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The hysteria around Brexit shows how utterly un-British it really is

The Leave flotilla (Jun 2016) - Credit: Archant

The arrogance of Brexiteers is bad enough, says Ian Dunt. But what’s worse is that they make literally no sense. Their arguments have no factual underpinning, are logically impossible and intellectually worthless

The oddest thing about Brexit is how utterly un-British it is. The vaguely antagonistic attitude towards the continent is familiar enough, of course, as is the barely-concealed sense of national superiority. But the emotional, even borderline hysterical, manner of debate is not.

This country used to be respected for its stability. That’s why businesses invested here, why sterling is a reserve currency and why people from countries with volatile political cultures quickly felt comfortable and safe here.

Sometimes Britain felt so unchanging it was frustrating. When George Orwell came back from the Spanish Civil War, for instance, he berated, in typically warm terms, the ‘deep, deep sleep of England’. But usually we recognised it for what it was: safety, security and peace of mind.

That seems a terribly long time ago now. The referendum campaign changed something fundamental in the way we debate politics.

The germ of this new hysteria was there from the start. Even during the campaign, we saw scuffles and shouting matches break out at campaign events. Nigel Farage kept going further and further in his rhetoric, from warning of sexual attacks by migrants to that now-infamous poster of refugees, which seemed more akin to Nazi-era propaganda than anything you’d see in modern Britain. Reality stopped mattering. Only tribal identity was important.

When the referendum was over, that tone of debate stuck. Experts were ignored. They were considered the new elite, engaged in a wicked but never quite defined conspiracy against the people. Anyone warning of the dangers of Brexit was treated at best as a tedious Remoaner or at worst a traitor. A new form of anxious, divisive nationalism took hold.

There is something weird in the air. Even respectable Conservative MPs are acting more like the angry, flag-waving identity politics warriors of the US Republican party than the calm, sleepy Burkean Tories we’ve been used to for the past centuries.

If this was just a Conservative phenomenon we could ignore it. But it is not just affecting the Tory party. This new Brexit hysteria is now installed in Downing Street. It is in the heart of government.

We are living under rulers who do not believe, or at least refuse to trade in, objective fact. Reality is a barrier to the successful implementation of Brexit and must therefore be ignored.

Theresa May used her opening speech to the Conservative party conference last month to claim that ‘there is no such thing as a choice between ‘Soft Brexit’ and ‘Hard Brexit’.’ This was completely bizarre. Britain can leave the EU while staying in the single market and the customs union. This would be a Soft Brexit. Or it could leave the EU, the customs union, the single market and refuse any future cooperation on security. This would be a Hard Brexit. That is a real difference. These are not made-up terms. They relate to real things which exist in the real world. But the prime minister pretends they don’t exist. So does Brexit secretary David Davis, who says he prefers to speak about a ‘spectrum of outcomes’ rather than single market membership. Boris Johnson says the term ‘single market’ is ‘increasingly useless’. He for months insisted there was no obstacle to ending free movement and staying in the single market, which made as much sense as saying you were off to France for your holidays but refused to abide by French law.

Now, he says that it is ‘bollocks’ that free movement was a founding principle of the European Union. This, just like all his other statements on the matter, is false. As Guy Verhofstadt, lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, tweeted in response: ‘Can’t wait to negotiate with Boris Johnson so that I can read him Article 3 of the Treaty of Rome.’

It’s exactly this kind of talk which has made Europe so impatient with Britain. It’s not just that the public voted to Leave, or even the arrogance or condescension of Brexit politicians towards their European counterparts. It’s the fact that what they say literally makes no sense. It has no factual underpinning. It is logically impossible and intellectually worthless.

This would be disappointing and embarrassing at the best of times. But these are not the best of times. Britain is about to enter possibly the most complicated negotiations in its history, with very severe implications for our quality of life and our place in the world. These negotiations will not be conducted in the post-truth world of the Brexiters. They will be conducted on the basis of cold, hard facts.

Here are the facts. The two-years offered by Article 50 to leave the EU does not give us time to agree and ratify a trade deal with Europe. Canada’s recent deal, for comparison, took seven years, and that was without the political difficulties of a British deal or its reliance on financial services, which are much harder to negotiate than trade in goods.

This time problem has been pointed out by pretty much anyone who understands the problem. But May’s government has refused to petition Europe for a time extension ahead of triggering Article 50, or to consider an interim EEA deal which would suck the economic chaos and business uncertainty out of the situation.

Without an interim deal or agreement on time extensions, Britain faces a chaotic Hard Brexit. The price of leaving the customs union is expected to be a 4.5% loss of GDP by 2030. Leaving the single market will lead to a sudden migration of financial services from the UK and bureaucratic stoppages to goods at the border.

The cost to the economy would be devastating and probably permanent. Tariffs would hammer manufacturing communities. The loss of little-discussed but hugely important mutual recognition assurances between the EU and the rest of the world means our trade with countries like China, Japan and the US would also stall.

Brexiters often speak as if the WTO offers a safety net in case negotiations fail at the EU. They do not understand that a successful EU deal is a precondition of establishing ourselves independently at the WTO, not an alternative to it. Without one, the EU and many other countries are likely to trigger trade disputes with us. Britain would be cut off from its largest market and suddenly drowning under an avalanche of international legal battles. And all of this would be happening without the trade negotiators and experts which we so urgently need.

The question of what happens to Britain’s law has also not been addressed. UK and EU law have intertwined, like two vines, for nearly half a century. No-one knows which bits belong to who anymore. If we simply copy-and-paste all the EU law into Britain, as ministers plan, we’d be recognising EU regulators who no longer have jurisdiction over us. If we don’t, how do we secure patents, or authorisations for new medicines, or countless other fiddly but vital matters which the Brexiters do not like talking about?

Once Britain is out of the EU, it will seek trade deals with other powerful countries, like the US. They will undoubtedly ask us to reduce our EU standards, for instance on drug prices, chemical safety or data protection. And ministers will suddenly be able to do so, because the so-called Great Repeal Act hands them the power to change nearly half a century of law simply by edict. The control Brexit supporters think they have clawed back from Brussels will be sold off to the highest bidder behind the closed doors of negotiating rooms in Washington.

These are the real world consequences of Brexit. They are not myth. They are a reality. But the hysteria of our current debate is now so severe and wide-ranging that they are not mentioned or even recognised by ministers. They simply repeat the idiotic mantra that Brexit means Brexit and pretend that any further questioning is a betrayal of the British public.

It is a shameful, irresponsible and deeply cynical attitude for the government to have adopted. We urgently need a return to the calm, reason and good-humour of traditional British debate. Unless May and her ministers change course soon, the consequences will be very serious indeed.

Ian Dunt is editor of and author of Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?

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