Through the Brexit Looking Glass

The weird world after the vote

Nick Harkaway is a novelist and commentator (and the author of one of the editor's favourite novels: Gone Away World. This article originally appeared on Medium here.

                              Britain voted to Leave, more photo details  here

                              Britain voted to Leave, more photo details here

Britain voted to Leave the EU, and here we are — although perhaps inevitably, here we also aren’t. David Cameron has resigned, but he hasn’t yet gone, and Jeremy Corbyn is right now fighting off what is not so much a coup as a general strike by Labour MPs who feel he cannot lead the party effectively through whatever is about to happen. If Corbyn stays in post and Boris Johnson takes the Prime Minister’s chair and calls an election, we’ll be in one of the oddest political positions I can recall: a Conservative leader who thinks we should stay in the EU leading the charge to Leave, against a Labour opponent who essentially wants to Leave the EU but is campaigning — however half-heartedly — for us to stay. Article 50 has not yet been activated, and the EU which wanted us to stay is now so furious that we aren’t leaving immediately that they won’t talk about how to achieve an orderly withdrawal.

Did I say we’d have a surplus of irony? I massively understated the case. We may drown in it.

Meanwhile the majesty of the Leave campaign’s mendacity is becoming clear. Iain Duncan Smith explained to us that the NHS won’t, in fact, be getting an extra £350m a week, and that the notion that it might was only ever an example, for illustration only, not a policy commitment. Daniel Hannan has rowed back on immigration in the name of trade. In which case, what was it all for?

That’s certainly the mood among some people in Cornwall as they realise that the county is potentially about to be €592m poorer. Having voted strongly for Leave, Cornwall is waking up to the reality that it’ll have to persuade London to make good the difference. Cast your mind back: when was the last time any major politican even mentioned Cornwall? If the only things you can think of are Boris and the pasty, and David and Samantha Cameron’s baby, consider what that means. Westminster doesn’t give a damn about Cornwall. Wales, Scotland, the Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands, the North East, Essex, the Home Counties? Yes, absolutely. Cornwall? The motorway still stops at Exeter. That’s how much chance there is that Cornwall’s financial props will be protected.

Young people such as 18-year-old Luca Cowlard are struggling to find a job here. “There’s not a lot of work available around.” He did not vote. “It didn’t seem important at the time. It does now and I wish it had. I’d have voted to stay.”

So where do we go from here? That’s even more bizarre. While the EU clamours for us to get on with it, it seems unlikely that Britain will activate Article 50 for some time. David Cameron has said it’s a job for the next Prime Minister. If that’s Boris Johnson, it seems unlikely he’d be in a hurry. His main Tory comeptition is Theresa May, who backed Remain (though she believes we should remove the country from the European Convention on Human Rights). May might well not activate Article 50 immediately either. With a General Election very much in the air, formal activation might not occur for months, and indeed MPs are not legally required by the referendum to take the UK out of Europe at all. If enough of them feel the country’s position has changed as the reality of Brexit sinks in — and the material absence of the benefits Leave promised could mean that it does — they can simply vote down the Leave option entirely. They could campaign on the issue in their own areas and see what the mood was. If we change tack, the other EU nations will be absolutely livid, but there isn’t really a mechanism for removing a state from the EU, so there isn’t much they could do about it.

A large fragment of the tabloid press might be angry too — though when Kelvin Mackenzie says he’s changed his mind, you know there’s room for discussion. Stalwart Leave voters would be furious, triggering a very strange sort of constitutional crisis: in theory and in practice, Parliament is supreme in the UK, and the democracy we have is strictly of the representative sort. We delegate power to our MPs and they take decisions on our behalf — they do not have to seek a mandate from their local area on every issue. In other words, such a decision would be entirely within bounds and even perhaps appropriate — but many people don’t know or care about the fine print of our system of government and would be, with considerable justification, absolutely rageful. That in turn might lead to a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with itself — long overdue — and the possibility of electoral and systemic reform actually being interesting to the electorate. Proportional Representation, so long the hobbyhorse of system nerds (like me) and minority parties, has recently become something Labour must consider, and there is just no doubt that it’s more democratic than what we have.

Brexit is the weirdest crisis I can remember, with the most unpredictable positives and negatives trailing in its wake (alongside, as far as I can see, all the negatives I wrote about before the vote). There’s no certainty about where we go from here, not even about whether we go forward or back. Britain has found a Lagrange Point, a place in political space where the conflicting pulls upon the nation cancel one another out. In theory we could remain here indefinitely, though our equilibrium is unstable and it seems likely that we must at some point be dislodged (lest you think that will happen immediately, remember that Belgium spent twenty months without a government a few years ago. By comparison, this is in some ways a mild moment of indecision.) Before that happens, we need our politicians, and our media, to find their feet and start behaving like grown-ups. We need honest answers rather than weasely ones, good questions rather than meek ones, and evidence of a proper plan for the country from anyone who wishes to be taken seriously. With an actual agenda to look at, and concrete (costed) promises, we might have a chance at moving forward without falling on our faces.

I still believe we should Remain — but I’ll accept a Leave result if someone can at least show me it will achieve something other than the slow-motion societal car crash we seem to be experiencing now. Without that, no one should.