I’ve been asked to explain Brexit as I see it, which I will do as straightforwardly yet non-specifically as possible. Events are moving fast: by the time you read this Britain could be out of the European Union, stuck in the EU or floating on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
In 2016, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU. That was the easy bit. The next question was, how do we get out? The choice was binary: 1) we leave swiftly and cleanly and endure some pain or 2) we take our time and compromise some of the expectations raised in the referendum. The Conservative government of Theresa May went for option 2 but didn’t really warn the public or reach out to its potential critics (she is, in the words of a colleague, a “bloody difficult woman”).
To make things even harder, the Conservatives bungled a general election in 2017 and ended up with fewer seats in Parliament than before – and Brexit depends on the votes of MPs. Mrs May finally won a withdrawal agreement from the negotiators in Brussels but MPs have consistently rejected it. Brexiteers say its too generous to the Europeans; Remainers want something even softer. The result: deadlock and delay. Given that the Leave campaign’s slogan in the referendum was “take back control”, the impression of chaos is highly ironic.
Does this mean Brexit is in and of itself impossible? If that’s true then the logical conclusion is terrifying: national self-determination is now a myth. I think it’s more likely that Brexit is jolly hard and the British governing class isn’t quite as competent as we hoped.
The list of basic errors is astonishing. No one prepared for a Leave win in the referendum, the UK gave away most of its bargaining chips at the very beginning of the talks, and planning for Brexit without a withdrawal agreement has been dismal. The Department of Transport signed a contract to lay on more ferries in the event of cross-Channel congestion with a company that, it turned out, had no ships. We used to run an empire with half-a-dozen civil servants and some pens. Nowadays our bloated, multi-billion pound civil service can’t organise a day trip to France.
I’m not a nostalgiac. Life in Britain is probably richer and healthier than ever before, and the Remainer argument, of course, is that being in the EU has had something to do with it. But the EU project has expanded from free trade towards political union and the British are uncomfortable with European integration (there’s a strong feeling among older citizens that we fought two world wars to resist it). Our own politicians are bad enough. Why on earth would we want to be governed by even more of them and from a foreign capital?
This anti-politics attitude made Brexit possible but has also bedevilled it. The post-referendum air of revolutionary fervour – of anti-expert and anti-elite rhetoric – made it hard to cut our cloth to suit the facts: the Conservatives were reluctant to say, “This isn’t going to be easy, you know. We’re not terribly good at our jobs and we might not get you everything you want.”
The writer Peter Hitchens describes such a Brexit strategy as inching from half-in to half-out, and it might have been the way to go had there not been a deficit of trust and an excess of bluster. Instead, the Government and Parliament talked us into a corner, and the media bears some responsibility, too. Too much of the national debate has been about high politics and existential questions of identity when what we really needed was a calm conversation about the practical detail.
Do I feel responsibility as someone who made the case publicly for Brexit? Well, I’m a Catholic, so I always feel guilty. The older I get the more guilt I feel: I actually apologised to someone who trod on my foot the other day. Do I feel humiliation as a Briton? Never, never, never. I don’t confuse my government with my country, and my country muddles on, as it always does, with a sublime indifference to what the rest of the world thinks. We don’t panic.
Remember the story Ronald Reagan used to tell about the Cockney lady whose house was flattened in the Blitz? As the wardens moved about, they found a bottle of brandy that she’d kept hidden in the cupboard under the stairs, which was all that was left standing, and as she was unconscious, one of the rescuers pulled out the cork to give her a sip. Quick as a whip, she came to and cried: “Put that back! That’s only for emergencies!”
That’s the Britain I love and in which I have complete confidence.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor