Brexit rode to victory on the coat-tails of a type of discontent whose power sprang from its insuperable reluctance to specify its nature. Seemingly focused on a foreign power centre that British voters saw (with some justification) as the usurper of their democratic rights, its real focal point was nebulous and imprecise enough to encompass a potent mix of grievances.
The unifying force behind the variety of real grievances motivating the Leavers was the shared feeling, particularly in England, of a people who had been treated for too long like livestock that had lost its market value.
With every Treasury or Bank of England prognosis of Brexit’s disastrous impact on GDP, the pound, share prices, etc., many who felt (perhaps wrongly) that they had little left to lose could not wait for these terrible prophecies to materialize – assuming, as they did, that the predicted horrors would afflict an establishment who had it coming. ‘Let’s see their GDP go south like mine,’ was how one such soul expressed it to me during the pre-referendum campaign.
Precisely because the discontent that motivated Brexit was so ill-defined, its victory at the polls has failed to bring lasting joy to the winning side. News reports on the negotiations with Brussels infuriate a majority of Leavers who can’t care less about the legalities and economic minutiae, since these were never the issue.
The nearest a majority of Leavers get to feeling good these days is when they hear establishment figures lament the gigantic costs of Brexit upon the communities that voted heavily to leave the EU: it makes them secretly crave precisely such a painful, costly, disastrous hard Brexit. Why? Because they see in it a splendid opportunity to revive the spirit of the Blitz in communities in desperate need for something like it.
Against this psychological backdrop, the worst possible outcome is not a run on the pound, further stagnation in productivity, a loss of GDP growth, or the emigration of Nissan from Newcastle or some bankers from the City of London.
No, my great fear is that the new, almost impenetrable division that the Brexit debate brought to (mainly) England will become permanent.That it will be perpetually underpinned by the nebulous, self-reinforcing discontent we first saw in 2016. That, in 2020, the most regressive parts of the British establishment will be stronger and more in control than ever. And that their triumph will, in a never-ending loop of mutual buttressing, prevent a genuine revolt by the good people who had good cause to feel like livestock whose market value had crashed.
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