What does it mean to love your country? Is it the sort of love that means you never have to say you’re sorry? The late, great critic AA Gill once observed that just as the Inuit people are rumoured to have dozens of words for snow, none of which actually mean “snow”, the British have “many, many” uses of the word “sorry”, but are somehow unable to apologise when it actually matters. It matters now. It matters because we have made a terrible mistake, and as the flaming omnishambles of the Brexit negotiations roars on, the one option that almost nobody seems to want to discuss is the one that would cause the most embarrassment in the short term and the least pain in the long run: cancelling the whole thing and moving on.
Those of us peering through our fingers at the oozing 28-clown-car pile-up of British politics have largely been restricted, in the public sphere, to arguing for the process to be slowed and insisting on a better divorce settlement. It is not considered politically astute to come out and say categorically that we should not do Brexit at all. That it’s a terrible idea. That we ought to apologise.
I don’t think that saying so means I hate democracy. To suggest that things have changed, that the “hard” Brexit looming on the horizon is almost nobody’s choice, is not at all undemocratic. We are told that the will of the people can be encapsulated by a non-binding referendum that, after a campaign riddled with misinformation, delivered a 4-point victory for Leave.
Except that perhaps it didn’t. The Leave campaign is under investigation for potentially breaching campaign finance rules, and there’s more than a suggestion that the Kremlin was involved in massaging the messaging in the weeks leading up to the vote. Bring back the good old days, I say, when all our consent was manufactured on home soil, instead of in warehouses in St Petersburg. At the very least, give us British lies for British voters.
But telling people that they were lied to is no winning strategy, just as telling people that they made a mistake and are about to suffer for it hardly ever wins an argument.
The larger, more important point is that democracy is not a sports game. It’s not a weekend match in which one side wins and the other loses. Democracy is not a game at all, and those who approach it as one should have a chat with their consciences, especially those in parliament who persist in seeing it as a gentleman’s pursuit whose consequences are not felt by anyone with a stately home to scuttle back to. Democracy is, or should be, an ongoing relationship between human beings trying to live together without murdering each other, making collective decisions about their future, not just hammering the other team into submission.
There is no good outcome here, for anyone. There might one day be a reality in which Britain could leave the European Union with its economy, dignity, reputation and social fabric intact, but not now. Brexit must be stopped, and the best way for that to happen is for this government to do the decent thing: withdraw Article 50 and fall on its sword. It’s not as if the administration is long for this world anyway. We can turn this around, and we ought to – not just for our own good, but for everyone else’s, too.
We like to think that, as a country, we’re above all the swivel-eyed flag-wagging zealotry that has driven the US bananas. A British politician would be laughed at for promising to “make Britain great again”, but then again, they wouldn’t have to, since it’s in the name. A significant number of the conservative troglodytes currently holding the nation to ransom seem truly to believe that it is a cosmic accident that they are no longer directly in charge of half the planet and imagine that the loss of our empire is an embarrassing faux pas that will be sorted out when the waiter returns with the bill.
Britain has no idea what it is because it hasn’t a clue what it was, because it chooses not to remember. As Shashi Tharoor notes in his recent book Inglorious Empire, it is normal for British schoolchildren to study history all the way through to university without learning a thing about our colonial legacy. This may explain how we got to the point where, with a straight face, politicians can seek election on the basis of how terribly unfair it all is that people from other countries are coming over here and asking to share our stuff.
We have to row back on Brexit, and that will not be comfortable. You would think that saving ourselves from social and financial ruin and international disgrace might be worth a little temporary embarrassment, and for other countries it might, but it happens that our entire culture is based on the principle that the people of this little island will submit to any hardship to avoid dealing with conflict or admitting that we made a mistake.
We don’t just owe this to the generations shortly to inherit this trash-fire of a political system who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. We also owe it to the rest of the world. The reason I feel so strongly about this is that I have realised, to my great surprise, in the course of the past year, that I actually do love my country.
There are all sorts of ways to love your country, and not all of them involve singing it songs of lost greatness even when it’s about to do harm. That’s a twisted, messed-up sort of love. Personally, I love my country in the same way that I love members of my family: for no particular reason other than that we happen to be part of each other. I am fond of its foibles and tolerant of its idiosyncrasies and disappointed by its minor cruelties and moments of self-deceit. But more than anything else, I consider it my right as well as my duty to let it know, as I would let anyone I really loved know, when it’s being a bloody idiot.
This article appears in the 22 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder