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7 December 2022

We held a Christmas ceasefire in 1914. Surely we can manage a Brexit truce now?

Let Remainers drop the gloating while Brexiteers take their fingers out their ears.

By Armando Iannucci

Christmas is the time for miracles so now is as good a moment as any to pray for a miracle over Brexit. Is it too much to ask that this massive, six-year doom-crack across our nation be healed once and, please God, for ever? I don’t think so. If Steve Baker can believe that Jesus is both God and man, how hard can it be to believe a customs border down the Irish Sea both is and isn’t there? If Jacob Rees-Mogg can believe in the virgin birth, then surely he can believe in the desirability of frictionless trade?

And yet here we are. Those who are happy to admit to human fallibility and the intangible mysteries of religious faith still insist they’re totally right on this one fixed point of dogma: Brexit means Brexit. The Referendum is scripture, hosanna’d by the People, ne’er to change, for it is Right and Wholly Successful and shall define this Kingdom for e’ermore.

To which we Remainers say “bollocks”. Of course we do, for we have an impermeable creed too. Yes, liberal, reasonable, “let’s hear what others have to say” us. Our default is to mock and cackle at how bad the whole sorry project has become, jab our fingers at a more-disappointing-than-expected trade deal here, and hyperventilate with glee at florists gone out of business there. It’s the only sad joy we’ve got left. If the whole kingdom is going to tumble and fall, then we’ll make sure to book front-row seats, right underneath the arches, laughing our heads off at the poor, idiot fools who voted for this as the bricks smash the last Remainer laughs from our broken skulls.

Britain has become a nation of fundamentalists, retreating to opposing fortresses, either insisting Brexit’s victory is plain to see, or that anyone who voted for it is a blind, racist fool. In the middle lies a no-man’s land filled with the corpses of those who tried to compromise but drowned in the mud.

Talking of which, there was another Yuletide miracle long ago that might inspire a way forward: the Christmas truces along the Western Front between German and British soldiers in 1914. They didn’t stop the slaughter, but they did provide lasting inspiration for those seeking peace, as well as football matches less ethically compromised than those at the World Cup in Qatar. I propose a Brexit Truce – not a retreat or a compromise, but a line drawn under what’s already happened, and a way out of the trenches and blinking into the light. The premise is simple: Remainers drop the glee, Brexiteers drop the pretence it’s all working. That’s it.

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[See also: Don’t replace the House of Lords – do away with a second chamber altogether]

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The alternative is to be stuck where we are, in a death cult where neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer dare contemplate anything other than a fixed position on Europe determined by what the people decided six years ago, even though most of them now have far greater priorities, including heating poverty, starvation, damp, mental-health pandemics, non-existent trains, sick turkeys and crumbling staff rooms. In this stasis, any criticism provokes Brexiteers to define failings as successes or, if not, as the consequence of something uncontainable like the pandemic or Ukraine. Talk from Remainers of undoing the whole project provokes Brexiteers to shoot down the slightest remark about the possibility of a debate on the pros and cons of maybe making some friendly noises to anyone European somewhere sometime. We are going nowhere and we’re going there faster than the speed of light. We need to stop.

So, let Remainers drop the gloating while Brexiteers take their fingers out their ears; we don’t look for more terrible news to mock them with, and they listen to expert concern over things that have taken a hit. We can’t wait another two years while the economy sinks; that’s dereliction of duty. Someone in government needs to quietly and then not-so-quietly come out and admit where Brexit has knocked us off course, and someone from the opposition needs to slowly and then more forcefully offer practical suggestions for how things could be improved right now.

Golden rule: no one says “Brexit”. Instead we talk about cooperation with Europe, gaining more access to trade, sharing resources, encouraging overseas skills; one side lays the foundations for pushing further in the future should things go well, and the other side sees a better chance of things actually going well after six years of pretending. Both sides get a chance to say “I told you so!”, as well as edging a little further from the extreme positions they know at heart they want to get away from. Meanwhile the public starts to think, “Thank Christ they’re doing something about it. Politics might be a respectable business after all.”

I realise it’s a madcap idea, and it will only work if both sides feel confident they won’t get crucified by the other for relaxing their position. But that’s where we are: fearfully stuck in a rut of insanity in which everyone has convinced themselves that to change one iota of their thinking will mean they get their guts sizzled in front of the electorate in two years’ time.

Miracles can happen. After all, if people, including medical experts, biologists and midwives, can believe a child was born to a woman without the application of any male sperm whatsoever, is there not a chance we can persuade everyone it’s OK to have more people over from Europe to pick our fruit and veg?

[See also: Even in a season of goodwill, I look back in anger at the Tory mess that was 2022]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special