With the triggering of Article 50 just around the corner, much is being made of the fact that, so far as Brexit is concerned, we are coming to the end of the phony war. From now on it will be the real thing, and while the EU – contrary to the views of President Erdogan of Turkey – may not be the equivalent of the Luftwaffe, nor is the government of Theresa May likely to be confused with Fighter Command.
To properly understand the dilemma Britain now faces, it is necessary to go back to the days leading up to the June 23 referendum. Then, 24 out of the 30 members of David Cameron’s Cabinet, supported Remain, including Mrs May. In the parliamentary party at large, 185 MPs were Remainers, against 138 for Leave.
All but ten of the 228 Labour MPs were Remainers, as were the 59 Scot Nats and eight surviving Liberal Democrats. Of the 22 “others”, including Sinn Fein, only the eight DUP members and their two Ulster Unionist colleagues supported Leave. Jo Cox, the Yorkshire MP murdered by an anti-immigrant fanatic a week prior to the referendum, was a Remainer, as is her successor. In advance of the vote, just just seven MPs declined to declare their hand. In Parliamentary terms, in a House of Commons that had only recently been elected, it was a landslide for Remain.
What a difference a year makes. Today, all but a handful of Remainers have retired from the field, throwing off their uniforms in an attempt to avoid association with the former regime and its beaten army. Representative democracy has given way to a polite form of mob rule.
What did for Remain, and for Cameron, was mob-leader Nigel Farage. It was Farage, the Ukip boss and bosom friend of Donald Trump, criss-crossing the country, appearing on radio and television as if on a loop, whose message of an EU invasion overcame all rational judgment. By the time he stood in front of his notorious poster showing lines of asylum-seekers allegedly en route for Britain above the slogan “Breaking Point”, MPs had already folded their tents.
Farage certainly deserves a knighthood, but it would have to be awarded by the Devil for services rendered.
Those who say that most voters were not taken in by Farage are either fools or – more likely – lying through their teeth. Long-standing Eurosceptics (a term that never had meaning but was embraced by Europhobes to signify, falsely, that they were willing to listen to alternative points of view) like now to pretend that Leavers were motivated by their opposition to the European Court of Justice, or the unelected bureaucracy of Brussels, or the idea that a new East India Company can now emerge that will take world trade by storm. This is nonsense. When did you hear anyone outside of hardline interest groups express a passionately-held opinion on the arcanery of Brussels or the possibilities of bespoke trading arrangments? All that voters knew for certain was what Farage told them – that there were three million EU migrants living in the UK, with more to come, who were out to take their jobs and subvert their way of life.
It was in this atmosphere of heightened tension that the referendum was held, yielding the following result:
Pro-Leave; 17,410,742 (51.9 per cent)
Pro-Remain; 16,141,241 (48.1 per cent)
Turnout: 72 per cent
Leavers at once pronounced their victory as one of historic proportions. Never had so many millions of British people declared themselves with one voice. The fact that nearly as many took the opposite view and that 28 per cent of the electorate hadn’t even bothered to turn up was utterly discounted. Remain had lost the argument and from now on only the hardest of hard Brexits could be held to be in accord with the sovereign will of the people.
This is a disgrace – indeed a disgrace of historic proportions. Not only will it lead to Britain’s effective exclusion from the world’s largest free trade area, it could also lead to an independent Scotland and a United Ireland. A rump United Kingdom would be a severely diminished place, shorn of 35 per cent of its territory and seven million of its people. No longer would we be the equal of France. We would be more like an inflated Netherlands.
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At home, meanwhile, either we continue to allow the mass of EU citizens already here to carry on much as before (in which case the referendum vote was meaningless), or we will send them packing, leading to severe shortages of skilled labour and an NHS running on empty.
What is most astonishing in all this has been the determination of Mrs May to adopt the Farage line hook, line and sinker. She was a Remainer (however disinterestedly). But as soon as she got her feet under the table in Downing Street, she put her former beliefs and past life firmly behind her, declaring that Brexit means Brexit and that Britain was leaving the EU bag and baggage. Delighted Leavers called this leadership. Next she told us that there was no possibility the UK might remain in the Single Market or the EU Customs Union. Voters had apparently ruled this out. Control of our borders was all that mattered. Ethnic cleansing, dressed up as good housekeeping, was to be the order of the day.
Britain, in short, was going for broke – and the risk is that we will get there all too soon.
Nobody on the Leave side seems to have any idea what is going on. There are the out-and-out nationalists, of course, who would apparently be prepared to starve if it meant taking back control. But then there are the more thoughtful types – the Michael Goves and Daniel Hannans – who, while ostensibly rational, call increasingly on the Dunkirk spirit to see us through. These gung-hoers put me in mind of the celebrated exchange from the film Shakespeare in Love, between Philip Hensloe, the troubled owner of the Rose theatre, and Hugh Fennyman, a nervous investor.
Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster
Fennyman: So what do we do?
Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
Henslowe, of course, had Shakespeare behind him. Britain in the Brexit negotiations will have David Davis.
But… has anyone been paying attention to the British public in the nine months since June 23? As well as the gung-ho crowd, there are (if audiences on Question Time are any gauge) lots of ordinary people who have come to accept that the British economy is heavily dependent on immigrant labour and that, in any case, many of the immigrants they previously excoriated are in fact perfectly decent types who have settled in well and, overall, are making progress with their English. So long as they work hard and cause no trouble, most voters won’t want these people sent home. Yes, they favour restrictions, and yes they won’t tolerate benefits cheats or criminals, but it turns out that, unlike Farage, they are not as uncomfortable as they thought with strangers in their midst. In fact, if the Border Force starts arresting Poles, Lithuanians and others and shipping them home, don’t be surprised to see protests in the streets. It is an un-British way to behave, after all.
The likelihood is that it won’t come to this. Neither the Government nor most of its supporters favour deportation, and the EU will surely agree to a reciprocal arrangement that benefits both EU migrants in the UK and British expats in Europe. But in that case – and given that industry demands a continuing influx of skilled labour – what was the referendum about in the first place? Was it really no more than a disastrous attempt at Tory party management? Farage may be the chief villain in the piece, but David Cameron was the unwitting architect not only of his own downfall, but of the coming decade of uncertainty in which anything can happen, and probably will.
Maybe – just maybe – Theresa May will wake up to the new reality in time to curb David Davis’s worst instincts. In that event, she may choose to ask herself if she can honestly hope to secure a “good” deal from Brussels while making virtually no concessions of her own. She may decide that 27-1 are not good odds if you are the One. She may even concede that the anti-immigrant impulse, endorsed by just 37.5 per cent of the total electorate, has since given way to a realisation that Britain is not ready for electric shock treatment and that a more measured approach to Brexit, including membership of the Single Market, may yield dividends.
So far, I see no sign of this. If anything, the PM is digging in her heels and threatening the nuclear option – Britain as Singapore, with a dodgy City of London swollen to monstrous proportions. Either that or our reinvention as penitents – prodigals, if you will – ready to embrace the Commonwealth as if the whole EU thing had never been serious and all we want now is to settle down once more with our truest and oldest friends – the very friends, by the way, whom we ditched in 1973 who have all since made their own way in the world and feel they owe us little more than the time of day.
But I live in hope. Just as Brexit means Brexit, so not leaving Europe means not leaving Europe – or at least not walking away from it as if it were a bad smell. Parliament, and the 48 per cent, deserve better. We all deserve better.