It’s a historical truism that seemingly momentous political, social and technological shifts are always greeted with a mix of hysteria and euphoria. From the invention of television to the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the election of President Obama to the election of President Trump, the single common message from all sides is ‘life as we know it is over’. It could be the promised land, such as when American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of the Cold War the “end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”; or when Obama led ecstatic crowds in chanting “yes we can”. Or it could mark the beginnings of a descent into hell, such as when rock n roll was widely branded by White Christian America “the Devil’s Music”, or when journalist Carol Cadwhalladr accused big tech companies of being “the handmaidens to authoritarianism that is on the rise all across the world”.
And so it was with Brexit. For the best part of four years our airwaves and columns have been awash with predictions of meltdown or renaissance, chaos or control. Yet what is perhaps most remarkable in all this, as with the most widely touted epochal junctures in recent times, is just how little has and is likely to actually change. For the best part of a year, the UK will remain subject to broadly the very same rules, regulations and laws as that which comes with full membership of the European Union. Beyond that, some uncertainty remains but it seems perfectly plausible (and likely) that with the inevitable fading of the change hysteria, Britain’s long-term relationship with the EU will be more about continuity than disruption.
Of course, even in the transition period some will inevitably lose and others might gain, as they have since the referendum vote in 2016. Both sides will no doubt claim some vindication as Brexit fatigue sets in and the national conversation moves on. But there will be no epic catastrophe as remainers forewarned and no realisation of the nostalgic-tinged utopia on which the leave campaign was based. From this vantage point, it’s hard to know who to feel more sorry for: the flag-waiving Farage and his Brexit Party MEPs celebrating the ratification of a deal they emphatically declared “not Brexit” barely three months ago, or remain pundits weeping for their newly discovered and now floundering sense of “being European”.
But the real danger that both fail so profoundly to grasp is the dawning reality of un-change. The announcement of sudden cuts to government departmental budgets just four weeks into Johnson’s new government signalling an end only to the promises of ending austerity; the routine failure of Davos to produce anything that will address the climate emergency beyond vacuous rhetoric; the backing of a Middle East ‘peace’ plan that looks set to end altogether any prospect of a peaceful two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians; and the Prime Minister’s meeting with Rupert Murdoch on the day he called the recent election signalling perhaps above all the business-as-usual continuum in Britain’s post Brexit power structure.
And yet, just two and a half years ago, Britain did come closer to the brink of real social change than perhaps any time in its modern history. A Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn came within a hair’s breadth of power against all odds and common sense predictions, promising a root and branch reversal of not just the disastrous and extremist austerity economics unleashed by the preceding government, but a genuine break with a western imperialist and neoliberal order to which Thatcher and her forbears repeatedly claimed “there is no alternative”. Little wonder then, that aside from espousing their illusion of imminent and drastic change, the most vociferous remain and leave critics united in their efforts to delegitimise what was always the real promise of change, and one for which the 2017 election threatened an emergent consensus, backed by leading economic experts.
As the dust settles on four years of unprecedented political turmoil, one thing is becoming clear: the ideological function of the great Brexit distraction was to thwart any real disruption to the established order.