Brexit's bland and boring but it could bust people's lives
Britain's decision to leave the European Union has poisoned its politics. Journalists must now report onthe progress of the poison.
I've recently been struck by how much following British politics reminds me of watching Lost, the long-running TV series from the early 2000s. The show was about a group of plane-crash survivors and was built on a bewildering structure of flashbacks, flash-forwards and, by Season 6, flash-sideways. It featured mysterious number sequences, a "smoke monster" and constant references to the philosophers of the early Enlightenment, the significance of which you later had to trawl internet discussion forums to understand.
The tone was one of desperate urgency, and every episode ended on a cliffhanger.
There were about 400 important characters. If you missed a week, it was almost impossible to catch up, but somehow nothing really changed throughout the show's 121 episodes. Each involved the same group of people abandoned on an island, trying to think their way out of the mistake their pilot had made in Episode 1.
Writing about Brexit, for a journalist, is simultaneously frenetic, heady and dull. The dial fluctuates crazily, but by the end of the day it is often in the same place it was at the start. "It's an endless stream of anticlimax," a reporter told me. "Almost every day promises to be a grand, important day in our country's history, but most of them come to nothing." The public, meanwhile, grows increasingly bored and uninterested in us, ever more ready to turn the page or change the channel. A version of this dynamic has been in place for more than two years now, but within the last week it reached new heights.
Last week started out promisingly enough for journalists hoping for something new to write about. It was the week, in theory, that Parliament was finally going to vote yes or no on a withdrawal agreement from the European Union, a deal 20 months in the making, the negotiations over which have been followed in painstaking detail.
The moment of drama approached, and vanished. Seeing that her deal was headed for near certain doom, UK Prime Minister Theresa May stopped the vote at the last minute. The result? She will head back to Europe, for yet more negotiations, to continue tweaking around the edges.
But the vacillations were not yet over: The next day, recognising this moment of weakness, the prime minister's critics triggered a vote of no confidence in her leadership. Journalists pulled all-nighters and spent drinks events checking their phones (the current chaos has clashed with Christmas party season). "Occasionally you'd hear someone shout "It's on!" and you'd have to find the nearest official to check what was happening," one political reporter said. "Most of us are eating so many sweets it's making us ill."
The upshot was another anticlimax. May survived, struggling on, still disliked by politicians who want a different kind of deal with the EU, still disliked by those who don't want to leave it at all, and still too weak to bat down either side.
Commentators found themselves reaching, once again, for the prime minister's own favourite saying: "Nothing has changed."
This odd mix of frenzy and listlessness is fed further by a sort of sensory overload.
There is a daily torrent of extraordinary stories, but they seem not to mean as much as they used to. (Another familiar phrase from commentators is "but this is the new normal, I guess.") Can a politician really suggest using treason laws against people who show extreme EU loyalty? Apparently so. Should the prime minister resign if, say, more than a third of her party members vote that they have no confidence in her? Not anymore. Not in 2018. There are at once a thousand crazy stories, and just the one: Brexit. Britain's decision to leave the European Union has poisoned its politics. Journalists must now report on the progress of the poison - the jaundice, the seizures, the system failure - but these are symptoms only. They are all telling us the same story.
Then, too, there is the battle to make news interesting when it features jargon such as "customs union," "backstop" and "free trade agreement." Brexit is, at its heart, a story about the technical details of trade policy. It is a debate, wrapped in cloying melodrama, over whether a particular land border should be used to check the quality of imported pork. You could imagine a director like Christopher Nolan, perhaps, making it work: The prime minister, at dawn, covering a map of Ireland with scrawled equations; the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and the former Brexit secretary David Davis dashing through cobbled streets to Parliament after they simultaneously realise - too late! - that Britain has promised the EU there will be no hard Irish border. But Britain's news providers find their audiences tend to switch off when they hear a phrase like "transition period" or "joint interpretative instrument": A recent survey found boredom with news about Brexit to be one of the rare opinions uniting the country.
If this is frustrating for those covering Brexit, it is a boon for those trying to implement it. In fact, Brexit boredom recently became a key part of the prime minister's strategy for selling her deal: "The British public want Brexit to be settled," she told members of Parliament, and later, at a news conference in Brussels: "The British people don't want to spend any more time arguing about Brexit. They want a good deal done that fulfills the vote and allows us to come together again as a country."
But Brexit is the most important event facing the country in recent history. That people are bored with it must not be used as a political weapon to push through policies not in their interest. And it must not push the story off the news agenda, either. News about Brexit is both dull and terrifying - an awful mixture, and one that, for now, we'll all just have to put up with.
Martha Gill is a political journalist living in London