This morning I went to the supermarket, slung a basket over my forearm, and loaded up on fresh food: spinach and mango and pineapple, red onions and raspberries, mint and smoked garlic, a big two-pound flat of Spanish strawberries, lemons and asparagus--lots of new-season asparagus from abroad, as the British stuff isn’t ready for another month. I bought a chicken--extra large, on offer for less than £5-- and mentally planned my Sunday dinner: the chicken roasted with lemon and smoked garlic; new potatoes with parsley; steamed carrots; the asparagus, sauteed with a little bacon; lashings of lemony gravy. (I’m good at Sunday dinners.)
The supermarket was busy, in spite of it being 9:30 on a Friday. It’s payday for most people here in the UK, and Mother’s Day is this weekend--many other shoppers were milling about the extra floral displays that had been laid on, picking over rainbow-coloured bunches of tulips, frowning at the lackluster roses, inspecting potted hyacinths.
There were brisk middle-aged ladies consulting lists, their legs straight and narrow as clothespegs in sensible trousers. There were elderly men with younger women leaning on their arms--a daughter or a carer, hard to tell-- who steered them toward vegetables and away from cakes. There was a sizeable delegation of south Birmingham’s tracksuited-and-tattooed youths, who wedged Mother’s Day cards between the cases of Carling in their trolleys. Aside from a wash of golden spring sunlight over everything, it was as mundane a scene as one might have wished.
It could have been very different.
If we had exited the EU today, as was the plan up until about a week ago, we would most likely have done it without a deal in place. Without a deal, this small island nation would suddenly find itself in a bind. How bad of a bind depends on whom you’re asking, but most commentators and business owners agree that there would be significant disruptions to:
Supplies of fresh food (30% of fresh food imported into the UK originates in the EU)
The availability of many medications, including insulin and certain radiotherapy drugs, which can only be stored for a limited amount of time
Aviation, including both freight and commercial travel
Port shipping, with potential for disastrous gridlock in Kent due to backlogs at the port of Dover
There’s much more at risk than that--many goods would immediately be subject to tariffs and price rises under WTO rules, for one-- but crippled travel, trade, and limited food and medicine supplies are enough to go on with. The knock-on effect of these disruptions--even just the fear of these disruptions--would have made my Friday morning shop a much more fraught prospect as people hustled to get their hands on fresh produce, toilet paper, light bulbs, and all manner of other things before tariffs and shortages went into effect at 11 p.m.
And there’s every possibility that my Friday shop in two weeks’ time will be that fraught, or worse: today’s pantomime in Parliament means that a no-deal scenario is just as likely come 12 April as it would have been today.
Not that you would know it from the number of people out in the sunshine at the pubs. There’s been an eerie quality to daily life over here these last six months or so: people appear to be going about their business, shopping, planning holidays, extending their houses while potential economic catastrophe looms on the horizon. I want to believe it’s that stereotypical British reserve at work--keep calm and carry on, or whatever--but it has an inescapable air of whistling past the graveyard.
Maybe it’s because almost ten years of Tory rule has ground a lot of people down: increased child poverty, cut important public-sector services funding, complicated benefits for the disabled, and so on--how much worse, some people must be thinking, could a no-deal Brexit possibly be? Maybe it’s because I happen to live in an area where many voted to leave, and they’re confident that a no-deal Brexit won’t be as terrible as advertised. Maybe it's just because people overestimate their strength and resourcefulness in the event of a crisis due to watching too many post-apocalyptic TV shows.
Or maybe it’s because national-level politics in Britain seem so utterly detached from daily life: even before the last several months of theatrics, the House of Commons is a place where legislators carry on old school fights or argue obscure procedural issues rather than conduct the business of the nation. It’s like the US House of Representatives, but with more colourful supporting characters.
I think the dissociative state between government and population is a root cause of our predicament. We’re largely where we are now because of insecurities within the leadership of the Conservative party. David Cameron’s fear of losing ground to the populist hard right led to the referendum being called in the first place. During the referendum campaign, his pro-remain government brought out PowerPoint presentations and earnest, factual explanations of the cost of leaving. Ukip, with an assist from hard-right Tories, instead took grains of legitimate grievances and coated them in successive layers of vitriol, imperialist nostalgia and wishful thinking, producing a kind of pearl of anti-establishment sentiment. 52% of voters chose the pearl.
No matter how shiny, a pearl isn’t a plan: it’s the by-product of decades of brooding over wrongs both real and imagined. “Let’s Take Back Control” printed on the side of a bus is also not a plan, any more than “Make America Great Again” embroidered on a hat is a policy platform. I don’t understand how voters missed this very important fact--that Brexit was an idea, a slogan, and not yet a plan or a policy-- in 2016, and I don’t understand how they concluded that the likes of Boris Johnson or even David Cameron would have had the deft negotiation skills and political courage necessary to manage the most complex and consequential political undertaking of our lifetimes with anything even resembling success.
What I do think we all understand after the last two years--and especially the last two months--is that the elites at Westminster are inadequate to this moment in history. They are irresponsible stewards of the country’s future, absorbed in cynical intra-party psychodrama while continuing to flog us with meaningless slogans (“Brexit Means Brexit” is also not a plan or a policy). Going about our business hoping that they will somehow pull us out of this nosedive makes us irresponsible, too.
I genuinely do not know where we go from here-- massive marches and petitions have done nothing; a general election seems bound to return an even weaker minority government with one or another abomination as PM; a second referendum, perfectly sensible given the circumstances, will be seen as illegitimate by a significant proportion of the population; the EU is bound to pull up the drawbridge and bid us goodnight and good luck eventually.
I suppose there is little option but to enjoy the fact that for now, on a day I was expecting chaos, I instead still have mangoes to savour and Sunday dinner to anticipate. I hope it all lasts past 12 April.
Further Reading by Better Writers:
Fintan O' Toole, The Irish Times - "Historians will in time get to the bottom of the deliberate unknowing and the crass self-delusion. They can be charted. But this pure pig ignorance, innocent and unalloyed, is unfathomable."
Marina Hyde, The Guardian - "Michael Gove... is one of those politicians who we keep being told are indicating their prime ministerial readiness by going for a run. What’s that got to do with the price of rice? Mo Farah might as well prepare for races by taking a coherent Brexit position."
Sign-Off Music: Cartoons Somehow Seem Appropriate Here