As Westminster is consumed by Brexit chaos, one option is rising in popularity with the public: leaving the EU without an exit deal. At a recent BBC Question Time in Derby, the audience didn’t merely applaud they idea: they roared with approval and enthusiasm. Almost all experts agree that a no deal Brexit would be a calamity, causing huge disruption to daily life. So why would anyone welcome it?
Various explanations have been offered. Some have argued that people simply don’t understand the implications of ‘no deal’, assuming that it means all the important aspects of the status quo continue or even that it means remaining in the EU. As the maximum change option, ‘no deal’ could be seen as the greatest challenge to the miserable reality of a broken economy. Others point to the destructive allure of no deal—that its appeal lies precisely in the opportunity it presents to punish elites: ‘it may hurt us but it will hurt them more’. No doubt the truth is complex and multi-faceted, and each of these is to some extent in play. But something else is missing.
‘No deal’ is increasingly popular because of what it says about how we see ourselves as a nation. In his seminal work on nationalism, Benedict Anderson offered two insights that should shape how we think about the Brexit choices of today. First, that nations were, by definition, ‘imagined communities’: a socially-constructed fellow-feeling between people who had never met, and could and would never meet. This puts political story-telling at the heart of the national community. Second, that nation states were historically contingent, arising from specific socio-economic conditions emerging from the rise of capitalism and the decline of religion. The nation took the place of religion in providing an explanation for suffering and sacrifice, for contributing to something permanent, enduring, and greater than ourselves.
So, Brexit isn’t merely a political shock doctrine, or a technocratic renegotiation of our trade agreements, laws and regulations. Brexit is a new chapter in this national storytelling. And we can only understand it via deeper examination of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In the referendum, Leave campaigners sold a story that, for all its incoherence and inconsistency, had a simple narrative arc: ‘the life you are leading is not the one you expected and that is unjust. Outsiders – immigrants in Britain and bureaucrats in Brussels – are to blame for this; you and the country as a whole are victims; if we take back control from people who have taken it away from us, we can make it better again. And no matter what, you will matter more. You will have your self-respect and your dignity back.’
The story resonated because large parts of it were true. In 2016, the Remain campaign’s main message—‘don’t risk the economic recovery’—was a lie almost as large as the Brexiteers’ claim of £350m a week for the NHS. For outside London and the south east of England, in not a single English region nor Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, had output per person recovered to its pre-crisis peak. For many communities, the last four decades were a story of humiliation, acutely felt by those that bore the brunt of deindustrialisation. Brexit became a weapon to fight humiliation by destroying the hated status quo. The deceit at the heart of the Leave campaign was that Britain’s problems originated in Brussels rather than in Westminster. But with the Remain campaign led by the then prime minister and chancellor, it was impossible to counter with that truth. The status quo had failed because of the toxic combination of neoliberalism and austerity—but how could the inheritors and architects of those policies acknowledge their responsibility? The vote to Leave was a vote for change that made change itself more likely to occur but the right change much harder to achieve.
Just like the original vote to Leave, the strength of the ‘no deal’ story is not its facts but its feelings, not its statistics but its sentiments. What is the story of ‘no deal nation’? No deal nation is strong, steeled for the disruption of ‘no deal’. It is powerful to the point of petulance, defiant of the demands from Brussels. But above all, it is in control, unchained from European rules, whether a customs union or the backstop. It might be materially bad, but it damn well feels good. It offers hope of a future of pride and dignity. Fighting the idea of no deal nation with facts will not work: ‘hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopes for what he sees?’
The more that ‘no deal’ demands sacrifice, the more its popularity will grow: the higher the price, the greater the prize. No deal nation is bolstered by a fuzzy reading of history, self-soothing with stories of its past. It reassures itself: the last time we stood alone, Britain emerged in triumph and the Europeans in tragedy; we prospered before 1972 and will do so again. Do not imagine that the reality of a ‘no deal’ Brexit will change this: confirmation bias will kick in. The Brexit faithful will conclude that they have been punished by devious elites who never wanted to Leave and by European opponents who never had our interests at heart. Rather than undermining Brexit, the ‘no deal’ disaster would merely confirm their suspicion they were right to vote to Leave.
No matter that ‘no deal’ rests on Alice in Wonderland reasoning where the weakest imaginable negotiating position—outside the EU with no deals with any other countries—is claimed to be the strongest. It is the politics of dreaming. In such an arena, the reality of choices in the 21st century global economy never need be confronted. Who cares that the world is organised into three regulatory blocs—the European Union, the United States, and China—and a mid-sized European country like Britain will be forced to align to EU regulation with or without a deal? Tough choices in the real world can’t compete with dreams and have been unable to offer hope.
Lexiters are similarly seduced by their own imaginations: on the horizon of Brexit they see a land of pure socialism, unconstrained by rigid rules or burdensome bureaucracy. Located in the future, this utopia for tomorrow cannot be held to account by the reality of today. Yet it is built on similarly shaky foundations: an imaginary world where unconstrained by rules, other countries passively standby and allow their own businesses and workers to be undercut by British government subsidies without any response whatsoever. A ‘no deal’ Brexit might theoretically allow much greater state intervention in the economy (though the WTO itself contains rules on state aid) but other countries would simply respond with retaliatory tariffs. Moreover, Britain’s exit is being negotiated by a Conservative government, and so naturally reflects Conservative values and priorities, making Lexit an illusion. Lexiters should question the wisdom of embracing their opponents’ principal political demand in pursuit of a mirage or a dead end.
Opponents of ‘no deal’ need to toughen their arguments. No deal isn’t about strength, it’s about cowardice. It isn’t just turning our back on Europe, it’s turning our back on the world. It doesn’t simply mean walking away from the EU, it also means walking away from trade deals with 40 countries all across the globe. No deal is about a country in retreat: more Dunkirk than D-Day. No deal is the refuge of the weak and fearful not the arena of the strong and confident. It’s is not merely the first step on a slope that leads to irrelevance in the world; it’s a giant leap in that direction. First no deal, then no NATO, then no seat at the UN Security Council seat. Instead of explaining the consequences, opponents of crashing out should press ‘no deal’ enthusiasts for answers. Why are they on the same side as Putin and Trump? Why are they so weak on national security?
Should the young be forced to sacrifice their futures for the old? Or should the older generation be asked to set aside their misgivings about the EU so that younger people have more opportunities in the world. ‘Staying together for the sake of the kids’ might not be the most inspirational message, but it might speak to the lived experience of many and, crucially, ask something of them. Rather than framing the question about the faceless bureaucracy of the EU institutions, ask about whether we are prepared to sacrifice our allies in Europe when faced with a resurgent Russia. Did we really win the cold war to lose the peace? Are the victors of world war happy to handover the European continent to Germany and France, unconstrained by British influence? After centuries shaping the world of today, Britons are conditioned to think in geopolitical terms. It’s time for Remainers to tell a bigger story: of strength and sacrifice in a complicated world. And that doesn’t mean walking away, with our tail tucked between our legs, to sulk alone on our islands. It means having the strength and determination to succeed in the world as it really is.
Tom Kibasi is Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and founder of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice. He tweets @TomKibasi
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