The best place to consider what is going on in the UK is somewhere away from the UK. Look through a different lens and listen through distant ears.

So, I am holiday for a week, have read five books (Robert Harris’s Conclave, Sebastian Barry’s excellent and moving Days Without End, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (echoes of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach?), Martin Luther’s Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind – on which I will post later), and am now glancing with incredulity at the Brexit debate back home.

Disclosure first. I voted to remain in the EU. I thought Brexit would be a disaster for the UK, and was not reassured that those leading the Leave campaign had the first idea how to make Brexit actually happen. Maybe it had something to do with the despising of experts, the lack of whom now presents us with something of a challenge? However, 52% of those who voted in the referendum voted to leave. Like it or not, and like the whole farce of a referendum set up (a simple majority to decide a far-reaching constitutional change?) and campaign or not, the outcome committed the UK government to begin a process to leave the EU.

This meant that the country entered a new phase of debate and process – one for which we were totally unprepared and remarkably ill-equipped. Nevertheless, never run away from a challenge, even if the nature of the particular challenge demands levels of competence that do not appear evident.

The thrust of the Brexit argument was that the UK should reclaim its parliamentary sovereignty. Having won the referendum vote, however, parliamentary democracy then fell off the democratic wagon, being seen as a perverse obstruction of the inevitable freedom awaiting us. All arguments about the shaping of actual Brexit are, apparently, simply attempts to thwart the clear will of the British people.

So, what happened to democracy, political argument and parliamentary sovereignty?

Let’s just assume for a moment that the vote had gone the other way, but by the same margin. Then let’s ask some simple questions of the 48% who had lost the argument.

Well, actually, we can’t ask the questions before rejecting the previous sentence. There is a massive difference between losing an argument and losing a vote. It can be argued – without too much brain strain – that the referendum itself threw up more questions than it ever resolved. But, for now, let’s assume for the sake of this game that Remain had won and considered the matter settled once and for all. Here come the questions:

  • Should Leavers have regarded the matter of the UK’s membership of the EU as having been finally settled?
  • Should Leavers have accepted that the argument against EU membership had finally been settled, and then packed up their minds and gone home for a long sleep?
  • Should Leavers have stopped arguing their political points and merely accepted that “the people had spoken” and, therefore, had to be obeyed?
  • Should Leavers have ceased to write newspaper articles and jumped on the BBC every time the Corporation questioned (or gave a voice to those who continued to question) our continuing membership of the EU?

OK, enough for now. But, this is how absurd the situation has become. We might expect the Daily Mail to question the integrity of universities whose academics dare to think for themselves and ask awkward questions; but, we all get it – all the time. If your argument gets wobbly, start going for the person and his/her integrity.

It is the intellectual and moral vacuity of the situation in the UK that is leaving other Europeans with their mouths open in disbelief. Vigorously debate everything, by all means; but suggest that debate should cease once a vote has been recorded, and that is boggling in a modern democracy. (I was going to quote Hegel here, but that will only get me accused of intellectual snobbery again.) Intelligent Europeans – including those known to me who respect the UK’s decision to leave the EU – are simply boggled by the nature of the public discourse in the UK (though never surprised by the Daily Mail and other organs of the press).

OK, some of the responses to ‘threatening’ letters by MPs to universities might be just part of the whole overblown embarrassment we are compelled to endure just now; but if the original arguments for opting out of the EU still hold (restoring parliamentary sovereignty, etc.), then those involved in the democratic process cannot be cut out of the debate or the information required to make intelligent decisions as it proceeds.

Instead of bland assertions that “it’ll be alright on the night”, we need proper, informed argument about the nature, consequences, benefits and costs of the decision made in the referendum. Being slagged off for asking legitimate political, economic and social questions is unworthy of any person or body who wishes to claim democratic credentials.

It is time to grow up.

Two days in and three books down.

I haven’t the first idea what an algorithm looks like or what it does or how it does it. It’s something mathematical and that finishes it for me. But Robert Harris‘s The Fear Index takes an interesting look at the sort of thing that went wrong in the financial and banking sectors: hubristic gamblers ceding too much to computers on the grounds that they can do the sums quicker. The moral questions come thick and fast.

Julian Barnes has written a beautiful novella in The Sense of an Ending. Apart from the narrative itself, which kept me intrigued until the final page, the writing is wonderful. The idea of someone having to re-write their history in the light of information that arises later in life about events that happened when younger is a familiar one to anyone with a pulse. But Barnes ruminates on mortality, relationships, loss and regret. And there is a poignancy running through the narrative that captures the common experience of thinking that life should be better than it usually is:

Just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (p.105)

John Bell needs no introduction. For many people his name is synonymous with the Iona Community. HIn addition to his prolific output of music and hymnody, he broadcasts on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He is never boring – he uses words as if each one matters and finds the language to engage as well as inform. Rooted deeply in the language and content of the Bible, he brings to his speaking and writing a prophetic, reasoned passion that demands an equally biblical response. His second volume of ‘thoughts’ and essays is entitled All That Matters and cannot be read without some response.

One taste reflects back onto the questions raised by Harris and touches on Barnes’ sense of mortality:

The prophet is someone who reads into the present state of society and discerns two things: the consequence of present actions in advance of a crisis, and an alternative reality which is worth striving for. (p.55)

A fourth book, which I am reading a bit at a time, is David Crystal‘s wonderfully informative and entertaining The Story of English in 100 Words. Number 7 is ‘Mead’ and in Old English you could call someone who had drunk too much of it ‘medu-werig’ (mead-weary). From Barnes I learned the word ‘lucubrations’ (look it up – I had to!), but I can see I’m going to get far more use out of ‘medu-werig’.