Last Tuesday I should have been at a meeting in Amsterdam, followed by a conference for my work. I stayed home instead, unable to face the prospect of being quizzed yet again, and incessantly, about Brexit, and what on earth the UK is doing.
Because, as I think most people who travel anywhere abroad for work will tell you, this is invariably the first question on the mind of any colleague you meet: what happened to the beacon of democracy, stability, open-mindedness and tolerance that we thought we knew?
I suspect that if you only travel for leisure you won’t face this inquisition because generally people are too polite to bother holidaymakers with enquiries about British politics.
However, if you’re working with people you’ve known for a long time it’s a different thing entirely. In my case many of the people I work with have been friends and colleagues for 20 years or more and are wholly bemused by what is happening. But then, who isn’t?
The questioning – no, let’s be clear, the incredulity – which we face is not confined to Europeans, either. Recent working trips to south east Asia and the US have brought out the same questions, the same sense of bewilderment, not at what we’ve decided to do but at how appallingly our Government have managed to do it.
Strangely, no-one asks how I voted, which you might think would be material, but everyone wants to know how I think Britain is going to get out of the mess that has been created and, more importantly, how we think we’re going to be able to work in the world in the future. To which I have to say I don’t know the answer.
This isn’t something that has cropped up as the last few months of gobsmacking governmental incompetence and arrogance has been paraded for the world to gawp at. Right from the beginning the world was watching the UK as we began to consider the possibility of drastically altering our place in the world in the run up to the referendum.
It’s as if we were some sort of slow-motion car-crash simulation, with the UK population acting as the crash test dummies, to be watched in open-mouthed horror and disbelief.
On the night of the referendum itself, I was sitting in a bar in Washington DC with some friends, including another Brit, after a day of meetings. With the benefit of a 5-hour time difference, the votes began coming in just as we were getting into our second beer. As the overall result became clear over the next few hours, other people in the bar turned away from the dubious delights of wall-to-wall baseball on TV, as the two Englishmen’s reactions to events became a new form of spectator sport.
As events unfolded, we were being constantly asked what it meant, a question usually accompanied by yet another beer. We did, it has to be said, manage to drink quite a lot of those. Even the Americans, supposedly an insular nationality, were in shock at what was happening.
That sensation, of watching events unfold from a distance, which only comes when something truly unexpected happens, remains in place even now. Because if we’re honest, a competent Government would have been able to negotiate our exit relatively simply.
Agreed, the EU didn’t want us to go. Agreed, there was a lot to get done. But an adult approach to discussions would have been possible. Instead our Government decided to engage in a form of macho hand-to-hand combat, reducing the complexities of negotiation to a win or lose scenario – precisely the kind of juvenile negotiating position that everyone is told to avoid at all costs when learning about diplomacy.
All that was needed was to begin a joint analysis of the questions that needed to be addressed, and to build joint solutions. If working with colleagues in Europe for 20 years or more has taught me one thing, it is that the most successful outcome is achieved by seeking consensus, and that it is essential to dedicate time and effort to achieving mutually acceptable resolutions.
You don’t do that by getting on a soap box and spouting about “red lines” and how you’re going to show the other side who is boss. Especially if your actual negotiating position is as weak as the UK’s has always been.
The result is incalculable harm to the world standing of the UK, probably irrecoverable in the next century, if ever. That is to leave aside the bitterness that has been generated within the country.
But where our country once stood as symbol of hope and a natural friend to so many in western Europe and beyond, now we are diminished. The people of other countries, neither knowing nor caring whether which way we as individuals voted, look at us and wonder how we could have allowed such a debacle to have unfolded, and how our country can recover.
They may not be the only ones asking those questions.