The shape of Brexit Britain is becoming clearer
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One month on, its obvious faults have already emerged. More worrying though is the way Brexit has consolidated its backers, says NICK COHEN.
The comforting thing to say about Boris Johnson is that he is a laughable idiot. And not just a village idiot. But an idiot for all seasons, an idiot who bestrides the narrow world like a colossus, an idiot who, if you could number all the atoms in the universe, you would still have not come close to counting the ways of his idiocy.
I can, and have, expounded at length on how Johnson’s state of permanent adolescence has made him a disastrous prime minister. I can, and have, denounced his cabinet of nobodies, whose sole qualification for office is that they are loyal to the boss. Its critics have documented the incompetence, embarrassed flip-flops, ridiculous boasting, waste, neglect and folly of a government that has brought us the highest per capita death toll in the world from Covid-19. But emphasising the silly runs the danger of ignoring the sinister.
There have been no screeching U-turns and embarrassment about Brexit. This government was determined to impose the hardest possible Brexit deal. It has shown no inclination to soften its terms as the pain builds. If you were to suggest that ministers should be preparing to ask the EU to re-join the customs union, for example, to relieve the burden on exporters and weaken the new border in the Irish Sea border, politicians would look at you as if you were a lunatic. Once popular 'soft Brexit' ideas are now so far from the 'agenda' they are unthinkable.
There is nothing clownish or buffoonish about Johnson’s hounding of any institution that checks him either. Cross this government and the smirk of the tousled-haired buffoon is replaced by the fixed glare of the mafia boss. On Brexit and the hoarding of power, the idiot becomes focused and relentlessly single-minded.
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The bills for the Tories’ hard Brexit are falling through the letterboxes of businesses throughout the land. The temptation for Remainers is to utter a grim laugh and repeat the immortal words of Kingsley Amis: “I told you so you f**king fools!” I would advise against gloating because millions who voted for Brexit were only foolish in believing charlatan leaders, who never levelled with them on the costs of nationalism, and are not levelling with them now. Blame the people at the top, who are insulated from suffering they brought, rather than the people who will lose their jobs and businesses, and all those who depend on public services, who will lose as the economy and tax take declines.
Not that supporters of Brexit are showing any signs that they would listen to Remainers if they did gloat. The fishing industry, which campaigned for Brexit, and which allowed that Dickensian hypocrite Nigel Farage to lead a flotilla of fishing boats up the Thames to urge parliament take back control of British waters in 2016, has had to slash exports to the EU because of the obstacles to trade Brexit has brought.
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Yet still its leaders say Brexit is not the cause of their troubles. Rather than apologise for misleading its readers, the Tory press is engaging in what therapists call “deflection” - trying to hide the mistakes you make by pushing the blame onto others. To take the most egregious example, Ambrose Evans Pritchard of the Telegraph gave his credulous readers a disgraceful example of journalism as propaganda when he announced that “Angela Merkel is more responsible for Brexit than any other political figure in Europe, on either side of the Channel”.
Merkel, who opposed Brexit, is more responsible for Brexit, apparently, than his former Telegraph colleague Boris Johnson, who merely campaigned for Brexit, and then implemented Brexit on the worst possible terms. Meanwhile the Mail rages at the forms exporters must fill in and nowhere mentions that they are the inevitable consequence of its readers following its advice.
I expect the projection to intensify. They cannot admit that the deal is so bad because of the pressure the right-wing journo-political complex in Westminster and the media put on the government. A typically meticulous investigation by the Financial Times showed that David Frost, the British negotiator, had created a thicket of customs declarations, health checks and other barriers to trade. Services, which make up 80% of the British economy including its crown jewel — the City of London — barely got a look-in.
'Take back control' meant no concessions on sovereignty. Like every other absolutist political position, the slogan sounds brave until you find yourself running a haulage company whose lorries face a panoply of border checks at the Channel. The Treasury wanted a waiver that would have enabled hauliers to avoid completing safety and security declarations with every consignment shipped to the EU. Similarly, Defra wanted equivalence with the EU’s sanitary and phytosanitary rules which would have offered relief to food and fishing. Johnson and Frost overruled them for threatening the purity of Brexit. They told complaining businesses they were losers from industries in “secular decline” and banished them from the conversation for daring to spoil the Brexit dream.
Terrible economics is good politics for the Conservative Party. Nationalist populism in the form of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and Brexit Party was threatening to overwhelm the Tories. They saved themselves from the danger of being supplanted by a right-wing nationalist party by becoming a right-wing nationalist party. Farage cannot now claim that Britain has “Brexit in name only”. Nor can the nationalist right in the Conservative European Research Group, which destroyed both David Cameron and Theresa May’s premierships. Johnson has bought off trouble by selling out jobs and living standards. Ordinary people who put their trust in him will suffer. But Johnson will be safe in Downing Street for a couple more years. From his point of view, the pain of the masses is a price worth paying. They, or rather enough of them, voted for Brexit and voted for Johnson, and as H. L. Mencken once defined it: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Just as you underestimate the danger Johnson presents by thinking of him merely as an idiot, so I may be underestimating him by treating him as a mere cynic. Cynics may be deplorable but I prefer a cynic to an ideologue any day. Cynics are just interested in themselves. Their behaviour is predictable. If you can buy them off with money and status, you can limit the damage they cause. True believers will burn down the world to achieve their dream. And there is at least an argument that Johnson is a true believer determined to bring Brexit whatever the cost to cozened Leave voters. Brexit has been his life. He proved that fake news did not begin with social media when he built his career in journalism in the early 1990s by inventing anti-EU stories for the Telegraph. His editor at the time, Max Hastings regrets hiring him now and says Johnson has a “moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth”. To which we can only reply, bit late for regrets now, Max, you should have stopped him when you had the chance.
Hasting did not, and Brexit made Johnson leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister. He must believe in it at some level, if only because “the mask eats into the face”, and the most cynical of operators know they must believe their delusions in order to sell them.
Professor Anand Menon from UK in a Changing Europe gave me a further reason to think this government is not just a collection of clowns, nobodies, incompetents, sinecurists and cynics – although I insist, it is that too. Brexit removed the impediment EU law and treaty obligations placed on its freedom of manoeuvre. 'Take back control,' means giving the Brexit right control. Just as the EU cannot contradict it, nor can the courts, the European Convention on Human Rights, the BBC, parliament and the civil service.
Reviewing in the Spectator the latest work by the Brexiteers’ pet historian Robert Tombs, his fellow historian James Hawes noticed its air of menace. The book began with a promise that the author would show the reader how we can “come together again to build a new settlement” but rapidly degenerated. Tombs concluded with an unveiled threat. “Mistrust and anger have accumulated about the legitimacy of the House of Lords and the Supreme Court, about the composition and representative nature of the political class as a whole, about the trustworthiness of the Electoral Commission, and about the impartiality of the BBC.” All must be dealt with it.
This is the voice of revanchism. It is a voice that brooks no argument, accepts no doubts, and forgives no opponent. It is the voice that dominates the British right and therefore Britain. Whatever else it is, it isn’t funny.
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