Support 100 years of independent journalism.

8 September 2017

Remind me why I have to support this useless bloody government in Brexit negotiations again?

That word patriotism does not mean what you think it does.

By Jonn Elledge

I’m meant to have stopped this. The phase of my career dedicated to blogging furiously about oblivious Brexiteers, like Grandpa Simpson yelling at a cloud, was pretty undignified, on the whole. So I’d genuinely intended to bring it to a close, and focus on writing wonkish things about what Brexit would actually mean instead.

But my god, they don’t make it easy for us, do they? Given how much it seems to bother them when we moan about Brexit – so much so that they’ve given us a clever name to highlight how much we’re moaning, and also how witty they absolutely, definitely are – they do an awful lot of things that seem almost calculated to make us moan.

What is it that set you off this time? I’m going to pretend I hear you asking. Well, it’s something that’s been bubbling away for a while actually. Here’s a good example, from former Telegraph journalist Iain Martin, dating from last May:


Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

He was at it again last week, over on his painfully well-named new venture:

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

The Guido mob were on it as well:

As was the Walter Mitty of British foreign policy:

There’s a subtext to all this, that feels of a piece with those newspaper splashes attacking Remainers as saboteurs. How dare anyone take the side of a foreigner against Britain’s elected government? What kind of monstrous traitors are these people?

There are several rather glaring problems with this stance. One is that nobody, best I can tell, is actually taking Juncker’s side at all – they’re just reporting what he’s said. That’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do – although if prominent Leave supporters really do believe that knowing anything about the EU should disqualify you from talking about it, that would explain much about how negotiations seem to be going. At any rate, it means all this “Us or them!” nonsense sounds just a tiny bit hysterical.

More importantly, the “us or them” narrative works on the assumption that the government is “us”, and it’s done absolutely nothing to encourage us in that belief. If ministers really wanted us to believe it’s on our side, they probably should have spent less time calling us saboteurs, citizens of nowhere, terrorist sympathisers or whatever else it thought might get the Daily Mail and its readers to start frantically fanning themselves on any given day.

The government would have a stronger claim to be “us” if it actually had a mandate, of course, but, for entirely hilarious reasons, it doesn’t. Leave keep demanding we respect the will of the people, and fair enough – but if June’s election taught us anything, it’s that the will of the people was very specifically not to give the government a blank cheque to do whatever the hell it wants. Alas, however, Theresa May views political opposition with the mixture of bafflement, scorn and blind terror that tech bros reserve for women, so instead of reasoned argument intended to bring the country together, we get a bunch of nonsense like this.

At any rate: Remainers are not actually siding with Juncker; and if May’s government finds that much of the country is refusing to offer their support, it’s got no one to blame but itself.

Here’s the thing, though – even if Remain supporters were actively supporting the EU in negotiations in some way, that would be completely and utterly fine. Partly because this is still a free country, at least for the moment; partly because patriotism isn’t mandatory. But mostly because patriotism does not in fact mean “my country, right or wrong”, it just means wanting the best for it.

What “the best” actually entails is an intensely personal matter, of course. From my point of view, it’d involve having close relationships with friends and allies; an open economy, in which people, goods and businesses can move here to help make us all richer; maximising our citizens’ rights to live and work in other parts of the world; and international co-operation on things like policing, science and defence.

Only one side in the Brexit negotiations is in favour of those things. Remind me why I’m meant to support the other again?