As long ago as 2014 leading Tory Eurosceptic John Redwood threatened “punishment” for firms which spoke out in favour of EU membership. This week it was revealed that “contractors bidding for work with the government are being asked to affirm that they back Brexit”. This may well be in violation of EU procurement rules, to which Britain is still subject, but in any case that is not really the point. Since when have the political views of companies been subject to testing?
This is part and parcel of the extraordinary vindictiveness being displayed by the Brexit government towards the near majority who voted against Brexit. Theresa May’s New Year broadcast, calling for unity after the divisions of the Referendum, appeared to strike a conciliatory note towards those who voted remain, including the passage:
“So when I sit around the negotiating table in Europe this year, it will be with that in mind - the knowledge that I am there to get the right deal - not just for those who voted to leave - but for every single person in this country”.
Similarly May’s foreword to the Brexit White Paper spoke of:
“The strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it happen … because after all the division and discord, the country is coming together”.
Of course a reasonably unifying form of Brexit would have been perfectly possible, that is, a soft Brexit in which we remained in the single market. It would have honoured the vote to leave the EU, and would be exactly the form of leaving that some Brexit campaigners and voters favoured. It would have given most voters some of what they wanted and some voters all that they wanted. But this is not what May’s government have chosen to pursue. Instead, we have the most divisive of approaches to Brexit and the ‘consensus’ being sought is one in which the 48% who voted remain including (most likely) the vast majority of MPs, business leaders, civil servants, civil society leaders and experts are required to pay homage to what they know will wreck the country.
The former Conservative PM Sir John Major, in a major speech this week, voiced his concerns about this:
“This 48% care no less for our country than the 52 per cent who voted to leave. They are every bit as patriotic. But they take a different view of Britain’s future role in the world, and are deeply worried for themselves, for their families, and for our country. They do not deserve to be told that, since the decision has been taken, they must keep quiet and toe the line. A popular triumph at the polls – even in a referendum – does not take away the right to disagree – nor the right to express that dissent. Freedom of speech is absolute in our country. It’s not “arrogant” or “brazen” or “elitist”, or remotely “delusional” to express concern about our future after Brexit. Nor, by doing so, is this group undermining the will of the people: they are the people. Shouting down their legitimate comment is against all our traditions of tolerance. It does nothing to inform and everything to demean – and it is time it stopped”.
His reward for this plea for tolerance? To be denounced as a traitor and subjected to vitriolic personal abuse with ever-spiteful Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg’s “a craven and defeated speech of a bitter man” being one of the milder assaults. As with Tony Blair’s speech the week before, none of the critics were able to engage with the actual arguments made by people who, whatever one thinks of them, have, as former PMs, pretty significant experience. Boris Johnson’s response to Major (‘Come off it, sunshine’) was especially risible. A host of others, from Mark Carney to Sir Ivan Rogers to Patience Wheatcroft have received similarly unpleasant treatment, and these are just high profile examples. Day in and day out on social media and internet discussion forums the same narratives of treachery and betrayal are being played out, often in very violent language.
The real point behind the behaviour of the Brexiters is a simple one: they don’t have any idea whatsoever of how to proceed. The bulk of the Brexit movement was based on a supposed victimhood at the hands of the establishment, but now that they are the establishment they have no mode of discourse other than victimhood and so they use their power to punish. But, beyond that, they are simply bemused. From the moment the referendum result was announced, with Johnson and Gove looking like terrified rabbits in the headlights, Brexiters have not known what to do with their victory.
Even now that they have the weight of the British Civil Service (rumoured also to be subject to demands to show unqualified enthusiasm for Brexit) behind them what is clear is that they have no grasp at all of the detailed, practical complexities of Brexit. Every day some new problem emerges, from nuclear safety to fishing quotas, which was either ignored or glossed over during the Referendum. There is even a sense that the Brexiters now regret having run so mendacious a campaign since they seem to realize that, having expected not to win, they are now forever tarnished by it.
This is the reason for the angry Brexit McCarthyism in which any concerns with practicalities become disloyalty. If Brexiters had any serious, coherent ideas about what Brexit meant then, having won the referendum, they would be confidently pushing forward with these. Instead, they still rely on a series of half-baked slogans (‘taking back control’) and economically illiterate claims (‘BMW export lots of cars to Britain’) girded by meaningless ideas about ‘Global Britain’. None of these survive contact with reality and they – kind of – know it. Hence the recourse to a facile but vicious rhetoric of loyalty and betrayal.
The consequence is that Britain is now not only in a slow-burn economic and strategic crisis, but politically and culturally we are drifting into viciousness and – almost as bad – stupidity. As the inevitable disaster unfolds in the coming months and years, the anger of the Brexiters will, also inevitably, grow as they search for scapegoats for what they have done. In the frame will be anyone other than themselves. How long before tribunals are set up to ask a variant of the infamous McCarthyite question: “are you, or have you ever been, in favour of membership of the European Union”?