This morning’s Telegraph brings the latest musings on Brexit from the bloviating circus act that we so generously call a government at the same time as news of its translucent dealings with the IEA. A Cabinet source in the paper calls for ‘the risk for the EU, the negatives for them’ of a Brexit with no deal to be highlighted, followed by a report that Steve Baker, as a Brexit minister, commissioned into the cost for each member state along with a proposal to advertise the grim findings on billboards across the 27-nation bloc. Some ‘deep and special partnership’. The one consistency underpinning the many months of shambolic administration of our withdrawal, unprecedented in scope and potential cost, is a wilful ignorance to the details. Firstly is the complexity of the whole thing. We have spent 43 years integrating ourselves into the behemoth via a succession of treaties, most recently Lisbon. Our trade policy is entirely the competence of the EU. So is our fisheries policy. So, by and large, agriculture. EU systems have enveloped our own over a period of over four decades. So those who treat the EU as a background issue and insist that the UK is a fully independent country are equally ignorant as those who say we can wrap all this up in a couple of years and become a properly managed independent country nice and speedily, or who say we can leave without a deal and we’ll be sound. Both should be regarded with equal contempt. This may explain the surprising degree to which the groups intersect: how else can figures such as Theresa May and Boris Johnson move from years of tepid indifference to a cavalier determination to leave in a far more abrupt way than is necessary or wise? Such figures display their ignorance at how deeply embedded we are into the structures of the EU and would prefer that things are simple so pretend that they are.
Now if matters really are so simple, perhaps the rest of us could be told how. Because maybe they are. Maybe the single market isn’t all it’s vaunted to be, and an exit with no comprehensive deal would bear only minor difficulties. If this is so, should we be sure of it, or should we leave the outcome to chance? Given that leaving the single market is a political decision that does not necessarily follow from leaving the EU, is it not up to single market leavers to justify it? When the Sunday Times reported the civil service’s preparations for no deal to much ridicule from many leavers, the assumption was that the RAF food drops and medicine delays were so dramatic as to be implausible. It never seemed to strike many that the severity of the claims were more reason, not less, to take them seriously, and that that laughter should be saved for after the fact when no doubt you’ll be proved right. The warnings on Brexit have come so incessantly and with such emotional overspill that people have lost the ability to distinguish between fear- and fact-mongering. Seemingly the drunken optimism of hard leave and the bitter pessimism of hard remain have accelerated each other.
And now, a considerable time after the referendum, this ‘hard remain’ sentiment has coagulated into a People’s Vote movement, complete with a modest but growing array of celebrity endorsements, most recently Gary Lineker. It’s not difficult to understand why many, not least remainers, fear for the state of the country in nine months’ time. Even those who made respectable efforts to support the implementation of the result of the 2016 referendum have reason for pause. At the same time, many have advocated a second referendum as the most presentable means of undoing the original result, just as much of the Eurosceptic movement designed a referendum as the most likely way of achieving the long-term ambition of an exit from the EU. In this sense, a campaign for a second referendum has always been an inevitability even if the government had sped towards a smooth, EEA-oriented Brexit, and the most peculiar question has been why it’s taken them so long since the referendum. Still, the idea is wrong. All varieties of claims were made by all sides and participants in the referendum, almost none of which should be taken as a mandate, but if there was near-universal agreement on one thing, it was the finality of the outcome. Talk of a second referendum on was very scarce, quickly dismissed, and usually predicated on a remain vote. Yes, the 2016 referendum wasn’t the first. Between 1975 and 2016 came 41 years, several constitution-binding treaties, enormous transfer of legal competence to a foreign power, and the total transformation of our trade policy. Between 2016 and has come a series of incompetent attempts to handle a set of circumstances that have scarcely fundamentally changed. Equating the two periods to justify a third so soon is the work of charlatans and the proposition is justified by claiming it as the ‘people’s’. Think, if you will, of all the groups, legislative bodies, and campaigns that have ever prefaced their names with ‘people’s’, and ask how genuinely representative they tend to be of the entire mass of ’the people’.
The campaign includes representatives in the Conservative Parliamentary party which has long given up any pretence of an agreed position. Perhaps of highest profile is Anna Soubry who may not be a conservative by virtually any definition but at least has undeniable guts. Her remarks in last year’s debate on Article 50 that ‘history will not be kind to this Parliament, nor, indeed, to the Government’ are pretty agreeable. If it wasn’t obvious enough that the Conservative Party is missing any political common denominator or any practicality, hopefully Brexit has exposed this truth to even the simplest of voters. And thus we have arrived at the irresolvable position of the government firing on all cylinders towards an objective it doesn’t understand, has largely never wanted, and accepts no reason over. Boris Johnson made no effort in his predictably vain resignation speech that he had understood anything about the Article 50 process in his shameful time as Foreign Secretary; nor has he rebuked the rumour that the dismissed the Chequers non-agreement as a ’turd’ – one that Michel Barnier has summarily rejected. It’s not difficult to believe Barnier when he says that his position is in full agreement with that of the EU-27 and one wonders how Frau Merkel reacted to the Scheiße. I don’t speak German but I wish I could.
It has exposed the narcissism of many hard leavers like no other vote could. One of the foremost defences for leaving the single market is formed of the idea that it is what we voted for. There is obviously no way to prove this, barring some exercise of identifying and canvassing all 17,410,742 leave voters immediately upon leaving the polls. This number is also rehearsed as a mandate for ruling out any customs arrangement, any regulatory agreement, or even any deal at all. The arrogance is astonishing. At least with the hardest remainers – or if you’re an easily amused simpleton that gets a giggle out of funny word plays, remoaners – they’re straight up with leavers. If you voted leave, they think your vote was wrong and that it should be ignored in favour of their route of remaining, and they’ll tell you as much. You can call it condescending, undemocratic, disrespectful, dishonourable, or impractical: it’s all of these things and more, but at least it’s honest.
Equating the EU with the single market, or anything linked to but not consumed by it, is very dishonest. No, I don’t care that David Cameron once suggested that we’d be leaving the single market in some interview. He had every interest in doing so to make the leave option seem more dangerous than it needed to be and, besides, he was one of the most ignorant, vain Prime Ministers in our recent history. No, I don’t care the Boris Johnson or Angela Eagle or Ruth Davidson did either. Politicians lie, especially Tories. Actually telling you what you really meant when you voted is more than a bit patronising. Telling me that my vote to ‘Leave the European Union’ – the full, comprehensive extent of the endorsement of my vote – was really a plan for your politically driven and possibly gapingly flawed agenda is a specially narcissistic type of ignorance. If you do this, stop it. You know who you are.
Still this lie has provided plentiful fuel for those who shake their fists at the apparent feebleness of the government. There’s no question that the government is cluelessly headed for a Brexit that could be anything from disastrously rough to EU membership in all but name. Still, there’s little wisdom apparent among any other recognisable party. UKIP has tripled its poll numbers (read: added about four per cent) by electing (read: nominating unopposed) a leader who has confined his newspaper coverage to the political pages of the Daily Express rather than the sleaze pages of the Daily Mirror. UKIP and movements parallel to it speak of a Prime Minister orchestrating a plot to keep us in the EU, in doing so dramatically overestimating her political principles and wits. A party which three years ago published an impressive manifesto that made no reference to leaving the single market and promoted an Article 50-based exit now propose allocating a week to arranging a framework for frictionless, barrier-free trade that would simultaneously allow full regulatory divergence. Are matters not desperate enough without Batten spreading the ignorance of his decrepit party all over them?
The reason for this ignorance is all the unknown unknowns. I am ready to admit that as a leave voter and campaigner, I don’t know a twentieth of what I should. Try researching the EU regulation on documents accompanying consignments of wine products and wine sector registers to be kept, and then tell me that mathematics is no fun. My reluctance to leave the single market might well be based upon a misapprehension of it. There exists a huge web of authors, columnists, commentators, and bloggers who should already be known to anyone with a serious interest in Brexit, and my reluctance to pick apart the issues is as much because it would be restating others’ knowledge as because of my own uncertainty – though it is admittedly easy to identify the follies of those who not only should know better but are in a position of political responsibility where they really need to do so. For anyone whose reasons for Brexit are based on sovereignty and democratic accountability, a hard Brexit is no doubt a more comfortable position.
Scores of opportunists, leavers and remainers, including self-declared conservatives on both sides, have made a line of work out of inflating their own very supple egos parroting abstract nothings that widespread public self-education would never allow. If being a conservative means anything, surely part of it is an acknowledgement of what you still have to learn and a reluctance to tear up what you don’t understand. Studying Brexit is a little like researching the universe: as your knowns expand, your known unknowns increase exponentially. It was an ignorance or an indifference to our own constitution that led us so far into a politically globalist project disjoint in nature from the UK’s centuries of uncodified constitution. Support of a responsive, nation state democracy is virtually incompatible with supporting the EU. As a withered, debt-ridden country utterly divided on its place in the world, its religion and patriotism dissolved by decades of progressive arrogance, is it so much to ask that we apply a little more caution to how we leave?