A Tale of Two Brexits
Some of the similarities are cosmetic, even comic. The little islanders, the embodiment of ethnic purity (biologically in one case, rhetorically in another), and led by a guy with bright blond hair, are charismatic but unfancied. The odds, past form and the betting markets are stacked against them. Their opponents—admittedly led by a somewhat blander leader who looks increasingly desperate as the contest continues, and whose eventual defeat prompts their immediate resignation in disgrace—still have all the money, all the stars and all the infrastructure behind them. Yet the establishment team underestimates the wild bunch, dismissing them as bumpkins and hornblowers, and their defensive and negative approach is no match for the buccaneering panache of the underdogs. The establishment takes an early lead, but is undone, ironically, by the very manoeuvres it pioneered, as patriotic chants reverberate and other European nations look on, bemused. The odds-on favourites with all the money lose. The little islanders win. Cue a statesmanlike response from the blond guy, resignations and humiliation amongst the big boys, and inevitable bouts of national soul-searching, implosion and panic.
Others, though, have more teeth. When the little guys win, and we were supporting the big guys—which, as Remain-voting England supporter, I was—it can prompt all sorts of reactions: despair, denial, anger, blame. But one certainty in our celebrity-obsessed age is that we will focus on the relatively trivial personalities (Hodgson, Hart, Sterling, Cameron, Corbyn, Johnson) rather than asking the big questions about structure, process, demography and culture which really drive the results. News features and column inches are filled with analysis of who did what wrong when, and what their personal reasons were, and who could have done what if they’d only been asked, but the real explanations for defeat, in football as much as in politics, are often more prosaic. Often as not, they get lost in the circus.
In a more positive vein, both Brexits (and yes, I know England isn’t Britain, but Eexit would just be silly) demonstrate that British people still expect accountability from our leaders. Viewed from the perspective of much of the rest of the world, it is impressive, even astonishing, that both Roy Hodgson and David Cameron resigned within three hours of the results being confirmed; a French journalist friend immediately commented of Hodgson’s resignation that “England’s most powerful value is accountability,” and The Onion expressed their take on Cameron’s in their inimitable fashion: “Americans Confused By System Of Government In Which Leader Would Resign After Making Terrible Decision.” The fact that some British people reading this will be surprised to hear that this is not how the rest of the world does it is, I guess, evidence enough of how imbedded it is. The fish stinks from the head down. (Except in the Labour Party, but that’s for another day.)
The most challenging comparison, however, is the contrast between the public reactions of the two losing sides: contrition versus contempt. The football was not even over before pundits, journalists and the tweeting mass of fans lamented the quality of England’s performance, admitted they had been outplayed, acknowledged the excellence of specific individuals (“Gylfi Sigurdsson was the best player on the pitch”), and congratulated Iceland. What a contrast with the arrogant, sneering dismissal of the referendum result, in which it has been privately assumed, and even publicly argued, that the outcome is wrong, our opponents are liars, the voting public are racists, bigots, fascists, or morons too stupid to know what’s good for them, and the referendum should be held again with a different threshold. In politics, you can always spin the results in your mind to insist that you are right and everyone else is wrong, and many have (although John Harris in The Guardian was an early exception). In football, where everyone is used to accepting binary results, they have a term for people like David Lammy, Owen Jones, Jeremy Hunt and Ken Clarke, and every six year old knows what it is.
If the referendum requires any response at all from those of us who voted Remain, it is one of humility, sympathetic understanding, and a commitment to work together to make the best of the decision our compatriots have made with us. Even if Lars Lagerbäck becomes Prime Minister.