Brexit – you may have heard of it. For 40 years, since the UK joined the then Common Market, there has been a substantial ‘Eurosceptic’ mood in both main political parties and in the country. This has been influenced by a never-ending stream of misinformation in the tabloids, claiming the EU is responsible for every one of its readers’ many ills – including a few they didn’t even know they were bothered by until the papers told them – and spreading alarm that the EU’s ‘ever closer union’ means that it is becoming a federal Superstate, complete with army, president and anthem. To a proud ‘patriot’, this is anathema.
The rest of us simply don’t see it that way, and regard the visceral reaction to our ongoing membership with puzzlement. We value the notions of common cause and unity in a continent still bearing the deep scars of two World Wars that started here, while the requirement for 28 nations to agree policy, unanimously or by majority according to area of impact, offers some protection from the petty politics of the individual nations, whose negative aspects we are amply demonstrating to the world right now. Most law is made by the individual nations, and that will continue to be the case. The rest is voted on by elected delegates. The idea that the remaining 27 nations are willing parties to surrendering their nation status for fully centralised rule, with Britain alone seeing what is really going on … well, it looks a bit mad. Many people in Scotland want to both leave the UK, and remain in the EU as a separate nation. This would make no sense if the ‘death of nation states’ view of the future held any water. And equally proud nations like France, Germany, Italy, Spain … ? I mean, come on! When someone claims ‘Superstate’ as a reason for exit, I regard them as I might someone grabbing the steering wheel and shouting “ALIEEEEENSSSS!” (permissible, of course, when there really are aliens).
Due – it seems to me – to that relentless anti EU propaganda from billionaire-owned tabloids, the national mood has become increasingly Eurosceptic. A political party, UKIP, started with a sole aim in mind, to exit the EU, garnered a lot of support, particularly from what is still termed the ‘working classes’. Due in part to our peculiar constituency system of election, they were unable to gain any seats in Parliament, but ironically, in the EU Parliament’s Proportional Representation system, they gained several seats in order to harangue those on the EU ‘gravy train’ while collecting a fat paycheck, plus expenses and a £75,000 pension.
This drift of support from Conservative candidates to UKIP was a concern for Conservative leader David Cameron, then in a coalition government, and so in the 2015 manifesto, he offered a commitment to hold a referendum on the matter. Manifesto pledges are not really worth the paper they are written on, being honoured as often in the breach as the observance, but Cameron was true to his word, sadly, and on 23rd June 2016 we were offered a simple choice: Remain in the EU or Leave the EU (a question laughably naive, in hindsight, but adjudged by the independent Electoral Commission as least likely to confuse the plebs). To everyone’s surprise, including their own, Leave won, garnering 17,410,742 votes to Remain’s 16,141,241. Although a not-insignificant 1.3 million difference, the real margin, the number who would have to change their minds to wipe out the win, was just 634,750. We have been arguing ever since about what people meant when they placed their X in the ‘Leave’ column. It may seem obvious, but it isn’t – there are almost as many flavours of Leave as Leavers, from a cocky two fingers to the EU in its entirety, by midnight on referendum day if poss (oh, and can we negotiate a trade deal with you please, this powerful bloc we’ve just told to fuck off), to non-voting but expensive membership such as that enjoyed by Norway who takes all the rules and has no say in them, to full-blown NWO tinfoil-hatters.
Leavers were like the dog that caught the car, unsure what to do next. The great thing about referendums being of course that there is no accountability. You can say what you like, you’re not the one who will have to deliver. Eurosceptics were largely professional sideline snipers.
Cameron resigned immediately – my turd, you clean it up. Within a short period of time all three main parties lost their leaders. For the Tories, Theresa May emerged, eventually getting in unopposed when the other candidates wisely dropped out. In the UK, we do not directly elect our Prime Minister – ironically, given the ‘EU is undemocratic’ trope regularly trotted out. They are elected as MP by their constituency, in her case leafy Maidenhead in Berkshire. You don’t live there, you can’t vote for her. They then become PM by becoming leader of the party, elected by members (if anyone else stands).
For Labour on the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn, an old-school socialist, emerged. He had enthusiastic support, particularly among the young, and they were quite strident in their dismissal of ‘centrists’. “Why not just fuck off and join the Tories?” was a common taunt, which probably won’t be their opening line when they turn up on those same centrists’ doorsteps at campaign time asking for their support. To his supporters, he’s beyond criticism. To his detractors, he’s just a very naughty boy.
May was emboldened by the polls to try a ‘snap’ general election in 2017, to “strengthen my hand in EU negotiations”. Really, it was an attempt to smash Corbyn. The nation said “no thanks” and returned the Tories (having said “no thanks” to Jeremy too!) with a reduced majority. She had to rely on the Ulster Unionists, a group of 10 hard-line religious fundamentalists representing just 300,000 voters. Northern Ireland, I should mention, voted as a region to Remain (as did Scotland). I hope you’re keeping up; there will be a test. Now, Northern Ireland is an issue no—one had given much thought to. It’s long been a line of ‘Trouble’, but since we were both in the EU, and after long negotiations all parties had signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, a general, if uneasy, peace had returned.However, the Border will now be a boundary between Britain and the EU. Since we have (maybe; ask me again on Friday) exited both the Single Market and the Customs Union, WTO rules (not EU rules) mean that there will have to be checks – a return of the hated ‘hard border’. There are naturally concerns, and the EU has offered a ‘deal’ that involves an extended Customs arrangement. This requires a far greater say of the EU in our affairs – the very thing Brexiteers were trying to get away from – while simultaneously removing us from a seat at the table that decides these rules. Genius. Eurosceptics hate it and so do Remainers. It is an utterly pointless move, both agree. But whaddyagonnado? The referendum was split close to 50/50, and no-one thought to put in supermajority safeguards, so a compromise that absolutely no-one wants seems the only way to, in the leaden phrase uttered by politician after politician, ‘respect the referendum’.
The ultras are having none of it. They want to crash out without a ‘deal’, a position most people with brain cells regard as absolutely insane, and not one to be inferred from any individual Leave ‘X’ with any confidence. Yet they act as if ‘the 17.4 million’ (another leaden phrase) all wanted, and still want, exactly that. Even the dead ones. Most Remainer MPs meanwhile dare not talk of cancelling Brexit altogether, but talk of something softer but still Brexit-y, with Customs this and Single that, without really coming up with anything concrete. The EU are understandably losing patience. They have been the soul of diplomacy and patience in my view. When Donald Tusk remarked that “there must be a special place in Hell for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan”, Brexiters were furious, missing the nuance that by resenting the slur they own up to having no plan…
“May’s Deal” has been soundly rejected by both sides in two record-breaking defeats in Parliament – and she wants to bring it back a third time! She’s convinced that if she plays chicken, and it’s that deal or ‘no-deal’, then her deal it is. This gives some flavour of the general unpopularity of no-deal, that it can be used as a threat – “if you don’t stop I’m going to turn this car right around!”. But now, the EU are saying if it’s defeated a 3rd time, you either go now or you have a longer extension and take part in European elections (did I mention that the EU is undemocratic?).
We aren’t ready. Not by a long chalk. In my area, IT, I know that it takes yonks (Google it) to put a system in place, and they haven’t even started – because they don’t know what we have to do! But May’s steely determination, with hardliners’ boots on her neck, has brought us to this ill-prepared impasse – a non-choice between two unpopular options that were not even on a ballot paper in 2016, and we HAVE to do it because … ‘it’s the will of the people’. Now where have we heard that before?
There is a febrile atmosphere. A pro-Remain MP, Jo Cox, was murdered in 2016, and all MPs who dare to retain Remain sympathies have received death threats (I am not aware of any such threats being made to Brexiteers). Even a lady who started an online petition to simply abandon the whole thing – more on which shortly – has received multiple death threats. The reasonable Leavers find common cause with racists, thugs and Nazi sympathisers. In this climate the Prime Minister took the extraordinary step on Wednesday of appealing directly to ‘the people’ and blaming MPs for the impasse, something one would imagine happening in some banana republic, not dear old Britain where our quaint system involves people donning ritual wigs and banging on a door with a big ceremonial stick from time to time. Given the recent assassination, she might be more careful how she whips up ‘the people’. The Government is making plans to impose martial law – martial law! – in the event of no-deal disruption. We’re hoping not to have to actually do it, they add, a little unnecessarily.
I have gone on at far greater length than I intended about the background to this; I was merely intending to mention and show a few pictures from the march I attended yesterday in London, where over a million people *** – mostly middle-class, it must be admitted – came from all over Britain to make their voice heard, and demand a vote on the actual options available, which weren’t known in 2016 when the blank-cheque ‘Leave’ option was ticked (or crossed, I should say). Seems reasonable? You’d think so, but this is Britain. No end of Leavers, both in power and out, still insist that the referendum – that 634,750 excess – be ‘respected’, 3 years down the line. Many Remainers agree. But surely that phrase must have a sell-by date? 1.5 million people have died since, a similar number have attained voting age. That demographic shift alone favours Remain, because Leave is most heavily favoured in my g-g-g-g-generation (yes, Roger Daltrey is a Brexiteer).
It also seems a matter of basic fairness that Leavers should give their final assent to the preferred method of leaving, given they weren’t asked and the options differ markedly. If Remain happens to rank above any given Leave option available, they should be able to say so. Yet many – including our own Prime Minister – have explicitly stated that such a vote would be ‘undemocratic’. The irony of this was not lost on the crowd yesterday, many placards making mention of May’s three attempts to get her deal ratified while denying ‘the People’ any further say. Indeed, the placards and the general mood of the march made one swell with pride at the crazy Britishness of the whole thing. We stood in a 2-mile queue for an hour, then shuffled good-naturedly along, smiling apologies when feet got trodden on, with barely a policeman in sight (apart from Downing Street, where numerous officers stood in front of the gates, another 8 more behind brandishing submachine guns. “We only want to talk to her”, we might say, like an estranged husband trying to get past his ex’s mum).
A particularly clever brand of trolling has been invented by a group know as ‘Led By Donkeys’. This started as a chat in a pub by 3 mates. They decided to mock up a tweet of some genuine Leave-leader words, get it printed as a full-size billboard, and then stick it up guerilla-style in the dead of night. Subsequently they crowdsourced a bit of funding, rented legitimate space and hired a professional to do the pasting. When they got a bit more cash, they hired an ad van – ironically the same van used by UKIP founder Nigel Farage during referendum campaigning – and used it to follow Nigel about. The van was at the march yesterday, rotating some of their greatest hits – “If this is 52/48 Remain it’s unfinished business by a long way” (N. Farage); “It might make sense to have two referendums actually … ” (J Rees-Mogg); or the classic “A democracy that cannot change its mind ceases to be a democracy” (D. Davis). The latter was also printed up on a sheet 100 yards across and held up for the news helicopters to film, a stroke of genius.
Contrast this with the behaviour at many Leaver events. The committed are really angry, without apparent dilution by the self-deprecating, ironic streak of the average Remainer. Many point to civil unrest as a reason to cave in – some violence is a virtual certainty, but one that should not faze a bulldog nation that stood up to Hitler, the IRA and ISIS, as patriots never stop reminding us.
In parallel with all this, the previously mentioned petition, on an official government website, suddenly blew up on Wednesday – moments after May had delivered her ‘you, the people’ speech. ‘I’m on your side’. she said. It got under everyone’s skin. Within a short period the petition was being shared far and wide, as people sought the only means available to distance themselves from the “hive-mind with but a single thought” this obsessive woman tries to portray us as. 1,000 signatures a minute, it crashed the site several times. 2 million a day at peak (Thu/Fri), and presently sitting around the 5.3 million mark and rising. That’s 5 million people who just want to say “Stop” – not even “put it to the people”; Stop. Leavers are falling over themselves to try and discredit it, one site with terrible journalistic standards but a seat on a BBC panel trying to make something of the fact that many signatures were from ‘foreign places’. The fact that citizens are still allowed out of the country from time to time may help to explain this sinister pattern! Or you’ll hear it’s bots, or it’s people with 10,000 email addresses each and a lot of time on their hands … I jokingly commented that most of the people on the march yesterday were robots or foreigners, plus a bunch running from end to end like a kid in a panoramic school photo to bulk the numbers. It was almost Trumpian in scale!
Now, will any of this make a difference? Perhaps not. As I write, we leave on Friday, with no deal. Please send blankets.
*** Intellectual honesty demands that I dial this figure down. Crowd experts say about half that figure. Fair enough. Nonetheless, my Facebook post saying I was going picked up 27 ‘likes’, none of whom went. I’ll assume their support, and multiply it. I’ll discount the one Brexiteer who was possibly confused which march I was talking about!