After three years it is almost impossible to remember grown-up politicsby Jonathan Lis / May 16, 2019 / Leave a comment
In this week’s Brexit chaos, Honda announced the closure of its Swindon plant, British Steel sought an urgent Brexit-related loan, and Theresa May declared that she would present the legislation for her withdrawal agreement, even though it has already been catastrophically defeated in parliament three times. Each of these events threatens jobs and exposes a country in turmoil. And in each case the government will look the other way, deny anything unusual is happening, and tell us it is what we voted for.
If Brexit was about taking back control, it has shown us a country that has fully lost it. After three years, the government still shows no sign that it understands any of its problems. It talks to voters as though they were children, or stupid, or both. Why? Perhaps it is time to see Brexit not for its infantilisation of voters, but of the government itself.
Consider the UK’s entire strategy. It has depended on the EU indulging our tantrums. While the government has felt free to smash its own economic interests, it continued until very recently to insist German car manufacturers would dictate the EU’s. It believed it could play political fire with a no-deal scenario and Brussels would rush to douse the flames. It assumed it could demand changes to the backstop and eventually the EU would blink and bail us out. But the soothing reply never comes. The reason is straightforward: we behave like children but are in fact adults.
The EU has helped and spoon-fed us where it could, but has refused to surrender its own advantage just to shut us up. The government doesn’t know how little clout it has, and doesn’t want to know. For three years it has therefore stuck its fingers in its ears.
The negotiations have been infused, on the British side, with disrespect and disdain. It isn’t just the demand that everything must be on our own terms, or the obscene language about punishment beatings and Soviet prisons. It is the utter carelessness for Ireland, a country to which we owe decency and sensitivity before anything else. The UK’s political establishment didn’t consider Ireland’s welfare once during the referendum and only considers it an annoyance now. For the first year ministers in London spent their time dreaming of global trade deals while the grown-ups in Brussels and Dublin tried to address the collateral damage of the Good Friday Agreement.
Even after all this time, unquenchable contempt pervades the discourse over the backstop. A maniacal Anglocentrism dismisses an instrument to preserve Irish peace as a tool to foil British power. An edition of the Spectator last October accused the EU of having “used Ireland” to “take control of Brexit.” The truth is the Irish now boast more influence than Britain and wield a veto over its future. Like children, the Brexiters exhibit a cavernous rage they cannot get their own way.
Above all, the debacle over the backstop and the attempt to deflect blame encapsulates something essential to this process: the Brexiters’ failure to take responsibility for their failure. Everything is someone else’s fault. Brussels, Remainers, liberals, migrants: it is all victimisation and no accountability. The government never practised expectation management and never bothered to compromise with Remainers, the Labour Party or even soft Brexiters. Far from taking back control, it won’t even claim ownership of its own actual decisions.
Such bewildering lack of self-awareness is of course embodied in the prime minister herself. Parliament repeatedly defeats her deal and her party desperately attempts to remove her, and until now she has flatly ignored both. The main question is the most obvious: why does May refuse to resign? Does she realise how abject her premiership has been and think she’s the best option regardless, or does she actually believe she has been effective? And which scenario is worse? It almost doesn’t matter. Now there are no more grown-ups, there is no expectation for anyone to act honourably, hold themselves to account or confront the basic truths of what they are doing. Ministers who repeat Brexit’s comforting delusions are not disciplined but promoted. May herself lurches from one day to the next like a child emperor under siege, obsessed by her survival and oblivious to her people.
May is of course not the only infant in this tale. She did, after all, appoint as foreign secretary a man who mistakes ego for personality. Boris Johnson’s solipsism is not only personal but national. Like David Davis, he has effectively assumed Britain is the only country in the world with interests and the only country which deserves to secure them. The most curious element is not petulance but a lack of shame. When Johnson declared that he was “pro-having cake and pro-eating it,” he genuinely thought he was being charming.
In politics now there is no need for maturity. That would mean nuance, which in turn means weakness. Like children, the world must be seen in black and white. For May and the hard right, Brexit could not mean membership of the single market or customs union or association with the European Court of Justice, because that involved compromise, and they deemed that the British people had refused to countenance any. May reportedly blasted the “absolutism” of British politics in Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, but it is something she herself helped to create.
This absolutism finds its apotheosis in Nigel Farage. Unlike some of the Brexit movement’s cynics and careerists, he has always wanted to leave. He is, indeed, a committed zealot. More importantly, however, he is a demagogue. He needs to shout, whip up a crowd, and fight—then when he has won, declare that none of it is fair. Like a child who screams for the toy and then furiously rejects it, the exercise is not designed to be productive. On the contrary, it is entirely emotional. And because Brexit is a question without an answer, all roads must lead to betrayal.
What is Brexit, when it comes to it? How do we fathom the obsessive denial of reality, the endless dishonesty, the puffed-out machismo? The schoolboy fantasy we can rule the world without really trying? Why do we assume we will get what we want just because we call for it frequently and loudly? After three years it is almost impossible to remember what grown-up politics looks like. Perhaps Brexit is a cry for help. Perhaps we secretly yearn to be rescued. Perhaps, at its core, it just reflects a country that has been taken over by spoilt brats.