The good old British fireside lost its charm in 1952 during the ‘Great Smog’ when the air stilled for several days during winter and all the smoke from the coal fires lingered and blanketed the nation in a dense fog. It was so bad, it came indoors. Thousands of people died and suffered from respiratory illness. The discovery of huge reserves of natural gas under the sea bed led to a national policy to develop the gas network and run it on North Sea Gas. The coal fires were replaced by gas fires. I can tell you getting up on a cold winter morning cleaning a fireplace and then making a fire from newspaper, wood kindling and coal was not a duty that many people looked forward to, even if it did look very pleasant when it got going, after an hour or so.
On the other hand, air conditioning in a domestic setting is rare in the UK because cool climate means it is only really relevant for a couple of weeks at the height of summer. That is probably a better analogy. Plenty of people the would regard air conditioning as an indulgence that is costly, needs someone to service and not needed most of the time. Most people just open the windows to let some air circulate or maybe use a fan, if they need it.
Is Brexit going to be something like that? Well no.
Most Britons are utterly bemused and confused by the whole business. It was presented as an opportunity to express an opinion through the ballot box on ‘EU membership’. Now most voters have only a rather vague idea that it is something to with economics and trade. So in order to simplify things, various political personalities decided to help by explaining that it was about saving money for NHS, rejecting silly laws from foreign bureaucrats, stopping immigration (especially for foreign criminals). But most of all, it was an opportunity for any voter, unhappy with the political class in Westminster, to give them a big kick up the backside! It was a protest vote. The EU represented a big collection of negative issues that had been regularly reviled in the press for several decades. The EU was height of bureaucratic waste, stupid laws and the UK government giving away tax money to undeserving foreigners.
The government rather stupidly asked a question of the public that required a simple yes or no. But it represented a political imperative to change the strategic direction of the UK away from engaging with European institutions towards…somewhere else.
Brexit has had little cultural significance to the public. It did not represent anything more than a rude gesture to a bunch of politicians who could not agree on a policy towards Europe. They asked a stupid question and got an ill considered answer. Quite predictable.
The UK is representative democracy. Politicians are supposed to decide national policy on behalf of the voters. It is not a democratic system that regularly puts questions to the pubic. There are countries that do that. But they are very careful about what they ask and make sure that everyone understands the implications.
If Brexit has any cultural meaning it will be for the endless squabbles amongst the privileged class of Conservative politicians who cannot decide what it is, what it means and what they should do next. They have campaigned for years with remarkable conviction. We learnt how keen they were that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, that it is a 'Red, White and Blue Brexit and that they were dedicated to ‘Getting Brexit Done’. This sort of nonsense does not mean much to the public. That is the Conservative party taking to itself in the coded language that emerges as one faction argues with another behind the scenes.
For the public it seems to mean that we can’t sell fresh fish to the French any more and our plucky fishermen in their little boats are all going out of business. That new passports are going to change colour and we will need visas and insurance to go on holiday. That the politics in Northern Ireland might start kicking off again. The only positive is that the EU have failed to rollout vaccines quickly, so we have dodged at least one bullet. Brexit seems an anti-climax because it has been eclipsed by Covid19 and a locked down economy and no-one can travel anywhere while it goes on.
However, once the Covid cloud has lifted, hopefully later this year. The UK will find out it remains under another cloud composed of the consequences of rashly abandoning its trading links with Europe. The public will complain mightily about any inconvenience and the British newspapers will blame the French. I expect there will be crises and arguments that could take an unpleasant nationalistic tinge. But for now the powder is being kept dry.