No EU trade deal can undo the harm Brexit has inflicted on the UK

With or without a deal, it will take decades for Britain to recover from the consequences of the referendum. 

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Deal or no deal? I have no idea, but I do know this. There is no deal in sight that can undo the immense societal – as opposed to economic – damage that Brexit has inflicted on the United Kingdom. Indeed, I scarcely recognise the country we have become over the past four and a half dreadful years.

Once tolerant, benign and outward-looking, we are now intolerant, mean-spirited and narrow-minded. Genuine patriotism has been usurped by ugly jingoism and a nasty, arrogant nationalism. Our newspapers are shrill and hateful. Our digital town squares are peopled by bullies and xenophobes. We make scapegoats of immigrants, and cut aid to the poorest countries of the world. We have unleashed our basest instincts, empowering bigots, thugs and racists. 

Great Britain has become Little Britain, and the United Kingdom has become the Disunited Kingdom. The fracturing is everywhere apparent. Scotland is in the process of breaking away, and Northern Ireland could follow. The capital is at odds with the provinces. The masses decry the so-called metropolitan elite. Brexit still divides friends and families, or remains a taboo subject that they simply dare not raise for fear of falling out.

Our politics have been transformed, and not for the better. Two prime ministers have been swept aside. The once-staid Conservative Party has been hijacked by hard-right populists and reincarnated as the self-styled “champion of the people”. Labour is hamstrung by its inability simultaneously to represent its Remain-minded metropolitan supporters and its traditional but pro-Leave base in the industrial north and Midlands. The centrist Liberal Democrats have been all but destroyed by the polarisation of our politics.

[See also: A year on, the UK has paid an appalling price for Boris Johnson’s election victory]

Our political culture has also been debased. Our Prime Minister lies. Our government is prepared to break the law. Cronyism is rife. A chumocracy thrives. Loyalty – not ability – is the precondition for advancement. The shady, incompetent and bullying prosper while the honest, decent and principled are sidelined or purged. 

Ministers avoid scrutiny and accountability. Ministries withhold or conceal information. Parliamentary votes are won through arm-twisting, intimidation and procedural shenanigans, not genuine debate. Opponents are denounced as “saboteurs” or “enemies of the people”. Moderation and compromise have become dirty words. Experts are scorned, and independent institutions deemed insufficiently robust in their support of Brexit are targeted for decapitation and politicisation. 

There was a time when Britain commanded respect in the world, but not any longer. Our unprincipled government shamelessly pandered to the unspeakable Donald Trump, and now finds itself badly wrong-footed by Joe Biden’s victory. Equally shamelessly, it has demonised our former friends and allies in Europe in order to bolster the case for Brexit. We now find ourselves almost friendless in a dangerous and volatile world.

Several hundred thousand Britons are so dismayed by what the UK has become that they have taken the drastic step of seeking foreign passports – a step unthinkable back in 2015, when we were still a relatively normal and prosperous country.

Is this what 17.4 million of our compatriots voted for in June 2016 – this, and the immense economic damage that Brexit has and will continue to cause, deal or no deal?

Of course it wasn’t. They were told Brexit would be swift and painless, not a source of endless strife. They were told we would “take back control”, not descend into chaos. They were told the Union would be strengthened, not weakened. They were promised “frictionless trade”, not tariffs, quotas and customs checks. They were told we would be saving £350m a week in payments to the EU, not spending tens of billions on a fraught divorce. They were told non-EU countries would be lining up to do trade deals with us.

[See also: Brexit emptied so many serious political minds of sense. Now let it be]

Nobody warned them about giant lorry parks in Kent, looming shortages of fuel, food and medicines, and huge multinationals disinvesting in Britain. Nobody warned them about the curtailment of our right to live, work, travel or study anywhere in Europe or the collapsing exchange rate, the end of pet passports and higher roaming charges.

This was no accident or oversight. It was a deliberate and conscious strategy of deception adopted by the Leave campaign. Reading Tom Bower’s new biography of Boris Johnson over the weekend, I came across this startling passage: 

[Dominic] Cummings had qualities [Johnson] admired. In particular he liked Cummings’ advice to avoid difficult arguments. Leavers, said Cummings, were under no obligation to produce a post-Brexit scenario. ‘Creating an exit plan that makes sense,’ wrote Cummings, ‘and which all reasonable people could unite around seems an almost insuperable task...There is so much to be gained by swerving the whole issue...The sheer complexity of leaving would involve endless questions of detail that cannot be answered in such a place even were it to be 20,000 pages long’.

We may or may not get a trade deal this week, but it would not begin to heal our broken country in any case. That will take decades. In the meantime, we will have to endure the fatuous £120m “Festival of Brexit” which, incredibly, our government is planning for 2022. What there is to celebrate I also have no idea.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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