Brexit: No-one to blame but ourselves
SO how has Brexit been for you? Less than five days into the long-delayed start to negotiations, British politics seems more deeply mired in a quicksand of indecision and fluster. Rudderless, shapeless, HMS Westminster risks mockery on the stage of world opinion, a year after a vote that some believed would make the country stronger.
One year ago today, Britain woke up to a result that even Nigel Farage had conceded hours earlier. One year since those merry pranksters Michael Gove and Boris Johnson appeared before the cameras like naughty schoolboys hauled before the beak for a stiff caning before being sent to the dorm with no supper. Hard to believe that anyone in Britain, perhaps the planet, would take either man seriously in his claim to future leadership of the country.
Today, at the end of week which witnessed David Davis conceding the negotiating agenda to his EU counterpart, the morning after Theresa May produced a new fudge on the issue of EU citizens living in the UK and British expatriates abroad, the Tories remain damaged and divided. They continue an amoral pursuit of a Commons majority via coalition — sorry, “arrangement” — with the torn-faced men and women of the Democratic Unionist Party. There have been moments in the past year when I expected Westminster to be invaded by clowns in tiny tricycles, tooting parp-parp horns and tripping over their over-sized red shoes.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the other half of our fantasy “special relationship” stands diminished, mocked even, under an administration mired in controversy over whether or not its very democracy has been undermined by the Kremlin. Its leader, a man with the political instincts of a moth and a trigger finger that to date twitches only as far as the “tweet” button on his (Chinese manufactured) mobile phone, defies gravity. This week he chose Iowa — a lot closer to Canada than Mexico — to re-extol the virtues of his southern border wall: “We’re thinking about building the wall as a solar wall — and it pays for itself. This way Mexico will have to pay much less money,” said Mr Trump. This might jar with his core vote, which imagines real energy comes only from burning more carbon or blasting it from the deep.
The prejudice that fuels this behaviour has its roots in the 20th century history of the United States and Great Britain: the “American century”. At times, Britain was the sneering side-kick to the American bully that sought to set the post-war agenda in Europe during the Cold War, and in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East where proxy wars were fought either against Communism or for unfettered access to oil. When a Leave-voting couple were shown on Channel 4’s Brexit Wife Swap this week, their initial arguments were risible and a mite pathetic. “Britain won the war,” said Pauline, placing a portrait of Nigel Farage above the fireplace and saying she voted to “put the great back in Great Britain”. Husband Andy, pointing at the mainly Asian people around him at a street market, said his home didn’t feel like home any longer, without adequate explanation of how barring east Europeans from Britain might stop people from India and Pakistan living on his patch.
“You’ve got the facts, I haven’t,” said Andy, without irony. “I’m a stranger in my own country. This used to be a really good white area, back in the days.”
Apart from the “winning the war” shtick, there has been other misreading of modern history. During the 1990s, much UK media commentary sought to portray the re-unification of Germany as being so difficult and expensive that it must surely damage the country’s continued economic progress.
The Scandinavian model of liberal democracy, all taxation and welfare spending, was unsustainable. Only the Thatcher-Reagan neo-liberal model would prevail. Trickle-down economics, low taxation, unfettered capitalism represented the only way forward. The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to confirm the power of the argument. Before 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the financial crash of 2008, that Anglo-Saxon hegemony articulated by politicians, bolstered by Wall Street and the City, seemed unassailable.
Poor old Europe, with its common currency, its slow growth rate, struggling to cope with the bright sparks of capitalism and their political accomplices at Westminster and Washington, was the subject of a lengthy corporate sneer.
The tables have turned. We have witnessed months of prevarication as politicians vied to expound what “kind” of fissure this should be. But debate about hard, soft, clean Brexits was immaterial, as long as it continued in Britain but before Europe had engaged in the discussion. Meanwhile special cases are being pleaded by the City, car manufacturers, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and anybody else who realises just how bad Brexit might be.
We are part of the biggest common market in the world, yet we have voted to leave it. We want continued access to that market, but without the accompanying rules that apply to everyone else. We boast about how successful Britain will be without EU regulation, whilst promising to replicate those rules much as they are. Negotiations are led by a party that could not win a Commons majority, has failed so far to meet the demands of 10 DUP MPs who would probably vote with the Tories anyway and whose management of the post-crash economy includes attacking the poor for the excesses of the rich and powerful.
If and when it all ends in hubris and failure, when Britain either backs down on Brexit or finishes with a deal so damaging we shall be paying the price forever, the blame game will have begun. As Britain faces potential humiliation, and for many the continued economic hardship of austerity and debt, the truth is we shall have no-one to blame but ourselves and the politicians who represent us. Some will remain in public, ready to argue that black is white and isolationism is actually a means to international trade. Many others, I suspect, won’t be seen for dust.
This article appeared in The Herald, Friday June 23rd 2017