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Brexit: time to escape from the bog

July 19, 2018

Britain’s struggle with Brexit reminds me of the strangest things.

My wife and I are currently ploughing through a crime series set in Barcelona. One of the characters, a senior judge, is having an affair. He wants to end his marriage. His wife resists his attempts to pressure her into divorce. Unfortunately for him, she knows things that, if revealed, could end his career. So he decides to have her murdered. After she dies at the hands of a bungling hit man, he discovers that she had signed the divorce papers. He is overcome with remorse.

Leaving the EU is not exactly akin to murdering one’s spouse. But it would surely be grounds for national remorse if we failed to prosper after Brexit, and the organisation we left ended up substantially addressing many of the concerns that led to our decision to leave.

Then, I suppose, we could always apply to rejoin, whereas the judge will never get his wife back. But at what cost, while we go through the mind-boggling process of leaving in the first place?

It seems to me that to understand all the nuances of the negotiations, both within the British political establishment and with the EU, you need an advanced degree in Brexitology. Or, to look at it another way, not since the citizens of the Byzantine empire were gripped by an all-consuming obsession about the nature of Christ has a population been so engaged in a single topic of debate to the exclusion of most others.

Al least, that’s how it appears today, though I dare say that a substantial portion of our citizens just want us to get on with it.

As for me, I’ve just about given up trying to follow the latest arguments about the Northern Ireland border, about the merits of single market membership versus a free trade agreement and about the dangers or blessings of no deal. I just want the damned thing to stop.

I want it to stop for the same reason that led me to oppose the leave vote in 2016. We didn’t then, and we still don’t now, have the slightest clue about consequences of any of the alternative paths out of the European Union. Anybody who predicts outcomes with any degree of certainty is as much a charlatan as a fifteenth century weather forecaster.

That’s the big picture, folks. And while the lack of a weather forecast didn’t stop Christopher Columbus from setting out on a journey into the unknown, we, on the other hand, know quite a lot about the monsters that lurk in the deep. We just don’t know which of them, if any, is going to try to eat us.

That being the case, why are we still embarked on such a colossal gamble with our future? We can see the risks even more clearly now than in 2016, but we are no more able to predict the rewards than Columbus was able to see his passage to India, much less the land of milk, honey, gold and hostile inhabitants that awaited him across the Atlantic.

Back in the home port, I have never seen such a political mess in fifty years of adult life. Not since Harold Wilson issued reassuring words about the value of the pound in our pockets, in fact. I have also never seen such a lack of the political talent, at least in the upper echelons, that might extricate us from the mess. Cometh the hour, cometh Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May? Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg? I don’t think so.

For this reason, I see no good alternative other than scrapping the whole Brexit project. Whether through a second referendum, a general election or a government of national unity, I don’t much care. We have run into a political bog of our own making, and as every month goes by the bog seems to get deeper and stickier. Unsurprisingly, there’s an increasing number of politicians with a modicum of common sense who are starting to think likewise.

I don’t pretend that rescinding our Article 50 letter will not have its own consequences. Nigel Farage jumping up and down like a demented bullfrog, inciting fire and fury, would probably be one of them. But it will be easier to deal with apoplectic Brexiters now, rather than with an angry, frustrated population later, furious at broken promises and impoverished for a generation.

Provided the decision was made on clear and justifiable grounds, and enacted through a legitimate process, we can surely live with the unrest that might follow.

Should we decide to remain inside the European Union at a time of profound international uncertainty, what will we have learned from the debacle?

That if you’re going to murder your wife, or divorce from a political entity to which you’re bound almost like a conjoined twin, you need more than just reasons fuelled by emotion. You need a plan. You need to get your ducks in a row before you go for it. You need to cultivate your friends, and indeed to understand who your friends are at any particular moment.

Perhaps if we’d started our planning a decade before the exit, we would have had some convincing answers to the objections that have caused us to run into our bog. Would it not make sense therefore to stay in the Union, and start the contingency planning now based on our unhappy experience, so that in ten years’ time, if we again determined that our membership was unsustainable, we might be able to make a decent fist of leaving?

Better still, should we not reconnect with the Union in a spirit of determination to make it a community that we would not need to contemplate leaving in the foreseeable future? In many respects, the political tide within the EU is turning in our favour. We are not the only nation to be afraid of the effects of uncontrolled immigration on our culture and economy. Uncertainty over Russia’s perceived intentions are leading us to form a military alliance with France. Our expertise in counter-terrorism and cyber-warfare is still in demand beyond our shores.

I began this argument by referring to a TV series. I end it with an identikit sequence from a Hollywood movie: the wagon train, full of querulous characters drawn into a circle for common protection, under attack from all sides by marauding horsemen. One wagon has broken off and made a run for it, only to be picked off at ease.

A crass and overly paranoid metaphor perhaps. We’re not surrounded by enemies – yet. But neither, as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have clearly reminded us over the past few days, can we rely on our friends, unless common interests so dictate.

Is this the right time to abandon the wagon train, or to set out across the sea towards terra incognita?

I don’t think so.

From → Film, Politics, UK

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