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The humbling of Britain

The “enemies of the people” are not those opposing Brexit, but the reckless politicians who have brought us to this act of self-harm. 

We are reduced to this. A humiliated, supplicant British prime minister sitting alone in a Brussels side room for six hours while the rest of the European Union discusses our fate. A government no longer capable of governing. A country that has become a byword for chaos and dysfunction. A sundered “United Kingdom”. Hundreds of thousands of Britons seeking citizenship in other EU states. Industry howling in rage and frustration. MPs needing police protection. People stockpiling food and medicines. The public discourse poisoned. Families split. Friends riven. The military on standby in case of civil unrest.

This is not “taking back control”. This is not the proud, independent, liberated Britain that the Brexiteers promised. It is grotesque, calamitous, an epic act of self-harm brought about not by some war or disaster but by our own stupidity. And the true “enemies of the people” are not those opposing this catastrophic Brexit. They are not the million decent people from every background who marched in London last Saturday, or the five million who have petitioned to revoke Article 50, but those whose lies, zealotry, and political recklessness have all but broken Britain. For posterity’s sake, those self-styled “patriots” who have so grievously betrayed their country should be named and shamed.

The original sin was that of David Cameron, now blithely writing his memoirs in his shepherd’s hut, enjoying exotic holidays and enriching himself on the speakers’ circuit.

The public was not clamouring for a referendum on EU membership. Cameron called it for the narrow purpose of uniting his party and fending off Ukip. He offered an ill-informed electorate a binary choice on an extraordinarily complex issue of profound constitutional importance without even the safeguard of a 60 per cent threshold for approval.

It was one of the most foolish gambles ever taken by a British prime minister, and one that unleashed the charlatans, rogues and demagogues of the Leave campaign.

They proceeded to seduce voters with fake facts and bogus promises. They stoked fears, fuelled grievances and inflamed prejudices. They appealed to the lowest human impulses, and unlocked the ugliest features of the British character – xenophobia, jingoism, aggression, insularity, arrogance and a perverse, pig-headed pride in our own ignorance.

The insurgent Leave.EU camp of Nigel Farage and Arron Banks broke electoral laws, and had links with Donald Trump’s campaign advisers and the Russian ambassador. The official Vote Leave campaign, with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as its figureheads, spread blatant lies – the £350m weekly NHS dividend, the 80 million Turks heading our way. Johnson shamelessly promised we could “have our cake and eat it”. Gove shamelessly trashed experts.

They and other leading Leavers offered a fantasy Brexit – all gain, no pain. The trade negotiations would be “the easiest in human history”, said Liam Fox. “The UK will retake her seat at the top tables of the world where the EU has replaced us,” said John Redwood. “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market,” said Daniel Hannan. “EU politicians will be banging down the door for a trade deal,” said Johnson. “The day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want,” said Gove.

Worst of all, having defeated Cameron’s hapless Remain campaign, the luminaries of Leave turned out to have no plan whatever for implementing their fairy-tale Brexit.

People feel sorry for Theresa May. She certainly faced a formidable task after replacing Cameron. The Leave campaign’s promise of a painless Brexit was impossible to fulfil, and she was surrounded by cabinet ministers who coveted her job (has Johnson ever knowingly put anybody else’s interests ahead of his own?). That said, May sought the premiership, and having secured it she proceeded to play a weak hand dreadfully.

Stubborn, unimaginative, secretive and charmless, she pursued the hardest possible Brexit, claiming with no shred of evidence that that was what “the people” wanted. She completely ignored the 48 per cent who voted Remain, contemptuously dismissing them as “citizens of nowhere”. She triggered Article 50 without any agreed negotiating strategy. She squandered her parliamentary majority with a needless general election, surviving in office only with a £1bn bung to the singularly unlovely Democratic Unionist Party. She antagonised the EU by appointing the spectacularly ill-qualified Johnson as her foreign secretary. She frittered away two valuable years seeking in vain to secure a consensus within her cabinet on the way forward.

May never levelled with the British public about the conundrum at the heart of Brexit: namely, that to enjoy the benefits of EU membership you must abide by its rules. She never put the interests of the country first. Instead she pandered endlessly to the extreme right of her party, even after it sought to oust her. She constantly sought to frustrate or bypass parliament, though the whole point of Brexit was to restore its powers. In order to hold her government and party together she delayed and delayed until time finally ran out. She then sought to bully, blackmail and browbeat parliament into approving a deal manifestly inferior to the status quo.

Cameron may be the worst prime minister of modern times, but May runs him close. She is certainly the only one to pursue a goal that she knows to be immensely damaging to her country.

The roll of ignominy does not end there. Next up is May’s de facto accomplice, Jeremy Corbyn. He is a covert Leaver masquerading as a Remainer, the opposition leader who refuses to lead, the head not so much of a government-in-waiting than of an “opposition in hiding” as one commentator put it.

With even a halfway decent opposition leader, Britain would never have voted for Brexit. Though Corbyn and his coterie of far-left aides profess to believe in
people power, they have since done their best to frustrate the overwhelming majority of Labour members who abhor Brexit. The grass roots feel betrayed. Chants of “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?” punctuated last Saturday’s march.

And then, of course, there is the deceptively innocuous-sounding European Research Group (ERG), a party within a party, the Tories’ very own Militant Tendency. Led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, with a snarl behind his smile, these right-wing zealots have zero interest in the “people” they profess to champion. They seek to turn Britain into the low-wage, low-regulation Singapore of Europe, which is certainly not what disgruntled blue-collar workers in Stoke or Sunderland voted for.

Though relatively few in number, parliamentary arithmetic has given these ideological extremists a disproportionate power over May’s minority government.

They cosy up to Trump while rubbishing our European friends and partners. They trash the institutions of the country they profess to love – the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC, the Bank of England and any other body they suspect of resisting Brexit. They fail to condemn the racist attacks, intimidation of pro-European MPs and threats of extra-parliamentary action that Brexit has engendered. They treat Northern Ireland and its fragile peace process with disdain. They have made May’s life hell, but at no point have they produced any plausible Brexit plan of their own.

The “will of the people” is the mantra they use to close down any argument or dissent. The “will of the people” must prevail, they cry like so many Bolsheviks or 18th-century French revolutionaries. But whether a majority of the “people” still back Brexit three years on is doubtful. May failed to secure the mandate she sought for a hard Brexit in the 2017 election. Almost every poll for the past two years has put Remain ahead. It is extremely unlikely that the Brexiteers could coax a million demonstrators on to the streets – or that a pro-Brexit demonstration would be as good-humoured or peaceful.

Secure in their MPs’ salaries, gold-plated pensions and personal wealth, these ultras blithely dismiss the increasingly irrefutable evidence that Brexit is a social, political, economic and diplomatic catastrophe for Britain. Indeed they are willing to inflict even the incalculable damage of no deal on their less privileged compatriots to achieve their ends. As Johnson said at an event for EU diplomats in 2018: “Fuck business.”

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The ERG has been shamefully aided and abetted by much of the British press – most notably the Telegraph, the Sun, the Express and the Daily Mail under its former editor, Paul Dacre.

First those papers brainwashed the British people with three decades of relentlessly negative and mendacious coverage of EU matters of the sort that Johnson pioneered as the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels from 1989 to 1994.

You would never have known from their coverage that Britain was actually a big, powerful player with plenty of allies in Brussels – not a lone member state fighting a valiant rearguard action against scheming continentals bent on destroying our way of life. Or that that EU membership greatly amplified – rather than diminished – Britain’s global influence. Or that Britain, more than any other member state, created the EU’s single market of 500
million people.

During and since the referendum campaign those papers have abandoned any pretence of impartiality, of seeking to enlighten their readers or of holding our government to account. They pump out propaganda worthy of a second-rate banana republic. They downplay Brexit’s rapidly escalating costs, savage its opponents, and accuse the EU of negotiating in bad faith.

The Mail’s front page denunciation in November 2016 of three High Court judges who upheld parliament’s right to approve the triggering of Article 50 as “Enemies of the People” was one of the most chilling headlines ever to appear in a British newspaper. A typical Sun front page headline described the EU’s leaders as “dirty rats” and declared: “We can’t wait to shake ourselves free from the two-bit mobsters who run the European Union”. In November 2017 an infamous Telegraph front page denounced, with names and photographs, 15 pro-European Tory MPs as “Brexit Mutineers”; their crime was to support what had been, before the referendum, official party policy for more than 40 years.

The Telegraph is now so debased that its main front page “news” story on Mondays is frequently a report on whatever pseudo-Churchillian nonsense Boris Johnson has just produced in the weekly column that it pays him £275,000 a year to write.

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Last but not least, a sizeable number of MPs should be included in this hall of shame. At least two-thirds voted Remain in 2016. Most privately consider Brexit an act of folly. Some have since shown great courage in fighting for their convictions, but too many have chosen to take the path of least resistance, to put their careers and party before the interests of the country, to follow and not to lead.

Events are now moving so rapidly that it is impossible to predict what the situation will be even by the time this article is printed. Just conceivably, enough MPs will have discovered their spines to avert a complete disaster. Just conceivably they will have paused to ask themselves what was so awful about EU membership that leaving is worth such turmoil. Just conceivably they will have realised that there is no deal nearly as good as the one we already have.

Otherwise Britain will slink shamefully away – impoverished, marginalised and vastly diminished – from the greatest experiment in multinational co-operation the world has ever known. There will be no sense of joy, no national celebrations. As we live with the consequences the Brexiteers will inevitably blame anyone but themselves, but they will assuredly deserve what Donald Tusk, the European Council president, called their special place in hell. 

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman contributing writer

This article appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty