September is a wistful month: the sybaritic pleasures of summer are fading, its intensity of sensation replaced by the bright but balmy days that usher in the approaching autumn. This sense of reflection and gentle melancholy is nowhere more pronounced than in Britain’s seaside resorts, which are not only saying goodbye to high season but know their heyday is in any case long past, as sun seekers travel to the hotter, more predictable climates of the Mediterranean littoral.
It was therefore fitting that Ukip’s conference was held in Bournemouth earlier this month. Of course, in one sense it was a triumphant affair, but it also witnessed the changing of the guard as senior members departed: Crowther, Nuttall, Farage – all gone. We were saying goodbye to men and times of true greatness and we knew it – future generations of Kippers will no doubt talk about Nigel et al in the way Labourites talk of Attlee or Bevan. Whatever the party now goes onto achieve, it is very hard to see how anything could replicate the heady times leading up to the referendum, when its hardy, courageous, stubborn, reviled and despised membership started to sense that momentous change may indeed be possible.
Much more importantly, a similar sense of deflation hangs over Brexit generally. After a campaign that was in turns passionate, astonishing, exciting and tragic, the word is becoming synonymous with the dull, arduous, technocratic process of national divorce.
How very British: time and again, as a nation we have proved our genius for dramatically extricating ourselves from approaching disaster at the eleventh hour, only to lapse into complacency and lassitude once the moment of emergency passed, squandering enormous opportunity in the process and sometimes sowing the seeds of future calamity.
“Europe” is a case in point: after the Second World War, Britain was too exhausted and preoccupied unwinding a dying empire to pay attention to what latest barmy idea those tiresome continental types were hatching. However, this time around we have much less excuse. It is not hyperbole to suggest that if things continue as they are, the now militarising EU may even become something approaching a hard tyranny in the coming decades. History will judge us very harshly if we fail to lift our eyes from parochial concerns during the closing window of opportunity that exists to offer Europe an alternative.
It is the same story on a purely national level: the big picture is being missed. Where is the national conversation about how to restructure our society so that we can all benefit from Brexit? Where is the narrative to capture the imagination, the symbols to demonstrate our rebirth as a great maritime trading nation once again? Where are the ideas to revitalise our great westerly-facing ports or industrial cities?
The great irony and danger is that those powerful and articulate vested interests that fought hard for “Remain” may even capture the whole exercise. For instance, you hear much about “passporting rights” for the City, but very little indeed about the repatriation of our fishing grounds that could help revitalise our poor, deprived coastal fishing communities. The defeated Remainers even have their own “pop-up” newspaper – The New European. Where is “The Brexiter” equivalent? Ideally it would – and should – be the house journal of a dedicated new Brexit think-tank, fizzing with ideas to build the New Jerusalem.
The truth is that Brexit needs poetry as well as prose, vision as well as management, ideals as well as pragmatism, romance as well as reason. However, most of its leading actors have either left the stage or taken roles under the leadership of Theresa May: a cautious and secretive woman who backed the losing side and is clearly determined to clip the wings of any of her team who say anything vaguely exciting.
No doubt we will as a nation profit from Brexit, and, yes, these are still very early days, but the overall tone of Brexit must be set now. Let us for once think big not small. It would be a tragedy if those who bravely took the risks of voting for Leave – very often the poorest, least acknowledged, least fashionable elements in our society – are in the end feeling let down and disappointed at what might, perhaps, have been.
(Image: Garry Knight)