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Incompatible Fictions

I have just started listening to Sapiens, the book by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m finding it engrossing and thought-provoking in the best traditions of popular science writing. Harari argues that the key factor in giving our species, homo sapiens, an advantage over the other human species was the ‘cognitive revolution’, the evolutionary leap that allowed us to conceptualise fiction. This in turn allowed homo sapiens to build more complex societies bound together by shared fictions: mythology, religion, values, laws. Without rehashing his whole argument, in essence we are able to share a bond with other people in our social group, despite not having an intimate relationship with them, because we share in collective fictions: the nation state, our legal system, human rights, Christendom, etc.

This in turn got me to thinking about – of course – Brexit. Here is a short exchange I just had on Twitter with Gawain Towler. (Gawain is Director of Communications for the Brexit Party, and before that for UKIP, and he is one of my few Twitter follows outside my political bubble, because – although I disagree with him on pretty much everything – I do find him an engaging person who debates respectfully.)

Identity has been at the heart of Brexit. Anti-Europeans who could not bear the notion of sharing sovereignty at the European level fought a campaign of attrition over four decades to engineer and then win the 2016 referendum. They could not live with the fact that their society – the political entity with which they identified – had a European element to it. They found that they best way to articulate this discomfort was by claiming that the EU was undemocratic, or anti-democratic. The more the EU sought to address these claims, for example by setting up a European Parliament, giving it real powers, drafting a European Constitution, and so on, the more they resented it. This is because the perceived lack of European democracy was not the real issue. The real issue was that they could not tolerate the very concept of European democracy, or in other words, a European identity. (I wrote about this in my post ‘that demos thing‘.)

And so here we are. But, while these anglo-identitarians have won their battle, the problem hasn’t gone away. Now, instead of a group of anti-Europeans who could not live with what they saw as an unacceptable dilution of their identity, we have a group of pro-Europeans who cannot live with what we see as an unacceptable amputation of our identity. Because the enormous and highly energised Remain movement was not mobilised by the dry utilitarian arguments of David Cameron’s Remain campaign; it came about as an emotional response to Leavers’ assault on our European identities, as should be evident from the way in which the movement chose to identify itself.

So what happens to a society where a significant section of that society no longer shares the fiction that binds that society together? There will always be outliers, people on the fringes who dispute or reject these fictions (freemen-on-the-land types). But when half the country no longer believes in the divine right of kings, or in the union of southern Slavs, etc, well then you have a problem. The thing is, those anti-Europeans who fought that long campaign to leave the EU, they were on the fringe. Having a European tier of government simply wasn’t an issue for the vast majority of people in Britain, until fringe Leavers made it an issue. But Remainers are not on the fringe. 48% of voters in the 2016 referendum do not represent a marginal fringe that can be safely ignored.

Having won, Leavers now preach unity and reconciliation, but they won’t acknowledge Remainers’ grievance because they can’t acknowledge it – they cannot acknowledge our right to our European identities because it is incompatible with the fiction that they see as the indispensible secret sauce binding their society – an exceptionalist UK – together. “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” When half the nation is denied its identity, when the fiction that binds at least half of us is simply edited out of existence, then our society is divided against itself.

Why should the burden be on the Leavers to revise their fiction of an exceptional and sovereign United Kingdom in order to accommodate us Remainers (or whichever label we give ourselves after 1 February)? Surely, as the losing party, we Remainers should revisit the fiction that gives us our identities? Except that’s not how this works. Our fiction, as Europeans, is the complex and multi-tiered one where we enjoy multiple identities and celebrate diversity. Our fiction accommodated theirs; there was nothing stopping them enjoying their British identity within the EU except their refusal to let us enjoy ours. Theirs is the narrow and exclusive one that tolerates no divergence. Our multicolour world includes black and white; their monochrome one is limited to black and white.

Play up, play up, and play the game

Michel Barnier has warned the UK that Brexit is not a game. This was in response to Theresa May’s comment in Parliament that “the ball is in the EU’s court”.

Language matters. Tone is important. Ever since the EU referendum and throughout the negotiation process, it seems that everyone on the UK side has been using the language of conflict and confrontation, sport and gaming, winners and losers. This fundamentally colours the UK’s approach to the process, and in my view handicaps us. By seeing this negotiation as a contest, with winners and losers, the UK sets itself up to fail. I’ve already written about this in two posts: Brexit – a negotiator’s observations, and Brexit negotiations – how is the UK doing? To summarise, a confrontational, zero-sum approach rarely makes sense in a negotiation, and never when you are the weaker party, which the UK is.

Why is the UK adopting this unhelpful tone, when there is no need for it, when it is counter-productive, and when the other side would greatly prefer (indeed expected) to do this in a spirit of cooperation? Here, I want to move beyond the tactical aspect and briefly explore a more fundamental cultural question. Because this tone of confrontation is not new in UK-EU relations. I think it is symptomatic of a deeper culture clash between Whitehall and Brussels, Westminster and Strasbourg. It is a cliché that Westminster’s politics, with first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all, government and opposition benches set facing each other a sword’s length apart, is at odds with the continent’s politics, with rainbow hemicycles and Jamaica coalitions, proportional representation, and tiny centrist parties perpetually in government as junior partners. Certainly it is true that people raised in other political cultures find it hard to identify with the martial tone of British politicians and press. When aggressive, conflictual language has had real consequences within living memory, you take more care. In Whitehall, it is normal to think in terms of alliances and enemies: reflexive instructions to “follow the Germans”, antipathy to “Club Med”, not-so-secret away-days with “like-mindeds” from the Netherlands and Denmark; Paris and the Commission as the enemy. Others do this too, of course, but my sense is that no-one revels in it to quite the same extent as the British, nor takes it quite so seriously. Because this is serious, grown-up business. Building Europe is not a game. The nations of Europe once played the Great Game, the result was two world wars.

“Play up! and play the game!”

Hang on Chris, you say, did you not complain bitterly when Theresa May said that the EU never felt an integral part of the UK’s national story? Isn’t this what she meant? Isn’t it true that the UK and the EU are just a bad fit – clashing personalities? Well, dear hypothetical reader, you may have a point there. People like me hoped that membership of the EU would begin to wean the UK off its oppositional approach to politics. We had hoped that forty years spent marinading in the cooperative pickling vinegar of Brussels might transform British politics, take the edge off so to speak. It hasn’t. We knew this when we saw our first attempt at continental-style coalition government fail so dismally. It’s not that the coalition didn’t deliver consensus politics – arguably, it did – it’s that no-one wanted it or understood it. It was too alien for a country tuned to winner-takes-all. Nevertheless, I do not accept that this culture clash meant the experiment was doomed to fail. The EU is made up of 28 countries, all of which have different cultural and historical experiences, and each of those countries is made up of regions with diverse cultures and histories. None of this is a legitimate reason to abandon the experiment of European integration, in fact the opposite: given the conflicts which have arisen as a result of this diversity, integration was essential and remains essential. Integration is perfectly compatible with respect for diversity, and preservation of differences. The point is not to homogenise; the point is to understand, and respect.

Here is a scenario: the British vote, by a narrow margin, to leave the EU. The British parliament decides to respect the result of the referendum and mandates the British government to begin the process of withdrawing from the EU. The government sets up a broad, cross-party panel of senior legislators, judges, and individuals from business and civil society, to prepare a road map for Brexit. Studies are commissioned and published. Proposals are developed which achieve consensus. At every stage, those responsible in government and in the panel carefully consult and inform their EU counterparts, and jointly they determine a way for the UK to leave the EU, respecting the result of the referendum, while minimising the impact on the EU itself and on the UK. That would be how a grown-up country would go about this complicated and sensitive task. But that requires a habit of consensus building and respect for dissenting voices which does not exist in the UK of 2017. So instead we have a chaotic and divisive process framed in a narrative of conflict which is reminiscent of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers.