Brexit is clearly a terrible idea. But it has to happen
Social media is awash with it. In a certain kind of company, conversation inevitably turns to it. Now, even senior broadcast journalists hint that it might be possible, triggering great surges of online excitement. Barely a year after the EU referendum and only three months since the Daily Mail’s triumphal “Crush the saboteurs” front page, you can almost smell it: a rising expectation that the nightmare of leaving the EU might somehow be averted, allowing the country to return to some kind of normal.
“I know in my heart that Brexit can be stopped,” offers Alastair Campbell.
“We’ll stop Brexit,” insists the venerable AC Grayling, who seems to break off from chewing over the great mysteries of existence to tweet such things several times a day.
On Tuesday Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and an enthusiastic supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, wrote an eloquent article for the LabourList website encouraging the party to bow to the supposedly inevitable. “The folly of the Brexit vote is becoming clearer and its economic consequences look dire,” he said. “Staying put won’t even cost us a penny.”
Fair play to these people: with ministers evidently making it up as they go along, dire economic forecasts, and big EU figures warning that negotiations might quickly break down, there is clearly a prima facie case for what they suggest. And calling time on Brexit fits the guarded optimism embraced by thousands of people since the start of June. A combination of Labour’s election surge, Theresa May’s crumpling, and the joys of a half-decent summer seem to have embedded one belief above all others: that if enough of us make sufficient noise, we can somehow pretend 23 June 2016 never happened.
The problem is that it did. Moreover, as far as I can tell from the many conversations I had with leave voters during the election campaign, the vast majority of people who voted to leave the EU are still convinced that it is the right thing to do. In whole swaths of the country, the bitterly anti-establishment mood that boiled over last summer is still there, so a coalition of political insiders, left-liberal newspaper columnists and business voices telling people they were wrong is not terribly likely to succeed. In places long since laid waste by the malign effects of globalisation, predictions of economic doom do not cut much ice. And as well as holding fast to their beliefs about free movement and the necessity of Britain taking power back from Brussels, some now express an opinion that irate remainers might not even understand: that if leaving the EU is turning out to be so difficult, this only underlines how much of an offence to sovereignty and democracy it probably is.
Vince Cable says Brexit ‘may never happen’
For pro-EU people who support Labour, all this highlights some very uncomfortable tensions. Though it is hardly his fault, it is part of Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation into the Princess Diana de nos jours that he has in some way become the sentimentalised focus of many remainers’ hopes while actually tilting in precisely the opposite direction: reverting to his lifelong Euroscepticism and embracing Brexit (albeit with the strong caveats highlighted by Labour’s stance on the “great repeal bill”), and thereby ensuring that leave supporters are an equally important part of Labour’s delicate electoral coalition. This was the key reason why Labour held on to many pro-Brexit seats they were predicted to lose – something plenty of non-Corbynite, instinctively pro-European Labour MPs well understand.
Yet still the predictions of Brexit interrupted pile up. Thanks to the kind of long transition arrangement proposed by the Confederation of British Industry, some think the process might fizzle out. Perhaps a second referendum will kill it. This week, a talented Tweeter wrote an imagined speech for May, conceding “the Brexit process would inflict much unsalvageable damage on our country”, and announcing the U-turn to end all U-turns.
But there is always something missing: any sense of the backlash that would be sparked, the myth of betrayal that would sit at the heart of our politics, and the great gift likely to be handed to ugly and opportunistic forces that are still out there, waiting for their chance. Ukip is in abeyance partly because its current leadership could not run a bath, but also because the process of Brexit is under way. Immigration did not much figure in the general election because the prospect of ending free movement was in sight. Nix those things – which, in the latter case, applies as much to staying in the single market – and the grim politics of the pre-referendum period could well come roaring back.
At which point, a few simple facts. To understand why people support Brexit is not to agree with them. Clearly, leaving the EU remains a terrible idea. It will almost certainly be economically calamitous, and it sends out a terrible signal about the kind of country Britain has become. The negotiations will likely shred most Brexiteers’ claims about the country’s strong hand: whether we crash out or swallow whatever we are offered, the outcome is not likely to be pretty.
The big question, though, centres on where Brexit came from, and what sustains it. A large part of the answer is about an ingrained English exceptionalism, partly traceable to geography but equally bound up with a puffed-up interpretation of our national past, which has bubbled away in our politics and culture for decades. The likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have used it for their own ideological ends; in the kind of post-industrial places long ignored by Westminster politicians it turned out to be the one bit of pride and identity many people had left. It runs deep: even if the economy takes a vertiginous plunge, it will take a lot longer than two years to shift it.
The only way such delusions will fade is if they are finally tested in the real world and found wanting, whereupon this country may at last be ready to humbly engage with modernity. And in that sense, to paraphrase a faded politician, Brexit probably has to mean Brexit. That may result in a long spell of relative penury, and an atmosphere of recrimination and resentment. By the time everything is resolved a lot of us will either be very old or dead. But that may be the price we have to pay to belatedly put all our imperial baggage in the glass case where it belongs, and to edge our way back into the European family, if they will have us.
In the meantime, this messiest of national dramas grinds on, and not for the first time the story suggests the priceless words of the American writer and satirist HL Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”