Doing what the Today programme won't: In praise of Brexit's unsung nerd heroes

BBC New Broadcasting House | Copyright: iStock / IR_Stone
BBC New Broadcasting House | Copyright: iStock / IR_Stone

By David Hayward

Brexit is everywhere. It’s there when you switch on the TV or the radio, when you go to the pub or visit family or meet up with friends. Like a virulent strain of the norovirus, it has infected everything in its path. And the patient is not getting any better. Despite the endless arguing and all the tedious debates, our national malady seems nowhere close to a cure or even a diagnosis.

In the first age of Brexit, we were told that "Brexit means Brexit," which may have meant nothing but at least it seemed to mean something. But those halcyon days of rhetorical certainty are now a distant dream. If Brexit might once have been imagined as a paradise of free-flowing prosecco and flossy-maned unicorns, it now seems more like a fairy tale gone horribly wrong, Cinderella rebooted with additional ugly siblings and not a prince in sight.

No one knows what Brexit means. Is it soft, hard, clean, messy, frictionless or blind? Never has the will of the people been so unclear in so many different ways. We used to complain that there wasn’t a plan but now it's impossible to keep up with them all - Lancaster House, Mansion House, Chequers, EEA, WTO, World Trade, Canada, Norway - take your pick. But at least they all have one thing in common - none of them seem to work.

Three quarters of the Article 50 period has passed. We're almost there. But where? No one knows. And as we draw closer to the finish line or the beginning line or whatever it is, a new threat has appeared. No-deal - the previously unthinkable negative, the black hole into which all the other plans are sucked in the absence of agreement. But is it more phantom than menace? Some argue that no-deal is a serious and viable alternative. Others say it’s little more than an expensive bluff. The government assures us it would be just fine because of all its preparations. Business, on the other hand, tells us it will be a disaster. 

Every week there's another Brexit question. Does it work or doesn't it? Is it good or is it bad? There's no shortage of people to tell us what to think but is there anyone who really knows? The politicians aren't much help. With notable exceptions, some seem hopelessly partisan, others simply disinterested or just not familiar with the detail. The small print, to no-one's surprise, turns out to be crucial. No wonder so many people have lost interest. Fear and boredom stalk us in equal measure.

We are 197 days from leaving the EU but we are no closer to the end of the Brexit labyrinth. Our self-inflicted national riddle gets madder by the day. Who can cure the patient, provide us with the golden thread, solve the thousand piece puzzle? Can anyone help? And who will save us from these terrible metaphors? But do not despair. There is hope.

Across the land, in big cities and small villages, unsung heroes and heroines live quietly among us. Every morning they set down their mugs of lukewarm tea and carefully fold their newspapers. They don their spectacles, check the weather forecast, and put on their most sensible shoes.

"We may be some time," they say to their loved ones as they stride into combat. Their weapons aren't guns, fists, bolts of lightning or phasers set to stun. Instead, they aim rhetorical one-twos, jabs of critical theory and they wield the sharp blades of their analysis and the barbed whips of their intellect. Despite their great strength, they are usually polite and often mild-mannered, although they can get a little snappish, especially when duelling against each other.

Their favoured haunts aren't crystal caverns or bat caves. They are much more likely to be found in classrooms and libraries or attending conferences and symposia (or is it symposiums?). They may have studied in faraway places but they weren't exiled to a lost kingdom to master a long forgotten martial art. Their powers don't come from being born on a different planet, the bite of a radioactive spider or exposure to mysterious chemicals in a secret government lab.

Our heroes have spent decades studying, researching, teaching and writing. And yet, despite their knowledge and insights, their analyses have been spurned and their forecasts mocked. They've been accused of being more technocratic than democratic, called elitists and, even worse, soothsayers. But they will not be stopped.

Every day, they unsheathe their tweeting devices and engage in intellectual duels and skirmishes, cheered on by thousands of avid followers. The pen might be mightier than the sword but Twitter is mightier still. Our heroes have found their medium, an open forum for instantaneous debate, and in Brexit, they have found a cause. As the nights grow longer and Brexit gets nearer, we will need their sage counsel more than ever.

David Hayward is a former financial services professional and now an aspiring writer. He lives in Paris and tweets about Brexit on @sime0nstylites.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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