Brexit is the nightmare combination: boring and important. And it’s allowing Theresa May to lead us towards disasterby Ian Dunt / November 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
When British and American liberals get together, there’s often a kind of competitive grieving over what’s going on in their countries.
No-one in the Brexit debate—not even Nigel Farage—is as bad as Trump, the Americans say. And it’s true. But the Americans have a significant advantage. Trump’s detonation of political norms is ugly, but it’s compelling. And if they can just get past a maximum of two terms, he goes away.
Brexit, on the other hand, is unimaginably dull. It is a serious of technical debates on the subject of trade policy and regulatory systems. But the actions which take place now will define our country for the rest of our lives, on a deep structural level. We are messing around with the levers in the engine room.
This is why everyone is so deeply bored of Brexit. It is the nightmare combination: boring and important.
Even those of us who write about it for a living feel the same way. You switch the radio on in the morning and hear two men—it is nearly always men—babbling away about the most godawful technical jargon. Phrases like “customs union,” “backstop,” “regulatory equivalence” and “sanitary and phytosanitary standards” seem weaponised to make normal people switch off the news.
People are desperate to talk about something else. Broadcasters know that coverage of trade nerdery is like hara kiri for viewing figures, but they’re unable to completely pull away because it’s the only political story in town.
MPs are also awful at this. They have not been selected for parliament on the basis of their forensic technical abilities, but for their compatibility with constituency party concerns. Asking them to keep on top of Brexit is like asking people who like doing watercolours of sunsets to sketch out a technical diagram.
Everyone, in short, wants it to go away. Brexiters and Remainers are united in one thing only, and that is a desire to stop talking about the issue which divides them.
But by cruel irony, neither side can achieve it. We have tried to dress up a technocratic problem in populist clothing. It can’t be done and now we’re all paying the price.
Theresa May has embraced this sentiment as a core part of her Brexit PR strategy. She constantly emphasises how a vote for the deal will satisfy people’s desire to “just get on with it,” and allow the government to “move on.” Rejecting it, she warns, it will mean we “go back to square one.”
The message is carefully crafted to create a sense that supporting her deal means Brexit will be settled as an issue. Otherwise, we’ll have to go through the whole debate again.
MPs are actually very susceptible to this argument, especially those who are not passionate Brexiters or Remainers. They want to move on, not just because it’s boring, but because most of them did not go into politics to talk about tariffs. They want to focus on schools, hospitals, welfare and policing.
But it’s a lie. May’s deal won’t stop us talking about Brexit. This terrible nightmare will go forever.
If she somehow gets it through, there’ll be transition to the end of 2020, then an extension to 2022, and after that there’ll be either the backstop—which would be horrific—or some new ingenious way of extending talks.
The simple fact is that complex trade deals between large partners take ages. Canada’s took five years to negotiate and two to ratify, and that was much simpler than what we’re doing.
Making any progress at all will depend on knowing where it is we’re going. But there is precious little evidence of that happening. The future relationship document is completely open-ended. It contains proposals for regulatory harmonisation, which suggests we’d hug the EU close, and technological solutions, which suggests we’d push them away. It punted the can down the road, over the field, and into a new neighbourhood.
Nothing has been solved. All May’s deal does is agree the terms we leave the EU, get us out, and then agree to restart hostilities on the other side. And those hostilities are not really with the EU. They’re with ourselves as we try to figure out what kind of relationship we want with them. It’ll be the same domestic debate we’ve had for the last two and a half years, all over again, but this time in the front garden rather than the hallway.
May’s lie about this deal ending the Brexit debate is pernicious for reasons that go beyond the mere fact that it is false. It does something quite cynical: it pretends to address technical issues using emotional intuition.
It takes people’s instinctive desires—to stop talking about this bloody awful thing—and pretends that they can be used to solve complicated trading and legal problems. But that won’t work. It’s like trying to make a car run on biscuits.
This cynical populist alchemy—of claiming to turn emotion into technicality—is precisely what got us into this mess. It is why the meaningless phrase ‘take back control’ was allowed to set fire to Britain’s trading networks and political stability. We pretended that complicated problems have simple solutions and that merely wanting something to be the case can make it so.
And this is what we got. The most boring political debate of modern times, playing out in a loop forever.
We really need to learn the lesson. Just like all her other arguments, May’s case for settling Brexit is false and self-serving. The only problem is, the alternatives aren’t much better.