Brexit fantasies crumbling on contact with hard reality

Bluster increasingly in conflict with facts as UK struggles with self-inflicted chaos

A child knows that if you mix blue with yellow you get green. There is a similarly straightforward chemical reaction when you mix Brexit fantasies with hard reality. You end up with the current shambles. As we face into crucial weeks for the Brexit process, during which the European Union will have to deal with an unpredictable and sometimes incomprehensible interlocutor, it is essential for us to understand the deeper reasons which have brought the UK to this pretty pass.

Before, during, and since the 2016 referendum, there have been many political misunderstandings, tactical misreadings and strategic mistakes. But we should also be aware of three underlying factors at work.

First there is a truth as straightforward and inevitable as the science of mixing colours. At the intersection between bluster and reality lies chaos. The bluster which brought us Brexit and now drives it forward goes back many decades. The roots of the plant which increasingly runs riot across the lawns of British democracy lie deep in the fertile soil of cheery bluster. By a quirk of fate, the first seeds which took root in that soil were planted a quarter of a century ago by the then Telegraph correspondent in Brussels, Boris Johnson, a purveyor of blarney to make any Irishman proud, who today finds himself tending the garden at 10 Downing Street.

Blithe bluster

The bluster seemed relatively harmless when it was confined to newspaper columns. At the time the merry fiction about straight bananas and the size of condoms had a life of its own, untroubled by reality. Unfortunately, the blithe bluster continued to spread unchecked like a rampant weed across British public debate and has now done immense damage to Britain.

The attacks on the judiciary, civil service and parliament did not originate with Nigel Farage but in the void between having your cake and eating it

During the referendum campaign, many Leave campaigners assured the British public that sunny Brexit uplands lay ahead. Since June 2016 the optimistic bluster has been stepped up to a level that would make Mr Micawber proud. The Brexit negotiations, we were told, would be the easiest in history. The UK would hold all the cards. The EU would blink. No deal would be a doddle.

But the bluster has increasingly come into contact and sometimes conflict with reality: European interests, principled parliamentarians, parliamentary arithmetic, international agreements, economic facts and a more informed and engaged British public. That chaos should result from the real world’s rude interruption of the insouciant Brexit swagger was scientifically unavoidable.

There are some forces of darkness in the UK. But most British politicians are entirely decent. The attacks on the judiciary, civil service and parliament did not originate with Nigel Farage but in the void between having your cake and eating it.

The second foundation stone of the Brexit edifice is that increasingly words have been deprived of any meaning. This populist phenomenon, to be distinguished from lying, is reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty’s insistence to Alice that words simply mean what we choose them to mean.

The mantra that the "people" simply want the government to get on with Brexit has meaning only if the term "people" excludes half the people

This disjunction between words and their meaning has taken a particularly blatant form in the United States, where the president proclaims alternative facts and where the very creators of fake news routinely describe real news as fake.

Debate in the UK has sadly moved in the same direction. Politicians, for example, compare the EU with the Soviet Union, Brexit negotiations with the second World War. Ministers who vehemently described the possible prorogation of parliament as appalling now sit around the cabinet table. The odds of “a million to one” against a no-deal Brexit, offered by Johnson to Tory party members when he was running for party leadership, were cut to even money after his election at a speed that in other circumstances would ring alarm bells at the UK Gambling Commission. The word “undemocratic” is now systematically distorted to describe a Border backstop agreed by the British government, voted for by Johnson and supported by a large majority in Northern Ireland.

Partisan definition

The third underlying reason for the present state of British politics is a dangerously narrow and partisan definition of what constitutes “the people”. Fifty-two per cent of the British people voted to leave in 2016, many of them feeling undervalued and ignored; their views must be treated with respect. But the answer cannot be to ignore and disrespect the 48 per cent of the people who voted to remain. Or the many Leave voters who were assured that Brexit would be easy. Or voters who may have changed their minds. It cannot be to ignore polls which show a small but consistent majority for Remain and a larger majority against a no-deal Brexit.

The mantra that the “people” simply want the government to get on with Brexit has meaning only if the term “people” excludes half the people. The suggestion that taking account of democratic complexity would undermine democracy is ridiculous. The idea that a people can be defined as a percentage of the people is dangerous.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to the UK, Italy and the EU