By Calum Nicholson
“You must understand that a world is dying, that old values, the old prejudices, and the old bases of power and prestige are going.”
These were the words of Edward R. Murrow to his CBS radio audience in the Autumn of 1940, in a report from London on the war in Europe. Yet they are perhaps at least as apt in the Autumn of 2019, as Britain endures the political, social and increasingly economic torque of Brexit.
Anthropologists have long identified, throughout history and across culture, ‘liminal stages’ in societies—transitional periods in which the norms and verities of an established order are, for a time, inverted, leading to ambiguity and disorientation, before a new one emerges.
It is hard to deny that inversion has been a hallmark of Britain’s Brexit moment, and a source of both disorientation and ambiguity.
First, the decision to leave was made possible by a Prime Minister who did not support it, advocated for by a man who did not believe it would win, acted upon by a new Prime Minister who did not vote for it, and ultimately stymied by the MPs who had been its most vocal champions.
Second, the most widely expressed reason for leaving the EU was to return sovereignty to the British Parliament. Yet, paradoxically, this course was set in motion by a popular referendum that bypassed Parliament, and now, as the days shorten, Downing Street is indicating a willingness to circumvent Parliament to ‘get Brexit done’.
Third, in the course of the whole Brexit story, the usual sources of authority and competence have been ignored, and even pilloried. The idea of economic expertise was derided as part of the popularist ‘leave’ campaign; elected parliamentary representatives of the people have since found themselves facing accusations of being ‘enemies’ of those same people; and the Supreme Court, in the wake of its decision that prorogation was unlawful, has found its political neutrality questioned, by current members of the Government no less.
It is easy, with Brexit, to lose sight of the bigger picture, given that the debate is both polarising and morbidly consuming. One feels compelled, and perhaps even duty-bound, to choose a side.
Yet, while diametrically opposed in their goals, both the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps in fact share more than they realise, namely the same fatal flaw in their respective projects.
Contrary to the assurances of its proponents, a ‘no deal’ Brexit would not be an end to the current limbo, but would constitute a deepening of it, leaving the UK without formal—let alone preferable—relationships for an indefinite period, and with less leverage than it has now. This would lead to economic instability.
On the other hand, the opponents of Brexit who advocate for a second referendum seem to be in denial that, should one be held and a different result achieved, this would simply and inevitably lead to calls for a third referendum, which would be politically destabilising, further undermining the sovereignty of Parliament.
Consequently, Brexit presents a choice that, for the majority of people, will amount to a distinction without a difference, in that either outcome would serve only to intensify divisions and mutual mistrust within the country, to the collective loss. Britain’s international reputation as a socially, politically and economically stable nation would also suffer, with implications for investment. The current uncertainty may be unsustainable, but while the various possible resolutions are long on resolve, they are all short on solutions to the broader predicament that the 2016 referendum result created.
One of the crucial insights of anthropologists on liminal stages is that while they can, in large-scale societies, be creative, they are just as likely to be destructive, and dangerous. This is largely because the outcome of liminality is always uncertain, in no small part because all conventional authorities lose their nimbus as a function of the process, creating opportunities for saints and scoundrels alike.
Understood as a liminal stage, the paradoxes and inconsistencies, the very ambiguity and bewilderment of Brexit are not incidental, but intrinsic to the whole phenomenon. Yet our inability, as a society, to say or predict anything coherent on the topic does in fact reveal something important about our society as a whole, if only we can escape the futility of binary reasoning on the topic.
Namely, that we are a society in transition, and that the outcome will be something very different from what either ‘side’ hopes or expects, regardless of whether Brexit occurs or not, or whether—if it does—it is in the form of a deal, or ‘no deal’. The status quo will not return in the event of a revocation of Article 50, but neither will there be a restoration of long-lost glory, as many Brexiteers believe, drawing as they do from deep in the well of collective self-hagiography.
Looking forward to after Brexit, the only certainty we can have is that no one has any justification for certainty, and any suggestion to the contrary is a confidence trick. Once we emerge from this liminal stage, the values, prejudices, bases of power and prestige will, in all likelihood, be wholly new.
Calum Nicholson is UK Correspondent for The Economic Standard. Twitter: @calum_tm