TO CALL Britain’s referendum on Brexit a great act of democracy is both to describe it and to debase the word “democracy”. Campaigners traded not hard facts last June but insults to the electorate’s intelligence. Remainers foresaw immediate economic Armageddon outside the EU, while Leavers insinuated that millions of scary Muslims would move to Britain if the country stayed in the club. Aspersions were cast on opponents’ motives and character. Dodgy statistics were shoved through letterboxes and plastered on the sides of buses. On the big day turnout was mediocre for such an epoch-making decision: the 52% who backed Brexit constituted just 37% of eligible voters.

A low-rent, bilious referendum has begotten low-rent, bilious politics. It has cowed the House of Commons, the “despotic and final” authority of the British system, in the words of Walter Bagehot, the Victorian constitutionalist and former editor of The Economist whose name dignifies this column. MPs are paid to be representatives, not delegates, obeying their own judgment over the roiling opinions of their constituents. But the force of the referendum, a McCarthyite mood in the Brexiteer press and a prime minister whose original support for Remain seems more baffling by the week combined to neuter the legislature. Hundreds of parliamentarians filed, dead-eyed, through the lobbies granting Theresa May the untrammelled power to conduct and conclude exit talks most of them believe will do Britain harm. The referendum has tamed an institution meant to be constructively feral.

Parliament’s spinelessness is matched only by its marginalisation. In his book, “The English Constitution”, Walter Bagehot described the “nearly complete fusion” of executive and legislature as a foundation of the British political system. (“To belong to a debating society adhering to an executive…is not an object to stir a noble ambition,” he noted.) Mrs May’s Great Repeal Bill, the coming legislation putting European laws on British books, offends this tradition. Its “Henry VIII” clauses would enable the prime minister to fiddle unilaterally with the tide of rules as it washes into Britain’s environmental, employment, legal and tax regimes.

Ordinarily the opposition might be relied on to stand up to this sort of thing. But Jeremy Corbyn is no ordinary opposition leader. Only he could convene an “emergency” rally outside Parliament to protest against the triggering of Article 50 and then fail to turn up, while simultaneously whipping his own MPs to support it. If Mr Corbyn causes the prime minister any worry it is that she might forget his name in an interview. At this rate, domestic scrutiny of the government’s negotiations with the EU will be patchy and, freshly Brexited, Britain will not face a serious choice at the 2020 election.

Then there is the cultural legacy of the referendum, which created the ugly precedent that someone’s views on things like trade, immigration and financial regulation are matters of policy second and expressions of his very faith in the nation first. This elision of Brexit and the national interest has curdled British politics. “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE”, bellowed the right-wing Daily Mail, when judges ruled that Mrs May had to consult Parliament on launching the talks. More than that, it goes against the Westminster system’s way of doing things: unlike, say, France or America, Britain mostly keeps the tribalism and ceremony of the state (the “dignified” parts of the constitution, as Walter Bagehot put it) separate from the practical functioning of government (its “efficient” parts). Brexit has forced them together.

To follow some of the coverage of British politics you would think that the Scots, now closing in on a second independence referendum, all hated the English and adored the EU; that the old cared nothing about the prospects of the young; that the young were all vacuous virtue-signallers; that Remainers were snobby metropolitans who can state their bank balances only to the nearest thousand pounds and that Leavers were knuckle-dragging racists. It is odd to live in a country whose very name—the United Kingdom—sounds increasingly sarcastic.

This Britain feels quite unlike the one that hosted the Olympics with such cheer five years ago. These two moments, London 2012 and Article 50, 2017, bookend your columnist’s time covering its politics. Now he is moving on, to a new beat in Berlin. He leaves as prone to gloom about Britain as he was to optimism when he started. The meanness of its politics, the struggling condition of its public services, the coming economic and diplomatic turmoil, the unrealistic expectations of Brexit among voters—it all bodes poorly. To be sure, “muddling through” is something Britain is good at and will no doubt manage, one way or another. But the country deserves better. Things did not have to be this way.

Go for a constitutional

The best antidotes are apolitical. Far from Westminster there exists a country more mosaic-like than the raw divisions of its politics allow. A quarter of voters in Islington and Edinburgh opted for Leave; as many residents of Boston, the Lincolnshire town that backed Brexit most keenly, voted to stay in the EU. Millions of pensioners were for Remain. Millions of youngsters wanted out.

Beyond the headlines and TV studios, Britain’s everyday impressions are mostly those of a homely and mingled place, not a bitter and binary one. The blare of pop songs on shop radios, the church bell across the marshes, the simian whoops and cackles on market-town high streets of a Friday night. The shared shrugs and sighs after a train has waited too long at a station for some misery-unleashing fault not to have materialised. The vinegar-haddock-urine smell of seaside towns; the perfume-booze-sweat crush of commuters travelling home from booming cities. The saris, shiny suits and waxed jackets, the hipster moustaches and old-school mullets. The emergence from a car park or railway station to be confronted with a scene of architectural horror—or unprepossessing and unexpected gorgeousness.