How did we get here? This is the question that came to mind as I read the government’s policy paper on negotiations with the EU, published on Thursday. There is a sense of unreality about the 36-page document. Their priority is severing ties to Europe, not with a specific purpose in mind but rather as an end in itself.
They claim to want something similar to Canada’s CETA agreement with the EU. In the real world, we know that Canada and Europe did not open up their markets to one another unconditionally. They focused on the areas where they can be sure of common or equivalent standards in the future. Indeed this is one of the reasons the CETA agreement runs to more than 500 pages, plus 2,000 pages of appendices. Trade happens freely where governments agree to work together to remove the barriers.
Yet in Brexit doublespeak Canada is being used to mean the exact opposite – free-flowing trade with no level playing field whatsoever. It’s not true, but in Brexit Britain facts are heresy. So what is the answer? How did we get here?
An immediate cause may be groupthink in Boris Johnson’s government – the process by which a group of people overestimate the likelihood that they are right and push away the dissenting voices that could have helped. February’s reshuffle culled the PM’s critical friends in cabinet. Journalists perceived as unsympathetic found themselves shut out. This weekend we learned that even a national treasure could find herself barred from a public appointment if her opinions offend Number 10.
Now civil servants who carry out their duty by laying the bare facts before ministers are being hounded out of their jobs. Recent days have seen the unprecedented spectacle of the top official at the Home Office resigning to sue the government. We must keep reminding ourselves … what is happening is *not normal*. In his latest blogpost Brexit is going feral, Professor Chris Grey talks about this phenomenon in much more detail – we highly recommend it!
But current events are only the latest phase of a longer trend. Back in 2016 we were two volunteers, speaking to dozens of voters around towns and cities in the UK, some undecided, some voting Remain and some voting Leave. What we heard from Leave voters was often, from our perspective, a little misguided. An ever-increasing list of ills could be fixed only by repatriating Britain’s nett financial contribution to the EU, even when that figure was scarcely more than 1% of public spending. Brexit would fundamentally change everything, yet in the next breath life would carry on as normal. To question that was Project Fear.
We were there to listen and encourage people to question what they were being told. Mostly we were met with good-natured conversation. Only rarely were we confronted by an individual whose views seemed completely detached from reality. One gentleman warned us in serious tones that our call-up papers to a European Army had been printed and distributed to Post Offices throughout the country, ready to be issued on 24 June. Another told us that a new world order of international elites was conspiring to destroy Western civilisation.
Most commentators speculated that the political climate would normalise after the referendum. The process of government would take over and the fantastical claims of the campaign would make way for hard real-life choices. But in late 2016 people were saying similar things about Donald Trump. In reality Trump’s output in office only became more extreme.
And so it was in Britain. Theresa May’s interpretation of the result was viewed, at first, as a rejection of softer versions of Brexit. By the end Brexiteers condemned the same position as betrayal and Brexit in name only. At every stage the Brexit mainstream becomes further radicalised. Project Fear is replaced with ‘we always knew it would be hard‘. Economic benefits give way to ‘we’ve survived worse before‘. What was once touted as ‘the easiest deal in history‘ is overtaken by cheer-leading for no deal at all. And as this progresses the government starts to look like a cult, willing to tell us that things are true when we know them to be false.
No longer is it the odd man on the street whose views are unchallenged and unconnected to reality. It’s the man in Number 10.