Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
I keep trying to move on from Brexit. Twenty-seven years is more than enough time to spend on any issue, whatever its importance. But, just at the moment that the question should have been definitively settled, everyone else is becoming obsessed with it.
Everything – everything – is seen through the prism of the 2016 referendum. The debates we ought to be having about regulation, tax, agriculture, fisheries, regional policy, public spending and the rest are cribbed, cabined, confined by the parameters of Brexit. The argument about where to draw the line between competitiveness and employment rights is measured solely by the yardstick of divergence from EU standards. The issue of farm subsidies is judged, not on its merits, but by whether scrapping the CAP is advantageous. The unexpected budget surplus has not led to a measured debate about the level of public spending, but to a predictable chorus of “Where’s our £350 million a week, Brexshit liars?”
Some years ago, this website advanced the accurate but at the time countercyclical idea that the real obsessives were not the Eurosceptics, but the Euro-integrationists. Although it had become a lazy journalistic trope to dismiss critics of the EU as “swivel-eyed”, said ConservativeHome, they had nothing on the Cleggs, Clarkes and Mandelsons. A cartoon depicting the “swivel-eyed Europhiles” accompanied the piece, and it has been aired several times since.
The past 18 months have vindicated the cartoonist. The guerrilla war waged by Michael Spicer, Bill Cash, Teddy Taylor and Dick Body against successive federalising treaties has nothing on the behaviour of those who are working to overturn the referendum result. I wish I could say that the irreconcilables – David Lammy, Anna Soubry etc – were out on a limb, but a chunk of the country has become almost as fanatical as them. People who couldn’t have told you what the Customs Union was last year now insist that staying in it is the single most important issue in politics.
Trade neatly illustrates the distorted nature of our current discourse. Many of those who, before the campaign, were unequivocal free traders are now against global engagement because they regard it as a consequence of Brexit and dislike the Leavers who are pushing the idea. People who spent their pre-referendum lives boasting about “the reality-based community” now promote ridiculous junk-science scares about US chicken. Conversely, several UKIP types who used to fret about foreign companies buying British assets have become welcome converts to globalisation.
Both sides are to blame for the polarisation. Leavers were slow to reach out after the vote, slow to acknowledge the narrowness of the result, slow to propose moderation. The few who did found no one to engage with on the other side. Here on this site on polling day, I argued for compromise, and I have stuck to that position since, but there’s no point in denying that it’s an exposed and lonely position.
Step away from your screen and you’ll find that, in the real world, most of the 48 per cent are reasonable and well-intentioned patriots who want what is best for Britain. Sadly, though, their voices have been drowned out by online agitators and a handful of fanatical MPs who are forever in TV studios.
None of this would matter so much if it weren’t having an impact on the negotiation process. Continuity Remainers are not simply lamenting the result. They are encouraging the EU to offer bad terms in the hope of triggering a second referendum – often with shocking flagrancy. When Michel Barnier welcomed the clarity of Theresa May’s detailed speech on the ideal exit terms last month, Lord Adonis tweeted as follows: “Dear M. Barnier, it’s increasingly likely that the British people will hold a referendum on Mrs May’s Brexit deal & many of us look forward to Britain playing a leading role in the EU long after 2019.” In other words, if you’re hardline enough, we might just drop the whole idea of Brexit. Alastair Campbell was even more explicit, telling the Irish Taoiseach to “Play hardball, Leo”.
It’s odd to watch Campbell, the spin doctor’s spin doctor, pursuing a policy that he would surely advise any client against. About the worst look in politics is to be seen to be siding against your own country – especially if you are going out of your way to define a negotiation as confrontational when your government wishes it to be friendly. It is unwise to insult 17.4 million people, to call them old and ignorant and bigoted, to wish for their deaths so as to change the demographic balance. It is unwise to be photographed with the people on the other side of the table. It is unwise, above all, to be seen to be hoping for an economic collapse. Remainers have broken every one of these rules, which is why they would struggle to win a second referendum.
But that’s not how it is seen in Brussels. Even now, many Eurocrats believe that, if they make Brexit painful enough, we might drop the whole idea. That, after all, has been their experience with previous referendums in the Netherlands, France, Denmark and Ireland. Their demand that we should accept most of the burdens of membership with no veto rights is not a serious negotiating position. It’s not even a serious opening bid. It’s an attempt to browbeat us into changing our minds.
Look at the comments underneath this article and you’ll see what I mean about the debate being stuck in June 2016. You’ll be told that I’m blaming everyone but Leavers for the failure of the process, that I broke it so I own it, that my lies are catching up with me and blah blah fishcakes. For the avoidance of doubt, I am convinced that Brexit will be a success. The trouble is that, as long as a chunk of our politicians and pundits are set on overturning the referendum, and as long as they keep telling Brussels to hang tough, the EU has little incentive to discuss a mutually beneficial outcome. This makes the process of extrication, if not the eventual outcome, more fraught and costly than it need be.
The notion that we might be worn down is an odd one. I know that people tend to believe what they want, and Brussels officials understandably like to listen to Nick Clegg and Tony Blair and all the others who have so far been unremittingly wrong. But if they think we can be bullied into changing our votes, they really don’t understand us at all.