Lionel Shriver

Dear Nigel: Don’t become the man who reversed the referendum result

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Dear Nigel

Believe it or not, I’ve been your defender. I’ve often told Americans,  ‘Sure, he comes across as a fop. But listen to what he actually says. He’s smarter than you think.’ OK, you have an affect problem. I’ve seen through the clowning. I bet you’ve never been that camp off-camera, and lately you’ve cut the buffoonery well back.

It’s thanks to you that the 2016 referendum ever happened. Those who style themselves as your betters dismiss David Cameron’s electoral stunt as a cynical bid to end Tory infighting over Europe. Yet the vote revealed a profound division in the country itself far more deserving of resolution than internecine squabbles among MPs. Absent Ukip, nationwide popular disquiet over Britain’s subjugation to the EU would have remained forever stifled.

You’ve devoted yourself to the UK’s rescue from a contemptuous power-hungry bureaucracy for 25 years, and for most of that time you were derided as a crackpot. So I give you credit not only for the single-mindedness of your purpose, but for caring, deeply and genuinely, about achieving that purpose. Given the ridicule that your long, often lonely campaign attracted, you can’t be driven solely by ego. I refuse to believe you would imperil your life’s work coming to fruition against all odds just to prevent your Brexit party from becoming an anachronism. I think you’d like to see your party become an anachronism, and to move on to other matters, job done.

Look, you know where I’m going with this. It’s no accident that after all these years I finally write to you only a few weeks before a British general election currently cast as the most consequential since 1945.

We must both be sick of the shopworn aphorism ‘Don’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good’. Obviously that adage is often deployed to force people to compromise their core principles and to accept a watered-down middle course that’s fundamentally a sellout. And I know Boris’s withdrawal treaty is not ideal. I share your concern that in the negotiation of a free trade agreement EU potentates will try to screw the UK, in every possible arena, right up the bum. But they’re scorpions. This is their nature. They’ll be ruthless, even if we were to negotiate from outside the bloc and leave, as you prefer, with no deal.

Yet to my astonishment, you know full well that if you do as you’re threatening and run Brexit party candidates in ‘more than 600’ constituencies, you could split the Leave vote and have that ghastly, regressive Gollum slurping ‘My precious!’ over the keys to No. 10, in which case we’ll never leave the EU at all. You call Boris’s deal ‘not Brexit’? Put Labour and the SNP in government, and I’ll show you ‘not Brexit’. Both the agony of the past three-plus years and your quarter-century of dedication will have been for naught, and your confederates will never forgive you. This is the legacy you covet? Being known for decades to come as the man who reversed the 2016 referendum all by himself?

Maybe the situation here will seem clearer if we pivot to across the pond. In the 1992 presidential election, the maverick Texan Ross Perot, an Independent, took 19 per cent of the vote, thereby dividing conservative voters who might otherwise have supported the Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush. Voilà: two terms of Bush’s opponent, Bill Clinton. More infamously, in the Battle of the Hanging Chad in 2000, the self-righteous Green party spoiler Ralph Nader sapped nearly 100,000 votes from the Democrat Al Gore in Florida —votes that would easily have awarded Gore the presidency without any messy recount. How did Nader advance his cause by issuing George W. into the White House, given that Gore is a fanatical environmentalist?

In the 2020 presidential primaries, Democrats also have a purity problem. All these wokey activists are rabid for a nominee who ticks all their beloved boxes. But only 13 per cent of the American electorate self-classify as ‘very liberal’, and choosing a candidate with inherent appeal to only one in eight voters is flagrantly daft. What do Democrats claim to want above all else? To beat Trump. What does selecting a far-left, pie-in-the-sky crusader like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders put most at risk? Beating Trump. Talk about taking your eye off the prize.

There’s another parallel. I reject the facile comparison between Boris and Trump, so let’s try this pairing: Corbyn and Trump. Both absurd, both such preposterous candidates for national leadership that clobbering them should be child’s play. To throw contests this easy, rivals have to defeat themselves. That’s what you’re doing.

I, too, have often suspected that the only real hope the UK has ever had of cutting the EU apron strings for good is to walk out, go WTO, and not ask folks who want an independent Britain to fail for any special favours. But at this point, to hold out for a ‘clean’ exit that’s never going to happen is to embrace defeat. Boris will still lead your country out of the EU, and he’ll at least try to avoid a joke Brexit that would make the whole fandango pointless. You can’t lead us out. With first past the post, you could credibly end up, once again, without a single MP.

If you truly care about your purpose, you have to make one more sacrifice for the team. Resist that understandable desire to go down fighting, still unsullied by the dirty realities of Brexit politics. Hand on the baton to a man who can fulfil the quest you began. Pull back your people. Hit Labour where it hurts, but steer clear of Leave constituencies where the Tories have a chance. Please? We’re so close. On a panel last month, the moderator asked us all whether the UK will have left the EU in a year’s time, and without missing a beat I said, ‘No.’ Prove my pessimism misplaced. Because purity is for losers.

Only provisionally yours, L.S.

Farage | 7 November 2019
‘I draw the line at a deal with Farage.’