“Not working out the way you thought, Hannan, is it?” I am asked the question daily by angry Europhiles. And, to be fair, they’ve got a point. I had assumed that, by now, we’d have reached a broad national consensus around a moderate form of withdrawal that recognised the narrowness of the result – a Brexit that left intact a number of our existing arrangements, while allowing us to leave the aspects of the EU which all sides could agree were harmful, such as the agricultural and fisheries policies and the common external tariff.
So begins Daniel Hannan’s latest brainfart over at Conservative Home. The article is mainly an excuse to kick the Labour party for pushing what the Tory MEP describes as the “worst-of-all-worlds outcome”, in which Britain would leave the single market but remain within the customs union. But the sight of Captain Brexit: The First Brexiteer suggesting that maybe things were not all going quite to plan has been novel enough to win coverage in the news pages of the Evening Standard, at least. (I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it’s just possible George Osborne doesn’t think very highly of Daniel Hannan either.)
Hannan has form for blaming the left for messes for which his own side is very obviously responsible – but just for kicks, let’s consider some other reasons why Brexit might not be going quite the way the liberal leavers had hoped.
Perhaps the real reason we failed to reach a national consensus about what form Brexit should take is because of an onslaught from Leave campaigners and newspapers which positioned anyone who so much as questions the government’s Brexit strategy not as a reasonable opponent but as a traitor. Perhaps it’s because the line “You lost, get over it” is not, in fact, the best way of demonstrating to vanquished opponents that compromise is the order of the day.
Or perhaps it’s because winning the referendum in the first place required those few outward-looking liberal leavers – those who genuinely care about abstract notions of sovereignty and the ability of the government to negotiate its own trade deals – to ally with the rather larger group of distinctly illiberal leavers, who couldn’t give a fig for such things but know they don’t really like immigration or modernity very much. Perhaps it’s because prominent members of the former group did not spend enough time calling out the latter, instead focusing their fire on those of us who’d always thought Brexit was a silly idea in the first place.
Or perhaps it’s because the referendum was won, not with talk of the benefits of the single market, but with lies plastered onto buses about the costs of EU membership; with leaflets erroneously claiming that Turkey was about to join the EU, giving it an open land border with Syria and Iraq; and with Nigel Farage standing grinning in front of posters featuring anonymous hordes of sinister-looking brown people.
Perhaps there’s a reason why so many politicians are in favour of keeping Britain in the customs union, too. Perhaps it’s because there is no plausible model in which we can leave it without creating a hard border with the European Union, either messing up lives by creating a border on the island of Ireland, or messing up the entire United Kingdom by creating a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this is the sort of thing that someone who spent 25 years campaigning for Brexit might be expected to have given some thought to.
Perhaps it’s not going very well because single market membership has historically been inseparable from the freedom of movement, and nobody on the Leave side has proved capable of the sort of European charm offensive that would be necessary to even begin to shift the European position on that. Perhaps it’s because every one of them has instead chosen to brief friendly newspapers using the kind of language that implies that they are not, at this stage, willing to rule out war with Spain.
Or perhaps the explanation is simpler. Perhaps, if no consensus has been reached about what Brexit should look like, it’s because none of the people who’ve spent decades campaigning for it gave even the slightest thought to how this shit show would actually work. Perhaps that was because a good deal was always going to prove impossible.
Perhaps Daniel Hannan is just wrong.
“‘You broke it, you own it,’ say some Remainers whenever anyone complains about the way things are developing,” Hannan writes in his concluding paragraph. “But we – we liberal Leavers – don’t own it.”
Yet, you do, Daniel. This is the world you brought forth, and simply asserting your innocence is not enough to abdicate responsibility for it. It is not enough to win a referendum. It is not enough to act shocked at the lack of consensus, after years in which you’ve done nothing that might create one.
And it is not enough to blame your opponents for the world’s failure to live up to your fantasies about it.
But on one matter, at least, you were right. No, Daniel: this isn’t how it’s supposed to be working out.