“I’ve got my country back,” said the proprietor of the garden shop.
There was no triumph in it, just a quiet satisfaction. Outside, on the pavement, the sun smiled down on his zinnias and verbena. He sat at a small overloaded desk in a narrow space, doing his paperwork. I thought he was probably a pretty good businessman.
I said, “You never lost it.” It was not what I wanted to say, but I wasn’t there to say what I wanted to say. In any case, although I was in his shop by invitation, I was supposed to be out on the pavement with the zinnias.
“I voted to join Europe in 1975,” he said.
“So did I.”
“I voted to join a trading bloc.”
The conversation opened at once into a dozen forking paths, any of which might be taken.
“That isn’t an argument,” I said, “for leaving it when – ”
“All those laws.”
“You mean the regulations?”
“Over-ruling our Government. Telling us what to do.”
“The regulations are protective,” I said. I thought of the list I’d made a few weeks previously for a blog post: if I’d had it with me, I would have placed it under his nose. Clean air, workplace rights, safety of roll-on roll-off ferries, axle weight of lorries, standards for vehicle brakes and lighting, lead-free petrol, food safety, chemical pollution, consumer protection, climate change… it’s quite a list. It’s probably just as well I didn’t have it with me.
“Unelected officials,” he said.
Brexit becomes a labyrinth at the drop of a hat.
“Can you tell me,” I asked him, “one thing those regulations stopped you doing that you wanted to do?”
He couldn’t. He produced something nonsensical about square bananas. He knew it was nonsensical and he was smiling.
I asked him what else, given that square bananas were a fantasy of Boris Johnson’s.
He still couldn’t think of anything else but it didn’t matter. He was very pleased that we could make our own trade deals now. We would do it within two years. There was no problem: countries would be happy to sign up with us.
“People who negotiate trade deals,” I said, “say that it will take ten years. Minimum.”
“No, no, no.” He waved it away.
I referred to the considerably more than two years it had taken Greenland to negotiate a deal that only concerned fish.
He didn’t want to talk about deals with the EU. He put aside his sheaf of papers and became lyrical. “Australia. New Zealand. The Commonwealth we abandoned!”
“Yes,” I said.
“For years they fed and clothed us. We ditched them so we could get into Europe.”
It was true. Europe was on the doorstep and we had needed a market close to home. We could have behaved better. I admitted as much.
He wasn’t interested in the reasons for that decision or how it could have been better managed. He was suddenly an idealist. A romantic. It lies just under the skin of many Leavers.
I was quite enjoying the conversation but I had been in there too long. I thanked him for his time and courtesy, and left the shop.
I returned to my post between the Britain for Europe stall and the zinnias. On the stall, the pile of blue and yellow badges had diminished and the signatures on the sign-up sheets for supporters had multiplied. That was encouraging. A woman with a girl of about ten came by; the girl was her niece and had a French mother. The girl smiled proudly. I gave her a badge saying “EU citizen.”
An Iranian engineer who had lived in Britain for 30 years stopped and said he thought what we were doing on the pavement was honourable. I was struck by this word, which is now hardly ever uttered. He said the way politics were discussed here reminded him of Iran. He thought it was good to feel strongly about politics, but not good to feel too strongly.
Five Leavers in t-shirts went by in a bunch and said they were absolutely fine with Brexit, thank you. A middle-aged German, resident here for most of her life, was very unhappy with it. An elderly lady who had recently moved to the area from London confessed to extreme confusion about who was standing where and for what in which election, and a frail-looking pair, also rather elderly, gazed at the blue ground of the EU flag and said in fright, “It’s not the Conservatives, is it?”
It was shortly after this that an enraged woman hurtled out of a nearby café and said she hoped “that flag” would not be on display for much longer.
I thought, that evening, that Theresa May should leave her minders behind and get out on to the pavements. She might then stop pontificating about how the country is coming together and realise that there is a chasm running down the centre of it, through every city and down every street.
How will this chasm be bridged? It is not even a chasm. Quite literally, Leavers and Remainers do not inhabit the same mental universe. I had not dented the certainty of the garden shop proprietor, not because it was based on facts I had been unable to challenge, but precisely because it was based on nothing but itself. It moved seamlessly in a circle from one focus to the next, each blending into the succeeding one, division and therefore analysis being impossible because it was all the same thing.
I am not talking about his intelligence – he was certainly not a stupid man – but the way he was using it. He was employing magical thinking. In magical thinking, everything is connected. Any part invokes, and evokes, the whole. To deny any part should therefore be to threaten the whole, but denial can never succeed because its target is constantly shifting – from country to sovereignty to accountability to bananas to loyalty towards old friends. For the same reason, a discredited part can be simply dropped, as was the £350 million for the NHS by the Vote Leave campaign, and the waters close over it at once.
Arguments in favour of Brexit are always magical thinking. This is why it is impossible to convince a true Leaver by rational arguments. Magical thinking is not only impervious to both logic and evidence, it is very attractive. It is magical. To convince a magical thinker by means of evidence, you need to pile up the evidence so high it starts to block out the sun. (This will, of course, eventually happen.)
Because the same idea runs all though it, Leavers don’t need to think: everything is there already, as in a revelation. They do not see at all what Remainers see: a complex web in which each element must be separated out and the arguments appropriate to it marshalled. The part is the whole and the whole is the part. There is no thread to follow through the labyrinth, only the divine light that bathes the hills. If they are nice enough, they will feel sorry for us.
This has produced two belief systems that annihilate each other like matter and anti-matter. What one group regards as patriotism is what the other regards as a complete betrayal of country. What to one group is a cause for pride is to the other the cause of deepest shame.
These are not positions between which a bridge can be built. They are positions which, on one side or the other, can only be abandoned in hopeless defeat or held for a lifetime.
I find myself thinking of the American Civil War.
And, yes, it is like that. What I wanted to say, when the garden shop proprietor told me that he had got his country back, was, “And I’ve lost mine.”