This post is about two lessons that we, as a nation, are learning from Brexit. In a reversal of the usual order, the first is farce and the second is tragedy. The first lesson comes from the basic frivolity of the Brexit debate.
The whole debacle has shown what an unserious country we have become. It is a cliché to say that modern democratic politics has become a species of entertainment. It was said when the old B-movie star Ronald Reagan entered the White House, and in the age of Donald Trump, the intertwining of showbusiness and affairs of state has become more intimate than ever before. Here in Britain, we have entrusted political power to sketch show characters — the eccentric toff figure, first Boris Johnson, then Jacob Rees-Mogg. It somehow seems natural when Danny Dyer is held up as an incisive and perceptive commentator on Brexit.
Any of us can climb up on the stage at any moment and join in the show. It doesn’t matter that the Brexit negotiations go deep into notoriously complex areas like international trade law and the interlocking regimes for financial services regulation that even industry professionals struggle fully to understand. Anyone can now be an expert on these matters, or at least perform as one, which is the same. Anyone can grab a microphone and become a political Susan Boyle. You can find breezy assertions about what the EU’s negotiators will and will not agree to by people whose experience of international diplomacy is confined to filling in a passport form. You can find people delivering self-assured little lessons about the WTO and the customs union when they didn’t even know that those things existed until circa 2017. You can find yourself being instructed about Chancellor Merkel’s negotiating strategy by people who wouldn’t be able to order a coffee in German. Amazingly, there are still small-minded little men on Twitter trotting out the canard about German car manufacturers saving us, long after the German car industry itself has warned us that it won’t happen. Facts don’t matter. It is like living in a different, parallel world, in which some identifiable features are mixed with bizarre grotesqueries — like looking in a succession of comedy mirrors in a circus funhouse.
It is the sheer unseriousness that is hardest to swallow. It is not only politics as entertainment and politics as performance, but politics as game — like a session of Monopoly played by a group of increasingly drunk and coked-up people who don’t care that they have switched to playing with real money and title deeds. Questions of the weightiest importance for the future of our country are brushed aside with slogans which it would be charitable to call half-baked. Mortgage everything, let’s go for those two hotels on Mayfair. It’s only a game, after all. A society that can behave like this is one that has forgotten what risk is and what it is to suffer. This level of frivolity is possible only in a country which has had several generations of peace and (very broadly speaking) economic stability – which, in one of those leaden ironies, are precisely the things that we are putting at risk by leaving the European Union.
If the farce lies in treating Brexit as a game, the tragedy lies in treating it as a religion. As with real religions, both approaches can be adopted at once.
The most obvious example of Brexit-as-religious-cult is the way in which the economic costs of the enterprise are being played down or ignored. Crashing out on WTO terms – or a “WTO deal”, as Jacob Rees-Mogg is now unbelievably calling it – is such an insane idea that even some Leave activists admit that it would be an “unmitigated disaster”. Leave politicians were happy to talk reassuringly before the referendum about staying in the single market and so on, but all that has gone now. That is, the reassuring talk has gone, not the desire to leave. Anna Soubry pointed out last week the alarming truth that these guys think that economic disaster is a price worth paying for the cause:
If we do not deliver frictionless trade, either through a customs union or some magical third way that the Prime Minister thinks she can deliver—good luck to her on that—thousands of jobs will go, and hon. Members sitting on the Government Benches, in private conversations, know that to be the case. What they have said in those private conversations is that the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs will be worth it to regain our country’s sovereignty—tell that to the people who voted Leave in my constituency.
They know. Most of them aren’t stupid (apart from IDS and Philip Davies). They know. Jim Jones would have called it an “act of revolutionary suicide”. The breezy claims that Brexit would make us all richer have turned into grim retorts that people were warned about the risks and that Brexit is doable because we managed to get through two world wars and the black death. The discussion is being further poisoned by the rhetoric of Britain being “punished” by the EU (with help from domestic traitors: one of the cult’s mid-ranking clerics has recently written that “our defeatist establishment, working hand in glove with Brussels, is humiliating the British people for their temerity in voting for Brexit”). This small-minded rhetoric turns an economic negotiation into a duel of honour — and it is a duel which Britain, being the weaker party, cannot win. I wonder where that will lead.
It’s not just the economy, either. It has become remorselessly clear that nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of Brexit. It is an obsession, a monomania. The courts, the civil service, the CBI on the right and the TUC on the left – even Parliament itself. Never mind the antics of the whips, the true believers – the Level 5 Thetans like Rees-Mogg – have turned from bullying the House of Lords to bullying the House of Commons and bullying the leader of the Conservative Party, the Queen’s Minister. Nothing, absolutely nothing, must stand in the way of the cause. It is a demented ruthlessness. The ghosts of Burke, Salisbury and Baldwin must be struggling to get their ectoplasmic heads around it.
And for what? Immigration is part of it, of course, but even the anti-immigrant sentiment is only one expression of a broader problem. The root of it is the legacy of the Empire, which gave rise to a belief in British exceptionalism and a mythical idea of absolute sovereignty. It didn’t help that we went very quickly from imperial power to EEC member without having to reflect very hard on our place in the world (Suez was in 1956; we began EEC membership negotiations in 1961). The mindset of a vanished world empire has survived to become the ideology of a modern cult. It is the mindset that led to DExEU’s condescending decision to translate the Chequers white paper into other European languages (in case the foreign chaps didn’t understand it…), while being too arrogant to check that the translations actually made sense. This swivel-eyed exceptionalism is shared by those politicians who claim that Brexit is a libertarian project and definitely nothing to do with racism at all – the likes of Boris Johnson, Daniel Hannan, Priti Patel, Douglas Carswell, Michael Gove and Liam Fox. These people appear to be auditioning for a very specific role in the imperial myth. They see themselves not as the colonists who bungled several Indian famines and exterminated the Tasmanian aborigines, but as the jolly jack-tars who buccaneered around the world buying and selling things in order to make money out of Johnny Foreigner — a cross between Francis Drake and Derek Trotter.
Boris Johnson’s resignation letter and statement are a good example of where these maniacs are coming from. Sure, Johnson was undoubtedly motivated by careerism, but you can recognise the authentic voice of the deluded man who is genuinely upset that others are failing to share his delusions. He lamented that the “dream is dying”. The dream. He referred to Brexit as a “vision” several times – in one case, a “glorious vision”. The German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said that if you see visions, you should see a doctor. Johnson asserted, contrary to known facts, that the EU27 rather like the hard Brexiteers’ ideas, and that our only enemies are “self-doubt” and “dither[ing]”. We need to be “positive”, “self-confident”, and filled with “hope”. Johnson does not have the focus or discipline to be a real cult leader, but he certainly has the conviction that sheer faith and willpower are sufficient to assert his visions and dreams against the rough fabric of reality. He also said that Theresa May’s painfully assembled compromise promises us “vassalage” and “the status of colony” — a contemptible insult to all the nations, starting with the people of Ireland, who really have been colonised by the British and have more to show for it than unorthodox customs arrangements. I have suggested in the past that Johnson is cynically riding the tiger of nationalism without really believing in his own tub-thumping. Now I’m not so sure. I think he really does believe it.
The other Thatcherite free-trading Brexiteers really believe it, too — few people would accuse Michael Gove or Liam Fox of faking it. The neoliberal free-market version of Brexit might be somewhat less obviously obnoxious than the anti-immigrant version, but it is still based on the same cultish blindness and faith in British exceptionalism, and it ultimately leads to the same nationalistic twilight zone. The “Global Britain” and “Anglosphere” ideas make sense only as products of imperial nostalgia – and, if it ever really came down to it, the Priti Patel faction of Leave is not going to be able to control the Tommy Robinson faction any more than Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio could halt the juggernaut of the Trump movement. Daniel Hannan was recently seen in the Telegraph moralising about how “Communism sent millions to their deaths”. You know what else sent millions to their deaths, Dan?
One of the most disturbing things about the Brexit debate is the way in which “the will of the people” has become a cheap cliché to describe the referendum result. This isn’t just the usual banal “we won, get over it” attitude that you see after every election. Nor is the problem confined to the dishonesty of using the result to justify the most extreme version of Brexit — as if 17 million people shared Jacob Rees-Mogg’s view of the world. The really disturbing thing is how it renders the 48% of Remain voters utterly invisible. Lurking behind this is an old and sinister idea that dissenters are not really part of “the people”, but aliens or traitors.
Yes, yes, Godwin’s law and all that, but this is not just scaremongering. Something quite dark is abroad at the moment. UKIP started the ball rolling by calling itself the “People’s Army”, a phrase which has no good connotations at all. Their supporters also experimented with the charming slogan “If you’re not Ukip, you’re not BRITISH”. The Daily Mail famously called three highly respected senior judges “Enemies of the People” after they decided a case in line with a conservative interpretation of the law. The Sun asked “Great Britain or Great Betrayal?” when elected MPs were unwise enough to ask for a binding vote on the withdrawal agreement. Unbelievably, the Daily Telegraph has recently started musing, “Is Theresa May guilty of treason?” (and this was in the wake of the Chequers deal, which — lest we forget — was based on the premise of us LEAVING the European Union and the larger part of its obligations).
For newspaper editors, and for rightwing rent-a-rants like Paul Staines and Tim Montgomerie, this is all in a day’s work. They have to compete for readers and advertisers in a cutthroat media market, and they do what they need to do. But they are playing with fire. There are people among us who sincerely believe the stuff about treason. There are people who genuinely hate the people they claim to hate. Jo Cox is dead, and three people are serving prison sentences for threatening to kill Anna Soubry (it is significant that both MPs are women — I doubt you could find three people who have bothered to plot the death of Ken Clarke). It is worth mentioning at this point that almost the only European countries that have not experienced a surge in right-wing populism in recent years are Spain and Portugal. These also happen to be the only countries which have actually experienced long periods of right-wing authoritarian rule in relatively recent memory. Do they know something about “Enemies of the People” politics that we don’t?
Like it or not, this is the bad trip that the drug of nationalism is taking us on. It’s taking us to some other dark places too, places which are anything but favourable to Britain’s actual national interests. Members of the Brexit cult were prepared to swallow a visit from a man like Donald Trump even as he threatened to wreck NATO and the WTO, attempted to replace our Prime Minister with his supposed mate Johnson, and had his ambassador lean on us to free Tommy Robinson. What can these people possibly have been thinking? Was part of it just the muscle-memory of old political reflexes — Republican president Good, soap-dodging protestors Bad? Or was there a deeper ideological sympathy, a recognition of a man who knows what he believes, enjoys a bit of banter about women and sticks it to the liberals and globalists? Do these solid British patriots prefer a foreign strongman to fellow citizens who voted Remain? This is all before we get into the Russians’ involvement in the referendum. How many members of the People’s Army would rather have Vladimir Vladimirovich negotiating Brexit than, say, Anna Soubry?
The most worrying thing of all is the Stab-in-the-Back Myth that Brexiters are already preparing. The original version of the Dolchtosslegende was the story told by the German right wing after World War I – the country had not been defeated fair and square on the battlefield, but by treacherous socialists and Jews at home. Being a nationalist means never having to take responsibility. The devotees of the Brexit cult are already lining up their list of scapegoats – again, without any respect for traditional taboos, because these people recognise no boundaries. Whatever happens, however awful things get, it won’t be their fault. It will be ours.
Brexit marks the death of the cherished British self-image of the stiff upper-lipped pragmatist. This autostereotype has had a good run — and it had quite a lot of truth in it. We stood out among most Western countries in never having had a invasion or revolution since 1688 and never having adopted fascism or communism. Foreign conservatives had absolute theocratic monarchies; we had the dear old Queen and the C of E. Foreign leftists guillotined aristocrats and shot Mensheviks; ours invented the NHS and the dole. One can debate how far this pragmatism survived once we left our small island and went into Ireland and the colonies, and how far it was down to accidents of history and geography rather than some mystical quality of Britishness; but there was something in it.
No longer. What the survival of British exceptionalism has proven, ironically, is that a significant part of us are as capable of losing our minds as anyone else. Whether it comes as farce or tragedy, a clown car or Panzer, Brexit is exposing the very worst side of our country. And there is no very obvious end in sight.