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Brexit Do Or Die? : What Brexit really means

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Photo by Frederick Tubiermont (Unsplash)

In 2016, Vote Leave offered a semi-plausible political platform: take those millions of pounds we send to Brussels and spend them at home instead. Numbers and outcomes could easily be disputed, but the logic was sound: vote X, get Y.

When Theresa May entered Downing Street, the meaning of Brexit changed. The manifesto-like commitments of the referendum were replaced by a series of meaningless statements. "The best deal for Britain." A "red, white and blue Brexit" (no, not a French one.) Labour's opposition was also muddled. Corbyn criticised "a damaging Tory Brexit", implying there was a non-damaging version to which his party was committed. Most famously, Brexit meant Brexit - even though nobody knew what Brexit meant.

the way we talked about Brexit became less real

Even as our new political reality settled in, then, the way we talked about Brexit became less real. This situation reached its logical end state late in May's premiership with her delusional assertions that she could get a deal through Parliament. Only after three defeats did she appear to concede reality, admitting, "I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House." Many Tory MPs appear to have agreed, concluding opportunistically or otherwise that since no deal could pass through the Commons, No Deal alone would provide Britain with the mechanism to leave the EU.

We are still stuck between a Parliament that will not allow No Deal, an executive that will not tolerate extension, and an EU that will not move on the Irish border. But Johnson's strategy is to ignore all of this, embracing instead the option of No Deal in order to shift the terms of debate onto his preferred territory: Britain's capacity to leave the European Union at all.

On one side, we find Johnson and those who loudly proclaim their belief that Britain can and should exit the European Union, if necessary with No Deal. This in turn allows Johnson to portray his opponents, whatever their actual preferences, as doubting Britain's capacity to enact the referendum result, a charge that has a faint whiff of treason about it. This shift in argument also necessitates a new meaning: Brexit Do or Die, a narrative which underpins our increasingly unfamiliar political landscape.

In September, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (the artist formerly known as Michael Gove) promised live on television that "people would have the food they need" in the event of No Deal, as though this was now an acceptable thing for a Cabinet Minster to say.

On the news, a new subgenre of vox pop has emerged: the 'Brexit whatever' voice, like the diabetic willing to risk his own insulin supply provided it means we finally leave. As the writer John Lanchester points out, the plural of anecdote is not data, but the Government itself seems happy to gamble its future on the prospect of enough voters preferring No Deal to further extension or remain.

How did we get here? How has enthusiasm for No Deal increased even as its implications have become clearer and graver? Why is leaving the EU no longer presented as the means for attaining a Great British future, but an end sufficient in itself? Because 'Brexit Do or Die' reduces every facet of our nation's most pressing political question to one simple binary: do you believe Britain is capable of enacting Brexit?

If you do, then every No Deal hardship can be reframed as challenge or sacrifice. If not, wouldn't that mean we were precisely the nation some always feared? Wouldn't a Britain unable to leave the EU be exposed as a small and weak nation, humiliated and impotent? How could we avoid the realisation that the project meant to reclaim and demonstrate national sovereignty had ultimately revealed the opposite? How could we even think of Britain in the same way if its constituent parts - Northern Ireland's politics, Scotland's courts - had prevented the departure of the UK as a whole?

the plural of anecdote is not data

Having chosen Brexit, therefore, we now seek to leave solely to prove to ourselves that we can leave. The cost no longer matters. We just need to 'get Brexit done', to find some way of avoiding the crushing realisation that we are not the nation we thought we were.

In a few short weeks, the Johnson government has turned Brexit into a trap, one which reveals the very fears that made some chose it in the first place. Those fears are now being used to realise the sort of Brexit that no majority would ever endorse and, come an election, perhaps to win the sort of Westminster majority that Theresa May could only dream of.

In a few short years, Brexit has decayed from being the great political catalyst of our times to a national drain on our collective forbearance, the frustration and despair of which is best summed up by this Government's own pathetic rallying cry, 'Get Brexit Done.'

In place of hope and transformation, we have a political project with no goal but its own fulfilment and no point but its own completion. In a cruelly satisfying twist, it turns out that Brexit meant Brexit after all.

Laurence Peacock

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Photo by James Claffey (Unsplash)

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