22 December 2017

The Brexit debate must be more than a Game of Trolls


I suppose there must be more exasperating things in the modern world than the constant use of the word “iconic” but sometimes, as when the Prime Minister no less praises the return of the “iconic” blue British passport, it is hard to think of many.

Invariably what is described as “iconic” is ordinary to the point of banality. You cannot move in today’s Britain without bumping into something iconic. I dare say that in some god-forsaken corner of the country there is even an “iconic” multi-storey car park.

Still, that cannot excuse the Prime Minister’s trolling. This morning she, or more likely one of her junior apparatchiks, tweeted that “The UK passport is an expression of our independence and sovereignty – symbolising our citizenship of a proud, great nation. That’s why we have announced that the iconic #bluepassport will return after we leave the European Union in 2019.” Well, bully for you Mrs May. Sometimes it seems as though Brexit is a Game of Trolls and, certainly, if you wanted to reduce Remainer Twitter to a state of umbrage-taking apoplexy you could hardly wish to do better than this.

Of course, Brexit-supporting tabloids cheered the return of blue passports. That is what they do. The symbolic must be elevated above the vital. We may have to live in caves after Brexit but, by jingo, if we wish to visit other troglodytes elsewhere we shall do so with our passage guaranteed by the “iconic” blue passport. That will show them. Or, as Nigel Farage trumpeted, this is “the first real tangible victory” Brexit has enjoyed.

At times like these it takes an effort to remember that Theresa May would like you to think her an uncommonly serious politician. I am not sure how useful descending to Farageist levels of nincompoopery is but I dare say there must be a reason for it. Because otherwise why would you wish to look so ridiculous?

But let it also be noted that plenty of Remainers are happy to play this game too. Confirmation bias is the strongest currency in Britain right now (certainly stronger than the poor old pound) and this is true regardless of which side of the great Brexit divide you happen to be. For every blimpish Leaver thrilled by the return of the iconic passport there is an ardent Remainer thrilled by this confirmation that Brexit is nothing more than a matter of stuff and nonsense, pomp and circumstance. Only blimps and oiks and bigots and imperial nostalgists could really have voted for this absurdity, right?

Well, it is true that the symbolic aspects of Brexit have indeed often been couched in these terms. That’s how you create and sustain a culture war, after all. And it is equally true that it takes a special forbearance not to care about something which makes Nigel Farage so very happy.

Even so, some things are worth not caring about and the colour of the United Kingdom’s passports is one of those things. Those Remainers working up a lather today might care to remember that, since this is a case of a new contract being issued, there is no actual cost involved in changing from burgundy to blue.

But the reaction to this storm in an espresso cup remains revealing. It is possible to think Brexit a terrible blunder – worse, politically-speaking, than a crime – while also accepting that there is a terrible smugness at the heart of some Remainer discourse. This is so even if you also accept that much of the case for Leave was based on, at best, meretricious twaddle and, more often, on a pandering to the baser elements of the electorate’s elemental fears.

Be that as it may, we are where we are even if that is not where many of us hoped we would find ourselves. This being so and 18 months after the referendum – long enough, frankly, for ardour to have cooled – some choices must be made.

If you think Brexit a mistake – and I do – the question is whether mocking the delusions of the most fanatical Leavers is worth your, or anyone else’s, time any more? I am not sure it really is, you know. There comes a point at which sensible Remain voters who regret the country’s choice last June but accept it must come with certain disagreeable consequences, resolve to make the best of a sub-optimal lot. Allow the Leavers their symbolic triumphs and concentrate, instead, on the substance of trying to lessen the likely disadvantages of our post-Brexit future.

This will not be easy, not least since hardline Brexiteers recognise neither the value nor the need for compromise. Nevertheless it is an enterprise that must be attempted. The Tory “mutineers” assailed by the Brexiteer press seem to be some of the few people who actually understand this. Yes, Brexit must happen. No, Brexit doesn’t have to happen in the most disastrous way possible.

You would like, in these circumstances, there to be a better opposition. One capable of appreciating this. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, however, prefers to maintain its position of deliberate ambiguity; nodding to Remain sentiment while doing almost nothing to thwart or amend the hard Brexit you suspect the Labour party’s leadership truly, deeply, instinctively, favours. The EU, remember, is a “capitalist club” so we’re better off out. There are many reasons for pitying the young people spell-bound by Corbyn; the distance between his views and what they think his views is one of the more poignant reasons for that sadness.

Nevertheless, if we move away from talk of “hard” or “soft” or “open” or “closed” Brexit we might begin to appreciate that what really matters is a smooth Brexit. Some government ministers appreciate this, among them Michael Gove who has lately been stressing the need for a period of continuity in terms of agricultural policy. This is sensible, not least since the UK is tasked with creating its own agricultural policy for the first time in 40 years. Gove, who this week suggested hill farm payments should be guaranteed until at least 2022, appears to understand the difficulty involved in this task. And, for that matter, the sensitivity.

Remainers may be right in thinking this a shambles of someone else’s creating. “You broke it, you own it” is a widely-shared sentiment, one made more appealing by the government’s own behaviour since the referendum. As a matter of rhetoric – which, since this is a question of signalling, is also important – the government has invariably chosen to exclude the 48 percent of voters who backed Remain and pander, instead, to the worst instincts of hardcore Brexiteers. Managing the Tory party’s internal divisions has sometimes seemed to be more important than leading the country towards the Brexit that can command maximum support from realistic Remainers and moderate Leavers.

Instead of realism, we have had far too much fantasy. Reality has contradicted the fantasy that Brexit would, as Liam Fox put it, be one of the easiest negotiations in human history. Schadenfreude is the sparkling wine of choice in Remain circles this Christmas and you can understand why this is the case.

Be that as it may, obsessing about passports colours and the other ephemera of the Brexit-and-bulldog bullshit brigade does not, in the end, get us very far. If Brexit is to be saved – that is, if it is to be improved – it will have to be saved by Remainers, not by Leavers. Let the worst – on all sides – enjoy their passport frothing, for obsessing about such matters is tomfoolery raised to an “iconic” level.

Alex Massie is a political commentator