Whether you believe that Brexit is a brave and noble endeavour or a rash, ignoble folly probably depends a lot on your perception of short and long-term risk
Imagine that in some surreal scenario you mysteriously found yourself on board a huge passenger aircraft flying a multi-stop, seemingly never-ending transoceanic journey to nowhere.
As the hours and days tick by onboard this strange vessel you begin to question where the plane is taking everybody, and who set the flight plan. There’s an old framed picture of the airline’s founder, Jean Monnet, hanging at the front of the plane above the sealed cockpit door, but the captain and the other passengers refuse to clearly state the destination themselves, even though they all seem very anxious to get there. Rather than being candid, they make only vague allusions to the potential destination and arrival time, and repeatedly emphasise the importance of travelling together in a big, stable aircraft to keep us safe from turbulence.
Then suppose that one day you question whether you want to be on this flight in the first place – your fellow passengers keep getting sick, the pilot stops randomly at tiny airfields in seedy-looking places to let a whole bunch of extra people climb aboard without even checking their boarding passes, and while every seat comes with its own plastic toy steering wheel giving the childish illusion of individual control, it is plainly apparent that the pilot is the sole person in charge.
You also have strong suspicions that a certain Lederhosen-wearing passenger sitting in First Class is the captain’s special favourite, and that this is why they get to control the cabin air conditioning, select the in-flight movie, dictate the meal choices for everyone sitting in Economy and sometimes even persuade the pilot to change speed and altitude. Back in 2015, a little scrawny passenger owed Lederhosen Guy some money and was being evasive about paying it back – now he rides in the unheated, unpressurised cargo hold.
So you finally speak up and ask why we are on this flight at all, this Airbus A380 on steroids, when out the window we can see other happy families zipping along in their Cessnas and small private jets, travelling together in a loose formation to reach their preferred destination but also preserving their individual ability to climb, descend, stop at an airfield for lunch or set a new destination altogether if they so choose.
And in response, some wiseguy across the aisle says that you have no right to complain because a mysterious benefactor bought your ticket armed with perfect information as to the plane’s ultimate destination. The travel agent certainly never lied to them, making the journey seem shorter and the destination more pleasant than the reality now unfolding – no, your benefactor apparently was apparently very firm in their desire for you to embark on this particular journey, and approved of every subsequent course change made by the captain, tacitly if not explicitly.
Many of the other passengers also take turns lecturing you that the era of private aviation is over, that only a fool would put his life in the hands of Westphalia Private Aviation Corp., that one family in one aircraft cannot possibly complete a safe and successful autonomous journey in this day and age, and that only by abandoning our trusty Learjet and boarding the enormous Airbus can we protect ourselves from dangerous pockets of clear air turbulence and other assorted perils of the sky. And if that means eating the same cheap airline food day after day, and giving the airline pilot total authority over us while in the air then so be it.
This is unacceptable, so you pluck up the courage and deliver an ultimatum: either the captain gives up his absolute powers and pays more attention to the demands of individual passengers – even if that means amending the route – or you will disembark, return to your own aircraft to fly on your own terms with your own companions in your own squadron, and with your own destination in mind. The captain laughs in your face. Lederhosen Guy stares at you with a kind of impassive curiosity, but says nothing. The aircraft continues humming along at cruising altitude.
What to do? You figure that storming the cockpit, relieving the captain of his duties and attempting to land the plane yourself is inherently risky, yet it seems preferable to reaching the plane’s ultimate destination and then realising that all of your worst fears and suspicions were correct – and that there is no return service.
If the aircraft will not change course and you are unwilling to accept the destination (or continued vagueness about the intended destination), then indeed storming the cockpit is the only option left. You don’t want to permanently hijack the plane and steer it exclusively according to your own preferences, nor do you want to thwart the captain and harm others by crashing the plane altogether. You just want to disembark peacefully.
Would it be nice if another Airbus A380 with a more amenable pilot was waiting at the next refuelling stop, ready for you and likeminded passengers to hop aboard and continue your journey in a more collegiate style, agreeing the destination and flight plan together rather than stubbornly navigating according to the old captain’s worn-out, anachronistic 1950s map? Yes, of course it would. But that’s not going to happen today. There is no alternative jet on the tarmac, and for all the money you have given the airline the small print on the back of your ticket is clearly marked “non-exchangeable and non-refundable”.
So you gather what support you can from among the other passengers, count to three, and charge the door.
At one point in 2016, some of the more extreme conservative political pundits in America began referring to the presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the “Flight 93 election“, a reference to the United Airlines plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 and deliberately crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and mounted a fightback against the Islamist hijackers. This risible, overwrought argument posited that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be so damaging to the United States – effectively the equivalent of another 9/11 attack – that it was the duty of every true patriot to “storm the cockpit” of American government by electing Donald Trump president instead.
Britain’s 2016 EU referendum was not quite a “Flight 93 moment”, not only because unlike the 9/11 attackers, the EU’s motivations and trajectory (though severely misguided) are not deliberately malevolent, but also because the speed of European political integration is slow and incremental, not sudden and rapid. Unlike a hijacking situation, we therefore theoretically had time to think and form a more considered plan of escape. Unfortunately Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the ringleaders who nominally led the storming of the cockpit, failed to come up with any kind of coherent plan for what to do when they got their hands on the controls. And now they have handed over command to Theresa May, who sits with white-knuckled grip on the yoke, trying and failing to reassure we the passengers over the intercom by repeating the same worn out banalities. Our position, post storming of the cockpit, is therefore significantly suboptimal.
But ultimately, if the captain will not desist from a reckless and undesirable course of action and an orderly disembarkation is impossible then one is left with little choice other than to forcibly set the plane down, blow the emergency exit, jump down the inflatable slide and walk back to the terminal in search of alternative transportation.
With Brexit, as with all flights, there is an outside chance that the new pilots will crash the plane, resulting in total hull loss and our fiery deaths. There is a slightly higher chance of experiencing a landing so rough that there are multiple injuries, the undercarriage fails and the plane requires lengthy and expensive repairs. Right now there are probably even odds that the landing will be sufficiently bumpy that those who do not have their seatbelts fastened securely will get thrown around the cabin a bit and generally have a bad time. But of course, the corollary to this is that remaining on the aircraft despite not knowing its destination and having no individual control over the plane carries a risk of its own. The next stop may be Warsaw or Bucharest, but eventually the plane might head for Pyongyang, carrying us along with it.
The difference between Remainers and Brexiteers is this: Remainers do not seem to much care where they end up (or at least seem willing to smile and suppress any gnawing doubts that they do have) so long as they can be seen to be travelling happily and in total harmony with all the other passengers on the plane. In support of their position, Remainers can point to all of the aircraft’s previous stopovers – many of which were vaguely pleasant or at least neutral – to suggest that we are participating in a wonderful global excursion and would be mad to spurn the promise of future tropical delights.
By contrast, Brexiteers care deeply about the end destination, strongly disagree with the current direction of travel and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to alter it. Leave voters can bolster their argument by pointing out the unprecedented scope of control passengers have ceded to the captain over time, and noting that ours is the only part of the world where people seem to have lost faith in private aviation and insist on flying together in a single huge aircraft. If abandoning our autonomy and climbing aboard the Airbus is so great, they argue, why are people in Asia, Africa, North and South America not following Europe’s lead?
Neither viewpoint is inherently evil. Rather, each view is formed by a different perception of reality and a varying sensitivity to short and long-term risk.
Or perhaps all Remainers are just flag-hating, anti-patriotic, virtue-signalling traitors who think that supporting the EU is an easy way to check the “internationalist” box on their checklist of trendy-lefty political opinions, and/or every Brexiteer is a harrumphing, xenophobic retired colonel who fetishises the British Empire, hates foreigners and wants to re-impose the social values and norms of the 1950s.
It’s hard to say.
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