Coffee House

Beware the cult of Brexit

13 March 2017

3:21 PM

13 March 2017

3:21 PM

In their frequent moments of self-congratulation, conservatives describe themselves as level-headed and practical people. If there were a scintilla of truth in the stories they tell themselves the government would not think of activating Article 50 this week. Unfortunately, for our country, actual conservatives and mythical conservatives have next to nothing in common. Unconstrained by a political opposition and egged on by a Tory press that makes Breitbart seem like a reputable news service, modern Tories resemble no one so much as the right-wing parody of left wingers: utopian, contemptuous of detail and convinced the world owes them a living.

No practical government would invoke Article 50 this week, this month or any time before the end of the year. The next six months in the EU will be filled by the Dutch, French and German elections. The French elections will undoubtedly produce a new government with a different view of Brexit. The German election just might produce one too.

The two-year Article 50 process was, notoriously, drafted with the intention that it should never be used. Vast areas have to be covered in limited time, including the financial terms of the divorce settlement; and a transitional trade deal, leading to a final trade deal sometime in the 2020s.

But there is every likelihood that nothing worth noticing will happen in the first six months of the two years, because everyone will be waiting for European electorates to vote. The last months will be taken up with trying to get a deal (assuming there is a deal) ratified by the European parliament (every parliament on the continent will have a say on Brexit, you should note, except the British parliament).

Given that no continental politician will win by saying ‘I agree with Boris Johnson, the British must have their cake and eat it,’ surely the practical policy would be to delay Article 50 until after the German elections on 24 September. Why not give us more time to negotiate? Why not allow a civil service, weakened by austerity, time to regroup and think through problems that are currently overwhelming Whitehall?


A part of the answer is that the only force in Westminster politics is a resurgent nationalist right that is breath-taking in its recklessness. If taking Britain out of the European Union means driving Scotland from the British union, the right harrumphs that they could live with it and indeed welcome it. (Who wants those grasping Jocks, eh?) And if it destabilises Ireland, well, those Paddies will find reasons to fight each other whatever we do. As for the rest of us, a fantasy of empire, repackaged as the ‘Anglosphere’, will somehow make up for our lost markets. It is as if I have returned to the suburbia of my youth, and the belches of the old bore, knocking back one too many at the bar, are now guiding the destiny of the nation.

In particular, he is guiding a prime minister, who has nothing to fear from the supposedly left-wing opposition in front of her and everything to fear from the right-wing politicians and newspapers behind her. The only way our ‘remain’ voting PM can secure her position is to put party ahead of country and placate them.

There remains truth in this quasi-rational political explanation. Meanwhile George Osborne and the ‘remain’ campaign provided a quasi-rational psychological explanation when they vastly overdid the immediate consequences of a ‘leave’ vote. Brexit will begin a process of slow economic decline, as investors relocate their funds into the single market, and the gradual disintegration of Britain as English nationalism gives new life to Scottish and Irish nationalism. It’s a degenerative disease not the fatal heart attack the remain campaign warned against. When, in the days and months after the referendum, Britain was not struck down, over-confidence flooded the right.

But there is a limit to how far you can rationalise the irrational. Why is Theresa May rushing ahead with Article 50? Why isn’t she at least trying to keep the country together by seeking a soft Brexit? Why most of all isn’t she preparing the country (what’s left of it) for hard times and hard choices? Rational politicians instinctively lower expectations. Yet there’s no warning of blood, sweat, toil and tears ahead from May. Not even a hint. Her chancellor gives a budget in which he barely mentions Brexit. Her backbenches turn on him over a minor tax rise on the self-employed, as if they think that is the worst that can befall the country. Nowhere are ministers preparing the public for the possibility that we cannot leave a club while retaining the benefits of membership.

It is more convincing to see the Brexiteers as women and men in the grip of a cult, as deep as the Corbyn cult on the left. In cults, said Stephen Pinker ‘fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety’. Today you have to show that you believe the fantastically optimistic beliefs about Brexit to prove your devotion to the Church of the Latter Day Tories.

In his Brexit address to the Lords, Lord Kerr, who actually wrote Article 50 for the EU, pointed out the obvious when he said that leaving the single market and customs union would hurt our trade with Europe – economically, there is no better option only worse options. Equally obviously, our trade with the rest of the world will suffer, for why would it ‘be so keen to open their markets to us if we are no longer their entry point to a market of 500 million’?

It is also a fact, he added

that trade halves as distance doubles. It is a fact that customs controls cause delays that damage modern global supply chains and that building trade barriers hurts both sides, but the bigger economy loses less.

He explained the government’s failure to acknowledge these self-evident truths by saying that whatever happens ‘the Bullingdon boys will be just fine’.

I am not sure that Kerr’s class analysis works better than any other rational or quasi-rational analysis. Political common sense would tell May and the Cabinet to delay implementing Article 50, and to prepare the country for trouble ahead. That they do not suggests that they are in a cultish trance. As does their failure to celebrate. You must have noticed that instead, of rejoicing that they have at last found their heart’s desire, Brexiteers harangue the rest of us with angry diatribes against our refusal to share their faith. They are the spit of true believers who cannot accept that heretics refuse to see the way and the truth and the life.

If their hopes for the future were rational, Brexiteers would be celebrating and passing the port. As it is, I suspect they will soon be forcing the rest of us to pass the Kool-Aid.

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