Vincent Gookin, the 17th-century English colonist in Ireland, wrote ruefully that “the unsettling of a nation is an easy work; the settling of a nation is not”. One way to understand why the Irish question has been so fatal for the Brexit project is to think about two islands and their degrees of unsettlement.
For Britain, the Brexiters have done the easy work of unsettling a nation. Both parts of Ireland, meanwhile, have been involved in the much harder business of settling a nation long torn apart by deep divisions of allegiance and aspiration. The great paradox of this moment is that the imperative of not endangering the fragile settlement on one island is profoundly unsettling for the other.
What is so striking about the political chaos at Westminster is the sheer wilfulness of it all. It is not a response to a plague or a famine, a war or an invasion. Britain’s crisis has deep causes, of course, though most of them (the effects of austerity, the loosening of the union) are self-generated. But at the political level most of it seems to be happening purely for its own sake. It is all gestures and poses.
The whole Brexit project has been, in Gookin’s terms, easy work. Make up lies about the European Union, throw patriotic shapes, get a smugly overconfident prime minister to call a referendum whose dynamics he does not understand, tell more lies, make promises you don’t believe in yourself, use stolen Facebook data to target voters with xenophobic images, tell everybody that they will have all the benefits of membership with none of the costs. Easy work, all of it: no plans, no complexities, no responsibilities. [Continue reading…]