As time passes, some things become clear. The problem isn’t Brexit; the problem is the Brexiteers. Or, to put it slightly differently, while Brexit may be sub-optimal, the Brexiteers are much worse than that. They are awful.
Extraordinarily, Jacob Rees-Mogg is now the bookmakers’ favourite to be the next prime minister. As the champion of the backbench Brexiteers he can no longer be dismissed – or, indeed, indulged – as an enjoyable eccentric. He is serious and perhaps now merits being taken seriously himself.
As an intellectual matter, Brexit remains a respectable cause. The vision of Brexit imagined by The Spectator has much to commend it even if I think it bends, just a little, towards a heroically optimistic version of this country’s future. But if we survey the ranks of elected Brexiteers, has any cause, even an ostensibly respectable one, ever been championed by such a collection of know-nothing charlatans?
Remarkably, nearly two years after Brexit the cabinet has still not decided on a position vis a vis the customs union. Or even “a” customs union. The Irish border, about which Leavers were warned long ago, remains a problem to be solved, apparently, by wishful thinking of the kind that promises a pony for every crossing point. Don’t worry, though, everything is going to be fine. David Davis and Liam Fox are on the case.
We should, of course, play the ball not the man but that becomes increasingly difficult when the man and the ball become to all intents and purposes indistinguishable. Brexit, in any case, was not an exercise in disinterested policy analysis. There is no need to take my word for this; we need only consult what the leading Brexiteers say themselves. For many of them, Brexit was about something bigger and more stirring than drab economic forecasts. It was a question of how Britain should see itself and what kind of role it should play in the world. We did not feel European in the way the French or Germans cannot avoid being continentals; our history was different and our future should lie elsewhere too. Viewed in this fashion, our EU entanglement was a diversion from destiny. An interruption to be endured at best but never welcomed.
The Times performed a public service this week by inviting Rees-Mogg to write an article on the comment pages once so gracefully adorned by his father. It is an instructive piece of work that merits examination.
According to Rees-Mogg, “it is our national good fortune” that Brexit is happening while Donald Trump is president of the United States. Trump’s election “depended upon similar factors to those that led to Brexit”. Trump, we are told, “exudes confidence about his own nation and a determination not to be a manager of decline, which also inspires the Brexiteers”.
There, you see, you have it. Nationalists of all stripes invariably invoke the confidence fairies. If only we close our eyes and concentrate really, really hard we may wish ourselves back to national greatness. It is a theory, albeit not a persuasive one. Not least because one senses that it protests too much and that, far from being an expression of national confidence, it springs from a deep source of insecurity.
Insecurity mixed with effortless condescension, of course. It will, Rees-Mogg writes, “be necessary to show the Americans how our departure from the EU will be in their national interest, too”. Indeed so, for the poor cousins are no doubt too stupid to appreciate this for themselves.
To insecurity and condescension you may add profound mischaracterisation of plainly observable reality. According to Rees-Mogg, the US “accepted” British membership of the EU because “the standard US view was that Britain could temper the incipient hostility to its power within the European councils”. It is axiomatic in the Moggist world, however, that only the United Kingdom is “a true friend” of the United States which I suppose will be news to all those other European countries that are members of Nato and thereby bound by treaty to the United States.
But, no, “the US accepted that because of its ties to the EU, Britain could not be as supportive as it might otherwise have wished to be in all circumstances”. You too will doubtless feel that the past 45 years of Anglo-American friendship have been watered down by Britain’s membership of the EU. Because, reasons. Happily, freedom has its advantages and the UK “will be able to co-operate more fully with the US in its global efforts”. Sometimes, you see, the “sheer size and power of America makes it harder for it to deal with a smaller nation with whom we may have an excellent relationship”.
How this is so remains unexplained; the identity of these poor smaller nations also goes unmentioned. I imagine, though, they will be very grateful for Britain’s selfless willingness to act as a broker between them and the United States. Being small, they could not reasonably hope to have a relationship with the US themselves, after all. Freed from our Brussels captivity, we shall be free to embrace our new Anglo-American future. We cannot be Brussels’ “vassal state” but we can come to some comparable, and comfortable, relationship with the Americans. And they will be grateful for it, for they know we are wise – and certainly wiser than them – in these affairs.
“This opportunity is dependent upon Mr Trump’s presidency.” Why so? Because “Without him the US would be offering no support for Brexit and would be seeking to frustrate it”. This is both erroneous and evidence of a certain but deep cognitive dissonance. A different US president might not welcome Brexit; it is impossible to imagine them not respecting it. But, hark too at the manner in which, according to Rees-Mogg, Britain closest and dearest ally – with whom we share so much and with whom our interests are deeply entwined – would, but for Trump, be seeking to “frustrate” the clearly expressed will of the British people. Some friend! Some special relationship! Who knew these ties were actually so very flimsy?
Be of good cheer, however. In return for Trump’s pro-Brexit stance, “we would be wise to offer the US something tangible that would help the president’s agenda, not just fine words.” That may mean “presenting a free trade deal”. But trade deals are not “presented”, they are negotiated. And you might think even Rees-Mogg might have noticed that Trump is not an enthusiast for free trade. Nor is there any evidence the American president recognises the concept of a win-win bargain. On the contrary, everything suggests he believes that if you are happy, he must have lost.
So far, so deluded. The kicker is the best bit of Rees-Mogg’s worldview, however. “Perhaps then Harold Macmillan’s vision of our playing the Greeks to America’s Romans would at last be fulfilled”.
And there you have it. This, it seems, is the quintessence of a certain Brexit worldview: pining for a lost world that was itself pining for a fast disappearing world. Onwards and forwards, Britons, back into a misty but glorious past we may recapture once again if only we have the courage to dream and wish hard enough. Reality be damned. This was delusional nonsense in Macmillan’s time; it is unicorns-on-stilts delusion now.
So, yes, Brexit may work in theory but may God preserve us from the Brexiteers themselves.