What exactly, were they expecting?
Two years after the Brexit vote Theresa May has agreed a deal with the EU that she can put before Parliament. The people who pushed the hardest for Brexit absolutely hate it and will almost certainly scupper it, meaning leaving will become a step into the abyss. May’s critics complain that she hasn’t stood up to the EU but look at what she had to work with.
Brexit was never a clearly thought out proposal, it was a slogan. The Brexiteers seized their once in a lifetime opportunity and ran a strong campaign with a clear, powerful narrative. Whilst the Remain camp struggled to articulate the benefits of staying in what is an extremely complex and far from perfect international alliance, the Leave camp presented a simple opportunity to take back control.
‘Take back control’ sounds great and it had great resonance in the disaffected Brexit heartlands, which had ironically often received huge EU investment. If your prospects are bleak it’s tempting to blame it all on immigrants and EU bureaucrats, especially if there’s a shiny red bus full of Cabinet ministers touring the country offering £350 million a week for the NHS. The truth is that the idea of a nation having total control is a myth from a bygone colonial era. No nation has full control. The EU has had some control over us. So has the USA. So have Google and Facebook. No country has full control. In the real world we have to find ways to operate in a world of global trade that requires international co-operation. Is it possible to do this outside of the EU? I’m sure it is but it’s darn complicated, may leave us massively disadvantaged and none of the Brexiteers ever bothered to work up a detailed proposal. It adds up to what Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo, described as a ‘false prospectus’, when he fell on his own ministerial sword a couple of weeks ago.
Theresa May had to turn a Brexit mandate, based on sloganeering, into a thorough and coherent policy for future European relations that she could get agreed with 27 other countries. The art of negotiation is by definition compromise and she hardly had a strong hand to play.
I don’t see Boris Johnson, David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the like proffering a 500 page alternative. It’s easy for them to propose a variation of the deal with Canada – it’s also easy for the EU negotiators to respond – ‘But you’re not Canada’.
For all of Theresa’s failings this mess is not of her making. It’s easy to get angry when what we expect doesn’t come to pass. What we need to question is what we expected and why. Sometimes we need to be honest enough to reflect and realise that we have been working with a set of false expectations.
In the case of Brexit, it feels a bit like the old days when English footballers would be photographed wrapped in the St George’s flag before a big match as if that afforded them some sense of national superiority. Why do we do we think we are better than the nations in the EU? Do we think we have some kind of divine right to get our own way?
When I think of false expectations I think about the way I approached my boy getting poorly a few years back. It may seem a long way removed from the political machinations of Brexit but this question of expectations is the common thread.
Ben got cancer and I expected him to get better, beyond all that the docs could do, I believed that God would ensure he got healed. Sadly that’s not what happened.
After he died, I had to pick through the rubble of my expectations – the belief that God would make everything alright. I came to realise that wasn’t what God had ever promised. He’d promised he’d be with us and he has been but we’ve had to face up to the fact that life is hard and bad things happen. He doesn’t remove this, he makes it possible to come through and live again.
Questioning your expectations includes a willingness to admit that the way you’ve seen things is wrong. I don’t beat myself up about the past but these days I don’t expect tidy solutions to life’s challenges. My theology has changed.
What of Brexit? Could it not be that the problem is not the deal but the premise itself – certainly the premise that there is an easy way out? Can we be honest that we live in an interdependent globalised world and we need arrangements that make sense of that?
If, as seems likely, we cannot agree a deal with the EU can we not be grown up enough to look at this again? I know how painful it is to have your dreams dashed. I also know that when you stop and reflect, there is always a way forward.