There are two things we have to recognise if we hope to understand Brexit. The first is something everyone should have known from the start. The second is a fact becoming clearer by the day. Both are bad for the United Kingdom.
First, the UK was always going to be worse off outside the European Union. It is impossible for the EU to give Britain a better deal than the status quo. That would cause the collapse of the organisation as other states demanded the same treatment. What many Brexit supporters wanted – all the benefits with none of the costs – was never an option. Britain’s position must be inferior to membership by definition. If not, why would any country stay?
Brexiteers who claim trading with the rest of the world will make up for this shortfall are ignoring economic reality. The UK cannot defy its own geography. It cannot radically reorganise its economic model in the way some politicians think. Even when the UK starts to negotiate trade deals with other markets, agreements will take years and the terms will be less advantageous than EU treaties already in place. Denying this is wilful ignorance.
To Theresa May’s credit, she understood all this. She knows leaving the EU can’t be accomplished without pain, so she negotiated a deal that would minimise that pain. This was the best possible deal and the least worst version of Brexit. But parliament rejected the deal. To understand this, we have to recognise something else – something increasingly clear and increasingly worrying.
Brexit has become a religion. Its believers reject fact in pursuit of a mythical promised land. Its high priests preach to the faithful on a daily basis. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab promise a peculiarly British paradise. They denounce heretics from their bully pulpits and remind believers that all those who question the faith are either lying, evil or insane. If only the Remoaners and Remaniacs embraced the one true church, the British people would be delivered from the European yoke.
Like a major religion, Brexit has cowed many non-believers into submission. Some people who voted remain in 2016 now accept Brexit as inevitable. Like a reluctant teenager dragged to church every Sunday, many Britons now shrug and grumble but sing the hymns anyway. How many otherwise intelligent people have insisted we should ‘respect the result of the referendum’ as if they were talking about wearing a crucifix in public?
The Brexit faithful also have their own pseudo-history, not at all dissimilar to the ‘history’ in various scriptures. For Brexiteers, it’s the story of the glorious Second World War and the flawless Britishness of St. Winston Churchill. The War is frequently trotted out to argue that Britain’s greatness will see it through. Sometimes people are just ignorant of historical reality, sometimes they’re deliberately distorting it. But they always ignore the fact that the Empire was crucial in sustaining Britain, while the United States provided material support. The Empire is gone. The US today is more likely to exploit Britain’s weakness than assist it. And there won’t be any new allies backing Britain’s position. No Soviet Union to open a second front against the evil EU. Claiming otherwise is magical thinking at best, brazen delusion at worst.
The Brexit faithful spoke loudly in parliament this week when they approved the Brady Amendment. This amendment is a pronouncement from on high, offering believers an alternative to the Irish backstop – offering them an alternative to reality. But just as casting spells won’t heal an injury, the Brady Amendment won’t solve the Irish border issue. The pious Brexiteers believe it will. Their faith is about to be shaken.
A good Brexit is no longer an option and pursuing a fantasy is now official government policy.
These two facts are fast becoming unreconcilable. It is an absolute matter of faith that the UK will be better off outside the EU. It is an absolute matter of fact that the UK will be worse off outside the EU. What happens when religion and reality collide? We’re about to find out.