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After Brexit - will we respect ourselves in the morning?

It has dominated political debate for the past three years. Here, Professor Jamie Morgan from Leeds Business School shares his thoughts on the on-going Brexit debate.


Brexit. Put a tick next to any of the following that apply to you. Are you feeling: a) confused b) angry c) impotent d) tired e) fearful f) frustrated g) bored h) all of the above. If your answer is most or all of these, then you are not alone.

It seems that such collective emotional disarray is now the only thing that unifies us.

This disarray has now transcended malaise, this diseased state has manifested as more than mere unease. Maledictory rancour is everywhere, as though Twitter had finally escaped its online existence to take material form.

Something truly terrible seems to have happened and it is us. That is, all of us together, the sum of our individuations. Public spaces and social media crackle with indignant invective. We need to take a step back. 

Forget for the moment which side you are on in all of this - if you are on one - and consider for the moment what the consequence of Brexit so far has been and what the long-term casualties seem likely to be.

Perhaps the first casualty is a self-image consistent with credibly claiming that Britain is a place where we know the difference between holding to principle and self-destructive intransigence.

If there is a second casualty it is what we can claim to have projected into the world. Brexit has and is changing this. We are no longer a place of which others will say, something like that could never happen there.

And that is not just the events but the manner of the events. Shambolic, aggressively fuelled, wilful and unreasonable are descriptions others can now apply to us collectively. Maybe we can laugh off being a laughingstock but we should not neglect that there are more sinister overtones to what we are in danger of becoming.

Culture and identity are tricky things, how we think about ourselves in different groupings, how we affirm a “we” self-image within which we can comfortably affirm I am. These tend to vary by the context we find ourselves in.

They are not about what is strictly true, but rather concern what we typically say and have said of us. This has a tentative direction of travel and potential turning points. The 2012 Olympics showcased a Britain momentarily at ease with itself, combining nostalgia, inclusivity, and a sense of optimism.

Brexit is in danger of acting as a gateway drug to a more toxic future. Not just that we are taking our leave but the manner of our departure and the internal unreconciled strife that fuels it.

Brexit has become something significant as far more than whether we are or are not members of some regional political and economic organization comprising 27 other members. In some respects this is bizarre, a matter of happenstance.

Membership was something the vast majority of us did not give a second or third or fourth thought to in the ordinary course of our days a few years ago. Whatever we say now, we literally did not care then. It became something we were persuaded to think we might need to have an opinion on when it was dragged into public consciousness as a convenient focal point for other things.That is, how many of us there are, where we come from, how our public services are faring, whether we feel secure in our jobs and comfortable in our skins.

Whatever the outcome of Brexit it seems doubtful that the way we feel about any of these is going to be better. Satisfaction or dismay if or when we leave the EU is liable to be different than this and transitory.Much of the media focuses on economic consequences and these are by no means irrelevant. But over and above this, our conduct during Brexit risks sacrificing a great deal regarding our future sense of self for something so few of us used to care about on a day to day basis. 

I say “our conduct” but this also has a focal point and that is the body politic. Parliament is revolting in both senses of that word. No one watching last Wednesday’s indicative votes in Parliament can have been persuaded that these are people to whom control can be “returned” with confidence.

Control, of course, has been a central theme. But if you are “taking back” control then you are also placing blame. And yet, for those of us who are not MPs, being persuaded to vote regarding “control” is rather different than actually having any regarding the things that matter to us, and rather different than genuinely bestowing it on those who will make future decisions.

The current future, the one we were persuaded to seize, has become radically uncertain and that too is an indictment of the body politic. There are no longer any experts on Brexit because there can be no experts on what defies analysis.

This is deeply ironic, since the denigration of expertise and the substitution of belief for evidence has helped fuel our current intemperate disdain for opponents and dismissive attitude to their concerns. It is this that ultimately fuels intransigence. So, if we are to step back we should also be putting a better foot forward. Public discourse needs to change and that, in the end, is up to us.

This article originally appeared in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 2 April 2019.

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