The art of the possible
Today is Brexit day. At 11pm this evening Big Ben will still not chime, and the moment will pass without great fanfare. But it will nevertheless mark a hugely historic and important point in the history of the UK.
Given that I voted remain and continue to believe that we’re doing the wrong thing by leaving the European Union, I’m not particularly enthused about today. But Remain lost the argument, and Brexit is the new reality. Remainers — as people like me became known — can continue to bleat and wail. Or we can adapt to this new reality. It’s the only show at the fairground, and nothing new or exciting is going to show up unless and until Remainers realise that.
Politics is the art of the possible, said Bismarck. The Leavers — as they became known — saw what was possible and, with laser-like focus, they ground out this new reality over time by telling great stories. Because that’s the other thing about politics: it’s about telling great stories, and that’s nothing new.
Remainers like me had no imagination, and failed to see what was possible from the other side. The stories we Remainers told were stale, predictable, and lacking any resonance whatsoever. In fact they were barely even stories; often little more was offered than bland, staccato stats with no central thread, laced at their worst with a moralistic preaching tone of shameful proportions.
Meanwhile, the party who should have been there to protect the working classes from any right-wing offensive was too busy admiring its own colon to do what it entirely exists to do. The Labour Party was led, at this most crucial point in our history, by people who didn’t understand the importance of story telling, and who were pre-occupied with delivering the impossible.
Because here’s the key point of Bismarck’s famous quote: politics isn’t merely about what’s best, or what’s simply the moral thing to do. That’s the work of the philosopher and the ethicist. We can all proselytise our confident visions of the world, free from the burdens of reality. But Bismarck was remarking on the fact that politics is hard and, vitally, it’s about what you can actually get done.
The Labour Party has spent the past five years seeking to deliver not only an impossible story, but a story that most people in this country would never like to see them get done in the first place. It has been entirely, and recklessly, self-indulgent and when reality bit they never came close to delivering their vision, because people didn’t believe in it. The UK is not a left-wing utopia, and doesn’t want to be led in that direction.
Labour under Corbyn was stolen from its heartlands and delivered into the hands of a socially liberal, middle-class left-wing idealist faction — some of which has dangerously far-left tendencies — leaving those heartlands without their natural representation, and leaving the Labour Party a hollow shell as a result.
None of which is to say that I suddenly believe the Leavers got it all right, or that the means to this end were all justifiable. They weren’t. Much of what happened was regrettable and has sown some seeds we all might come to regret. Not necessarily — most of the doomsday scenarios will remain safely in the imaginations of those who create them — but possibly so. There has become a new level of obsession in UK politics with how things play, rather than what things mean, and that’s regrettable too. But even with that in mind, Leavers used their imagination and without any shadow of doubt, they told great stories. Nigel Farage did a lot of heavy lifting, and moved reality in this country like few others ever have. He’s an incredibly effective politician because he sees what is possible and tells those great stories.
Boris Johnson took that reality and ran with it, when finally he took the reins last summer, to deliver the Brexit that was possible. While people like me were busy pointing out the flaws and inconsistencies in that particular version of Brexit, the team behind Boris Johnson were streets ahead, realising that what counted was not the detail, or the purity, but the possible. What they could get done.
And that, all too briefly, is how we got here today. Jeremy Corbyn was the hapless midwife, Nigel Farage the father, and Boris Johnson the one left holding the Brexit baby.
But we all contributed, and in our little ways and different perspectives this is the reality we all made. Some are happy about today, and they have every right to be. I don’t deny anyone a drink and a party to celebrate their success. Some are sad, and they have every right to be. I don’t deny anyone a drink of commiseration in the darker hours tonight.
But here we are. Still (for now) the United Kingdom. Still trying to work out that ancient and complicated relationship with our closest neighbours across the seas. And still all needing one another to make the best future for ourselves and our families.
Brexit was possible, and here we are. All kinds of things are possible next, and they will be created and delivered in future by those who can tell the best stories. That future is in all our hands.
Leave and Remain are gone. Now it’s only us, and together we have to tell better stories.
Somebody will. Imagine what’s possible.