In her great book of essays The Givenness of Things Marilynne Robinson makes an observation that struck me:

Whenever there is talk of decline – as in fact there always is – the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? (Fear, p. 125)

This is the question that haunts the Brexit debate – one in which I am involved, but one that has left me disturbed for reasons I have been trying to work out. I alluded to some of these in my speech in the House of Lords during the EU (Withdrawal) Bill debate Second Reading in February 2018. But, five minutes wasn’t long enough to tease out some of the deeper disturbance.

What Robinson points us to is perhaps the most fundamental feature of the whole debate in the UK since we entered the EEC in the first place: the lack of honesty in appraising the enterprise, characterised by language and rhetoric that assumes much but owns up to little. The costs and benefits of EU membership have not been the subject of honest appraisal, but have been turned into selective ideological footballs suitable only for a damned good kicking.

When during the 2016 referendum the red bus promised £350 million coming back to the NHS, what was not explained was what it paid for: easy travel, common nuclear standards, equivalence of qualifications, to name but three. The polarisation stated incontrovertibly that we paid everything and received nothing other than empty bureaucracy and millions of immigrant people we are not supposed to like.

Equally, after forty years of silence in articulating the benefits (as well as costs) of EU membership, so-called ‘Project Fear’ failed to explain honestly some of the challenges and costs of EU membership. Membership of any group always and inevitably brings compromises and costs as well as benefits; but, these became submerged under the partisan polarisations of politics and dramatic rhetoric.

This lack of honesty in the popular sphere is obvious in hindsight, but this does not help us now. Yet, the lack of honesty persists. We seem to be living in a phoney war in an echo chamber, being compelled to jump fully into one camp rather than the other. And the rhetoric continues to pretend that virtue lies comprehensively and only in one camp – usually the one that satisfies my unarticulated and sometimes ill-informed political prejudices. It feels a bit like the sort of divorce proceedings in which the children have to choose between one completely evil and one uncompromisingly virtuous parent.

The Prime Minister’s speech at the Mansion House on Friday 2 March promised to be honest about the UK’s vision for the future post-Brexit. It promised to lay out a vision around which different sides could coalesce and move forward. What it offered was a statement of the obvious (we are not going to get all we want; negotiations are not going to be easy; etc.) and nothing concrete. It was a speech that could have been written a year ago – the cake-consumption metaphor goes back well before even that. Perhaps the reason it has proved so remarkably uncontroversial is simply that it said nothing new and, in stating the obvious, could hardly be disagreed with.

The problem, again, is language. Two things struck me in the speech: (a) we now assume a presidential polity in which the Prime Minister gets away with speaking solely in the first person singular: “I…”, “my vision”, etc. There is no pretence that there is (or can be?) any collective vision or strategy. How did this personalisation come about? One response might be to say that such language allows government ministers to opt out or in as they please (or find it politically convenient); another might be that it distances Parliament from the need for a collective vision. (b) There was plenty of assertion about “what I want”, but little recognition that the power to get it lies not in our own hands, but also in those of our EU partners.

This language has dogged the whole Brexit business from even before the referendum. Mere assertion escaped any need for argument. Facts became “alternative truths”, depending on one’s position. “We will” avoided the complexities of “we might”. Objections to projections were labelled “treacherous” or “scaremongering” – both sidestepping the need to respond to the case itself. Optimism is simply not enough to survive a potentially negative reality; pessimism is inadequate as a tool for creatively and positively shaping a future that might begin from a hard and unwanted place.

One of the points of consensus I have discerned through many conversations in Parliament – with those of all sides, including the convinced, the dubious, the fearful, the excited, the alarmed, and the deeply depressed – is that the government needs now to be honest with ‘The People’, giving substance to what might be gained by Brexit and what will be lost. The cost is no reason in itself to fear the future, but the cost should be reckoned, set out clearly, and understood. If the benefits will outweigh the costs, then let us see them and then walk into this future with our eyes wide open. Equally, those who see only costs must also set out what they can offer if and when what they warn against actually happens.

Any reading of history tells us that the future is shaped by those who choose to shape it, taking seriously those dynamics over which it does and does not have control. If we leave the EU and face an acknowledged weakening of the UK economy (as well as other non-economic deficits), then we shall over time re-align and re-build. But, the crucial point is that this will be more positive and hopeful only if ‘The People’ (in whose interests this is all being done, apparently – although, given their financial security, none of those advocates in government will suffer much discomfort in contrast with the poorer people and communities of our islands) are clear about the costs as well as the benefits.

I can understand an argument that puts economic distress as a worthwhile consequence of a decision that brings wider and deeper and worthwhile human or social benefits. I cannot understand or accept an argument that pretends and obfuscates and obscures reality. The Prime Minister’s speech acknowledged for the first time that the cake cannot simultaneously be both had and eaten (although the cherries remain stubbornly pickable, apparently); it seemed to identify the cake purely with the economy and trade. It was a statement of faith that once again avoided content.

In Marilynne Robinson’s phrase, what and where is the “meaningful standard of change”?