It’s not simply that Brexit means Brexit, however much the prime minister might seem to enjoy repeating it over and over like a mindless motivational mantra. It’s the political slogan equivalent of encouraging a snake trying to eat itself – how can you use something to define itself when you’ve not yet tried to define what that thing is? Before you know it, the head’s been munched right off and everyone’s confused.
The inherent tautology that has come out of the EU referendum campaign is that a mild majority has somehow given the government a massive mandate to tear up decades of shared history with our freres and schwesters on the continent. You’ve got the magnificently incongruous sight of the Tories seeking to regain sovereignty for the UK parliament by planning to ride roughshod over the MPs sitting inside it. In order to win them more influence. You couldn’t write this stuff satirically. What amazes me about politicians is how they can maintain these excruciatingly uncomfortable positions without even a faint wince creeping across their faces. It’s a gift, really – just look at David Davis standing in front of the despatch box in the Commons and telling people that Brexit won’t have an effect on the UK economy while his colleagues in the Treasury are busy piling up the sandbags. You’d need botox to achieve the same po-faced effect as a civilian.
Of course, it’s about all that David Davis is really expected to do. The Secretary of State With a Really Special Job has no real influence in government – let’s be honest – and it’s been hard enough coming up with a letterhead and finding some people to work with over the last few months. I find it fascinating when prime ministers have these arbitrary reshuffles and radically reshape whole Whitehall ministries as if they’re Duplo towers made by two-year-olds that you and just knock over and start again. Indeed, I imagine David Davis permanently waiting in a civil service conference room somewhere – it doesn’t really matter where – with a flipchart angled just nicely so that it can be seen from everywhere at the empty table where he’s arranged an assortment of brand new coloured Sharpies and some biscuits. A pump action coffee flask sits slowly leaking heat on a back table.
There’s criticism that the government has no plan, but the government was formed on the basis of the last government’s plan falling apart. It’s only been a couple of months, eh, chaps? Let’s give them a few minutes. It’s not like they’ve got to run the country at the same time now, is it. It’s alright if you’re Apple, or something. All you’ve got to do is keep reinventing the mobile phone every four years and adding a few hundred quid to your price lists. You don’t have to listen to everyone, just the 18% of the entire country you think might be interested in buying your stuff. They say you can’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time, but that’s really what we expect politicians to be getting on with. It’s a ridiculous task, like that Greek bloke who had to walk up and down the hill with a rock on his back. I wouldn’t particularly want to do it, but then I’m not very outdoorsy.
The real difficulty with the Brexit referendum is not just that we’re airing our dirty laundry in public, but that every other country in the world is leaning over our shoulder asking how the skidmarks got there. We need a bit of privacy, a bit of quiet time to actually figure out what the vote even meant back in June. Sure, you could be as absurd and reductive as to just look at the actual question that was asked on the ballot paper on June 23, but it turns out that barely anyone paid any attention to it and it wasn’t a proper question anyway, because it didn’t have any legal weight. It’s a bit like when you ask someone how they are – you certainly don’t expect them to answer honestly, much less ask the question with any expectation of helping them with any of their problems. David Cameron put the referendum to the people out of a sort of misguided British politeness, to make us all feel involved in the ridiculous internal fighting of the Conservative party, indulging dusty old white men with entrenched views on nothing in particular.
In many ways it’s bizarre enough that we’re in this position – it’s as if God forgot to put the world on pause when he went to get a cup of tea that one time and now it’s all gone to crap – but actually the really weird stuff is yet to come. There are so many uncharted waters that we run the Columbus-in-1492 risk of falling off the edge of the world. Our unwritten, convention-based constitution faces a stern talking to if not a genuine challenge – will Brexit even happen? That is, once we’ve collectively decided what it means. We need our best people on the job, folks with intelligence, compassion and the ability to multitask. Politicians with the capacity to think boldly, imagine the unimaginable and sooth the wounds that have been inflicted on all sides. Oh no.