The Almanac

I wrote this story, I think, just after the EU referendum. I know people who spent the whole day in bed that Friday. I couldn’t imagine reacting like that, I didn’t feel this big sense of despair and loss, I knew the EU wasn’t all good – its horrendous treatment of non European migrants was, and is, one of the great world scandals of present times. So initially I thought Brexit might be an opportunity as much as a disaster.

Over the next three years my heart hardened. It got too culture war. People got sick of being denounced as ‘the elite’ just because we voted the wrong way in the summer of 2016. The narrative of cosmopolitan Remainers versus working class Leavers took hold and stayed there. We were transactional, materialist, unserious, unworthy of being part of the new community of values, place and belonging. I don’t exaggerate – even the very intellectual and respected Leavers framed the debate in these terms. This is Matthew Goodwin, writing in January:

Our leaving is the result of a collective decision, taken by a majority of its people, about the destiny of their national community — or what most consider to be their home. And this decision, contrary to the liberal view of citizens as autonomous individuals who are mainly driven by self-interest, was never rooted in transactional considerations about money.

Nor was it focused on individuals. Rather, it was anchored in a collective and sincere concern about the wider group, about the nation, and in profound questions about identity, culture and tradition. Who are we? What kind of nation are we? What holds us together? Where do we want to go, together, in the future?

Remainers never grasped the potency of these questions — or how to answer them in terms that the majority would recognise. At times, they presented a vision of Britain that was fundamentally at odds with how most people see it — a random collection of individuals who have little in common aside from the pursuit of economic growth and ‘openness’.

That’s the level of debate we have had. The idea that anyone who voted remain – 48% of us – might have thought about the EU referendum on a political or philosophical level seems to have been beyond Goodwin. Such stereotyping and lack of allowance for human complexity inflamed the culture war. People complained about the People’s Vote movement and their gigantic demonstrations but that movement only reflected Leavers failure to win support and sell their case. But the spectacle also legitimised the tactically useful communitarian idea that we were a country divided into two very distinct tribes.

Here is the problem. Brexit was always analysed as a reaction to rather than a call for, it was sold to us as a cry of pain from an oppressed majority waiting to overthrow their neoliberal overlords. What we were going to do outside the EU, what a post Brexit Britain would look like, barely entered into it. Take away the stuff about free ports and state aid rules, and there wasn’t much there.

Take this piece from Jonathan Rutherford, one of the founders of the communitarian Blue Labour movement, writing (like Goodwin) on the verge of our offical exit from the EU. What is his vision for Britain post Brexit? ‘It will require a national economic development strategy which focuses on improving and modernising the everyday economy of child and elder care, health and wellbeing, education, utilities, and the low wage sectors of hospitality, retail, food processing and supermarkets which sustain daily life.’ This is New Labour without the style.

And who cares about this now anyway? It all seems so very long ago. Now of course we are fighting the coronavirus. A culture war doesn’t matter so much when you’re fighting to stay alive. Even Trump’s attempts to trigger the libs by labelling corona the ‘Chinese virus’ seem tired and perfunctory now.

So all of this is to say that when I wrote ‘The Almanac’ I had no idea how Brexit would turn out. It’s a story that plays on ‘Project Fear’ not as prediction but as concept: what happens when everything that could go wrong does?

It has been published by The Selkie and I should thank the appreciation and guidance of its editors.

And from now on, I swear, I will try to keep this place a Brexit free zone!

Image: Bloomberg. The stamp is from the Austrian post office. As the report says:

Austria had planned a stamp to commemorate Britain’s departure from the European Union, but when the presumed deadline – March 29, 2019 – came and went with no Brexit, the postal service found itself with 140,000 stamps bearing the wrong date.

Fast-forward 10 months, and as Britain finally heads for the exit, Austria is releasing the stamp–with the original date crossed out and Jan. 31, 2020 printed just below.

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