There’s an epigram doing the rounds on social media at the moment – “Courage is knowing something might hurt and doing it anyway. Stupidity is the same thing. That’s why life is hard”.
As an analogy for Brexit, and the reasons why it is proving so difficult to deliver, I can’t think of a better summary. Because those who voted to leave, despite all the warnings about the potential cost to our economy and to our standing on the world stage, see themselves as courageous, in recognising the potential pain that their decision will cause but feeling that the long-term benefits make that pain worthwhile – whereas the majority of those who voted to remain simply see the decision as utterly stupid.
It’s for this reason that we’ve seen politicians, the media and influential businesspeople spend most of the past three years trying to rationalise the vote to leave, to try to present it as something other than what it was. Faced with a choice between remaining a member of the EU and leaving the EU, a majority of those who voted, voted to leave. They did this despite being told that to leave the EU would mean leaving the single market, leaving the customs union, giving up our seat at the EU table, possibly irrevocably harming our future trading relationship with our closest trading partner and relegating ourselves to a small island nation of no international significance. And they voted to leave despite being told that such a decision would almost undoubtedly make us all poorer.
So why did they do it? What on earth did they believe was the big prize that would justify such potential pain?
The answer, of course, was sovereignty. Control. The same message was repeated over and over by the leave campaign – we wish to take back control of our borders, our laws and our trading relationships. We want to be able to set our own immigration policy, strike our own trade deals with the rest of the world and decide our own laws and regulations. And we want to bring control of the democratic process back to the public where it belongs – we want decisions that affect our lives to be made by the people we elect, and the ability to hold those people to account via the ballot box.
But to many on the remain side, particularly those in our own parliament, the notion of wishing for greater sovereignty is ridiculous. To those who have grown used to the vast majority of our laws being decided for us in Brussels rather than in Westminster, there is absolutely no desire to change the current process. Change of any kind is never painless, and changing the entire way in which our laws are decided would require not only a complete overhaul of parliamentary process but also a complete overhaul of the civil service that supports it. It’s no surprise that those most opposed to us leaving the EU are our parliamentarians and our civil service – we may think that it’s businesses and the general public who will be most affected by Brexit but the reality is those who will be most affected by a return of sovereignty to the UK, will be those who find themselves with an awful lot of extra work to do as a result.
So we find ourselves in a situation where those tasked with making Brexit happen, are scrabbling around trying to redefine what Brexit actually means. It can’t possibly be about sovereignty – because sovereignty is a ridiculous aim and simply does not justify the extraordinary amount of effort involved in bringing it about, much less the associated risk to our trading relationships with the EU and our wider economic prospects.
So if it’s not about sovereignty then it must be about the individual issues – and this is where Theresa May decided, early on, that actually Brexit was about immigration, and that if she could just do a deal with the EU that would allow her to convince voters that the UK government could control immigration, that would be sufficient. Very little else would need to change – crucially, our trading relationship would remain the same. And while a few changes would need to be made with regards the loss of our voting rights and the return of some legislative powers to Westminster, our continuing membership of the single market would ensure that the large majority of the areas of law that are currently handled by Brussels, would remain there.
But the problem is, just because Theresa May, and the bulk of our MPs, don’t see sovereignty as a worthwhile aim, it doesn’t change the fact that those who voted to leave, do. And trying to convince them to accept a lesser prize – one that will avoid much of the potential pain but provide no meaningful reward – has left them feeling completely betrayed.
Astoundingly, many MPs still don’t seem able to make the connection between that sense of betrayal and the extraordinary rise in support for the Brexit Party. Some of them are still tweeting out fatuous messages about how it’s the failure to pass Theresa May’s deal that has prevented Brexit happening, or about needing to find common ground between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in order to find a deal that can be passed.
Extraordinarily, one MP even tweeted about needing to try to understand why people are planning to vote for the Brexit Party – as if the party name leaves any room for doubt. Unlike Change UK – whose party name is the very opposite of what they stand for – the Brexit Party promises to do what it says on the logo; and for the avoidance of doubt they’ve made it clear that means taking us out of the EU on WTO terms.
Farage, though, has tapped into the wider public dissatisfaction with the way our democracy functions – or, on recent evidence, fails to function. His stated aim of bringing about a complete overhaul of our two-party political system is music to the ears of voters who are sick to death of being told the reason they can’t have a no-deal Brexit is because there’s no parliamentary support for no deal. To ask the public to vote in a referendum, to tell them their decision would be respected, and to then tell them that actually what they decided is not acceptable because parliament doesn’t support it, is the ultimate slap in the face – and those who voted for Brexit in the honest belief that their vote would count, will never forgive those who have simply chosen to ignore that vote.
The delusion persists within the Conservative Party, that if only Theresa May could be persuaded to step down, a new Prime Minister may be able to rescue the party. But it will take more than a new Prime Minister to rescue the party – members have seen how divided the party is over Brexit, and as long as the bulk of the cabinet backs remaining in the EU, members will never trust the party to deliver Brexit. The party is facing complete humiliation at the European elections and, on current polling, in the next general election, too – and it is thoroughly deserved.
I would argue the key difference between stupidity and courage, is that stupidity is often momentary but courage requires persistence and determination. As long as we remain led by those who see Brexit as stupid, we will need a great deal of courage to see it through. And if that means a complete overhaul of our political process, then bring it on.