Brexistential dread: Life in Britain amid the terrible, tedious drama of Brexit

With the March 29 Brexit deadline bearing down on the country at an alarming speed, it’s hard not to wonder whether staying in Britain is really worth it, writes Elle Hunt in the latest instalment of her series on life as a NZ expat.

Greetings from Great Brexit – sorry, Britain. It’s hard to think of anything else right now, yet I am still not sure of the finer points of Brexit, like how you might not be sure of the finer points of a toxic gas. The general intention to exit the European Union, I’m across: referendum back in April 2016, 52 to 48, Leave means Leave, and all that. But could someone catch me up on just about everything since that man grabbed the ceremonial mace?

Lately it has seemed that every day there is another key deadline, another major decision, another momentous vote (of still undecided MPs) – plenty of news, as you’ll see, if you’ve not deleted the ‘Brexit’ container from the homepage of your Guardian app – yet no progress. “Another extremely busy day,” said my news editor friend, calling me on leaving her office late one night last week, “but nothing really happened.”

It is like a fever dream has gripped the nation, obliterating memory of the land before Brexit. Indeed it was a different world in which the referendum happened two years ago, the vote to Leave predating Trump by seven months – the last days of what we now think of as a simpler time. I was working in Sydney in a newsroom dominated by Britons. I remember small cheers going up as individual districts were announced as Remain, growing ever more feeble as it became clear that it wasn’t going to be enough. My hometown voted overwhelmingly to Leave.

That night I went to a dinner party and got food poisoning. It worked, in a sense, to take my mind off with the geopolitical turmoil. But I’m not sure which made me feel worse.

Inevitably, the initial shock, anger and nausea eased to a sort of numbness, a state that became known as “Brexit fatigue”, as those who didn’t have to engage with it – professionally, or for masochistic reasons – chose not to. The March 29 deadline felt distant enough that you could let it wash over you, at least for the time being.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that this might not be something unpleasant we can get past while holding our nose, but the atmosphere that we now must breathe. In just the past month Brexhaustion has escalated to Brexistential dread as it dawns on us that this truly might never end.

If we don’t make the 29 March deadline – and it is drawing closer with all the apparent feasibility of the Fyre Festival – we will need to seek an extension. Then the process will take many months, perhaps years. If we revoke this Brexit, the campaign for Brexit 2: Leave Hard will start up with a vengeance.

It is a lose-lose situation, even if you voted for Leave, and one that it is increasingly hard for even the masochists to see a path out from. Hostage negotiators have been brought in. A former director of the UK’s Hostage and Crisis Negotiation programme last week offered a crumb of comfort: “There is not an incident that I have been involved in in the past – whether it be suicide intervention, kidnap, hijacking or a big siege – where there has not been deadlock, and not just one period of deadlock, but many, many periods of deadlock, big and small.”

It’s good news, I suppose, that we are making no greater progress than in the average kidnap operation. But he went on: “When people say: ‘How did you talk them into doing that?’, we would say: ‘We didn’t. We listened them into it’.”

Ah. Part of the problem is that – compared to the US politics, a horror-farce you can’t tear your eyes away from – Brexit is a tedious, technical drama that moves in painstaking increments, too boring to hold your attention but too important to change the channel. The result is a plethora of online resources striving to make it engaging, like quizzes to test your knowledge of how we got here and flow charts to help you navigate away from it.

We are being driven mad, looking for “light relief in Brexit chaos” in social-media super-cuts of the Speaker of the House John Bercow’s red-faced, bodily sprays of “ORDERRR” – because he’s only saying what we’re all thinking. If someone could be so good to set it to Evanescence’s ‘Bring Me To Life’ (“can’t wake up”) we’ll be laughing. And oh, it’s been so long since we’ve laughed.

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Last week the head of the German Chamber of Commerce spoke vehemently against an extension to article 50: “better a horrible ending than unending horror”, as he put it.

Jacinda Ardern was less evocative in her opinion piece in the Telegraph. “As a spectator from afar, there seems to be one constant theme in global politics right now. Change,” she wrote with characteristic Kiwi understatement. But many will have seized onto her closing statement: “Whatever you decide about your place in the global community, New Zealand is committed to making our excellent relations even closer.”

In the 50 days after the vote to leave in 2016, there was a massive increase in interest in moving to New Zealand, more than double the number the same period the preceding year. Global appetite for stories about avocado heists, celibate gannets, etc, since has been chalked up to the desire to escape Britain as it descends into chaos.

The head of the German Chamber of Commerce is right: after nearly three years of suffering, it would be a kindness to put us out of our misery. But he forgets those of us lucky enough to have a third option, beyond a horrible ending and unending horror: bolting for home and leaving them all to it.


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