Friday, 13 October 2017

Brexit is becoming a battle for Britain's political soul

As the complexity and chaos of Brexit become increasingly clear, the behaviour of Brexiters is becoming correspondingly unhinged and dangerous. This is most obviously manifest in calls for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be charged with treason or at least to be sacked for ‘sabotaging’ Brexit. His heresy is not to have questioned Brexit or even hard Brexit. It is simply that he is resisting spending money on preparations for a ‘no deal’ Brexit – preparations which would in any case be pointless even if the catastrophe of such a Brexit were something any sane politician would countenance as a possibility. For some Brexiters his ‘crime’ is the even more trivial one that he does not show enough positive enthusiasm for Brexit.

More insidious than, although part of, this Brexit McCarthyism is the re-writing of history which is going on apace. Examples include airbrushing out assurances given by Theresa Villiers (then the Northern Ireland Secretary) and Boris Johnson that the Irish border would be unaffected by Brexit; or the impossible promises by the Leave campaign that a new deal with the EU would be negotiated before even beginning the legal process to leave. Most fundamentally, all those Brexiters who assured voters that an advantageous Brexit deal would be easy, quick and inevitable are now insisting either that they always knew it would be hard or, even, that no deal has always been the most likely outcome. The latest offender is Nigel Lawson, but as I have catalogued elsewhere there are numerous other examples, including Peter Lilley, Peter Hargreaves, David Davis and Liam Fox.

This matters hugely not in order to hark back to the Referendum campaign but in terms of what happens now. Because it is becoming ever clearer that nothing that the Leave campaign promised voters was true and that had they told the truth about what leaving the EU meant then far fewer people would have voted for it. What this means now is that the lies told are coming back to haunt them and in particular to fatally undermine what has been their most effective line since the vote: that Brexit is the “Will of the People”. Manifestly that falls apart if what people who voted leave were promised turns out to have been a lie. There’s nothing new about that insight, of course, it has been the case since the very first hours after the Referendum but it can only become more obvious as the situation unfolds. It is not just that people will change their minds – as they are beginning to do – it is that the very legitimacy of the result is discredited in a way it could not be had Leave won on the basis of an honest campaign.

It is because of this that Brexiters are so desperate to conceal what they promised, and so viciously turning on those, such as Hammond, who are not “true believers”. That now even extends beyond the re-writing of the past to a demand that evidence about the present and future be falsified. Thus John Redwood this week called for the Treasury to revise its economic forecasts so as to be more ‘realistic’ and ‘optimistic’ about Brexit (quite how they could be both is an absurdity in itself). Forecasts are not facts, but that they are forecasts is a fact and to demand that standard models of forecasting (for all their imperfections) be doctored to fit in with Brexiter faith is ridiculous.

It is crucial that we do not think of this as just the normal business of politics, with protagonists putting the best gloss they can upon their positions. What is underway is something much more fundamental, in a sense even more fundamental than Brexit. The hardcore Brexiters of both the political Right and Left think of themselves – correctly, in my view – as enacting a revolution, and in pursuit of that they are not just willing to risk economic disaster but actually hope to destroy liberal political discourse in its broadest sense. The sinister language of traitors, sabotage and loyalty tests is not the last desperate throw of the dice as Brexit goes wrong; it is the beginning of what they want to be the normal terrain of politics. Similarly, the re-writing of history and of facts is not just a tactical gambit, it is part and parcel of their desired form of politics as decoupled from evidence, logic and rationality.

This won’t go away if and when Brexit is shown to fail. The Brexiters will not take that to show they were wrong but will say that it re-affirms they are right, as we are already seeing is the case. Nor will it go away by conceding to their demands about what form Brexit will take, since we have already seen that each concession made to them only brings forth an even more extreme demand. In a way, the Brexiters’ growing immoderation is doing us a favour in giving a warning as to what kind of country they want whilst there is still the outside chance of avoiding the Brexit which would allow them to create it. For whatever else may have been the ‘will of the people’ it was not the Jacobinism that the Brexit ultras are now revealing to the public.

In this sense, there is a battle underway which is not just about Brexit but about the political soul of the nation. And if this is so, it becomes vital that all of us, but politicians especially, recognize and respond to what is at stake. It goes beyond political party loyalties and cuts across them. There can really be no case, now, for politicians to enact or support the enactment of Brexit when – as seems to be the case for May, Hammond and Damian Green amongst many others – they not only do not believe in it but actually know it is hugely damaging. If they fail to act on that knowledge they will not only be complicit in that damage but in the even greater disaster of taking the British polity down a toxic path that leads inexorably to dark, dangerous and violent places.

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