Nick Cohen

Brexit Britain: confused and alone

Brexit Britain: confused and alone
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Here is a message Russian propagandists are sending to Western commentators. It is from Yuliia Popova of REN-TV (which was once an independent Russian station but sold its soul long ago) to David Allen Green of the Financial Times.

Hello David,

My name is Juliia Popova. I represent Russian state TV channel. Would appreciate it if Matt Singh or any other political analist [sic] could give us a short comment on the matter of the following. We will be happy to know why the British government tries to blame Russian government for the attempted murder of ex-Russian spy, why is it happening right now when even USA on behalf of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says that so far there is no evidence to accuse Russia of that. The interview wouldn’t take much time, usually it is 5-10 min via Skype. We need it today,

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Thank you in advance.

Yuliia Popova

Naturally, David being a man of principle refused to have anything to do with the propagandists of his country’s – and so many other countries’ – enemies. But that is the only natural thing about the events of the past week. At any point in the 20 century it would have been impossible to imagine a US president obfuscating about what looks like a Russian attack on British soil. Even after Trump’s election, if you had predicted he would side with Putin against Britain, you would have been dismissed as a scaremonger.

I read and listen to Politico, National Public Radio and other ‘respectable’ US outlets. For almost two years its journalists tried to reassure themselves as much as anyone else that Trump would ‘pivot’ – that is move away from the half-mad rhetoric of the campaign towards sensible policy positions. His rants were just froth for his supporters, they maintained.  He did not really mean them.

It turns out that he meant every word.

They said that sensible Republican ‘grown-ups’ would guide America, while the president’s role would be merely ornamental. Yesterday, Rex Tillerson, an undeniably grown-up secretary of state backed  Britain rather than giving aid and comfort to Russia. This morning Trump fired him by tweet.

I also heard eminent Washington commentators saying the Russian scandal would not implicate Trump, even though the evidence of the president’s behaviour screams that Putin has a hold over him. (This, I accept may just be the admiration and envy dictatorial goons share for each other’s thuggery, but that motive is dangerous enough on its own.)

At the best of times, Britain would find it hard to cope with the resurgence of Russian enmity. William Hague wrote well in the Telegraph  about how Russia had shattered post-Cold War illusions. Neo-cons and many liberals assumed the march of democracy was inevitable, and Russia would become freer and hence less menacing with time. Isolationists in either their Little England, far left or America First variety assumed we could safely ignore Russia now the Berlin Wall was down and concentrate on our own grievances. Everyone refused to see what was in front of their eyes.

Can it really be true that the Russians are equipping themselves to snap our undersea cables on which all our communications and finances depend? Afraid so. Are they actually positioning themselves to hack into our vital national security infrastructure and disrupt it? Looks like it. Can they possibly maintain Soviet levels of espionage and covert activity in free European societies? You bet. Are they flying aggressive sorties to test our air defences. Yup. And surely they are not developing new chemicals and deadly poisons as well? Of course they are.

Yet Russian aggression is just the start of our problems.  We have to cope not only with Putin, not only with a White House apparently cheering on the wrong side, but with the decision of the Brexit referendum to tear up our alliance with our EU allies.

To date, the arguments about Brexit have fitted far too snugly into the culture war disputes with which vast numbers of people have wasted vast amounts of time since the Cold War ended. Supporters of Brexit dismiss their opponents as ivory tower elitists who hate the white working class and refuse to accept a democratic result. Opponents dismiss the anti-Europeans as fools duped by the ‘leave’ campaign’s propaganda, nostalgics and outright racists. So it has gone on for years. No event is too novel and shocking that it cannot be fitted onto the old worn tracks of what passes for debate in this country.

On the face of it, the international crisis appears to help my side. It cannot be said often enough that this is a terrible time to be leaving the EU, and Article 50 should be withdrawn and only be submitted again when we know where we are. Russia is on the march. America, who we have relied upon since 1941, is under the leadership of a giddyingly unstable president who thinks he owes us nothing. China is moving back towards a quasi-Maoist dictatorship.

If withdrawing Article 50 is too much for supporters of Leave to take, however, then at least they should consider doing everything possible to avoid worsening tensions with our neighbours. By my reckoning that would mean a generous deal on the Irish border and for EU migrants in the UK, and continued membership of European agencies regardless of whether it breaks some theological principle that no institution Britain is involved with can have the European Court of Justice as its court of final appeal.

The above sounds pleasing to my ears and the ears of supposedly elite liberals. But the corollary may be less pleasant to the liberal-left. We will have to spend much more on defence, intelligence and cyber-security; give away scarce funds, which might have helped the hard-pressed public services my tribe supports.

As I said, the old culture-war modes of thinking do not fit with our present predicament. It is neither left wing nor right wing, elitist nor populist to observe that Britain now looks a small and lonely country, which does not know which way to turn.