Professor Chris Grey’s latest piece reflecting on the last couple of weeks and Brexit. A must-read.
First published in September 2019.
The events surrounding Brexit are now whirling out of control, and taking Britain to an unknown, but certainly dangerous, destination. It’s worth briefly summarising how shocking the current situation is. A narrow vote to leave the EU on unspecified, but beneficial, terms is being used by a minority government with a Prime Minister who has not faced the electorate to mandate leaving without agreed terms, and he is suspending parliamentary democracy to enable this.
Shocking as it is the root causes remain the same as they have been since the beginning – and they have been chronicled week in and week out in this column - a series of lies and (to be charitable) misunderstandings that have been comprehensively falsified by reality. The intensifying crisis results from a government which refuses to accept that reality and is intent on shredding the country rather than doing so.
Deal or no deal?
It’s still not entirely clear whether Johnson has any genuine belief in his continued insistence that he is going to obtain a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement (WA) or whether he is fully intent upon no-deal as his expected and desired outcome. If it is the former, and the threat of no-deal is just a negotiating tactic, it is doomed to failure. It is predicated on the familiar Brexiter canard that EU negotiations ‘always go to the wire’ and that the EU will ‘blink’ and offer a better deal.
Leaving aside the fact that, by the letter of the Article 50 extension agreement, the WA negotiations are over, this is not the ‘standard’ negotiation amongst ongoing member states. And, anyway, the existing withdrawal agreement is neither a ‘good’ nor a ‘bad’ deal: it’s just the technocratic reality of what a deal based upon the UK red lines looks like. Proposals for ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border won’t make a difference: if they come to exist then the present backstop becomes unnecessary anyway; until they exist, they can’t themselves constitute the backstop.
It certainly isn’t the case that suspending (let’s not use the anodyne obscurantism of ‘prorogation’) parliament is going to make a difference – it just makes the UK look even more deranged and unreliable – as an excellent article by Helene von Bismarck in Foreign Policy makes clear. (And, as an aside, the Brexiter claim that suspending parliament will persuade the EU that MPs can’t stop no-deal Brexit is completely at odds with their claim that the suspension makes no difference to MPs’ ability to stop no-deal Brexit, and it’s just a ‘business and usual’ move).
No deal: the failure of Brexit
Whether as negotiation ploy or desired outcome, even the prospect of no-deal reflects the failure of Brexit. It was, after all, sold to the public on the basis that a deal would be quick, easy, and advantageous. Every leading Brexiter claimed that in 2016. That claim has now been comprehensively discredited and that, in itself, means that no-deal has no mandate whatsoever.
Beyond that headline failure, once Brexit got defined as hard Brexit, all the subsidiary lies about ongoing ‘full, free market access’ and about how the Irish border would be unaffected became exposed. May’s deal, which the Brexiters reviled, was the hard Brexit they said they wanted. But as soon as they saw what it meant in practical terms they disowned it. No-deal Brexit as a policy goal arises solely from the fact that there is no deal that could deliver the Brexit they claimed was possible – just as they were always told.
But rather than accept that they lie anew, claiming that no-deal was always what they wanted (which may be true of some) and that it was voted for by 17.4 million people (which it certainly wasn’t). This is what a politics based on lies looks like, and with each turn of events those lies are exposed even more.
Johnson: fast-forwarding May
Hence none of what is happening under Johnson is new, it is just, as predicted in my piece when he came to office, a fast-forward replay of what happened under May. With the suspension of parliament, we see the intensification of the contempt, both literal and metaphorical, which May displayed. With the possibility of a ‘people versus parliament’ General Election we see the intensification of the attempt to ‘crush the saboteurs’ through May’s ill-fated 2017 ballot.
Crucially, as set out in that earlier piece, Johnson is now trapped in exactly the same dynamic as his predecessors and for the same reasons. Having come out all guns blazing for a new deal or no-deal and leave ‘do or die’, exactly as the Brexit Ultras within and outside his party demanded, he now finds that they have once again moved the goalposts. So even if he is serious about seeking a revised deal then they will not support it (thus it is hardly worth bothering to consider the nonsense of what he might demand and how he imagines the EU could accept it).
Most ominously for Johnson, Farage has now set the bar as being that nothing but no-deal is good enough. So we have gone from a Brexit deal being easy and quick to any deal at all being a betrayal of true Brexit; and from Brexit being what the majority want to Brexit in a form supported by a small minority. It was not inevitable that this was how things would develop, but it was always a logical possibility unless someone or something intervened. May might have done; she didn’t. Johnson was never going to try.
No damage is too much for the Brexit Jacobins
In saying that what is happening now is a repeat of, and grows out of, what happened before I do not mean that nothing has changed. On the contrary, the fast-forward version is also injecting amphetamines into the damage that Brexiters are inflicting on our country. Suspending parliament was once the idea of a mad fringe; now it is in prospect. The possibilities of Northern Ireland and Scotland leaving the United Kingdom are now becoming probabilities. As sober a figure as Chris Patten is speculating that Britain is in danger of becoming a failed State.
Perhaps more to the point, what were once dangers, dismissed by Brexiters, are now becoming accepted as irrelevant collateral damage to the overweening objective of Brexit. Sterling doesn’t matter, the constitution doesn’t matter, the economy doesn’t matter, business in general doesn’t matter and small businesses in particular can be sacrificed, Britain’s global reputation doesn’t matter, societal cohesion doesn’t matter.
That latter point is perhaps the most extraordinary of all. It used to be a cliché of history exam papers that any answer could correctly make mention of ‘the rising middle classes gaining power and influence’. It would be true of virtually any period and relevant to almost any question. In Brexit Britain, however, it is not. The demographics of the referendum vote, as well as the lobbying activities since then, suggest that the majority of business people, professionals, civil society bodies, economically active people and young people opposed Brexit and, especially, oppose no-deal Brexit. Yet these people are now treated as dirt and sneered at as ‘the elite’ even as they are charged with making preparations to survive no-deal Brexit and urged to evince positivity about it.
What do the Brexiters hope for?
It is therefore becoming very unclear what kind of country Johnson and the Brexiters think they will have left if they get their way. It’s likely to be smaller in territory and alienating to those individuals and businesses who can leave. They seem just to want to ‘win’ Brexit – any Brexit, at any cost – and even the supposedly more positive approach of Johnson (compared with May) hardly bothers to pretend that Brexit will bring any real benefits.
Of course it is possible that no-deal will still be stopped by parliament, either with or without a successful legal challenge to the suspension. It’s even possible that the outrageousness of what Johnson’s government are doing will solidify and unite opposition to it. But it has to be said that MPs are themselves reaping the consequences of their earlier failures. In particular, the supine way in which they (mostly) voted to trigger Article 50, having only had the vote because of the heroic efforts of the Gina Miller case is, along with the lies of the Brexiters, one of the main reasons we are in the current situation.
Even if they stop no-deal Brexit now, it is far too late to stop most of the damage. It might do no more than lead to a General Election which, quite conceivably, Johnson would win on a no-deal ticket. It certainly won’t put an end to the bitter divisions, the viciousness and the incipient and actual violence. Because Brexit is no longer – if indeed it ever was – about the narrow, institutional question of membership of the EU. It is about the entire basis of the UK as a country and as a society. For the hard core Brexit ideologues it always was. Which means that, whether or not Britain stays in the EU, the Brexiters have already won.🔷
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