Before the referendum, I predicted behind closed doors that even if Leave improbably prevailed, Britain’s political establishment would ensure that for all practical purposes the UK stayed in the EU. ‘So Britain wouldn’t be called a “member” anymore,’ I supposed to my husband, ‘but, you know, an “associated affiliate once removed” or something.’ I might as well have said, ‘We’ll join a customs partnership.’ I’ve never been more depressed by being right.
The drift seems unmistakable. The white flag is up on the single market for goods, the customs union, the ECJ; Hammond has been equivocal about fishing rights; cracks are appearing in opposition to free movement — and this is before the UK compromises still further during negotiations proper (e.g., on services). You don’t get de facto membership without paying de facto dues, so kiss the savings on EU contributions goodbye. So far, Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit. It doesn’t mean anything.
Check out the Telegraph letters page (the paper’s best section), where incandescent Leavers are threatening never again to vote Conservative. Last week in the Tele, Tory MP Owen Paterson warned about ‘the catastrophic damage that would ensue on failing to deliver the biggest mandate that the British people have ever given’.
Damage? What damage? Let’s examine the possible costs of quitting the EU in name only — or of not quitting at all.
1) The Tory vote will implode.
A handful of crossover voters who thought May could deliver will scuttle back to base. But where’s the Tory Leaver to go? For the consternated Tory faithful to vote in Jeremy Corbyn would amount to a massive exercise of nose-cutting and face-spiting. Ditto electoral boycott. A Corbyn government would punish Tory Leavers twice.
Indeed, where would aggrieved Leavers of any party go? The Tories betrayed them. Corbyn cares only about raising the top tax rate to 110 per cent; he doesn’t give a toss about Europe. The Lib Dems and Greens are rabid Remainers. Ukip is somewhere subterranean, along with the house at the end of Carrie.
2) Ukip will rise again, like the rare horror sequel that’s scarier than the original — and Pied Piper all 17.4 million Leave voters with it.
Not only Ukip but the entire Leave campaign is a spent force. There’s no more deadly a fate for any movement than winning and still losing. The demoralisation is total. How could Leavers get excited about mounting another challenge, when last time even victory made no difference? The only chance of a second referendum is one specifically designed to overturn the first.
Also, foot-dragging is the Remainer’s friend. The more protracted this process — with two extra years of ‘transition’ to avoid a cliff edge (which merely moves the cliff edge; it’s called ‘delay’) — the greater the opportunity for the electorate to get sick of the whole shebang. Much more of this relentless torture on the news, and Brits will be diving off that ‘cliff edge’ in droves, just to keep from hearing the very word ‘Brexit’ one more time. You can wear people down with sheer boredom, and Remainers know it.
3) Britain will become an international laughing stock.
You’d think that staging grand, treachery–steeped Shakespearean dramas on the global stage for years, and shelving virtually all other governmental business in the meantime, only to come out the other side of this agony in overwhelmingly the same place — except slightly worse off — would trigger a sense of national embarrassment.
But regular people outside the EU aren’t fussed. They have their own problems. Fellow EU citizens will be pleased, even the restive ones, because misery loves company. The whole of the western elite will be thrilled. The lesson to the bumpkins would be clear: ‘We know what’s best, dearies. Our only mistake was allowing ourselves to get rattled for a while. We should have had more faith in British duplicity. Obviously, sophisticates in the cradle of the English language can effortlessly blizzard their mutinous morons with terminological obfuscation.’ UK power brokers won’t be humiliated at Davos or the G20. They’ll be fêted as heroes.
4) More than half the British electorate will grow bitter, disillusioned with democracy, and cynical about politics.
Oh, big whoop. Politicians are inured to cynicism. Why, they’re positively cynical about cynicism. And the middle class constituting the majority of the Leave vote are a civilised lot. They’re not going to burn down Parliament (more’s the pity; think of the refurbishment funds that would save).
Besides, what are bitter, disillusioned Leavers to do, move to Russia or Venezuela, where at least you’re oppressed by honest authoritarianism? ‘Democracy — this joke form of democracy,’ the lesson continues, ‘is all you’re going to get. If you’re upset about the referendum’s being a charade, go whimper out of view. We have a country to run.’
Here’s the thing. Powerful people, by definition, get what they want. That’s what being powerful means. CEOs, financiers, party backers, civil service lifers, unelected peers, career politicians who can always sit out a few years in opposition and live to fight another day — they’re all considered powerful in the first place because they control what happens.
Since people powerful in the present like being powerful, they implicitly fancy the status quo. Hence they do not, in the main, want the UK to leave the EU. So (though I’d be delighted to have to eat these words) the UK will probably not, in any meaningful sense, leave the EU.
Remainers figured this out long ago: beyond a readily survivable public grumpiness, the consequences of defying the referendum result, either altogether or in substance and spirit, are negligible. That’s why those Tele letters sputter like the three little pigs threatening to huff and puff and blow the house down when the house is made of bricks. Theresa May could possibly pay a personal price for the appearance of perfidy. But the real movers and shakers will pay no price. Only Leave voters will suffer — in private. Nobody else will care.