Friday 18 August 2017

Brexiters always ask for more but really want less

Having won the Referendum, Brexiters seem surprisingly unhappy and, on social media especially, as angry as ever. Whilst remainers look on aghast as the government pursues hard Brexit, some Brexiters are talking of betrayal. Nigel Farage did so as early as November 2016, and continues to do so now and it’s a sentiment shared by many leave voters according to a recent Reuters report.

For some, at least, of those voters their disappointment will arise from the lies and half-truths told by the Leave campaign. The campaign leaders repeatedly claimed that leaving the EU would be a quick and easy matter, whatever some of them now say to the contrary. That Brexit turns out to be long, complex and painful may make ordinary leave voters feel betrayed by the government; in fact they have been betrayed by the Brexiters.

However, for the Brexiters themselves something different is going on. The key to understanding these ideologues is that whatever concession is made to them they will demand another. This has been evident in the Tory party for some years. Most recently, as soon as Cameron offered them a Referendum they started agitating about the wording of the question and the framing of the response (specifically, they did not want it to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with ‘yes’ being ‘remain’) and the franchise (they did not want 16/17 year olds or long-term expatriates to have a vote).

They got their way on all these things, but there were bigger issues at stake. Until fairly recently (although not, it is true, during the Referendum campaign itself) Farage and UKIP were quite happy with a Norway-style Brexit (i.e. remaining in the single market). And during the Referendum campaign itself many in Vote Leave said that this was exactly what Brexit would mean. High profile examples included Owen Paterson MP and Daniel Hannan MEP. Thus Hannan (who, by the way, has blocked me on Twitter where I reminded him of this) said: “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market”. These things, for all that they are denied by Brexiters now, are a matter of public record. See here and here and here.

But as soon as they had won the Referendum this was not enough. Brexit, they now insisted (£), had to mean hard Brexit – primarily leaving the single market but also any form of ECJ jurisdiction, and negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU. When Theresa May became PM she could have used the opportunity to initiate a national, public conversation about what form Brexit should take. Instead, during those long months of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ what happened was a private, internal conversation in the Tory Party from which emerged the Lancaster House speech in January declaring without any comparative analysis of the different options that Brexit meant hard Brexit.

That, as we are seeing, is proving a much more complex matter than the Brexiters asserted because of the scale of what is involved – not just regarding trade – and the time frames available, about which I written about endlessly on this blog. But now the Brexiters are not satisfied with hard Brexit anyway. Just as before, having had concessions made to them (with that on the single market the hugest of all) they are coming back for more. Thus, just today, the Institute for Economic Affairs make the case of leaving with no deal at all. And whilst this is well into the terrain of madness, in the wilder fringes of Brexiter-land it is a very moderate position. UKIP at the last election, for example, were advocating pulling out of the Article 50 negotiations altogether.

So trying to give Brexiters what they want in order to appease them proves to be pointless: whatever they are given they come back, like blackmailers or protection racketeers, with even more extortionate demands. But there is more to it than that. There is a strain amongst the Brexit ultras which actually does not want to get its way but which wants to feel victimised. The victim narrative in which an unholy alliance of big corporations, pointy-headed experts and limp-wristed liberals, the amorphous and hydra-headed ‘elite’, were ganging up on 'ordinary people' ran throughout the Referendum campaign and its aftermath. Never mind that Leave was bankrolled by millionaires and fronted by public school and Oxbridge career politicians.

And this is the reason why the Brexiters are not happy in victory and why they keep asking for more. Winning and having their demands met strips them of the victim status they wallow in. So their moment of triumph in the Referendum was also the moment of their defeat, and the reason they so assiduously seek out signs of betrayal is that betrayal is what would most readily allow a return to the comfort zone of victimhood. For the same reason, the narrative of being 'punished' by the EU is actually appealing to them. Likewise, only by constantly asking for more can they hope to reach the point where they are told they can have no more and, in that moment, again feel the masochistic thrill of being aggrieved.

The tragedy for those of us who do not share this peculiar political pathology is that we are dragged further and further away from any remotely pragmatic policy. The reason why the government is currently in such a mess over Brexit is that it is trying to do the impossible: satisfy the demands of Brexiters without completely wrecking the economy. But without wrecking the economy the ever more extreme demands of the Brexiters can’t be met. Theresa May had the chance to draw a line in the sand last year but she ducked it, choosing instead to draw red lines with the EU, and she no longer has the authority to do so. So now we are stuck, an entire nation shackled to the whims of a relatively small number of people who – like rebellious teenagers secretly wanting to be set boundaries - demand total victory whilst craving defeat.

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