The back and forth of negotiations continues on the proposed exit of Britain from the European Union. The two sides seem as far apart as ever; not just in their positions, but in their fundamental notions of what the whole process is about.
EU president Donald Tusk seems increasingly exasperated at the British government’s determination to have its cake and eat it too. And former Conservative prime minister John Major has launched a trenchant attack on his own party, telling it that “It is as necessary to speak truth to the people as it is to speak truth to power.”
None of this seems to be having much effect on the government, except perhaps to paralyse its already limited ability for critical thinking. A number of commentators have remarked upon the Brexiters’ fundamental lack of seriousness; particularly worth reading is a piece by William Davies in this month’s London Review of Books.
I don’t buy the whole of Davies’s argument; I don’t share his disdain for austerity, and I think he pyschologises a bit too readily. But there’s no doubt that he’s onto something, as with this comparison:
No doubt [the Blairite] clique contained some planet-sized egos too, but one thing that can be said for the New Labour generation is that they saw politics as a serious business, requiring hard, serious work. Among Tory Brexiteers, by contrast, ignorance and a lack of effort is taken almost as a mark of distinction … Having spent so long witnessing the Blairite policy machine churn out evidence and evaluations, year after year, with impeccable economic logic, it’s as if they have abandoned such dull, humourless pursuits altogether.
And his devastating, but I think quite accurate, portrayal of Boris Johnson:
Johnson approaches public life as a game in which he commits sackable offences as a way of demonstrating his unsackability. The office of foreign secretary in this administration is treated as a leash to constrain someone who would otherwise cause more trouble to the prime minister elsewhere. … The game is a quest for attention, and humorous transgression is the key skill in winning it. Another name for it is ‘trolling’.
But perhaps the most revealing comment on Brexit this week comes from a piece in Politico, quoting an unnamed “senior EU official”:
We find it implausible that there should be some sort of easy way to achieve the same objectives which more or less no one has discovered until now. We think that it is an implausible notion that what we have been doing [in the EU] was not actually necessary, there is an easier way to achieve the same objectives, that … everybody in Europe working on this for the last 60 years made a big mistake.
Because that, in fact, is exactly what the Tory Brexiters do think. They claim, unlike the avowed protectionists (who are supposed to just provide the votes for Brexit and then keep quiet), to agree with the goals of the EU – peace, open markets, economic integration – but to believe that the EU itself is a fundamentally misguided way of achieving them.
Note that this is not just a claim that the EU, while well-intentioned, has made rather a mess of its task; that’s an easy argument to accept. But the response to that would be stay in and work to improve it. The claim is rather that the whole project was misconceived, that it could never have produced good results, and that great things can be achieved outside it.
Not surprisingly, the Europeans are dumbfounded by this position. (It is almost completely absent on the continent, where opposition to the EU is mostly coextensive with opposition to economic liberalism.) Having indeed been “working on this for the last 60 years,” they know perfectly well that it’s not easy, and therefore are sceptical of the claim that all their work was unnecessary.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that they’re not willing to listen to a miracle solution if someone comes up with one. If the Brexiters really know the way forward, now would be the time to produce it.
But that would require a seriousness that they just don’t possess.