Last modified on Fri 18 Jan 2019
What we don’t talk about when we only talk about Brexit
Warming oceans, war in Yemen, the fate of the Uighurs, Gaza … We’ve been too busy with the backstop to notice the world
One of Brexit’s more pernicious aspects, even before you get to its actual flaws, is its tendency to suck all available oxygen unto itself, to drain resources that might otherwise have gone elsewhere. Before the referendum, civil servants warned that such a task – untangling 40 years of legal agreements, ripping out a delicate web of connections that had become embedded – would consume all their energies. Naturally, their warnings were dismissed as Project Fear. But even the head of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, before he took on the form of , that leaving the European Union would present the British state with the “hardest job since beating Nazis”.
Just think of what else we could have done with all that time and money, including the £4bn we’re spending to guard against the entirely avoidable and self-inflicted calamity of a no-deal crash-out from the EU. The effort we could have made for jobs or housing, or to repair the damage inflicted by austerity; the work that could have been done to improve life for those left behind by three decades of change, globalisation and automation. But Whitehall didn’t have the bandwidth. Governments might be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but walking while shooting yourself in both feet – that, it turns out, is impossible.
It’s not just the machinery of state that has seized up since June 2016, all but paralysed by Brexit. It’s affected what you might call the attention economy too: both the news media and its consumers, those who shape the collective conversation and those who take part in it. So enveloped are we in Brexit that we hardly have the space to contemplate anything else. Our gaze is turned inward, and we can barely see what’s going on around us.
If news bulletins, front pages and social media feeds were your guide, you’d think climate change had gone away, quietly resolved while we were obsessing over the Northern Ireland backstop. Not so. It barely made a ripple, but last week came word that the oceans are warming at a rate some 40% faster than previously understood. Remember, it’s the seas that absorb most of the extra heat going into the climate system, and the dangers posed by a rise in ocean temperature are clear and present, whether it’s fuelling ever more extreme storms and hurricanes or increasing sea levels, thereby flooding low-lying areas and rendering potentially hundreds of millions homeless. It’s just one more sign, along with melting ice-sheets or the drying up of the Rhine, Europe’s most critical waterway – where low water is rendering whole stretches impassable – that while the government tears itself apart trying to fulfil a nostalgic fantasy of taking back control, global temperatures are getting relentlessly out of control.