Brexit reveals enduring flaws in UK’s workings
Caveat: Seeds of UK’s EU exit were sown in empty rhetoric of 1980s university debates
British foreign secretary Boris Johnson. “Remember Johnson’s policy on cake: he was pro-having it, and pro-eating it.” Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images
It’s possible that Brexit – treated strictly as an intellectual concept – is a brilliant idea. However, it was sold with falsehoods and is now being mismanaged.
To cite just a few Brexiteer politicians: secretary of state for Exiting the European Union David Davis sketched a deal with the European Union as simply a matter of a quick visit to Berlin; Tory MEP Daniel Hannan said that obviously the UK wouldn’t leave the European single market; and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage predicted that other countries would follow Britain out of Europe. It hasn’t quite turned out like that.
More than a year after the referendum, the British cabinet still can’t agree on what kind of Brexit it wants, or when. The British state is steaming towards its third disaster in 15 years, after the Iraq war and the financial crisis. Like both previous disasters, Brexit reveals three enduring flaws in the UK’s workings.
The first flaw is running a country on rhetoric. Brexit was made about 30 years ago at the Oxford Union – Oxford university’s version of a children’s parliament, which organises witty debates, and where future Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were presidents in the 1980s.
In 1990, Hannan founded the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House on the city’s high street. This generation of mostly former public schoolboys didn’t want Brussels running Britain. That was their caste’s prerogative.
The referendum was won like a Union debate: with funny, almost substance-free hot air. Remember Johnson’s policy on cake: he was pro-having it, and pro-eating it. In Britain, humour is used to cut off conversations before they can get emotional, boring or technical.
Oxford Tories built a cross-class alliance with the tabloids, a scaremongering force unique in western Europe. In 2002, their spectre was Saddam Hussein bombing Britain. In 2016, it was Turkey joining the EU.
Voters were misled. Whenever we Remoaners say this, Brexiteers accuse us of calling voters thick. That’s not what I’m saying. Rather, most voters aren’t very interested in policy. They have busy lives. So when they are told that Brexit will free up £350 million a week for the National Health Service, they tend to believe it.
As long as politicians restricted their silly wordgames to prime minister’s question time while letting civil servants run the country, they were relatively harmless. But after the referendum, the Brexiteers were tasked with managing Brexit. This was like asking the winners of a debating contest to engineer a spaceship. Results have been predictable.
The Brexiteers cannot wow Brussels with rhetoric, because the EU’s negotiators prefer rules. “That is a cultural difference,” notes Catherine de Vries, professor of politics at Essex University.
Actual foreign information keeps surprising the Brexiteers. Because the referendum skated over boring policy stuff, even cabinet ministers are discovering only now that Britain will pay the EU a large divorce bill. Who knew that all real-world choices are suboptimal?
The tabloids weren’t fully informed either. Though they always complained that Britain was ruled from Brussels, few of them bothered keeping a full-time correspondent there.
Delusions of grandeur
The ruling class’s insularity, the UK’s second flaw, is linked with its third: delusions of grandeur.
Britain became a great power because it pioneered the fossil-fuel economy in the 18th century, and because being an island was excellent protection when states still invaded each other. Neither advantage exists any more. Britain today is like a cute little bonobo ape that thinks it’s a gorilla.
The ruling class doesn’t quite believe it can make Britain great again. Rather, the updated strategy is more or less “America First, Britain Second”. This means subordination not just to the US (as in the decision to invade Iraq) but also to the American model (as with the financial crisis). Brexiteers are now praying that Donald Trump will reward the UK’s fealty with a sweetheart trade deal.
Meanwhile, Britain ignores its genuine strengths, such as its knowledge economy.
The other day I whizzed around central London, from the barristers’ chambers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, past the London School of Economics, the City and the Foreign Office, and ended up having coffee by Google’s offices at King’s Cross. Almost all these clever people (now known as out-of-touch elites) are mere spectators at the Brexit slapstick. As Orwell said, in his attempt to describe England in a phrase: “A family with the wrong members in control.”
Westminster’s distance from the knowledge economy had previously enabled the financial crisis. Britain’s ruling rhetoricians treated the City as an incomprehensible magic money tree, until in 2007 the tree fell down and hit the country.
Brexiteers keep accusing Remoaners of “talking Britain down” – again, as if rhetoric shapes reality. They are also blaming Brexit’s unravelling on Britain-hating Europeans. That’s inaccurate.
Lately, I’ve been going around asking European elites, from ministers to bankers, about Brexit. Most of these people were shaped by agents of British soft power, from Cardiff University to Arsenal football club to the Smiths. Now Brexit rhetoric is battering their Anglophilia.
I wrote in 2011, “Running a country on eloquence alone hasn’t worked out disastrously – or at least not yet.” But maybe now it has. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)