Kipling wrote about Brexit first, you know:
“It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
Though we know we should defeat you,
We have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”
That, in essence, was David Cameron’s approach to the eurosceptics within his own party. Promise to pay just enough to keep them satisfied in the hope they would not then be emboldened to come back for more. But, as Kipling knew:
“And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.”
Theresa May, to give her credit, has solved this problem. She has decided that if you can’t beat them you might as well join them. The Dane has a point, you see, so why not move beyond this tiresome and humiliating extortion and just invite the Dane to run your government for you? Hey presto, no Dane-geld and everyone gets to play the Dane.
I suppose we should have seen this coming. We certainly should not have listened to Dan Hannan (‘Absolutely no-one is talking about threatening our place in the single market’) or Boris Johnson (‘I’d vote to stay in the single market. I’m in favour of the single market’) or Owen Paterson (‘Only a madman would actually leave the [single] market’) or even dear old Arron Banks (‘Increasingly, the Norway option looks the best for the UK’) . We should not have so dismissed the warnings made by George Osborne and David Cameron and others that voting to Leave the EU would inevitably mean leaving the single market. Typical fear-mongering stuff, that. How could we know that? Because Dan and Boris and all the others told us so. And why would they lie to us?
It’s a puzzle, right enough.
It turns out you can’t have a ‘full English’ without kippers. Recognising this – recognising that, by gum, Nigel and his boys were right all along – the Prime Minister seems determined to give us the ‘full Ukip’. That’s her prerogative, of course. It may even be, in the present circumstances, the best option available to Britain. (Since it is the course upon which the government is embarked, let us hope that proves the case.) But it is vanishingly hard to make a coherent case that this is what the people of Britain actually voted for.
Brexit had many parents. No defining moment in the march of a nation has a single source; history turns almost by accident. The roads not taken could, if matters had been arranged only a little differently, been the roads taken instead.
Politicians must pretend otherwise. So the Prime Minister insists that ‘The result of the referendum was not a decision to turn inward and retreat from the world.’ Doubtless that is true for some, even for many. But as I have observed before if you think the pubs of Sunderland are amply stuffed with people thirsting for the opportunity to be the Singapore of the West then, with respect, I think you’re at it. You’re selling a line and one that’s a lie at that.
Even so, we are now, as this magazine put it Out and into the world. But, I repeat, this global Britain stuff is not what won the referendum for Leave. You needn’t take my word for this, you need simply ask Dominic Cummings. ‘Go Global’, he writes, was just ‘trade babble’ and would have been ‘a losing message’. It was the kind of thing favoured by the Farageists – who had to be kept as far away from the official campaign as possible – and therefore ‘a total loser with the public’. Now it is official government policy.
Perhaps that is for the best. Perhaps the negotiations will in time inch us back towards a Swiss-style arrangement with the EU. This is what Dan Hannan still says he prefers but it is hard to square this with the view that a government that has made its bet on immigration will allow the compromises demanded by that Swiss-style set of governing rules.
No-one sensible has ever doubted that there are opportunities afforded by Brexit (though since one of these is thinking about farming for the first time in 40 years you would not, if you were serious about these opportunities, give Andrea Leadsom the agriculture portfolio). The question is whether those opportunities off-set the disadvantages of leaving. Let us hope they do.
Equally, there is a coherent and plausible case to be made against the EU even if this was not, in the end, the case actually made to the British people. Instead they were fed half-truths about £350m a week and complete untruths about Turkey’s allegedly imminent introduction to the club. In which circumstances, it’s not altogether unreasonable for people who voted Remain to look upon the promises made by Leave with some measure of jaundiced disappointment.
Remove the stuff about borders and immigration, however, and much of May’s speech today was strikingly similar in tone and rhetoric to the speech that Alex Salmond would have given had he won the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. We are all adults. Let’s be mature about this. You have lost a surly lodger but gained a good neighbour. The spirit of enlightened and mutual self-interest will henceforth guide our negotiations as we do our utmost to reduce uncertainty and make independence a success.
That’s what Salmond would have said and I bet you a
pound dollar no-one in London would have said, You know, he has a point. On the contrary, the popular view would have been that Salmond was being too cute by half. As, indeed, he would have been since the underlying message was this: We’ve repudiated you, now let’s be adults and make sure you give us everything we want. Does it need to be said that this is not how politics works? Perhaps it does. In comparable fashion, we are now expected to believe that the EU will roll over and give the UK everything it wants. Yes, of course the UK can bring some things to the table, some things that would make life easier for the EU. But will it be enough? Or will it, perhaps more probably, prove that the EU countries cannot afford to be seen to be going soft on Britain? A Britain some of them never much liked anyway?
And then there was this statement of eye-popping twaddle: ‘It’s why we will put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do.’ No you won’t and what’s more, Prime Minister, you know you won’t. English Tories have made their feelings plain: the EU is a bigger deal to them than the Union. That too is their choice and one which, once made, we will all have to live with.
It doesn’t necessarily mean independence and the break-up of Britain is inevitable. Indeed, as we’ve discussed before, a hard Brexit makes independence a still harder business even if it might also now be a more psychologically attractive proposition. But it does mean that the people who saved the United Kingdom just two years ago are now some of the loneliest voters in Britain.
Instead, however, we are supposed to welcome the idea that Britain is now, for the first time in decades, a free country. Worse still, at least in a psychological sense, we are asked to trust the hysterics who talk in such terms. Instead of laughing at them, we have to hope they are right and that the people who led us into something we fear is likely to prove an expensive mistake are in fact the great seers of our age. It means swallowing a lot, frankly, but that is where we are. You wanted this; now make it work.