In an age when people pride themselves on their cynicism, it’s almost touching to remember that one of the most powerful forces in politics is still optimism. We may routinely dismiss politicians as self-serving vermin, but when the time comes, we generally choose the self-serving vermin who tell the best story of a brighter tomorrow. Better a smiling cockroach than a gloomy one.
Optimism is one of the great fault-lines that run beneath the Brexit debate, one that helps explain why the Brexiteers are making the running and why those who still stand opposed to Brexit still have a lot to learn. Simply, the Brexiteers are setting the pace because they realise people want to hear good news, want to be told a story of improvement and success.
It doesn’t even really matter if that story is detailed or convincing or even casually acquainted with the facts. The visions of Brexit Britain’s glorious post-European future offered by some bright-eyed Brexiteers are neither. What matters is that the authors look and sound like they believe that their plan means tomorrow will be better than today.
It pains me to say this because I count many of them as friends, but the depth of the pro-EU camp’s misunderstanding of this is dizzying. On Brexit Day, the Open Britain campaign thought the best way to criticise Theresa May and friends was to accuse them of a surfeit of optimism. Open Britain gleefully seized on Mrs May’s suggestion under Andrew Neil’s questions that Britain could hope to enjoy much the same economic benefits from the single market and customs union as it does now once its membership of the EU lapses. The following morning, David Davis breezily (does he ever do things any other way? You could power a turbine from the man these days) batted such assurances away as an aspiration, an ambition – something Britain can hope for and aim at. Cue more pro-EU outrage: ‘You couldn’t make this up’ tweeted David Lammy in fury.
But politics is, at least in part, about making things up, about imagining things, then persuading other people to imagine them too. Brexit, I politely suggest, is a gigantic exercise in such imagining: as a political proposition, it is the idea that things will, eventually, be better when we’re outside the EU.
To some on the Remain side, this is essentially incomprehensible: how could people believe such things? Don’t they understand the facts, recognise the weight of evidence?
Which raises another question: in political argument, what’s the best way to change the minds of people who think they’ve done a good, clever thing? I humbly submit to my pro-European friends that telling those people that in fact, they’ve done a bad, stupid thing isn’t the best way to win them round. Nor is it good politics to sit back and wait for the economic disaster you believe will vindicate your warnings: who’s going to vote for people who are positively looking forward to an economic crisis?
As for the Brexiteers, if the worst they’re accused of is aiming too high, even absurdly high, for Brexit Britain, that’s something they’ll live with, because who’s going to fault them for excessive ambition? Certainly not Robert Browning, who caught the essential truth about such things:
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?
The Brexiteers’ reach far exceeds their grasp, but they are winning today because they’re talking about a heaven. Anyone who really wants to take them on needs to start doing the same. By all means, ask hard questions about what Brexiteer heaven would actually look like, especially the WTO-only version of it, which surely comes with rather more flames, imps and infernal torments than you’d expect of an eternal paradise. But don’t stop there. Talk about your own better world, the happier, sunnier country that we could be if we follow the path that leads us as close to our biggest trading partners as we can get. You may, in your secret hearts, think this is about damage limitation, about making the best of a bad job, but keep that to yourself: no one is inspired by damage limitation. No one rallies behind the idea of making things a bit less crap than they might otherwise be. Talk about how you believe in your country and in its ability to do well no matter how difficult the circumstances.
If you want to see how it’s done, take a look at Emmanuel Macron, at Justin Trudeau and even, intriguingly, at Sadiq Khan. The Mayor of London’s response to Article 50 this week didn’t get the attention he deserved. The Labour leader of the great Remainian citadel could have claimed to represent more anti-Brexit voters than any other politician and dedicated himself to the the task of keeping Britain (or perhaps just London…?) in the EU. He didn’t do that. Instead, he said this:
‘I didn’t vote for Brexit, but I am optimistic about London’s future. My conversations with European and EU leaders this week have left me in no doubt that there is a good Brexit deal to be done if the Government approaches it in the right way – a deal that is in the best interests of London, Britain and the EU’.
He went on to talk about that ‘good deal’ where London’s EU nationals and its banks are properly protected and respected. It was an object lesson in pragmatic and practical politics, and confirms that Mr Khan is a man to watch, not least since it suggests he has an eye on voters outside the capital who are inclined to look on the bright side of Brexit.
For those who regret the referendum result, this has been a bad week and possibly the worst. But the time for self-indulgent, self-harming misery is over. Smile, my friends, and remember: things can only get better.
James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation and will be writing a column for The Spectator that will appear on Fridays