So, Boris has outwitted Johnny Foreigner to bring us – just in time for Christmas – a terrific new ‘deal’ with the EU. Just as I predicted: https://bernardjporter.com/2020/12/06/a-prediction/; and with the Tory press puffing it up in the way I predicted, too. What a man! What a glorious prospect lies ahead of us, reclaiming our ‘sovereignty’, unfettered by the chains of Brussels and free to pursue – or resume – our great national and historical destiny in the wider world!
I’ve not, of course, read the ?2,000-page agreement, and wouldn’t be able to understand all its details and nuances if I had. And it’s probably too early to pronounce on their practical ramifications in any case. In common with most ‘Remainers’ – and even some Brexiteers, who believe that relative poverty is an acceptable price to pay for ‘sovereignty’ – I doubt whether Britain’s new situation in the world will be as comfortable and profitable as her old one within the EU, and can’t think of many material advantages to her ‘splendid isolation’: just as there weren’t, incidentally, when that phrase was coined. But I don’t know; and so prefer to leave that aspect of the recent negotiation – the economic one – aside. In any case, even if we do come an economic cropper after Brexit, the Brexiters will still be able to blame someone or something else for it. The coronavirus is the obvious scapegoat. Failing that, it will be the ‘Remoaners’, still, not wanting us to succeed, and so holding us back; or Boris for not protecting our fishermen; or the perfidious French for wanting their revenge. So, it will never be universally accepted that we sceptics were right. Brexit was always a creature mainly of prejudice rather than reason: as are most other popular movements, admittedly, but not to quite the same degree. And I have to admit that it’s my own prejudices – pro-European rather than narrowly nationalist – that put me on the other side; together, I like to think, with my historical studies. (Look out for my essay collection, Britain Before Brexit, to be published by Bloomsbury early next year.)
It’s those prejudices that will make me regret one particular effect of Brexit, which is the drastic curtailing of our ‘freedom of movement’ it will involve. (Brexiters only seemed to think about freedom of movement into Britain – ‘all those Poles, mending stuff’. But of course it’s about our movement out too.) For me personally it won’t matter so much, having acquired a second citizenship which allows me to wander unfettered all over the EU; but what of those who don’t have Continental partners, or Irish grandmothers, and so will have to stand for hours in the ‘foreign’ queues at airports? And won’t be able to claim free health treatment in France or Italy if they fall ill? And whose knowledge of our wonderful neighbours, and consequently their xenophilia, will suffer as a result? In particular, as an ex-university teacher, I feel sorry for those students who will no longer be able to profit from the Erasmus foreign study programme that has been such a success over the past 33 years. All these are obvious losses arising out of Brexit. No new cheap markets in Patagonia or Wallachia – or even Australia and the USA – can possibly compensate for them. We can see this straightaway.
We can also see, pretty plainly, the damage that the controversy over Brexit has done to our national life over the past four miserable years, and which is likely to continue for years to come. Others have chronicled this at length: the anger and literal violence that it has provoked; the underlying racism it has revealed; the near-destruction of what had once been fondly thought to be some of the bed-rocks of our ‘national identity’, like tolerance and liberalism; exile for some – applications for citizenship of even freezing Sweden rocketed after the Brexit vote; and, last but maybe not least, the near-universal scorn and obloquy it has drawn from kind foreigners who used to admire us so much; or else their patronising sympathy for ‘Brexit refugees’ like me, which is almost as hard to take. Will this ever end? Will Britain ever recover the national esteem that politicians like Johnson, Farage and Rees-Mogg – as well-known and ridiculed on the Continent as they are in Britain – have divested the whole country of so cavalierly? Or is this the reputational end for us, as a supposedly ‘once-proud’ nation?
What may not be so plain is the deeper damage that may come in Brexit’s train. This derives from the way it was forced through originally, by means that were highly destructive of democracy (‘populism’ is not the same), and likely to inflict further harm on our politics – and hence on us – over the next few years. We’ve already seen the beginnings of it: with Johnson’s illegal prorogation of Parliament last year, misleading the Crown along the way; his brutal culling of moderates and elder statesmen from his Conservative party; his attacks on a neutral Speaker; the Right-wing press’s labelling of judges and Lords as ‘Traitors’ and ‘Enemies of the People’ (and remember how close the ties are between the Government front bench and the most rabid of the newspapers: Mr and Mrs Gove are perhaps the prime examples; plus of course the hold that Rupert Murdoch has over all of them); the culture of straight lying that now seems endemic in public life, at least on the Right, and sheer corruption – Covid contracts for friends and backers; new freedoms – even to murder – for the secret services; and behind all this – despite his departure from No. 10 a few months ago – the ominous shadow of Dominic Cummings, working to make government more ‘efficient’, which to my mind in this case equates with ‘authoritarian’ or even ‘Fascist’….. all producing a ruling class which, with all its ‘popular’ pretensions, doesn’t reflect the ‘people’, or the ‘democracy’ at all, but rather a cabal of interests that have been cleverer than the true democrats at playing ‘the political game’ in confusing times. As I’ve argued before, and argue again in the concluding chapter of my Britain Before Brexit, it’s clear that these people have no real interest in British ‘sovereignty’, except insofar as it will enable them to keep their ill-gotten gains away from the Europeans who would like to tax them. Other leading Brexiters might still retain ‘imperial’ illusions sown in their Public Schools. All the rest – certainly so far as ordinary voters are concerned – is propaganda.
So, whatever Boris’s achievement, or otherwise, in last week’s negotiations, the whole process of this extraordinary and in many ways accidental moment in British politics is clearly changing the country. We’re no longer what we were. We may turn out better, or worse. I rather liked what I take to be our old ‘national identity’, or identities. (Again, see my new book.) But then I’m a European, a traitor: a ‘snowflake’ in the modern terminology. And, of course, I’m also an ‘elitist’, one of those derided ‘experts’ (on Britain’s earlier history), and old.
I can’t tell whether we’ll ever return to the EU – even if it wanted us back in. (I wouldn’t.) More urgent for us Brits, however, is to overhaul our democratic system – voting, political education, the power of the ‘Fourth Estate’ – so that nothing as undemocratic – a Right-wing coup under the cover of xenophobia – can afflict us again.