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Fintan O’Toole: Brexit ultras haven’t the guts to do the only logical thing

A truly patriotic politician would now ask the British people again if this is what they really want

In Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, published in 1911, we find the following definition: "Road, n. A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be to where it is futile to go."

A pithy summary of the draft UK withdrawal deal from the EU, which was finally published this week, might be: “Brexit, n. A meandering road from where the British found it too tiresome for them to be to where it is futile for them to go.” The deal spells out what Brexit actually looks like: second-class membership of the European Union.

Faced at last with this reality, Britain has three options. It can retrace its steps and return to the ordinary tedium of EU membership and with it to its true status as a prosperous but unexceptional European country.

It can carry on towards the futility of a new arrangement patently worse than what it already has. Or it can wander off the road altogether, into the unmapped and treacherous mire of a no-deal Brexit.


Or, perhaps, there is a fourth option: it can stand in the middle of the road and, like the lisping Violet Elizabeth Bott in Richmal Compton's great (and terribly English) Just William stories, declare "I'll thcream and thcream 'till I'm thick".

As all hell broke loose on Thursday morning as it became ever clearer that Brexit has created a vacuum of political authority in the UK. Theresa May, in her stoical and stolid way, has tried to fill it by leading her country towards a realisation that there is no happy ending to this story, just a painful resignation to the least worst outcome.

But it looks like she will be drowned out by the Violet Elizabeths who believe that, if they scream and scream until they are sick, they will get their way in the end.

The strange thing about this moment is that it has been coming for almost a year. On the morning of Friday, December 7th,2017, when the agreed draft of the withdrawal agreement was released after late-night talks in Brussels, I wrote about what it meant.

It was not full of dazzling insight, merely a statement of the obvious logic of what had been agreed: “After one of the most fraught fortnights in the recent history of Anglo-Irish relations, Ireland has just done Britain a favour of historic dimensions. It has saved it from the madness of a hard Brexit. There is a great irony here: the problem that the Brexiteers most relentlessly ignored has come to determine the entire shape of their project. By standing firm against their attempts to bully, cajole and blame it, Ireland has shifted Brexit towards a soft outcome. It is now far more likely that Britain will stay in the customs union and the single market. It is also more likely that Brexit will not in fact happen.”

Same words

The reasoning here was pretty basic. Theresa May had agreed that, in order to avoid a hard border, “in the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement”.

These are the very same words, albeit in a slightly different order, that appeared in the final draft agreement released on Wednesday night. They are the kernel of the whole deal, and they were there in black and white almost a year ago.

Their meaning was not obscure: barring the magical solutions that the Brexiteers kept promising, the same rules of the Single Market and the Customs Union would continue to operate on both sides of the Irish Border.

But May had also agreed, to appease the DUP, that “the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom”.

You didn’t need to be very good at mathematics to see what this meant: if A equals B, and B equals C, then A equals C. If Northern Ireland is fully aligned to an EU member state (the Republic of Ireland), and Britain is very closely aligned with Northern Ireland, then Britain must remain very closely aligned with the EU.

In other words, the Brexiteers could posture all they liked about “global Britain” and the fabulous trade deals with the rest of the world that awaited them after the great leap out of the EU. But unless and until they could make these airy fantasies real, what Brexit actually means is a rather dismal and decidedly humdrum half-in/half-out existence to be maintained for an indefinite period and exited only if and when the EU agrees.

This in turn raised two big questions.

First, could the Brexiteers in fact come up with some other solution?

After all, two of their leaders Boris Johnson and David Davis were then senior members of Theresa May's cabinet (though you would not know it from his subsequent complaints, Davis was actually in charge of the Brexit negotiations).

Since they had signed up to this deal in December, it seemed safe to assume that they knew what it meant and that they had a plan to avoid this backstop ever being used. The backstop is just an insurance policy – just because you have fire insurance you don’t let your house burn down. The key words then were “in the absence of agreed solutions” – or, as this week’s final draft has it, “unless and until an alternative arrangement implementing another scenario is agreed”.

This was a straightforward challenge to the Brexiteers: come up with some other way of achieving the same aims and they could render the backstop entirely irrelevant.

Glorious dream

The second big question was: is it worth it?

If they could not come up with some other way of dealing with the Irish Border question, the British were placing themselves in a position that is, from any point of view, frankly weird. They must bind themselves to the EU’s rules, not just as they exist at the time of Brexit in March 2019 but on a “dynamic” basis, meaning they would have to adopt all the new ones as they came in.

But they would have no say in the making of those rules. The glorious dream of a Great Escape from Brussels regulation would be over but the UK would not even enjoy its current status as a full and equal member of the EU.

You can't move between different customs and market regimes without checks.

Words like “vassalage”, “slave state” and “colony” – all thrown out by Brexiteers (and indeed by Remainers) this week – are as ridiculously over-the-top as all of the Brexit’s rhetoric has been. But there is no doubt that the whole exercise would amount to swapping first-class membership for the second class status of a satellite locked into the orbit of Planet Europe.

Hence, it seemed obvious last December that it had become “more likely that Brexit will not in fact happen”. No one with his or her country’s interests at heart would wish it to go on the futile journey towards such a mediocre destiny.

To understand how we got to where we are this week, we have to grasp what happened to these two big questions over the last year: bugger all.

First, it became clear that Johnson, Davis and their allies simply didn’t understand what they had signed up to, either in its form as a solemn international agreement that could not simply be torn up, or in its content and implications.

But even as the light of reality slowly pierced their mental fogs, they did nothing except complain about it. As the negotiations wound on and on, apparently going nowhere fast, it became clear that they had much more time to think and act than anyone had imagined this time last year.

All they did with that time was to waste it – and indeed by making it more and more difficult for May to negotiate with a clear mandate, to waste everybody else’s time too.

On the first question – the alternative solution that would render the backstop irrelevant – we know what the hard Brexiteers have repeatedly said they want: a glorious Canada-style free trade deal between the EU and the UK that would deliver frictionless trade all round, including of course on the island of Ireland.

But there was and is an obvious problem with this: a Canada-style deal would not in fact get rid of the need for a hard Irish border. Very substantial regulatory checks would still be needed. The UK would be outside the Customs Union and the Single Market, and the Republic would be inside.

Technological solution

You can’t move between different customs and market regimes without checks. And the only theoretical solution therefore would be to make those checks digital rather than physical.

So the hard Brexiteers, to save their dream, had the best part of a year to come up with a serious proposal for what this technological solution would be and how it would work.

Here, then, is the House of Commons select committee on Northern Ireland, after extensive hearings on the issue, reporting in March this year: “We have had no visibility of any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border. We recommend the Government bring forward detailed proposals, without further delay, that set out how it will maintain an open and invisible border. These proposals should provide detail about how customs compliance will be enforced if there is regulatory and tariff divergence between the UK and Ireland.”

At that time, Davis and Johnson were still members of the government to whom this recommendation was addressed by their own parliament. They were being asked to tell the House of Commons and the world precisely how their preferred technological solutions would move “beyond the aspirational”.

The best that Johnson ever came up with was his fatuous suggestion that the Irish border could be managed like the congestion charge in London.

So, there are really only two possibilities. Either there are no magical technological solutions and they were just fig leaves for a naked disregard of the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland. Or there are such solutions but the Brexiteers are too lazy to come up with them – even when their epic dreams of freedom from the EU are at stake.

As for the wider question – is it worth it? – things have taken an even more extraordinary turn. In his resignation letter in July, Boris Johnson wrote to May that “we appear to be heading for a semi-Brexit, with large parts of the economy still locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system”.

This was for once, entirely accurate. His further claim that “we are truly headed for the status of colony – and many will struggle to see the economic or political advantages of that particular arrangement” was typically inflated, but let’s assume, since he has repeated it this week, that he meant it.

What Johnson was saying was that his country was heading towards an arrangement that, as he explicitly put it more recently, is “substantially worse than staying in the EU”.

Inexorable logic

What would any patriot do in these circumstances? Johnson’s younger brother Jo drew the obvious conclusion: go back to the people and ask them if this is what they really want.

But neither Boris nor any of the leading Brexit ultras has had the guts to follow this inexorable logic. They know they have led the UK towards a position that is “substantially worse” than its current status. But they will neither accept responsibility for this nor support the only thing that could prevent it: a second referendum.

It is easier to keep pretending that, if only May had stuck it to the Europeans in the negotiations, the perfect have-cake/eat-cake Brexit would have been delivered. The critique of May by the Brexiteers is based on the old British rule for how to behave with the continentals: if they don’t understand your language, shout louder: “GIVE . . . US . . . CAKE!”

It is easier to scream and scream until everybody is sick than to reflect on how and why the British public was sold a fantasy Brexit that had no possibility of ever becoming real.

Let them scream.

And let responsible and patriotic politicians repeat over and over the five words that lie beneath each one of the 500-plus pages of the draft withdrawal deal: it is not worth it. The destination is not what it looked like in the travel agents’ glossy brochures, all sunlit uplands and lush green pastures. It is grey and grim and horribly provincial.

Why not, before the flight takes off, turn around and go home?

Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain will be published next week