Sunday, October 25, 2020

Notes from a depressed country

I've been back in the UK for a week and a half. It's an odd feeling after more than three months in Greece, but it's amazing how quick it is to adjust to the old normal. Stepping from glorious warm autumn weather into the chill of a Mancunian October is less easy to cope with. But my house is nice and comfortable. It's well stocked with memories, even if the friends are fewer these days. But the country doesn't feel right. It's very easy to project one's own unease onto others and to assume that what you sense is the national mood, although I think that there is something about the way the country feels to me that might ring true to others.

It could be the pandemic, it could be Brexit, it could be that so many people are isolated from friends and families, that the pubs are closed again, and that we still can't go to watch a football match, but arriving here felt gloomy and unusually quiet. Maybe it's because we are governed by the manifestly unfit who only seem capable of screwing up while describing everything as world-beating. Perhaps there's a realisation that we have not got what we were hoping for, only what we were worried about. But the country feels depressed. There's not the same cheery banter in shops or public places in general. It could be me, but Simon Kuper seems to agree.

He's written about a study of focus groups in the Financial Times. It's not behind a paywall, so you can read it easily here. He writes:

The pandemic has slashed people’s emotional investment in Brexit. Hardly anyone is following the technical, depressing trade talks. Both Remainers and Leavers want to patch up the family row — literally, as the other side usually includes their relatives. This divide has turned out to be weaker than the American red-blue split: God isn’t involved, few Britons had strong views on Europe before 2016 and there are no militias to fight this one out. People who made strong statements in the focus groups often immediately apologised: “I’ll get off my soapbox now.” 

Almost all polls show that most Britons now think Brexit was a mistake ...

I don't think that this is new. The polarisation of the country has always been overstated. The diehards are still in their trenches, but most of the population are where they always were, sharing a cup of tea in no-man's-land. And now the country looks towards January, when Brexit will become real, with a sense of foreboding. You can tell it isn't going well. The Brexiters are getting increasingly angry and hysterical, spewing out irrational hatred of the EU, including condemnation of the 'punishment' they are dishing out by not letting us use the airport gates for EU passport holders! We have to use the ones for third country nationals because that is what we will be and what we asked to be.

Of course we don't know what will happen other than a big increase in bureaucracy and barriers to trade and travel. Will it just be a pain or will the economic damage cause serious hardship? Who can say? But one thing will be missing in January, a great symbolic act of liberation. That's because we were not oppressed. Brexiters imagined it. There's nothing for us to be liberated from. The best we can hope for is that everything will only get a little bit worse.

Brexit is a mistaken revolution without benefits. We are caught in it because Cameron decided to gamble the future of the country to appease the obsessive revolutionary cranks in his ranks. The idea of being a leader and actually confronting and defeating them never seemed to occur to him.

I was reminded of the danger of giving minority cults power by this wonderful article. It's about an American town that elected Randian radical libertarians. They ignored all expert advice and dismantled the economic and administrative base of the town in the belief that private initiative would emerge to run everything better. It didn't. They ended up with bears. The type that kill people. It's a great story of ideological mayhem, but it's also a metaphor for Brexit. 'Let's set the country free to roam the world. But what about the bears? Project fear!'

And so here we are. Heads down, unenthusiastic, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Kuper's conclusion - "anxious though most Britons are, they are still probably underestimating Brexit’s impact" - is probably true too. People are in for a shock. In the middle of a pandemic. One that could kill thousands of us. No wonder this is a depressed country.