Opinion
Subscriber Only

Fintan O’Toole: It’s the first birthday of the Brexit hole and they have to keep digging

Those who sold it are slithering away from responsibility for its consequences. Those to whom it was sold are left to bear them

Brendan Behan claimed he had passed a hole in which the workers had laid down their shovels to sing Happy Birthday. He asked which of them the celebration was for. "Ah no, it's not one of us. It's the first birthday of the hole."

On Saturday it will be the first birthday of the hole that is Brexit.

It seems, surely, that the squalling brat must be old enough to have started primary school. But that is just because it had a gestation period longer than an elephant’s. Arguably, it only becomes fully born on Saturday, when Britain finally gets around to imposing customs controls on EU imports.

Remembering how young the Brexit baby really is, you are struck by how quickly disillusion has set in among those who embraced it in 2016. A poll in the Observer at the weekend found that 42 per cent of Leave voters now have a negative view of how it has turned out.

The effects of import controls – especially on just-in-time supply chains in industries like car manufacturing – have yet to be felt. The fog of the pandemic (in which it is hard for voters to distinguish one set of consequences from another) will slowly lift. It does not, therefore, seem too much of a stretch to suggest that by the end of 2022, a majority of those who voted for it will have concluded that the great gamble has turned into a beaten docket.

It’s hard to think of any other successful revolution whose fires have burned out so soon after the victory beacons were lit. It is one of the peculiarities of this project that it seems simultaneously to slow time down to an excruciating crawl and to hurry it up to warp speed.

As is the way of these things, the reasons are both highly contingent and deeply inevitable.

The contingency has a local habitation and a name: Boris Johnson. It is hard to overstate how crucial he was in turning Brexit from an obsession of cranks and swivel-eyed loons into a popular cause. Polling throughout the referendum campaign found an almost perfect correlation between how people felt about Johnson and how they intended to vote.

But he is one of those toys that is powered by batteries that have a short life, can’t be removed or replaced and eventually start to leak corrosive acid into the mechanism. The kiss of reality was always going to turn Brexit’s clown prince into a slimy frog.

The tragedy of Brexit is that it is a temporary reaction with permanent effects, a crime of momentary passion that carries a life sentence

The longer-term inevitability derives from the fundamental reason why the UK joined the European Communities in the first place. Without the empire, it had to learn to live with its place in the world, which is, after all, in Europe.

As the 1971 White Paper proposing entry put it, if the UK stayed out, “In a single generation we should have renounced an imperial past and rejected a European future. Our friends everywhere would be dismayed. They would rightly be as uncertain as ourselves about our future role and place in the world…Our power to influence the Communities would steadily diminish, while the Communities’ power to affect our future would as steadily increase”.

This logic is inescapable. A bigger neighbour will always exert a huge gravitational influence on a smaller entity. The only way to “take back control” was to influence the European future from the inside. Leaving the EU is not, for Britain, a great new departure. It is simply a return to the fundamental dilemma of 50 years ago.

The fantasy was that, contrary to the realism of 1971, Britain could reject a European future while pretending that it had not "renounced an imperial past". Global Britain is, to adapt Thomas Hobbes, the ghost of the British Empire "squatting on the grave thereof".

Bad costume drama

But it no longer really matters whether Britain has renounced its imperial past – its imperial past has long since renounced Britishness. The old colonies really don’t care very much one way or the other about Brexit.

They will do – as Australia has – trade deals that exploit the mother country’s weakness and desperation. They will not sacrifice their own interests, or their own hard-earned sense of where they sit in the real world, for a supporting role in a bad British costume drama.

But it’s too late to stop now. The tragedy of Brexit is that it is a temporary reaction with permanent effects, a crime of momentary passion that carries a life sentence.

To even begin to deal with those outcomes, the decadent ruling class that has created them would have to grasp the one thing it will avoid at all costs: responsibility. The buyers of Brexit may be experiencing remorse, but those who sold it are remorseless in their determination to slither away from blame or acknowledgement.

Most of them have done so already. David Frost has now joined them in comfortable exile on a political Costa del Crime, the never-never land that has no extradition treaty with the country of consequence.

Soon enough, Johnson will join them there and return to tossing off columns and giving after-dinner speeches to the well-heeled and well-oiled. Only those who followed him will be left in the hole.