There are a hell of a lot of things to choose from when trying to decide what the very worst thing about Brexit is. Unless you believe the absurd, dreams of empire, sovereignty-based bluster of the Tory party’s Brexit fanatic wing, or the fantasy tariff-free economics of Minford and his Economists for Brexit and Unicorns (and I urge you not to do either), there is nothing good about it.
Brexit removes rights & reduces prospects, is an economic catastrophe and is based on lies. It harms our neighbours, may create a border across the island of Ireland, jeopardises devolution and is against the wishes of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It treats EU27 citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU27 as bargaining chips. It provides no solution whatsoever for the problems of the UK, instead placing blame on others for British failings and insecurities. It achieves the seemingly contradictory feat of promoting self-defeating jingoism, and an absurd view of the UK’s place in the world, while simultaneously creating a myth of victimhood.
Brexit was never going to be good, but it has been so mishandled up to now that only the most damaging versions of it are still available. The UK government has, for its own political reasons, ruled out the least damaging versions like joining the European Economic Area and negotiating a form of Customs Union as close as possible to the current one. It has backed itself into a corner with its own red lines, and soured relations with the EU27 through pointless macho posturing and empty threats of no deal, both designed solely to appeal to the kind of lunatics in the Brextremist wing of the Conservative party that would see walking out of Negotiations as victory.
Perhaps though, the very worst and most damaging thing about Brexit in the long-term is the seemingly irreparable damage done to standards in public life, particularly in Westminster. These have been in decline for some time, but that decline has accelerated and, more importantly, been normalised by Brexit.
Since the EU Referendum, UK constitutional conventions have been broken flagrantly and without consequence for those breaking them. The convention of individual ministerial responsibility – that ministers are responsible for the action of their department, and should resign when very serious errors are made by them – has been in decline for sometime. Brexit has brought it to a point though that, when the Home Office sent one hundred expulsion letters to EU citizens in the UK in error, there was hardly even talk of the home secretary resigning. It was not clear at first if she would even apologise. A catastrophic failure, damaging both those who received the letters and any trust the EU 27 have for the UK on this issue, was got away with without penalty for the minister.
The revelations of sexual harassment have shown that ministers will resign, but only when they are absolutely forced to do so. Most of the incidents in question did not happen during this government. Some, it seems, may have been known about by whips and others for some time. It is therefore clear that resignations are not really for the awful acts themselves, but for the unforgivable crime of being found out. It is not to maintain honour or integrity that ministers and whips are resigning (and most commentators seem to think it is safe to assume there will be more), but simply to avoid further embarrassing revelations. It is also notable and telling that personal misconduct which requires resignation as a minister does not appear to require resignation as an MP.
The convention of collective cabinet responsibility requires that Government ministers speak with one voice on government policy, yet cabinet ministers bicker and contradict one another in public constantly, without even serious approbation. What’s more, they do this on the most serious and damaging issue facing the UK for 70 years, while EU27 leaders – the people who actually decide what happens to the UK now – wonder which minister’s pronouncements actually represent the Government’s position.
On the EU “exit bill”, for example, the Foreign Secretary said a few months ago that the EU27 could whistle for it and Conservative backbench Brexit Ultras have continued to claim that the UK owes nothing. The cabinet apparently agreed to €20bn for transition, but no more, before the PM’s Florence speech, but news is now emerging of a much more realistic €53bn offer. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this was entirely inevitable if negotiations were to progress, so all that’s been achieved is a bonfire of goodwill and negotiating capital, along with a waste of six months of the precious two years allowed by Article 50 for negotiations. Potentially even more serious though is that it may now be difficult for the EU27 to be certain that the PM can sell any agreement made in Brussels at home.
Constitutional conventions are under active as well as passive attack. In the Gina Miller case, the UK Government tried and succeeded in get a ruling that the Sewell convention did not legally apply to Article 50. Think about that. the UK Government set out to make sure that a convention designed to ensure that the Scottish Parliament had a say in matters affecting Scotland could be legally disregarded in a decision that will have consequences for Scotland for decades to come.
And the lies. Oh the lies. Even very recently, the idea that a cabinet minister had knowingly lied, particularly to the UK Parliament, would rightly have been met with howls of scorn and derision, and a possible resignation. Yet on numerous issues around Brexit, before and after the EU Referendum, Ministers have lied and misled with total impunity. And we are not talking here about errors, exaggerations, selectivity with the truth, or misrepresentations of it. We are talking about senior public figures looking right down the camera and deliberately, maliciously, telling the public things they know to be untrue.
To point out any of these things though it to be a whinged, a loser, as if it is special pleading or pedantry to do so. Ministers are happy to refer to vast swathes of the population with silly insults like “remoaner”. We are told we are unpatriotic if we highlight the obvious issues with Brexit and its execution. We are enemies of the state if we continue to oppose an act of wonton, unnecessary self-harm. MPs and ministers insult and block their own constituents on social media. These are the public standards of Brexit UK.
And why not? Once you’ve done any of these things and got away with it, it doesn’t seem such a big deal to just carry on doing it. It’s not even just about getting away with it. Doing it well can get you a ministerial office in Whitehall. But once the rubicon is crossed, the conventions have gone, and a new normality is established, getting back any regard for conventions and personal honour – things that hold the UK’s constitution together – may be impossible.
Like an escalating arms race, if your opponent does it, you must too or risk defeat. It’s an all-out political war, and those with scruples, or who care about truth or propriety, or even the population, pay for that luxury of morality by losing. Public discourse has become focussed solely on winners and losers, like a cut-rate gameshow.
Whatever your views on the EU, this erosion of any regard for truth and honesty, this idea of honour and probity as something only for losers and the weak, and the casual disregard for the constitution must be opposed right now.
To allow these low-grade charlatans to succeed is to tacitly consent to and perpetuate this new amoral normality. The damage may be too great to undo. It may be too late. But we have to try to stop it and halt its contagion into other corners of life. They might not be, but we are better than this. If they get away with it though, this may be the very worst consequence of Brexit.
Steve Bullock was a negotiator for the UK in the EU at the UK Permanent Representation to the EU from 2010-2014. He attended Stirling University and has also worked in the European Commission on external financial aid, and for the UK Department for International Development. He now runs a recording studio in Brussels and tweets about Brexit in between takes as @guitarmoog.
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