There are some events that traumatise a country. Some countries are unlucky enough to experience dozens of national disasters, making trauma part of their cultural make up. This true of Ireland, Hungary, Germany and Russia to mention just a few. But not Great Britain. The UK has had its fair share of crises – the Norman invasion, the Blitz, the Civil War – but the British are not a people to wallow in their failures.
Even when the country’s standing has been seriously damaged, as it was after the Suez Crisis or the Winter of Discontent, Britain has pulled itself out of its funk. The Blitz spirit pre-dates the Blitz. But it’s starting to look as though this time, it might be different. Brexit might be one catastrophe British pluck can’t weather.
Both sides of the debate are angry, weary and increasingly despondent about their country’s future. Brexit supporters feel betrayed and trapped in an organisation many of them can’t stand. Many are also confused about the path ahead, thanks to nearly three years of mixed messages and backsliding from prominent Brexiteers.
Remain supporters, many still lukewarm on the EU, see a country barrelling towards a cliff edge with no soft landing in sight. The fact that Labour is still behind the Conservatives in most polls shows just how bad the situation is. The government has failed, is failing and will fail, yet the opposition has little chance of beating them in a general election.
Is it any wonder that a depressive mood has swept the nation when foreign newspapers talk openly about the UK’s collapse? The twin threats of Scottish independence and Irish unity are probably still remote, but they’ve seeped into the national conversation. If the UK is really heading for the ash heap of history, why bother hoping for a better tomorrow?
Sure, some Brexiteers remain chipper. Boris Johnson’s columns still point the way to the Promised Land and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s laconic tones are unchanged. How’s Nigel Farage doing, though? Brexit’s spirit animal is less than sanguine about his life’s work. The less said about Remainer optimism, the better.
When Gerald Ford was inaugurated as President of the United States in 1974, that country was experiencing an existential crisis. Richard Nixon, a paranoid crook, had become the first president to ever resign in disgrace. Many Americans had never felt more disenchanted and unsure about their country’s future.
“My fellow Americans,” Ford said. “Our long national nightmare is over.” It was far from over, and Ford probably knew that. Ultimately, he would pardon Nixon in attempt to draw a line under that scandalous period in US history. But the so-called ‘malaise’ in American public life lasted for the rest of the decade and led to the disruptive cultural earthquake that was Ronald Reagan.
The comparison is instructive, but limited. Watergate was bad, Brexit is orders of magnitude worse. Nixon’s ouster didn’t damage the economy, the stock market barely blinked, and America’s dented reputation didn’t make anyone poorer, lead to food shortages or destroy either major party.
There is one lesson that Britain can take from Watergate, though: sometimes a country has to put the bad things behind it. Nixon’s pardon outraged millions of Americans, but just imagine how a public trial would have affect the already despondent country.
It’s past time for the UK decide: does it want Brexit to dominate its national life for at least the next decade, and probably longer, or does it want to put this whole sorry mess behind it?
There are 10 days until exit day. Politics are paralysed. The country is in a crisis of its own making. It’s time to wake up from the Brexit nightmare.