Brexit? Did you say “Brexit”??
Things are not going great here in the UK. The economy is depressed, businesses, especially seafood and fishing businesses, that depend on trading with the EU are going bust in large numbers (since Brexit has by its nature resulted in the imposition of crippling import-export duties) and a lack of HGV drivers and farm labourers — at least in part, and according to some overwhelmingly, because Brexit meant kicking out hundreds of thousands of EU workers and blocking the flow of labour from the Continent — has led to petrol stations running out of fuel, empty shelves in the supermarkets and unpicked fruit and veg rotting in the fields. It’s all a bit dystopian, really. I mean, kicking out huge numbers of EU workers and blocking the flow of labour from the Continent was the main plank of Brexit, so it seems strange to want to deny that this has happened and that it happening has parched us of labour, especially when the governmental response to the shortage is to try and coax some of those workers back from Europe with temporary visas. But here we are.
Brexiteers are insisting that none of this has anything to do with Brexit. I understand why they say so, or at least I think I do. Everything that’s happened was predicted by Remainers during the referendum campaign, and those predictions were mocked and dismissed as ‘Project Fear’ by the Brexiteers. It would be a large slice of humble pie for Brexiteers now to admit: yes, those hateful Remainers were right after all. To admit you’re wrong is hard enough; to admit it when a group you genuinely despise is standing by grinning their I told you so grins is so hard as to approach impossibility.
There are ways an accomodation might be managed by the ruling powers on this: ‘we always said there would be teething problems [they didn’t, but what the hey], but it will all be worth it in the long term’ would be the most obvious of these, but I never seem to hear that rationale from eg government ministers being interviewed on the media. Instead — I heard exactly this line from Tory minister Simon Clarke on Radio 4 this very morning — the line is: this has nothing to do with Brexit. Nothing to do with it. It flies in the face of the evidence, and of common sense, and isn’t what the majority of the electorate believes, but never mind that. This has nothing to do with Brexit avoids having to concede that the hateful Remainers were, even in some small way, right. Because if they were right, and you were wrong … why, pull on that thread and the whole sweater might unravel!
Brexiteer fragility was one of things I hadn’t been expecting after they won the referendum. I mean the way, despite having on their side the referendum’s mandate, a Brexiteer PM and majority in Parliament, plus most of the mainstream media (Facebook, BBC, Sun, Mail, Express, Times, Telegraph etc — but, you know: we Remainers had Channel 4 News and the Guardian, so that’s fair) prominent Brexiteers in positions of power acted with a kind of twitchy paranoia that ‘Brexit was going to be taken away from them’, like kids who had been given a huge chocolate bar by mistake clutching it to their chests and nervously scanning the room for adults who might come and repossess it.
It indexed, I suppose, a sense that though Brexit inched over the line 52–48 on polling day, the country as a whole was actually evenly balanced, and probably slimly majority-Remain (opinions polls before and after the actual day of the vote all say this), and that therefore the ‘victory’ was slender and precarious. It indexed, in another sense, the extent to which Brexiteers couldn’t believe their luck and wanted to cash-in their Brexit chips as soon as possible, before Brexit got blocked or reversed. And if that meant a rushed or imperfect Brexit (*cough* Northern Irish border *cough*) then they could always go back and renegotiate the details at their leisure. Except that they couldn’t, of course.
There’s a whiff of that, even now: even though Brexit has happened, and won’t be reversed; even though the Tories have a whomping majority in Parliament.
When Justin Webb suggested to Treasury minister Simon Clarke on this morning’s ‘Today’ programme that the labour shortages had at least something to do with Brexit, the minister not only denied that they did, but retorted that even to suggest such a thing was regressive (‘trying to take us back into a negative conversation about opportunities foregone’). The message the Tories want to push is: ‘Brexit is behind us now, let’s all move on.’ It is that even to refer to Brexit now is divisive. But ‘divisive’ discourse takes a social unity and maliciously divides it, and that is not where we are. The country was already divided. It has been split down the middle between Brexiteers and Remainers for many years now, a more profound and (amazingly) even more toxic fact of social-political life even than left-right. There is a relatively small group of Brexit hardliners for whom Brexit, cult-like, can never fail, and can only be failed; and a relatively small group of starry-eyed Remainers who believe new legislation to take us back into the EU is just around the corner. Both positions are deeply foolish, but the hard-line Brexiteer position has the added disadvantage that it is being continually and repeatedly falsified, pretty much every day. But then there’s the mass. Many of the people in this category are sick of Brexit and just want it to go away — that was the genius of Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan at the last election, and a major reason why he won such a big majority: not that he rallied people enthusiastic for Brexit but that he spoke to people exhausted by it, fed-up with it dominating the news cycle, and just wanted it over and done with. The problem for this group is that the effects of Brexit, as we are seeing, are both deleterious and long term.
And then there’s the (I think smaller) group who are properly angry. The Brexiteers, even the hardest Redwoodian core, aren’t angry — they are, I think, tacitly nervous, worried that their lifelong project and whole political identity is in danger of reversal. But there are lots of people, especially younger people, who are angry that their freedom of movement was taken away, that they were lied to, and that group gets larger with every driver forced, furious, to join a half-mile petrol station queue to be allowed £20 worth of fuel. Increasing numbers in this group are Tories. I’ll come back to them.
Nothing would convince the hardcore Brexiteers that Brexit is a disaster, of course. Their commitment to this project is too wound-around their most intimate sense of self — like those in the West who fully gave themselves to Communism in the 30s and 40s, and continued in their insistence on the complete superiority of life in the USSR after Hungary 56 and Czechoslovakia 68 (many of them continued in this belief well into the 80s). At some point, in 2060 or something, one or two of the now superannuated Brexiteers might say ‘well, you can’t really blame us, we sincerely believed it was the right thing to do, and if we were wrong in certain specifics, well, it was a long time ago now …’ I don’t care about them. It’s the larger group of more ordinary people that interest me.
With respect to this I am not, I have to admit it, sanguine. This in part reflects with my personal learning curve. When the referendum was called it seemed to me a simple matter of the material — economic and personal — benefits of staying in the EU against the (as I saw it) economic and personal harm of leaving. These questions certainly occupied most of the debate during the campaign, with Remainers promising economic disaster if we left (and being treated with contumely by Brexiteers, ‘Project Fear!’, ‘Project Fear On Stilts!’ and so on) and Brexiteers insisting there would be ‘no downside, only a considerable upside’ to leaving: claiming that we’d easily negotiate a free trade deal with the EU, and add to it big free trade deals with the USA and everywhere else (‘easiest deal in history’), that we’d be financially much better off (‘350 million week extra for the NHS’) and everything else. I realised of course, as the campaign proceeded, that there was patriotic-nationalist side to the Brexit dream; but my political myopia, alas, meant I couldn’t imagine a patriot embracing policies that caused massive, widespread material harm to the country they loved. In fact, as we have seen, the ‘economic’ arguments for Brexit have all been abandoned — hence the popular joke ‘how many Brexiteers does it take to change a lightbulb?’ ‘We never said there would be lightbulbs’ — without especially denting the support for the cause.
What’s going on? Brexit was an establishment project (senior Tories, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, wealthy businessmen like Dyson and Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin — people with lots of money, public school educations, their hands on the levers of power) that presented itself as an anti-establishment, ‘ordinary bloke’ crusade, a righteous fight against ‘them’ (‘they’ve got their foot on your neck’) where ‘they’ was a slippery signifier: Brussels bureaucrats, metropolitan elites, globalists, ‘foreigners’, the gnomes of Zurich (aka Jews) and others. There were many among the ordinary blokes and blokettes who voted Brexit who felt they were punching up, valiant St Georges grappling with a monstrous dragon and so on. They weren’t. I mean, they really weren’t. But that they were persuaded they were really was a piece of diabolic canniness on behalf of the Brexit campaign.
Looking back, I was blinkered enough to miss the cleverness of the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan. I missed that it was a psychological rather than a political address. To anyone who felt their life wasn’t going the way it should, who felt powerless and demeaned and ignored — which is most people, after all — it said: vote Brexit and stand up for yourself. Brexit means they have to listen to you for a change. If that’s why you voted, then naturally mere economic disaster isn’t going to make you reappraise your position, because it wasn’t ever really about economics at root. One Brexiteer I saw interviewed on TV, wearing a union flag jacket, declared ‘I would rather eat grass than live one more day under the fascist boot of the EU dictatorship’. The fact that Brexit has made most of us vastly less empowered, that ‘control’ was never really being offered, that you were played like a patsy by people whose interests were entirely orthogonal to your own — that’s a harder thing to admit to yourself. Nothing empowering about having to queue for three hours just to put some petrol in your car; but since that’s not happening on the Continent (it isn’t even happening in Northern Ireland) then perhaps it’s also a consequence of the fascist EU boot too.
In other words, it’s the psychology of Brexit that is key, I think, and economic, practical and rational arguments barely touch that. I think it is true as a feature of modernity that people are profoundly disinclined to admit they were wrong — true on the left as well as on the right, I think. Many there are among my friends who will never admit Corbyn was a disaster for left-wing politics, for instance (leading us into two catastrophic electoral defeats against the worst Conservative governments I can remember in my long life — which is to say: ensuring the continuing power to harm of the Tories). Not ‘a good man let down by the MSM and traitors in his own party’: a disaster. His supporters ought to be furious with him that he let the movement, and the country, down so badly. They’re not, though. Like Brexit for Brexiteers, Corbyn could never fail for his core supporters, he could only be failed.
I suspect Brexit as an anti-elite project will have a long after-life. In the minds of many there is a sense that we’re living in a dystopia governed by soulless over-mighty bureaucrats and pen-pushers. It might seem to many (it might even seem to me) mere common-sense that pointing to Boris Johnson’s manifold incompetence, lies and flubs will discredit him. It doesn’t, though. For loads of people these are just indicators he’s not a machinic and soulless bureaucrat, that he’s a regular guy: a bit of a laugh, a lej and so on. They like that about him. Sure he fucks up. Don’t we all? Maybe things aren’t exactly the sunlit uplands Brexit promised. Do we have to go on about it? Can’t we just knuckle down and get through this? ‘Going on about it’ isn’t going to reverse it, after all (I’m sorry to say, I think that’s true) and moreover runs the risk of telling the people who voted for it they are suckers who believed a ludicrous fairy tale and were taken for a ride (I think this is true too: but obviously the people concerned don’t want to hear it). And so we beat on, boats against the cock-up, borne ceaselessly into the crap.
Except. Except that most Brexit voters are older, where Remain skewed youthful. And I’m not sure the just-stop-going-on-about-Brexit crowd understand how furious many of these are. This is the kind of galvanising political event that happens very rarely — it happened under Thatcher, I think, in the 80s, and laid the ground, fifteen years later, for three consecutive Labour terms. And it will happen again. By the 2030s, when the dust has settled, the lack of any upside to Brexit and the continuing day-to-day downsides will be the background against which a new generation, still furious, radicalised in their antiBrexit righteousness by the fucking mess of the period we’re currently living through, reshape the whole political landscape. It’s coming. It’s just not coming for a few years yet.