Matt Kelly dissects the government’s underwhelming Brexit white paper
Two distinct doses of poison must be swallowed in any examination of the Brexit white paper.
The first, one of indigestible condescension from the prime minister. The second, the procession of lies, overpromises and wishful thinking that masquerade as substance in the government’s 12 objectives.
That the white paper itself has come and disappeared from our collective consciences – when was the last time you shared a sentence about it to anyone down the pub, or at the bus stop? – is testament to its vacuousness.
It also plumbs new depths of duplicitous condescension – even for a world class duplicitous condescender like Theresa May. Her opening statement could have been crafted by George Orwell himself: ‘After all the division and discord, the country is coming together. The referendum was divisive at times. And those divisions have taken time to heal.’
From where I stand, this country has never been more divided, our politics more divisive.
A recent poll (reluctant as any rational person should be these days in citing polls) in the Daily Mirror suggested that should the vote be rerun, then ‘Remain’ would win. True or not, the idea we have come together is sheer nonsense.
May goes on to double down on condescension, spelling out in elegant language the oft-heard threat to Remainers to shut up and put up: ‘The victors have the responsibility to act magnanimously. The losers have the responsibility to respect the legitimacy of the outcome. And the country comes together. And that is what we are seeing today.’
There are elements of this statement that make you doubt the sincerity of the prime minister. Let us be both magnanimous and respectful and call it an exercise in wishful thinking. (Though I tend to subscribe to the theory that there is a touch of the mobster in May’s style – witness how she showed up in the House of Lords like a Sicilian gangster at a mob trial to ensure compliance from those uppity peers.)
The most outrageously galling sentiment comes at the end, in May’s sub-Churchillian rhetoric about the golden dawn we are now marching towards, united, hand-in-hand: ‘And let us do it not for ourselves, but for those who follow. For the country’s children and grandchildren too. So that when future generations look back at this time […] they will see that we shaped them a brighter future.’
If May really cared about this country’s youth, she could always take a look at how they actually voted. Of the 18-24 year olds who voted, a full 75 per cent voted to Remain.
How enraging must it feel to be young in Britain these days, knowing that an older generation has, at a stroke, deprived you of something you assumed had been your birthright? We do not have to guess – just grab one and ask. You will find them unsurprisingly forthright.
The Guardian did just that on the day after the vote. Erin Minogue, 17, summed up the horror of many of her generation thus: ‘My future is completely changed; I will not have the benefits my parents and their generation have had, such as freedom of movement between all EU countries. Mostly I am outraged that this decision, which reflects on the British people, has been made without my consent. The future already looks less bright for us and it is a future I did not have a say in shaping.’
Compare and contrast this sincerity with May’s sanctimony.
Then, after the verbiage, comes the substance. Or, at least, that is what normally happens in a white paper. In this instance, the verbiage was the substance.
What follows here, by way of detail, is nothing other than a demonstration of how much this government is floundering in the face of their new reality; to keep up the pretence that a positive Brexit is not just achievable, but achievable within a two-year timeframe.
In line with No 10’s well-established form for Animal Farm-esque sloganeering (‘Brexit means Brexit’, ‘the will of the British public’, and – a new low – ‘red, white and blue Brexit’), these dozen points, at first glance, give the distinct appearance of actual solidity. Yet upon examination (see box) they possess all the solidity and clarity of fog.
Some have argued that we should expect little else by way of detail at this early stage of the negotiations and it is perfectly reasonable for the government to set out a vague wishlist so as not to betray this closely-guarded poker hand they are playing.
Yet we are nine months beyond the vote, and this is the best they can come up with. That there was no plan before the vote is unforgivable. That this is the best we have got nearly three-quarters of a year later is laughable. What hope a fully-formed and negotiated exit from the EU – arguably the single most complex negotiation ever undertaken in human history – within two years?
Even if the starting point was that ‘united Britain’ May relentlessly lies about, this would be a monstrous ask. But we are not a united nation, neither in the real world nor in the fantasy soup of political doublethink that has become the House of Commons.
The papering over of the fissures within domestic politics, and the negation of the representative democracy that has served us so well for centuries, will not and cannot hold.
Both Conservative and Labour are riven with latent dissent about the catstrophic consequences of Brexit. As laughable as Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘the real fight starts now’ statement was, the truth is that there is an awfully long way to go before this white paper becomes anything of substance.
The sad part is this: the only thing we can be sure of as a nation, is that this white paper will ultimately fan the flames of an awful trauma we as a nation must now undergo, thanks to that arrogant and politically expedient gesture of David Cameron’s: the EU referendum of 23 June 2016.
Towards the end of the white paper comes a single, lone, sentence that gives an inkling of that trauma.
It is a sentence that addresses, almost as an afterthought, the highly possible scenario that we exit the EU without achieving a deal, whether from overshooting the strict two-year timeframe, or from having had parliament reject the negotiated terms.
Note the language of this sentence. Suddenly all the ambition, the influence, the sure prosperity, the golden walk towards May’s bright new dawn, is gone. Our future lies stripped bare: ‘We will ensure that our economic and other functions can continue, including by passi
ng legislation as necessary to mitigate the effects of failing to reach a deal.’
There you have it: our strategy for that entirely possible eventuality is a sentence more reminiscent of a palliative diagnostic for a terminally ill patient, overdosed on a poison of lies, wishful thinking and overpromises.
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