In an age when people pride themselves on their cynicism, it’s almost touching to remember that one of the most powerful forces in politics is still optimism. We may routinely dismiss politicians as self-serving vermin, but when the time comes, we generally choose the self-serving vermin who tell the best story of a brighter tomorrow. Better a smiling cockroach than a gloomy one.
Optimism is one of the great fault-lines that run beneath the Brexit debate, one that helps explain why the Brexiteers are making the running and why those who still stand opposed to Brexit still have a lot to learn. Simply, the Brexiteers are setting the pace because they realise people want to hear good news, want to be told a story of improvement and success.
It doesn’t even really matter if that story is detailed or convincing or even casually acquainted with the facts. The visions of Brexit Britain’s glorious post-European future offered by some bright-eyed Brexiteers are neither. What matters is that the authors look and sound like they believe that their plan means tomorrow will be better than today.
It pains me to say this because I count many of them as friends, but the depth of the pro-EU camp’s misunderstanding of this is dizzying. On Brexit Day, the Open Britain campaign thought the best way to criticise Theresa May and friends was to accuse them of a surfeit of optimism. Open Britain gleefully seized on Mrs May’s suggestion under Andrew Neil’s questions that Britain could hope to enjoy much the same economic benefits from the single market and customs union as it does now once its membership of the EU lapses. The following morning, David Davis breezily (does he ever do things any other way? You could power a turbine from the man these days) batted such assurances away as an aspiration, an ambition – something Britain can hope for and aim at.