What can Chinese philosophical text written more than two thousand years ago tell us about how to understand the politics of Brexit? As the debate about Brexit shifts, and as we begin to see Brexiters claiming that its increasingly obvious failure is down to ministers no longer being true Brexit believers, one has to ask whether Brexit is like the Tao – the Brexit that can be delivered is not the true Brexit.
Writing in around 400 BCE, Chinese philosopher Lao Tze began his Tao Te Ching – one of the great religious and philosophical texts – with his famous non-definition of the Way or the lifeforce: that the Way, the Tao, that can be defined is not the true Tao.
Is part of the essence of Brexit that it likewise cannot be defined, let alone delivered? That it somehow sits outside the rules of conventional political discourse? And, as a result, that the expectations of Brexiters can never be met, and consequently that ‘making Brexit work’ is doomed to failure?
Brexit can be neither defined, nor delivered
At heart, Brexit was always about far more than leaving the EU. It was one battle – a hugely important one – in a much wider political war; part of a political project based on nationalist populism. To its political advocates, it was always a means rather than an end.
But its real potency lay elsewhere, in the way the referendum gave people – often those who felt that the political system excluded and ignored their interests – a sense of agency. Hence the power of the slogan ‘take back control’; not taking control, but taking back control.
Politics, especially within the UK’s Westminster system, is usually something that is done to, rather than by, people. Brexit breaks that mould, by giving people that sense of agency – an agency that they felt they no longer had – and giving them control over a world that they felt had become strange and hostile.
In other words: for many of those who voted leave, Brexit is above all a state of mind. It is something that is felt.
The subjectivity of Brexit
This means that for those supporters, Brexit is not a transactional issue. Its critics can, and do, produce the facts and figures that show it has done enormous economic damage. But these are, for true Brexit believers, beside the point because – ultimately – Brexit is subjective. It makes them feel good about themselves.
It’s a key reason why the People’s Vote campaign failed. Remainers never really appreciated how much we looked like people who were trying to recover their privileges from the upstarts.
It’s also why we need to be very careful before dismissing Brexiters who claim they knew what they voted for. Yes, at an objective level, of course, they didn’t. The Brexit we have is the result of political decisions taken by British politicians after the referendum was over – most notably Theresa May’s decision that we would be outside the single market and customs union. But at a subjective level, Brexiters succeeded in doing something rather different – by defining the political debate. The detail is incidental.
And in that subjectivity lies both Brexit’s strength and its weakness. It was its strength when Vote Leave campaigners wanted to harness the myriad discontents and exclusions in contemporary British society and give them form as the desire to take back control. Its weakness because, as soon as you try to deliver it, or to ‘make it work’ it disappears.
The Brexit illusion
The ultimate crime of the Brexit politicians is their dishonesty. They promoted the illusion of agency, in order to deny the reality – to secure their own transactional ends. But even once the lie is exposed, the illusion persists. People double down on it because politically it is all they have.
This is why populism is so pernicious, and why we cannot assume that the obvious impacts of Brexit – the soaring prices, the empty shelves, even the airport queues – will turn people against it. Least of all when its privileging of feeling over fact has been licensed by politicians who have told them that we have had enough of experts.
The Tao of Brexit, then, lies in its slipperiness as a concept and subjectivity. And this makes opposing it extremely difficult; least of all when there is so little appetite among mainstream politicians to craft alternative narratives.
But equally, it means that those who seek to ‘make Brexit work’ will never succeed. You cannot promise people unicorns and then expect them to thank you when the unicorns fail to materialise. You do not fight illusion with more illusion. It’s why populist politics always, in the end, devours its authors. Its very subjectivity turns the idea of Brexit – the loose bundle of populisms that one might call ‘Brexitism’ – into a political shapeshifter, which is why democratic politics needs to confront it, not appease it.
Trust people with the truth
We need to return to a political discourse that is honest, rationally rooted and empirical. In a society where the perception is that politicians are dishonest. It starts with honesty; it means giving people a different kind of agency, one that starts with the empowerment of trusting them with honest truths rather than convenient lies. You do not win voters’ trust by patronising them, or corralling them behind an imaginary ‘red wall’. The idea that you can win by playing a ‘long game’ based on avoiding those uncomfortable truths is part of the problem, not the solution.
It means, above all, asking the questions of why people feel they need to look to the past to feel comfortable; of listening, engaging, and understanding that politics is something that needs to be done with and by people, not to them. It means understanding that the rise of the Tao of Brexit is rooted in long-term causes that need to be addressed, most notably austerity and the end of material optimism. It requires a politics of radical honesty, one that advocates and renews democratic processes so that people no longer feel excluded from it, and that change is something to fear.
It requires, above all, a politics that is fearless about trusting people with the truth. And we seem as far away from that as ever.