-people Nigel Farage, for wheat and barley read having your cake and eating it, and for enemies of the state read enemies of the people.
The Unification Church
Remember the Moonies? They were a sinister cult of the 1960s who seduced impressionable youngsters away from their families, fleecing them of money and possessions. It was dressed up as a spiritual movement but the cult’s true purpose, according to its critics, was the amassment of huge wealth by its founder, the Reverend Moon.
In the same way, Brexit has been dressed up as a patriotic protest, but its true purpose, according to Nick Clegg, (remember him?) is to make the very rich very much richer, by removing the protections and regulations of the EU.
So what happened to the Moonies? They faded from the limelight amid scandal and disillusion, though the Reverend Moon retained considerable political power and influence until he died in 2012.
These cults are no fleeting fads or fashions, they can last quite a long time: Lysenkoism persisted for over thirty years, sustained by an uncritical media.
How long will Brexit last?
Brexit is an edifice of fantasy resting on no solid foundation. It is a time expired idea which has lost much of its initial gloss.
Much will depend on the tactics of Britain’s rightwing press. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Rupert Murdoch might change his mind – he has done so before. If he decided, for example, that he could sell more copies of the Sun by exposing Brexit as a con, that might be the lethal blow that puts Brexit out of its misery.
But I’m not betting on it.