The debate about Brexit has seemed like a bad dream, writes Philip Allott (University of Cambridge). Government and politicians have made it worse than it need have been. It is not too late to complete the debate calmly and reasonably, for the good of this country and for a wider good.
The bad temper – and the poverty of rationality – in the public debate about Brexit have been attributed to the gravity of the choice before the country. How could we keep calm and carry on, when the future of Britain, Europe and the world is at stake? And, surely, the British people had already decided the matter in 2016? So what was the debate about? Mental confusion was added to existential anxiety. British muddling-through had finally met its match.
Luis Buñuel’s film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) can help us to understand the situation. Six conventional bourgeois friends meet for dinner. During the elegant meal there are repeated bizarre and terrifying intrusions from outside. Do they really happen? Is their dinner a dream? But how can they be sharing a dream? Or is the film itself our shared dreaming, as we watch it?
Surrealism in art allows us to understand that reality is a waking dream, and what we call dreams are, for us, as real as reality. We have our own dreams and our own reality. But we can also share our dreams and share a reality, a reality that we call everyday reality.
Brexit has been waged like a war, a war of words, forcing its way crudely into our everyday reality, challenging our precious civility. We have been a nation under traumatic stress. There must be many people who have hoped that they might wake up and find that it had all been a bad dream. Surely this could not be a great and uniquely experienced nation working out an existential decision.
Governments control our dreaming. We cannot have everything that we want. Politicians, at least in a liberal democracy, try to make our dreams come true. On this occasion, the Government has seemed to be lost in a reality of its own. Politicians have seemed to be possessed by their own private dreams, sharing them reluctantly and ineffectually. Both of them have let the people down, as the leaders we need in a time of extreme confusion and anxiety. We have been mesmerised spectators of a terrible failure of politics. And, adding to the confusion, evidence has been accumulating from around the world that makes people wonder whether liberal democracy is still capable of managing the future of vastly complex societies in an ever more chaotic world.
Some people go further and wonder if something is changing in the nature of the individual and collective human condition which is making us ungovernable in principle, at least in the ways of government that we have inherited from the past.
There have been many times in recorded human history when it has seemed that chaos had finally triumphed over order. We remember the words of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats writing at such a time.
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’ The Second Coming (1919).
Prophets of doom can help to cause the doom that they prophesy. But they can also tell us what we need to do, before it is too late. Is it too late for Britain to wake up from its Brexit nightmare and complete the debate calmly and reasonably, as we have had to do in the face of so many existential threats in the two thousand years of our persistent dreaming and our ever-changing everyday reality?
There is no reason to believe that Britain has lost its capacity to dream good dreams, and to change its reality for the better. In the present situation, we have a rare opportunity to share the making of our reality with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. We should surely have the courage to hope that we might work together to make a better everyday reality for all human beings everywhere, before it is too late. Lost hope can always be found. But, on this occasion, it needs to be found rather soon.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Philip Allott is Professor Emeritus of International Public Law at Cambridge University. His most recent book is Eutopia. New Philosophy and New Law for a Troubled World, first published in 2016 to mark the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia.