During the Referendum, Brexiters offered a political message which took a traditional and familiar form: if you vote for us then various (supposedly) good consequences will follow.
It is easy
to imagine what they would be saying now if any of these were evident; if
companies were announcing new investments because of (not despite) Brexit; if
foreign direct investment were booming in anticipation of Brexit, rather
than tanking; if countries, especially Commonwealth countries, were
champing at the bit to make new trade deals with Britain; if ‘German
car companies’ had ‘within minutes of the vote’ to leave demanded a
fantastic ‘cake and eat it’ deal and if the EU had rolled over to give it; if
the Irish border was unaffected, as Brexiters
had claimed it would be; or, even, if the negotiations were proceeding as smoothly and easily as they had promised.
course none of those things has happened and so, since winning the Referendum,
the Brexiters’ message has changed in a very fundamental way. The new message
takes several forms but each has the same dialectical structure: to decouple the vote
to leave the EU from the consequences of leaving the EU.
It’s too late now
and simplest, form is that the vote has now been held and so we must just live
with the consequences. In that narrative, all debate and discussion ended with
the Referendum. Remainers must get over it, leavers must be happy whatever
happens. It’s a position exemplified by a recent tweet from
the pro-Brexit journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer in response to being sent data about
foreign direct investment since Brexit: “Mate, I really don’t care. This
question was asked and answered two years ago. Move on with your life”.
Simple as it
is, it’s also naïve. Politics doesn’t work like that, as Brexiters should
appreciate not least since on the night before the 2016 Referendum Nigel
Farage declared otherwise and, on the night after the 1975 Referendum, so did Enoch Powell. In this if in nothing else Enoch, to coin
a nasty little phrase, was right.
does politics not work like that in general, but it especially does not work
like that in this case because, much as Brexiters dislike it, winning the vote
was just the first and easiest part of a process which, in one way or another,
will last for years. Hence they make a second claim.
It’s not up to us
version is a denial of responsibility, with the central idea being that leave
voters and their leaders have done their part simply by delivering the vote to
leave. It is up to the politicians and the experts to now make it happen. This,
too, is misguided. As I have
written elsewhere, their victory was in many ways a disaster for Brexiters in that it meant
that they are
now responsible for whatever happens. Not just responsible, but uniquely
responsible. They were warned over and over again of the consequences and
insisted that these warnings were not just wrong but malevolent,
self-interested fearmongering. So, now, they and they alone, own the
consequences. Remainers have absolutely no responsibility to try to ‘make
Brexit work’ or to ‘get behind
those things would mean in practice).
It hasn’t been done properly
That denial of
responsibility feeds into the third emerging Brexiter narrative. It is that
there was nothing wrong with the decision, but that the way it is being
delivered by the government is what is causing the problems. This is evident
in, for example, Daniel Hannan’s
recent attempt to deflect blame for the policy he advocated for so many
decades. It has many variants, from the outright mad (‘we should just have
walked away the day after’) to the more sophisticated complaints about specific
decisions, such as the timing of the Article 50 notification. It is fair
comment that the government have approached Brexit in an inept way, making what
the respected (and by no means anti-) Brexit commentator David Allen Green of
the Financial Times has called
numerous ‘unforced errors’.
there are two obvious objections. First, that no one – not least the Leave
campaigners – has ever specified a way of undertaking Brexit which does not
damage the UK, whether economically, politically or strategically. Second, that
every mis-step the government have made has been as a result of pressure from,
and has been cheered on by, the Brexit Ultras. That includes the dogmatic ‘red
lines’ laid down by the government, the premature triggering of Article 50, and,
for that matter, the subsequent calling of a General Election to ‘crush the
narrative is a familiar one in business, where any and every failed management
fad is defended by its advocates on the grounds that all would have been well
but for ‘inadequate implementation’. It’s equally familiar in far Left
politics, where each failed attempt to implement communism is explained away by
saying that it wasn’t ‘proper’ communism.
But in this
case it goes further, and links back to the second narrative, in that Brexiters
continue to claim victimhood at the hands of the elite, refusing to accept that
having won the Referendum and having a government now pursuing what they voted
for, they are the elite, and they are
the ones implementing Brexit.
It’s the Remainers’ fault
excuse is that all would have been well but for Remainers who are accused,
variously, of sabotage, treachery and of talking Brexit down. Often, it’s a variant of the
paranoid idea about the elite – meaning the Civil Service, Judiciary, BBC, CBI,
IoD, House of Lords but not, mysteriously, the ex-public schoolboys,
millionaires and hedge funds that support Brexit. Sometimes it’s the entire 48%
of voters who didn’t back Brexit.
daily examples of this claim, but taking just one, that
of Leave means Leave co-Chair John Longworth in August 2017, is
instructive. The usual suspects are named, in this case for their “pretence”
that Britain must pay a “divorce bill” (i.e. settle its outstanding commitments
to the EU). But, of course, it wasn’t a Remainer pretence, and four months
later the payment was agreed.
general issue is that, if Brexit were the self-evidently great idea its proponents
claim, it would hardly matter what Remainers did or said. For that matter,
within minutes of the vote, before Remainers had had time to engage in any of
their nefarious sabotage, Sterling suffered a catastrophic collapse (which in
any other circumstances would have led to a political crisis) as the currency
markets priced in their prediction of what Brexit would mean.
It’s the EU’s fault
narrative is possibly the most dominant of the post-Referendum excuses made by
Brexiters. It is that the problem was not with the decision to leave, and not
solely (or even primarily) with the British government or with Remainers, but
with the EU who have decided to ‘punish’ Britain for leaving. Such claims are
invariably nonsense since they ascribe to the EU the consequences of having
left the EU (and, in this sense, are another denial of responsibility). To take
just the most current of numerous examples, Brexiters
claim that the border controls, especially in Ireland, are something being
threatened by the EU rather than being ineluctable, legal consequences of
leaving the single market and any customs union.
many things that could be said about this punishment narrative (see
here), but the core difficulty with it for Brexiters is that they
repeatedly promised that Britain held ‘all the cards’ and that ‘the EU needs us
far more than we need them’. If that was right, then no punishment would have
been possible. If it was wrong, then the vote did indeed have consequences
embedded within it, consequences which were concealed from voters by the Leave
It’s not about practical consequences, it’s
about philosophical principles
these five narratives – and perhaps in recognition of their paucity – some Brexiters
run a sixth. Here, the attempt is to claim that those who voted leave did so on
the basis of a commitment to ‘sovereignty’ in the abstract. So consequences
don’t matter, since this was a purely philosophical vote. I can (just about)
imagine that this might be true for a few leave voters, though I would
argue that they are wrong, but it clearly wasn’t what was proposed to the British people by the
Leave campaign, which instead made arguments about immigration and NHS funding,
and made claims that leaving would be easy precisely because they knew that if
voters thought otherwise then would be disadvantageous to their cause. A pure
sovereignty argument would not have needed to make such claims.
practical consequences of leaving the EU mount up, and can no longer be
dismissed as Project Fear, what Brexiters are trying to do is to counter the
argument that ‘no one voted to be poorer’. This is the real meaning of the
claim that the vote was about the principle of sovereignty and not practical
consequences since, of course, if it was about principles it can be claimed
that leave voters accepted that it meant they would get poorer. And it’s
probably true that some did. But it certainly isn’t true
of the majority of leave voters, even as regards
immigration. Yet not only do Brexiters deny this, but some
even claim that impoverishment and hardship will be desirable, in some way
creating a national renewal by returning to the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But, again,
there are good reasons why this was not put on the side of the Leave campaign
bus: almost no one would have voted for it.
Why does this matter?
because the vote to leave the EU was the beginning of a process – the process
of Brexit – rather than the end of something, the way that Brexiters are now
attempting to decouple the vote from its consequences is crucial.
are trying to use the Referendum vote, close as it was, to mandate as the ‘Will
of the People’ anything that they say it means. This is most obviously true in
terms of the ‘Global Britain’ agenda of free trade deals around the world.
There is much that could be said about that (how does exiting the FTAs that the
EU has help it? how does leaving the single market help it?) but, those things
aside, how does the Referendum mandate it? For, given that in some, perhaps
large, part it was a nativist and protectionist vote it mandates the precise
sense, there is a massive political fraud underway at the moment, and,
actually, it isn’t remain voters who are primarily its victims but leave
voters. They are being told that their concerns about immigration and
globalization are going to be ignored. I happen to think that their concerns
about immigration were misplaced and their concerns about globalization
irrelevant to the Brexit debate. But I am not so dishonest as to pretend that
the vote was not about those things, whereas many Brexiters are.
Thus the day
after the Referendum Daniel
Hannan said that
the Leave campaign “never said there was going to be some radical decline” in
immigration, and last March David Davis said that immigration might even rise. Both
pretend that all that matters to voters is that Britain decides its own
immigration policy – that all they care about is ‘sovereignty’ – rather than
actual numbers. As for globalization and free trade, it’s notable that just
about every Brexiter now talks as if having an independent trade policy were
the main rationale of Brexit. That was mentioned during the Referendum, but it
certainly wasn’t presented as the central argument for Brexit – whereas
immigration was – and it certainly wasn’t explained that such a trade policy
will entail the
relaxation of immigration controls.
That is only
one aspect of the even greater dishonesty of Brexiters. What they are really
trying to argue is that the vote mandates them to do anything they want. That
is an even bigger, and even more dubious, proposition than that the Referendum
vote set in stone the ‘will of the people’ with respect to EU membership.
Precisely because leaving the EU has such far-reaching ramifications not just
for economics but for geo-politics, it can be claimed that anything done
post-Brexit is mandated by the Referendum result.
So this is
where Brexiters are now. All the pre-Referendum swagger has gone, all the
promises made have evaporated. In their place are a series of absurd and
indefensible arguments. But it is important to understand that these arguments,
even if they are often run together, contain two fundamentally different
claims. One is that whatever happens now is not the fault of Brexiters. The
other is that Brexiters have been given a blank cheque to do whatever they now
want to do. These claims are linked in that both treat 23 June 2016 as a frozen
moment, denoting either the end of their responsibility for the consequences or
the beginning of their freedom to define the consequences. Whilst different,
they are linked in their boundless dishonesty, since neither claim was entertained,
let alone endorsed, by the Referendum.
But they are
also linked in another – probably more important – way. They are profoundly
unrealistic. For politics did not stop on 23 June 2016. On the contrary, it
began a period of political dislocation that will last for many years, perhaps
decades, to come. Brexiters seemed to imagine that by winning the vote that
would be an end to it. It’s already obvious that this is not so. If Brexit does
go ahead, the Brexiters will, rightly, be held responsible for every
consequence that flows from it. That is the significance of the narratives they
are already putting forward to deny that the vote had consequences: it’s not
simply that they don’t want to take the blame, it’s that they don’t want to
take the responsibility.
truth about Brexit is that through a series of accidents a protest movement
with wholly unrealistic and disastrous policies unexpectedly and unwillingly
became a government set upon delivering them. The Brexiters are now running
away from the consequences as fast as they can. The tragedy for our country is
that, in one way or another, we are stuck with having to deal with them.
"Best guy to follow on Brexit for intelligent analysis" Annette Dittert, ARD German TV. "Consistently outstanding analysis of Brexit" Jonathan Dimbleby. "The best writer on Brexit" Chris Lockwood, Europe Editor, The Economist. "A must-read for anyone following Brexit" David Allen Green, FT. "The doyen of Brexit commentators" Chris Johns, Irish Times. @ChrisGrey@mastodon.online & Twitter @chrisgreybrexit
Sunday, 13 May 2018
Brexiters are running away from the consequences of what they have inflicted on Britain
Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)
Post a Comment
Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.