I know a lot about Brexit. Every day I spend hours reading about it, talking to colleagues and politicians about it, eating it, breathing it. I follow every jot of every argument. I know so much, that I know I know nothing. Even what seems clear, such as the impossibility of Theresa May getting her deal through the Commons, I find myself questioning.
So, no answers. But here are a few more questions. First, by what mechanism, precisely, can the Commons prevent a no-deal outcome? MPs can’t negotiate a deal, and anyway Brussels negotiators say they won’t negotiate another one. Yes, a clear parliamentary vote would be a big nudge for the Prime Minister to go back and try again. But May says she would never accept staying inside a free movement EU – that this is a personal red line – so it could only be done by another prime minister. That means a Tory leadership election in which opposition MPs have no say – another form of blindfold cliff-leap, if you like.
No, no one knows anything. For months I have been boring colleagues witless by saying we may well be heading towards a no-deal exit, more in an “oops, butterfingers, sorry-’bout-that” way than intentionally. Just because everybody bravely says they won’t let it happen, doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.
Second question. If there were to be another referendum, how would we stop the country going completely bonkers? The level of anger and boredom is already almost intolerable. I dread to think what may be ahead. I have been reading Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus before going to see what sounds like a wonderful new production at the Globe, so I keep thinking about summoning up demonic forces we later find we can’t send home again.
Passion play time
Third question. How, then, could the two sides do better in another referendum? The Leave campaigners would have to make a very big deal of abjuring foreign money. And this time, they would also have to explain exactly how their new economic model would work to make Britain more prosperous. Which taxes would be cut, and by how much? Which regulations would go, and with what social consequences? The Remain camp, by contrast, would have to find ways of sounding properly passionate, accepting that this was a choice about belief and identity, not just economics. The People’s Vote campaign has become passionate, to be fair. I find myself wondering – a final question – whether it isn’t the embryonic form of a new centre party.
One of the great joys of my life is that Radio 4’s Start the Week forces me to read and think more widely than I might otherwise do. Many New Statesman readers will already be familiar with Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. But I had no idea of the sophisticated ways in which trees can communicate, both underground through fungal networks and by using scent messages so finely tuned they can warn each other not just about predators but about exactly which beetle or mammal is chewing leaves right now.
It’s a book that makes you see woodlands anew, as complex organisms with their own languages and organisations. But this is one of the great things about being alive today. We are living through an intellectual revolution, driven by hard science, which is making us appreciate the rest of nature in a new way. The cognitive, individual self-awareness of other creatures, from pigeons to dogs and chimpanzees, and now the way that even trees work together as communities, must rock how we see ourselves.
Out of favour flavours
This helps explain one of the great current attitudinal shifts. I’m working on a new social history of modern Britain, so I’m thinking a lot about how our grandchildren will view us. The biggest aspect of modern life that will amaze them isn’t to do with class, race or sexuality, but food: hey, these weirdos were meat-eaters!
I am still an omnivore. The long-evolved social rituals, smells and family history of meat-eating have me in thrall. But I eat less meat than I used to, and I like it less. As I age, I find it duller. The combination of environmental pressures and a growing awareness of animal sentience will keep fuelling the vegetarian revolution we see all around. In my part of London, restaurants are already coming together for meat-free Mondays. There is carnivorous grumbling. But it’s largely in reaction to the triumphalist tone of vegans on the winning side of history.
Top of the tree
Another aspect of the subtle displacement of humans as the top and centre of all creation is that yet again, creative artists got there first. Books for children such as The Wind in the Willows and The Jungle Book used to be mocked for their naive anthropomorphism. Now they seem prescient. And what of Tolkien’s much-derided talking trees, the Ents? Here are a couple of sentences from Peter Wohlleben: “The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesises and the latter eats other living beings… does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track?” Yet again, the more we discover, the less we know.
Which, finally, leads me to something to lace together our politics and the disconcerting questions of modern science. There’s a famous poem by Louis MacNeice about seeing snow sitting on pink rose blossoms. He says: “World is suddener than we fancy it./World is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion/A tangerine and spit the pips and feel/The drunkenness of things being various.” This is as near as I can come to cheerful 2018 seasonal thought.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special