Brexit: Chris Johns on Britain’s lazy, jaw-dropping act of visceral self-harm

Ireland and Britain have stronger links than many realise, and it’s not all economics

October 1st found me sitting in an Irish bar in Cambridge watching a replay of the All-Ireland football final. I've lived in Ireland since 1988 and have tried to develop an interest in GAA but have to admit I don't get it. Never mind, my sports-mad Irish son was starting university and I was happy to be spending time with him after delivering his gear to his new college. I spent most of the match reading the newspapers which were full, as is usual these days, of Brexit-related articles and commentary.

I needed a drink, having just shelled out for fees which, in England, run at just over three times the cost of an Irish university. Before the referendum that would have been roughly four times Irish fees; such are the effects of sterling's devaluation. Sterling is the single most important barometer of unemotional Brexit opinion, one that is sending a powerful message that the Conservatives are happy to dismiss as just another expert opinion.

Travel freely

I am getting a British passport for my younger son, aware that the fees issue is likely to be rather a bigger problem in 2020, should he opt to leave Dublin. At the same time, I'm getting an Irish passport, qualifying via my Irish wife and 28 years of residency. I need to be able to travel freely around Europe and I am learning to speak French in an Irish accent – believe me, it helps.

Like most expat Brits I took a personal interest in the referendum and still feel resentful that I didn’t get a vote. As an economist I share the bafflement of those who believe that Brexit is an extraordinary act of self harm: those words are chosen carefully because I can only rationalise the outcome in terms of psychology. At best, Brexit is an emotional spasm; delusion on a grand scale. At worst, much darker forces are in play.


Initial characterisations of Brexiteers as the very rich, the very poor, the old and uneducated were found to be only partly true. The statistical picture is nuanced, something I discovered via a more informal route: the number of people I know; friends who voted to Leave.

I've holidayed in France for three decades, always sharing a house with various groups of people, mostly British, several of whom I have known since school days in Cardiff. When you have been acquainted for that long there are few surprises. Or at least that is what I thought.


For the first time, late-night, wine-fuelled conversation turned into full-blown arguments and, on two occasions, a fist fight that I had to break up. The rows were about Brexit of course, and I was astonished to discover not just how deeply both sides hold their beliefs, but just how visceral, rather than rational, it has all become. The arguments of the Brexiteers are anti-intellectual, lazy, populist, xenophobic (if not racist) and utterly inward-looking.

Much is rightly made over the Tory reinterpretation of the referendum. Apparently, it was a protest against globalisation, immigration, the political classes, the elites, low wages and foreign doctors. It was a demand to bring back grammar schools and put workers on to company boards. And because 52 per cent of voters are upset about all of this, something must be done. Oh, and two fingers to the 48 per cent who aren't as bothered; they are part of an elite that only exists to be sneered at. Didn't anybody ever warn Theresa May about creating hostages to fortune? She wont be able to do anything about any of these "problems". And she has made exactly the same mistake as Hillary Clinton: demonising voters who happen to disagree with you.

The shallowness – or unseriousness – of all this is jaw-dropping. Maybe de Gaulle was right, Europe should never have let the Brits in. After all, they have never understood Europe. I blame, partly, successive generations of Europhile politicians such as Ted Heath and Ken Clarke: they always downplayed Europe’s federal ambitions and kept telling us that it was just a free-trade zone. You have to know a little bit about history to understand the EU, perhaps even forgive some of its many infuriating aspects. Indeed, there is a lot to forgive.

Global citizenship

It is lazy to blame globalisation – another thing the UK political scene has in common with the US. There is a problem with unskilled labour. There are fewer jobs and no wage growth, but this is a global phenomenon with virtually no evidence that migration is the cause. It has got lots to do with technological change and low growth. Moaning about globalisation means that politicians can absolve themselves of responsibility and always “blame the other”. If they did something about anaemic economic growth, something now easily within their grasp, they would find a lot of the things they worry about would magically disappear. In the process, they would discover that it has got nothing to do with Europe or immigration.

In Ireland, we have, proportionately, more immigrants than the UK. And we are utterly relaxed about this. That’s a huge change from when I first arrived: it was a monolithically white culture back then. The Irish are outward-looking and choose to focus on the benefits of migration. That’s a stark and unexpected contrast between these two islands. Our newspapers don’t demonise immigrants or Europe and our Government leaders don’t have private meetings with Rupert Murdoch.

Ireland only joined the EU because the UK did. We think we are no longer as connected to the British economy as we were back then. While that is true, it may not be the whole truth: my fear is that we are still too linked together. And it’s not just the economic connections: you don’t have to live here to understand the significance of the Border. It would be a tragedy with potentially devastating consequences if anything like a hard border between North and South were reinstated. The consequences of this cannot be underestimated. Of course, those consequences will be the collateral damage of the Tory Party’s long European war, damage that they will have caused but will never take responsibility for.


Ms May was insulting when she belittled anyone who thinks of themselves as a world citizen. Those of us who are quite comfortable with the concept of global citizenship understand the importance of contribution to local culture, paying local taxes and simply being involved.

Citizenship is most definitely not populist pandering to the imaginary and conflicting desires of 52 per cent of voters: a good citizen understands there are other people with rights, hopes and desires both within and without a country’s borders.