The Overton Conveyor

With five weeks to go until Brexit, it is worth stepping back and taking stock of what has happened in the last three years.

Shortly after the referendum, I wrote a post here outlining the possible scenarios, together with my (subjective) opinion of their likelihood. It is immediately noticeable that “No Deal by reason of staggering incompetence” did not even make the list; if I were to write that piece again today it would be the clear front runner. I do still stand by the relative likelihood of most of the other scenarios – the Customs Union option is Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured solution, and features in the dreaded Backstop, as does the Irish Sea Border (in a slightly different form from the one I outlined). The entangled states of Indyref2 and Border Poll both hover around the expectation value of 50%, awaiting the dawn of 30th March when they will simultaneously collapse into either “receding” or “imminent”.

The Catalan Precedent has largely evaporated as an issue. Scotland declaring independence from a non-EU UK has been judged a different matter from a country within the EU breaking up, removing the threat of a Spanish veto to Scottish membership (for now). And my outside runners of Renegotiation and Collapse have thankfully been overtaken by events; indeed the reverse has been the case as the EU27 have circled the wagons. Nobody wants to be the next Brexit.

My most serious misjudgement was the likelihood of the Single Market option – I did not foresee Theresa May’s election, her Lancaster House red lines, or the ascendancy of Cakeism. In retrospect, it was perhaps naive to think that an irrational assessment of the UK’s current status could possibly lead to a rational assessment of the UK’s future options. But I am in good company; even committed Leavers such as Pete North have found the logic behind May’s negotiating position incomprehensible.

Events appear to be moving simultaneously at glacial speed, but also faster than it is possible to keep up with. It might then be useful to separate the two classes of event. In the glacial category: negotiations. In the whirlwind category: everything else. It is precisely because negotiations are going nowhere that all the pent-up energy of politics is being diverted elsewhere, like a blocked pipe springing leaks at every joint. The unstoppable force of Brexit meets the immovable object of political reality, and all else is laid waste.

The theory of Punctuated Equilibrium states that evolution happens not as a continuous process, but as an infrequent sequence of external shocks and events that are quickly adapted to, resulting in a new stable state. We can identify similar moments in history – long periods of conservatism and occasional short periods of revolutionary change. As Lenin said, there are decades in which nothing happens, and weeks in which decades happen. We are living in one of those weeks right now.

Everything seems to be different, even though nothing has yet changed on the ground. What has changed is the nature of political debate, the ideas that are now mainstream and the possibilities that have been both opened up and closed off forever. The Overton Window is the realm of political acceptability, the range of ideas that can be safely expressed in political life without ridicule. Over time this window shifts as younger generations grow up and once fringe ideas become normalised. Gay marriage moved from unthinkable to nearly unchallengeable in the space of twenty years.

But this process has suddenly accelerated. There are ideas afoot now that would have been unthinkable a mere two years ago, but which have now entered the mainstream. A time traveller from February 2017 would not believe that No Deal is now not only the most likely outcome of Brexit, but is being cheered on by a significant fraction of the British population.

We are watching the Overton window not just shift, but calve into the sea and drift out of sight on the vast currents of history. Brexit cannot be put back in the bottle, and we will be living with its outworkings for the rest of our lives.

Danmark O, Fohn Fjord, Renodde.70°N/26°W” by Rita Willaert is licensed under CC BY