‘I like to write when I’m feeling spiteful,’ remarked D.H. Lawrence. ‘It’s like having a good sneeze.’ A perennial challenge for a Fleet Street columnist is how to walk the fine line between writing as though your opinion mattered, and writing as though it were just an entertaining sneeze. My fellow Spectator columnist, Rod Liddle, has developed a very marketable pitch in the columnar sneeze.
I perhaps err on the other side: writing with the implicit suggestion that the nation waits upon my verdict. I know, of course, that nobody does, but have to pretend to myself (and inhabit the pretence) that I’m a kind of prime minister-in-waiting, and my opinions (which in fact have often been inconsistent or even whimsical over the years) were being chiselled in granite. I can’t write except as though the column were important. Taking oneself too seriously can verge on the preposterous, and it’s irritating (I know) to readers. But I’m too old to change.
Being so, I’m literally kept awake at night as the new year starts, with wondering what line to take now, on Brexit. ‘Who cares!’ I realise. But there we are.
A friend remarked to me that ‘the fightback against Boris and Brexit begins now’, but I cannot feel that. My side of the argument has been comprehensively defeated, in votes if not in logic; Mr Johnson seems to have made a reasonable start; and while (as I argued here before Christmas) one must remain very wary indeed, barking at the wheels of the Brexit bus strikes me as — for the time being — not only pointless but rather annoying. Brexit is going to happen. But what kind of Brexit? That will be the big controversy in the year ahead. What line am I going to take? I’m still trying to make up my mind.
For those in my position the dilemma is rather simple and I hope to explain it here in terms that a Leaver as well as a Remainer could accept. Both might think it natural that Remainers like me would now switch tack, cease arguing against any Brexit, and start arguing passionately for the ‘softest’ Brexit possible. By this is meant the Brexit that makes the least difference to our relationship with the European Union. At its extreme it’s a ‘Brino’ (‘Brexit in name only’) and would involve our abiding by single market and customs union rules — product standards etc, as well as common standards in employment — and accepting the arbitrating role of the European Court of Justice. It might also mean contributing to the cost of those EU cooperative arrangements or institutions we remain part of. The softer the Brexit, of course, the less scope we have to establish our own trading relationships with the rest of the world.
Now, imagine I’m speaking to an audience of two: a convinced Remainer and a convinced Brexiteer. There’s something all three of us can agree on, isn’t there? We must agree that such a Brino leaves us in a worse position than remaining a full member. As a full member we have an important say, and in some cases a veto, in how these rules are made. As a Brino nation, we take the rules but have far less say in making them. We may save a little bit in contributions but our net contributions were always a tiny proportion of national expenditure — less, for instance, than the Treasury’s subsidy to Northern Ireland.
It must follow (I say to my Leaver and Remainer friends) that if such an agreement with our EU former partners is to be the final resting place of our new relationship, then we should never have embarked on this journey in the first place. Can any of us disagree? I don’t see how! From this it follows that a ‘soft’ Brexit amounts to a tacit admission that Brexit was a mistake. Again, how can anyone disagree?
So in this the Brexiteers have surely been right: that the whole point, the only rationale, of Brexit was to detach ourselves and our economy properly from the EU, and take a new direction. This (they believed and I suppose still believe) opens up for us the possibility of improved trading arrangements with the rest of the world and — more importantly — of linking ourselves and our economy to the part of the global economy that is growing (and looks set to grow) faster than the ‘sluggish’ European economy. We’d be getting into gear with a different set, and the new gearing would in time galvanise our own economy.
Now it’s not the purpose of this column to argue the toss about how realistic that is: the debate has been ongoing for years and must in the end be a matter of faith or doubt that this is what would happen. I simply point out that whether or not you really believe in Brexit, you can’t believe that a soft Brexit will be a beneficial change.
What, then, for a Remainer could be the case for Brino? It’s simple: the ‘lesser evil’. Since we can’t remain because the electorate has decided not to (the Remainer might say), Brino will mitigate the harm. One might likewise argue that though it wasn’t a good idea to jump off a cliff in the belief that angels would swoop us skyward, since we’ve jumped, and since we’re about to whoosh past a tree sticking out from the rock face, we’d better grab it.
There is logic of a sort to that argument. It’s the logic that says: ‘As we can’t agree what to do, let’s do something neither of us wants but each of us hates less than letting the other side get its way.’ As a Remainer, however, I’m profoundly unenthused. Were I a Leaver, and conscious (as I supposed) of the angels waiting to swoop, I’d be inconsolable.
Will Leavers be inconsolable, then? Here lies the test of whether they still really, really believe in the angels. We’ll see in the months ahead. I do wonder.