Brexit is a machine to generate perpetual grievance. It's doing its job perfectly

Figcaption Breit Is A Machine To Generate Perpetual Grievance. Its Doing Its Job Perfectly
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

B rexit has changed everything about Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and also nothing. For anyone trying to do business across borders newly gummed with bureaucracy, the comparison is stark and painful. But in politics, an old pattern is playing out – a cycle of suspicion and self-sabotage that began long before the 2016 referendum.

It starts with the belief that Britain does not depend on its neighbours for trade or anything else. That leads to neglect of the diplomacy required to make the partnership work. Going against the grain of economics and geography escalates every negotiation into a test of national self-esteem. Each adjustment for reality is resented as a surrender of sovereignty.

Euroscepticism is a machine for generating perpetual grievance. It works by making Brussels the enemy, spoiling relations and serving up the soured mood to a domestic audience as proof that the other side does not want to be friends.

Brexit has dismantled the institutional platform on which that drama used to be played, but it does not change the economic and strategic dynamics. The UK still needs things from Brussels, but it has lost the leverage it had from a seat at the EU summit table. This makes it harder for Boris Johnson to play the old double game of public belligerence and private compromise. (On that score, EU membership was the way previous prime ministers used to have their cake and eat it.)

Johnson has no interest in the practical side of European diplomacy. His 2019 promise to “get Brexit done” expressed a personal preference for changing the subject of British politics – a preference that chimed with the enervated public mood. Since Johnson only applies his brain to things when he can no longer hide from them, not talking about UK-EU relations allows him also to stop thinking about them.

That task has been outsourced to David Frost – formerly chief Brexit negotiator, now UK chair of the partnership council that oversees implementation of the EU deal. Frost was given a peerage last year, and his new role comes with a seat at cabinet. His rapid elevation was propelled by dogmatic Euroscepticism and personal devotion to the prime minister. He is a true believer in the cult of sovereignty. He was converted to the faith when his career in the Foreign Office stalled, then made zealous by the pursuit of an alternative career clinging to Johnson’s coattails. Nowhere does his record speak of subtle or creative diplomacy.

Frost’s appointment is not a malicious provocation, but a typical act of Johnsonian negligence. The prime minister likes to delegate the many aspects of leadership that bore him, but he trusts very few people (because he presumes his own tendency for deceit and betrayal is the norm). He needed someone, like Frost, who will obediently try to mop up the grief spilling out of his leaky, rickety EU deal.

Tension is already high over the Northern Ireland protocol, which creates a customs border in the Irish Sea. The mere existence of that trade barrier has infuriated unionists even before the full cost is felt. A “grace period”, waiving some checks, expires at the end of March. The UK has demanded an extension on terms that amount to major renegotiation. The European commission responds that Britain must honour the treaty it signed. And so the Brexit that was “done” turns out not to be done.

Were it not for the pandemic, loose ends and lost jobs would be making more headlines. Whether they would also be changing public opinion is a different question. Some enthusiasm is surely dropping into the chasm between Brexit as liberation theology and its real-world incarnation as rotting fish undelivered to a Calais market. But British political culture contains deep reserves of stoical resignation to adversity (especially other people’s adversity). There is no simple road back, no better deal on the table, and it is easy for ministers to spin the pain mandated by their deal as aggression by vengeful Europeans.

Leavers will be attracted to that story because it spares them the discomfort of admitting that they voted for a con, and then made a prime minister of the con artist. Keir Starmer will not fight on that terrain since doing so gets him no affection in constituencies that were lost by Labour in 2019. Thus (in England, at least) the folly of Brexit is being buried for excavation some time in the future, perhaps by a different political generation.

It might happen sooner, but I suspect any shift in opinion on the EU will come only as a consequence of some wider collapse in Johnson’s personal standing. He is the denial that people elected. For many voters, disillusionment with Brexit is downstream of disappointment with the whole “Boris” shtick in the flow of political events.

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Meanwhile, there will be endless negotiations, largely unreported, except when they escalate into rows. At which point the rusty old template will be applied: plucky Britain standing up to bullying Brussels. It is the story the Eurosceptics used to tell when the UK was an EU member, but more potent because the 27-against-one dynamic that was a paranoid myth has become a fact. Over time, that dynamic will make it ever harder for the opposition to express a pro-European position without inviting the charge of siding with an enemy.

It is frustrating for remainers who still crave a moment of vindication, when the fraud is proved beyond doubt and the tide of opinion turns. But for that to happen, Brexit would have to be measured in terms of trade and diplomacy. Those aren’t the leavers’ metrics. They long ago swapped economic argument for culture war bluster.

There is no defence of Johnson’s deal if the ambition was serious advancement of the national interest. But there is another test. It is the one that matters most to the architects of Brexit, although they never admit it, even to themselves.

For the true believers, a good Brexit is one that keeps the grievance alive; that makes foreigners the scapegoat for bad government; that continues to indulge the twin national myths of victimhood and heroic defiance. Measured for that purpose, Johnson’s pointless Brexit is perfect.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

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