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Schrödinger's Brexit

Parliament_Clock_Westminster-wikimedia.jpg

"What's it like over there now?" American friends keep asking as the clock ticks down to midnight on March 29. Even American TV seems unusually interested: last week's Full Frontal with Samantha Bee had Amy Hoggart explain in detail; John Oliver made it a centerpiece two weeks ago, and US news outlets are giving it as much attention as if it were a US story. They're even - so cute! - trying to pronounce "Taoiseach". Everyone seems fascinated by the spectacle of the supposedly stoic, intellectual British holding meaningless "meaningful" votes and avoiding making any decisions that could cause anyone to lose face. So this is what it's like to live through a future line in the history books: other countries fret on your behalf while you're trying to get lunch.

In 14 days, Britain will either still be a member of the European or it won't. It will have a deal describing the future relationship or it won't. Ireland will be rediscovering civil war or it won't. In two months, we will be voting in the European Parliamentary elections as if nothing has happened, or we won't. All possible outcomes lead to protests in Parliament Square.

No one expects to be like Venezuela. But no one knows what will happen, either. We were more confident approaching Y2K. At least then you knew that thousands of people had put years of hard work into remediating the most important software that could fail. Here...in January, returning from CPDP and flowing seamlessly via Eurostar from Brussels to London, my exit into St Pancras station held the question: is this the last time this journey will be so simple? Next trip, will there be Customs channels and visa checks? Where will they put them? There's no space.

A lot of the rhetoric both at the time of the 2016 vote and since has been around taking back control and sovereignty. That's not the Britain I remember from the 1970s, when the sense of a country recovering from the loss of its empire was palpable, middle class people had pay-as-you-go electric and gas meters, and the owner of a Glasgow fruit and vegetable shop stared at me when I asked for fresh garlic. In 1974, a British friend visiting an ordinary US town remarked, "You can tell there's a lot more money around in this country." And another, newly expatriate and struggling: "But at least we're eating real meat here." This is the pre-EU Britain I remember.

"I've worked for them, and I know how corrupt they are," a 70-something computer scientist said to me of the EU recently. She would, she said, "man the barriers" if withdrawal did not go through. We got interrupted before I could ask if she thought we were safer in the hands of the Parliament whose incompetence she had also just furiously condemned.

The country remains profoundly in disagreement. There may be as many definitions of "Brexit" as there are Leave voters. But the last three years have brought everyone together on one thing: no matter how they voted, where they're from, which party they support, or where they get their news, everyone thinks the political class has disgraced itself. Casually-met strangers laugh in disbelief at MPs' inability to put country before party or self-interest or say things like "It's sickening". Even Wednesday's hair's width vote taking No Deal off the table is absurd: the clock inexorably ticks toward exiting the EU with nothing unless someone takes positive action, either by revoking Article 50, or by asking for an extension, or by signing a deal. But action can get you killed politically. I've never cared for Theresa May, but she's prime minister because no one else was willing to take this on.

NB for the confused: in the UK "tabling a motion" means to put it up for discussion; in the US it means to drop it.

Quietly, people are making just-in-case preparations. One friend scheduled a doctor's appointment to ensure that he'd have in hand six months' worth of the medications he depends on. Others stockpile EU-sourced food items that may be scarce or massively more expensive. Anyone who can is applying for a passport from an EU country; many friends are scrambling to research their Irish grandparents and assemble documentation. So the people in the best position are the recent descendants of immigrants that would would not now be welcome. It is unfair and ironic, and everyone knows it. A critical underlying issue, Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson write in their excellent and eye-opening Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire is education that stresses the UK's "glorious" imperial past. Within the EU, they write, UK MEPs are most of the extreme right, and the EU may be better off - more moderate, less prone to populism - without the UK, while British people may achieve a better understanding of their undistinguished place in the world. Ouch.

The EU has never seemed irrelevant to digital rights activists. Computers, freedom, and privacy (that is, "net.wars") shows the importance of the EU in our time, when the US refuses to regulate and the Internet is challenging national jurisdiction. International collaboration matters.

Just as I wrote that, Parliament finally voted to take the smallest possible action and ask the EU for a two-month extension. Schrödinger needs a bigger box.

Illustrations: "Big Ben" (Aldaron, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

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