Carl Sagan, the astronomer and writer, was absolutely right when he said that to understand the present, you must first understand the past. So whilst Brexit seems in so many respects to be a very modern phenomenon – with the widespread use cutting edge information technology, algorithms and data harvesting – it is taking us down a path that is all-too-well trodden.
The legacy of the financial crash of 2008 is not very different from the that of 1929, and certainly the reactions that followed it were much the same: pulling up the drawbridges, ring-fencing money and resources, and repelling outsiders, instead of responsible, intelligent progressive reform, across national borders where necessary, for the common good.
What has been set in train by the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers is the dismantling of liberal democracy and open international borders. In a decade when we needed to see the rise of responsible bankers, regulators, politicians and economists, we have seen the rise of Trump, Brexit and populism. The world has certainly changed, but not in an ordered, structured or positive way.
Right wing populism took hold across the western world after the crash of almost a century ago, and it is something of an under-statement to say that it did not end well. The victims of it were then the poorest and most oppressed in our society. A lot of them – by dint of their religious faith, sexual orientation or whatever – were obviously different. Nobody but perhaps a small handful of individuals – arms manufacturers among them – came out of that experience any richer and it left entire nations impoverished and broken.
The message, “You are hard done by and you deserve better” is an easy one for politicians to deliver. Eminently harder is to say, “We got it wrong, now this is how we can fix it”. It is a mistake to disassociate Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency from Brexit – indeed, Trump himself saw his ascendency as “Brexit plus plus plus” – and, for that matter, the rise of populist right wing movements on mainland Europe. It is part of a bigger picture.
Brexit has however metamorphosed into something historically unique. After all of the original notorious promises of jam tomorrow – most notoriously, £350m a week extra for our National Health Service – no one is now maintaining that the policy is going to make the population as a whole lot richer any time soon. It is largely accepted that it will require sacrifices in the short, medium and longer term.
This is a project of self-harm, of pure isolationism in the absence of any realistic plan or strategy for the future. Isolationism based on a headiness of bygone colonialism, of “Taking back control”– and to the outside world at least it seems we are happy to suffer and reconciled to our collective fate.
It is our bad luck that we should now have in Jeremy Corbyn an opposition leader – one by no means representative of his party members and MPs on this issue – who on the fundamentals of Brexit agree with Mrs May and so can offer the public no serious alternative.
As I write this, there is no sensible way of predicting how the story will end. Mrs May’s plan looks unlikely to get through Parliament on 11 December 11; but a no-deal Brexit seems an outcome that neither the United Kingdom nor any members of the family of nations she is leaving could ever seriously contemplate. It is a policy that I believe that – to revive a phrase of the late Ronald Reagan – might be called “mutually assured destruction”, or M.A.D.
It is by no means inconceivable that the lawyers rather than the legislators will ultimately be the ones who have to take back control in this situation. It certainly seems to be beyond the wit of our politicians to figure a way out of this mess, and – like children unable to surrender a favourite but badly battered toy – they seem reluctant to turn it over to the public to fix.
The tragedy is of course that as this drags on and on, the real problems of our country – stemming not just from the banking crisis but also from austerity and automation – remain unaddressed, as our politicians play political games and drain our resources so irresponsibly and pointlessly. We are also too fixated on our own problems to be able to think seriously about the crises on the international stage, not least within the Arab world and with Russia increasingly flexing its destructive muscles.
The European Union is ultimately a union for peace, as much as an economic or political union, but ultimately of course they all come together. I think ultimately in this great argument of our times of the words that the great British playwright J B Priestley – who was badly wounded fighting in the army in World War One – used to end his work, An Inspector Calls. “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.”
Gina Miller is founder of End The Chaos.