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Fintan O’Toole: If Brexit is so great, why is Britain acting like it’s not happening?

Our neighbours are still struggling to believe that Brexit is a real-world event

British prime minister Boris Johnson. Consequences are merely boring details to the Brexiteers. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

Last autumn, the British government spent £46 million (€50.6m) on its largest propaganda campaign since the second World War. Its aim was to prepare the country for Brexit. In January, the UK National Audit Office reported that "it is not clear that the campaign resulted in the public being significantly better prepared".

So this week, Boris Johnson’s administration launched a massive advertising blitz to prepare Britain for Brexit.

Might this not suggest that, four years after they voted for it, our neighbours are still struggling to believe that Brexit is a real-world event, and not just a grand gesture. Why, otherwise, does so much effort and money have to be expended on convincing them of its reality?

The slogan for the new Brexit-preparedness campaign is “let’s get going”. That is what you say to children pretending to be sick because they don’t feel like school. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

The slogan for the new campaign is “let’s get going”. That is what you say to children pretending to be sick because they don’t feel like school. Given that Brexit is officially the dawn of a new golden age, why does Johnson’s Vote Leave regime implicitly accept that a reluctant populace has to be chivvied, not even into embracing this glorious future, but merely into accepting that Brexit is actually happening?


A fug of denial hangs over the whole thing. A fortnight ago, the House of Commons select committee on future UK relations with the European Union heard evidence from a man called Tim Reardon, “head of EU exit” at Dover, the most important port for goods passing between Britain (and Ireland) and the continental mainland.

In normal times, 10,000 trucks pass through it every day. It is Reardon’s job to make sure they can still do this after New Year’s Day 2021, when the current transition period ends and, to coin a phrase, Brexit really means Brexit.

On the other side of the English Channel, Dover’s twin port, Calais, has built a system for handling the flow of lorries after January 1st and, as Reardon put it, has “tested its system . . . a couple of times”. So obviously Dover has done the same?

Well, explained Reardon, the system at Dover “needs to be built before it can be tested. At the moment, we are still at the stage of making sure that the specification for the system is correct, so that it is built with a fighting chance of doing what it is needed to do.”

So the situation is not just that the system has yet to be tested, nor even that it has yet to be built. It is that the specifications for the design of the system have yet to be finalised.

The site in Ashford, Kent, where the UK government intends to building a 27-acre holding pen for 10,000 trucks heading to Dover. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Last weekend, Michael Gove, who is supposedly in charge of such things, announced the construction of a 27-acre holding pen for those 10,000 trucks heading to Dover. It will be in Ashford, Kent.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, Ashford voted 60 per cent for Leave. Yet the shocked local Tory MP, Damian Green, complained that the idea of this vast parking lot has now come “out of the blue”.

Almost everything about Brexit still comes out of the blue for the people who voted for it and their political leaders. On Monday, the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs committee issued a despairing report on preparations for the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol: "Businesses are still in the dark about what they should be preparing for on January 1st, 2021 . . . Those trading across the Irish Sea have been told to prepare without knowing what to prepare for."

Meanwhile, the London government has published a checklist of things it suggests British subjects may have to consider if they intend to travel to the continental EU from next year on. Their European Health Insurance Cards will become invalid in December, so they will need to buy health insurance. They may need an international driving permit and a “green card” as proof of insurance. Mobile phone roaming charges will apply.

Most terribly of all, EU pet passports will no longer be available to animal-loving Britons. “Before your dog, cat or ferret can travel . . . your pet must have a blood sample taken at least 30 days after its last rabies vaccination”.

This sample will then be sent to an “EU-approved laboratory” and the ferret-fancying traveller will then have to “wait three months from the date the successful blood sample was taken before you can travel.” If only the pro-EU side in the 2016 referendum had thought of a bus with “Ferry your ferret freely – Vote Remain”, surely the result would have been different.

For the Brexiteers, the particularities are too, too tedious – get on with the glorious act of liberation

It is as if there are two Britains, one in which Brexit is the greatest national project for almost half a century and one in which it is not really happening at all. To get a sense of the latter, go to the website of the UK’s Department of International Trade. It has detailed information for would-be exporters about markets they should consider entering after Brexit.

The site literally says "There are six markets in the western European region" and lists them as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. Apparently, Spain or Italy or Belgium are not in western Europe anymore.

This is just sloppiness, presumably, but it is symptomatic of the strange absent-mindedness I like to call BAADD: Brexit-acquired attention deficit disorder.

Anyone who does pay attention to Brexit becomes inured to the complete disjunction between the seriousness of what the UK is doing on the one side and the lack of seriousness about what it means on the other. But as summer drifts towards autumn with no sign of agreement on a trade deal, the idea that obvious things are still coming “out of the blue” becomes ever weirder.

Last week, the EU's lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, had to reply to a letter of complaint from Mark Francois, chairman of the parliamentary group of Brexit ultras, the European Research Group. Barnier had to point out that everything Francois was complaining about is in the political declaration "agreed by your prime minister and voted for by the House of Commons, including yourself." But pointing this out is hopeless: the Brexiteers will continue to fulminate against the consequences of everything they themselves have done.

Why shouldn’t they? Consequences are boring details. And the problem with details is not just that it takes some work – and, more problematic in the case of Francois, a stim of wit – to grasp them. It is that they are innately unheroic: port control systems, giant lorry parks, passports for ferrets. Brexit is drama, and these minutiae are like the dreary bits of Game of Thrones when someone has to explain about the lineage of the House Targaryen instead of getting on with sex, violence and dragons.

For the Brexiteers, the particularities are too, too tedious – get on with the glorious act of liberation. And there are only two ways in which the outcome of the current negotiations can be sufficiently dramatic: either the EU capitulates to all Britain’s demands, or Britain tears up the withdrawal agreement and stomps off into international outlawry.

Anyone who thinks that the approach of a real danger will force Johnson's administration to get a grip must pause to ask: how did that work out with the pandemic?

There is no rational universe in which either of these outcomes makes sense, but this is not a rational universe. It is a twilight zone in which the Daily Telegraph still runs opinion pieces from Tory MPs with headlines like: “Frictionless trade with the EU is there for the asking”. The delusion that the EU will, in the end, give the UK all the benefits of the single market, even though it has left the single market, is very much alive. When the EU capitulates, there will be no need for border controls at Dover or passports for ferrets – so why plan for them?

But, in this binary mindset, the refusal of the EU to give the UK all of these benefits is proof of the EU's bad faith – and Britain should retaliate by tearing up everything it has already agreed. The former Brexit secretary David Davis tweeted this week that: "In the event that the EU is not offering a deal, we should certainly consider John Longworth's suggestion of reviewing the Withdrawal Agreement."

Longworth is a former Tory MEP who now heads a pro-Brexit think-tank, the Centre for Brexit Policy, chaired by the former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson. (Its directors include the DUP's Sammy Wilson.)

Longworth’s “suggestion”, published on the Politico website, is yet more of the never-ending mania about the second World War: “It is outrageous that Germany – a country that had its national debt written off after World War II . . . – should now seek what amounts to reparations from the UK for having the audacity to want to break free of the Teutonic chains . . . So toxic is the [withdrawal] agreement that it would be quite legitimate in international law to repudiate the treaty, and that is exactly what the UK government should do if the EU refuses to adjust its implications.”

Should we take this stuff seriously? Probably not in any literal sense, though in the fever of this derangement no proposition, however extreme, can be discounted. But the danger is that these fantastical binaries – complete triumph or utter repudiation – continue to crowd out the urgent necessity to come to terms with the reality of Brexit.

Anyone who thinks that the approach of a real danger will force Johnson’s administration to get a grip must pause to ask: how did that work out with the pandemic?

The capacity of some people for delusion, denial and distraction has just caused about 20,000 avoidable British deaths. If they are willing to pay that price rather than face reality, the costs of a chaotic Brexit scarcely count.