I suppose that most of us expect people with whom we interact to be reliable and worthy of our trust. Even if we don’t know them, we generally assume that they will do what they say they will do, they will be punctual, and they will behave honestly. We tend to get upset with anyone who makes a habit of breaking this unwritten code of conduct and are likely to avoid doing future business with them. Yet, interestingly, we may happily make exceptions for highly creative individuals such as artists or intellectuals, at least on matters of punctuality. Perhaps this is a tacit acknowledgement of a kind of innate relationship between creativity and lack of self-discipline!
Worryingly, we seem to have arrived at such a low respect for politicians in general that we no longer even expect all of them to behave honestly. We let them get away with the most awful lies and unfulfilled promises, even when we realise that these could ultimately harm us.
Just as we value reliability in individuals, most of us seek a measure of certainty in our own lives. We accept that we can’t tame the weather, prevent volcanoes from erupting, or escape unharmed from an accident: if we want some protection from such risks we can take out insurance. We aspire to the certainty of having a comfortable home in safe surroundings, enjoying generally good health, earning a decent living from a satisfying job, and having a happy family life and a bunch of trusted friends.
Perhaps, however, because peace now seems to be taken for granted, we may not consciously value it highly unless we reflect on how the double descent into war in Europe during our parents’ generation blighted their lives. I and my wife, now in our mid-seventies, strongly believe that the greatest achievement of European institutions in our time has been to nurture peace in our war-prone continent: we are dismayed by any moves that could weaken mutual trust between us and our neighbouring nations.
Let me suggest that the biggest problem of the Brexit process and of the incompetence with which the British government – as well as the opposition – is handling it is that it is gnawing away at these certainties.
This growing climate of uncertainty creates a state of limbo that affects us as individuals and families, raising anxieties, creating new tensions between friends and family members and making us think twice before taking important decisions. These worries are made all the worse by the sharp fall in spending power that has already started and by a visible deterioration in the quality of public services. Foreigners living and working in Britain face a particularly high level of uncertainty about their futures in our country which has been accentuated by the deliberate creation by our Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary of a “hostile environment” towards outsiders who now face the overhanging threat of arbitrary deportation or prolonged detention in prison-like conditions without due judicial process.
Equally seriously, even two years after the referendum, we have no idea of the eventual outcome of the process and so any meaningful forward planning by businesses and government departments has become impossible. As long as there is no clear long-term view of our future relationship with Europe, there is no point in working out how it will operate in practical terms. This means that, as long as any Brexit, hard or soft is pursued, we will have to face many more unsettling years.
This climate of uncertainty and the slowing down of individual and corporate decision-making is already taking its toll, with Britain’s economic growth as measured by GDP dropping from top to bottom of the European league. How can any UK-based company that does business with Europe commit itself to make new investments in Britain when it watches a divided cabinet go round in endless circles discussing unfeasible new customs arrangements with Europe? Which farmer will expand her acreage under strawberries if she can’t be sure to be able to hire workers to harvest them? How can institutions involved in collaborative scientific research in the Region commit themselves to continuing their engagement if they don’t know what Britain’s future relationship with European research bodies will look like?
The list of people and institutions affected by these extreme uncertainties is never-ending. We can all point to our own pet examples of distress!
The situation, however, has been made all the worse by the notorious unreliability of the individuals who are the self-appointed leaders of the Brexit process: they seem to be motivated more by personal ambition and whim rather than any concern either for our well-being or even for the continued integrity of the United Kingdom. How can our government reasonably expect us to follow and support it, when, after two years, it still hasn’t achieved an internal consensus on a negotiating strategy? And how can Mrs May have the effrontery to call on us to trust her to act faithfully in the people’s interest when Bojo, Moggins, Gove and Davis clearly don’t trust each other or their boss one inch and when, even by politicians’ standards, they are so economical with the truth?
The greatest danger to Britain is that the Brexiteers and their indecisive Prime Minister will simply prolong the uncertainties for several more years. For each extra day on which they pursue their blatantly unattainable aspirations, the economy shrinks a little further and Britain’s standing in the world diminishes.
Instead, we urgently need a government that is prepared to admit that it has been barking up the wrong tree for the past two years and to recognise that, once out of the EU, it will not be possible for our country to engineer a future agreement that allows us to “have our cake and eat it”. The time has come for Mrs May to end this damaging period of uncertainty, bravely acknowledging that all the evidence accumulated over the past 24 months suggests that it is in our interests to remain as full EU members. If she won’t do this of her own free will, let us call en masse for a People’s Vote that will determine the shape of our future relationship with Europe.
Hopefully common sense will then prevail and we can regain our accustomed composure. And surely we should hold the Brexiteers to account for the massive harm that they have caused to our country and to the lives of so many individuals.