The post-Brexit fantasy of a utopia of flammable sofas

I wonder if Brexit is a magic mirror, in which everyone sees what their heart most desires. 

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“Brexit means Brexit.” For nine months now, I’ve been puzzling over this sentence. Theresa May’s later clarification that Brexit means leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the European courts hasn’t stopped the itch. What is Brexit, really? What’s the core of it, the essence – the thing that has to happen for Brexit to have happened? I’m not sure that triggering Article 50 is it, but a good test will be whether this simple act calms the hysterics of the sorest winners in history. What is it that the Brexiteers so fear will be snatched away from them? Surely no one feels this emotional about the possibility of a free trade deal with Canada.

I wonder if Brexit is a magic mirror, in which everyone sees what their heart most desires. For Nigel Farage, there’s an end to mass immigration and a return to a Britain where Romanians don’t live next door, hijabs have disappeared and only English is spoken on commuter trains to Kent. For some in the right-wing press, there’s an end to all those slights and restrictions inflicted on our proud, independent nation by faceless bureaucrats and busybodies, even if these often turned out not to be quite as advertised, if not wholly made up. (In 1994, the Sun claimed that the EU had brought in standardised condom sizing that simply couldn’t handle British manhood. This seems, shall we say, unlikely.)

But it’s the final group whose vision of Brexit should be most alarming, because it’s more subtle – and thus harder to counter – than Freudian laments about bendy bananas or straightforward, unabashed xenophobia. For some Eurosceptics, Brexit was a means, not an end: the first step to a different kind of economy. Call this what you want: a less humid (and less interventionist) Singapore, a tax haven with terrible weather, a place where “red tape” can be banished (read: where pettifogging luxuries such as statutory maternity leave are no longer interwoven with international obligations).

If this latter point sounds exaggerated, consider the Whitehall career of Steve Hilton, who was David Cameron’s “blue sky thinker” before moving to California to become a Silicon Valley sage, then returning last summer to detail the case for Brexit and show off his tan. In government, Hilton ran a “red tape challenge”, hoping to banish reams of dead weight from the statute books. Instead, as the former Liberal Democrat adviser Giles Wilkes records, weary civil servants had to defend basic safety measures: “Only the determination of hardy officials saved the public from the return of flammable sofas.”

Perhaps Hilton was unconvinced of the merits of red tape, even then. Perhaps our unwillingness to risk death from furniture-induced burns shows how unready Britons are to compete in the global marketplace. But the saga suggests the possibility that basic employment rights will soon receive the same treatment meted out to benefits and international aid, with every out­lying example and every rare piss-taker used to damn the whole system. The left will find itself having to refight battles that it thought were long since won.

To a certain type of Tory, the answer to every problem is to shrink the state. So Brexit provides another opportunity for the new Bolsheviks such as Michael Gove to smash the bits of Whitehall that they don’t like. (Gove kept a picture of Lenin in his office at the Department for Education as a semi-ironic reference to his revolutionary fervour.) It is no coincidence that the TaxPayers’ Alliance – that scourge of public spending – provided the intellectual ballast behind Vote Leave. When Philip Hammond said that he was ready to “change our economic model” – to become a low-tax, low-regulation state – if the rest of Europe played hardball during the Brexit negotiations, the Chancellor intended to deliver a threat. But some wish it were a promise.

There is only one problem. Only a fraction of the 52 per cent of people who voted Leave want any of this. You can tell because, during the referendum campaign, Boris Johnson began to fret earnestly about “the bankers”, as if he hadn’t spent eight years as London mayor telling the City it shouldn’t be at all apologetic about that rum business with the bailouts. Much was made of how immigration (allegedly) depresses wages.

Voting Leave was presented in protectionist, even left-wing terms: a vote for higher wages and stronger communities, a vote against London and its metropolitan elite. No one said: “Oh, and by the way, we’ll make it easier for you to be sacked.” Or: “Have you ever tasted salmonella? It’s delicious!” Or: “We send £350m a week to the EU. Let’s spend it on bribing companies to stay here after we leave the single market instead.” Brexit was sold as a route to a better life for ordinary workers, not a chance to cast off the shackles of the welfare state and buccaneer into a utopia of Randian self-reliance.

That’s why I find the sullen, boorish machismo of Farage and Arron Banks less dispiriting than the smooth-tongued sales patter of the liberal Leavers. At least Farage is open about what he is and what he wants. Some high priests of Euroscepticism chunter endlessly about “sovereignty” to mask a libertarian agenda for which they know there is no public appetite.

The competing priorities of these two right-wing visions will define the politics of the next decade. Brexit was not the end of an era. It was just the beginning.

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition