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23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: The referendum was always a solution in search of a problem

Political decision-making ought to be a matter of knowing how to identify real dysfunctions in social life and public policy, and then working out what can and can’t be changed.

By Rowan Williams

I can remember at the time of the Brexit vote describing the proposal as a solution in search of a problem. This is not simply an appeal to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” principle. Political decision-making surely ought to be a matter of knowing how to identify real dysfunctions in social life and public policy, and then working out what can and can’t be changed, with what consequential costs or benefits in other areas of life and policy. What was and is startling about Brexit is the sheer fluid vagueness around all this; which is not to say that the Remain advocates did any better with specifics.

And the trouble is that licensed chaos on this scale sets a precedent for other matters to be dealt with in the same unfocused way, so that the eyes of the government will be fixed on what tomorrow’s media plebiscites will present rather than on seeking a shared analysis of what’s wrong. If you have that, you can start disagreeing about how to mend it; but there can’t be intelligent disagreement without some convergence about what needs resolving.

Against this background, the sustained confusion through the pandemic period about what exactly the problem is has been just what the Brexit debate helped to foster. Punch-and-Judy oppositions have been set up – economic recovery! Medical stability! Mental health! Educational standards! Freedom! Safety! – on the basis of opportunistic readings of public opinion. We have a political culture more than ever in flight from the substantive issues of what kind of society we could or should be in relation to the long-term changes in our world (economic, environmental, epidemiological) that
can’t be wished away. Like far too many other nations in today’s world, we settled for an instant, consumerised political discourse at just the moment when we desperately needed analysis and foresight.

Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012

This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.

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