Over the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and some writing about hiking and Brexit.
Beyond the anxieties and concerns of the current political situation, Brexit fascinates me as a story. We have a complicated piece of policy, which has sometimes proved too much for the people directly involved: witness Nadine Dories admitting privately she didn’t understand the customs union; or the surprising errors by Brexit ministers.
The details of this policy cut across all areas of life in incredibly technical ways. I’ve written before about how the software needs of the project makes it impossible. A massive number of policy decisions need to be made, at the same time as it raises issues about the meaning and direction of the country, including a reckoning with the legacies of war and empire. And these questions are being settled by slogans and emotional arguments.
There are already some great popular histories of Brexit, including the first two volumes of the Shipman trilogy. But there is also a space for interpretations of Brexit, and I think these can be best approached from oblique directions.
Daniel Hannan is described as the man who invented Brexit, and provides much of the intellectual force behind Brexit. He also wrote How we invented freedom, a book about the supremacy of anglophone institutions and ideas. In a discussion of the English language, Hannan praised the English language for favouring “the expression of empirical, down-to-earth, practical ideas”. He goes on to attack academic language for being wooly, too influenced by “European thinkers”, and gives an example of Karl Marx’s writing, asking:
What native speaker of English could have written that way? Only one who had trained himself, over many years, to ape the style of Hegel, or Marx, Derrida or Satre
Setting aside Hannan’s surprising suggestion that Marx reads like he was aping Derrida or Satre, it’s notable that Hannan makes a swipe Derrida. Jacques Derrida is a philosopher I know a bit about, having studied him on my MA. Derrida was fascinated by details, whereas Hannan is less concerned by them – he’s more a big picture sort of guy.
Reading Derrida – and parsing the sometimes forbidding style – trained me to see the way language can undercut itself. It also trained me to be sensitive to how marginal details undermine a larger project. Derrida once destroyed an argument by respected amateur philosopher John Searle starting with his copyright statement. Small things can undermine supposedly-simple wider arguments. Faultlines can easily be exposed by looking at something from the edges.
There is, for example, a great book to be written about Brexit and curry. Not by me, although I’ve written some short pieces about the topic. Such a book would look at issues around immigration for unskilled workers, the promises made to the Indian restaurant industry during and after the referendum, and the Leave campaign’s strange ideas about empire.
And hiking also seems to resonate with Brexit. There are incidents like Theresa May’s Wales hike, Danniel Hannan’s lie about a walk, or Rory Stewart’s walks-as-campaigning. Then there are all the rural metaphors being used for the future, ‘sunlit uplands’ and all that. Brexit has also intruded into some of the walks I’ve taken, which have cut across leave and remain boundaries , and got me talking to people outside my liberal metropolitan bubble. And it’s impossible to walk across the English countryside without thinking about landscape, ownership, myth and legacy.
I’ve been trying to focus on less marginal things, but this theme keeps returning. So, maybe I’d just be better off giving in to it. I’m not sure where this path leads, but I think it’s going to be interesting.If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list