What’s remarkable about Brexit is that so much changes on a day-by-day basis, while at the same time so little actually changes.
Here we are, the week after the big deadline that wasn’t really a deadline, with MPs taking control of events only to agree on nothing, shock interventions from the Speaker and Theresa May’s deal taking a third thumping – and yet the Mexican stand-off continues.
Brexit is still uncertain, the delay keeps rolling on, the Europeans are still flabbergasted at Westminster politics, the Tories are still split, ministers are still resigning, Jeremy Corbyn is still flirting with a second referendum but not-so-secretly hoping for a general election instead, and the PM is still planning to bring her deal back for a fourth time, in the hopes that fear of the alternatives will eventually bring refuseniks into line.
This is beginning to feel like the world according to historian Yuval Noah Harari: when the rules are fictional, procedures can suddenly change and deadlines aren’t real, it’s whoever can make the case for their version of the truth – their story – that wins.
In 2016, Nigel Farage won that battle. The narrative of taking back control from a distant, tyrannical bureaucracy (and saving £350m a week while we were at it) beat anything Remain could offer.
That story has been unravelling for a long time now, and that opens the door for a new story.
In some ways a Harari style story analysis shows up the problem: the Leave narrative was actually lots of smaller narratives – elites vs the masses, metropolitan vs provincial, protectionism vs free trade, libertarianism vs federalism, national sovereignty vs multilateralism – which soon disentangled, particularly when people who didn’t actually want to leave tried to turn Brexit into something closer to their own vision of things. It needs an anthropologist to unpick it.
In this light you could see the PM as a champion of stability trying to hold together the current state but buy off the new radicals, grinding everyone down with her story until they believe it to be true.
Further unraveling offers multitudes of opportunities for new stories – an unraveling of the union, of England, maybe a Corbyn-led shift to a planned economy. The really interesting question is will there be a storyteller who can forge a convincing consensus narrative, or will this jumble be the pattern for the next 50 years?
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