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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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The Brexiteers are right that this is a terrible proposal – but it’s entirely their fault

Published by The i Paper (16th July, 2018)

Alan Bennett started as a satirist but became a national treasure, a writer whose work is flecked with nostalgia yet still cuts through the nuances of modern England like few others. So his response when asked about Brexit on Andrew Marr’s BBC show was typically blunt. ‘What irritated me was how anybody could have thought with one bound we are free, which was really how it was sold. I thought that was nonsense at the time and it’s nonsense now.’

With typical precision, Bennett exposed the absurdities of Brexit. It was always ridiculous to claim a major economy could simply sever ties with its major trading partners after more than four decades meshed together, then float off serenely to snap up free trade deals with the rest of the planet. It was also very foolish in turbulent times, as shown again with Donald Trump’s disruptive visit to Europe. Yet this was the myth of taking back control, resulting in the mess of our divided nation.

The legacy of this tragic delusion is Theresa May trying to pick a path through the maze of European Union departure. A poor home secretary, she is out of her depth in Downing Street but diligently does her best. Having asked the electorate to back her blinkered political vision, voters responded with exquisite cruelty by returning a finely-poised parliament and leaving her propped up by a handful of hardliners from Northern Ireland. It remains difficult to see how any deal – hard, soft or slightly soggy – can get through Westminster’s warring tribes.

At least May has been forced finally to show leadership by putting flesh on ‘Brexit means Brexit’ bones, even if it is 16 months after foolishly triggering Article 50. The white paper issued after her Chequers cabinet showdown is a desperate document, filled with fallacies, fantasies and fudges. It proposes a bureaucratic morass that would have made Franz Kafka blush. But at heart it is an admission Britain will carry on adopting the Brussels rulebook to protect manufacturing firms while accepting EU competition, consumer, environment and state aid policies – alongside a hard Brexit for the services sector that dominates our economy.

This is a dismal stance for a once-proud land, effectively begging Brussels for a deal that weakens our economy so we can follow rules set by others. For all the tough talk of Tory loyalists, even these self-harming proposals are just another move in negotiations with 27 other nations. Bear in mind we have not yet begun the explosive immigration debate in detail, despite May’s rebranding of free movement as a ‘mobility framework’. There is a lot of Orwellian language manipulation to dupe voters in this torturous process of national humiliation.

Remember how Jacob Ress-Mogg, with all that carefully-contrived ‘authenticity’ so adored by his hard-right fan club, promised Brexit would be an epochal moment in British history. ‘This is Magna Carta, it’s the great reform bill, it’s the bill of rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy,’ he promised Tories at their conference last year. ‘We win all of these things.’ As with other Brexiteer promises, this was far from the truth. Instead this final splutter of colonial arrogance is more akin to the 1777 battle of Saratoga, when divided British commanders in north America dismissed their enemy as a rabble and ended up isolated, outnumbered and defeated, weakening their nation and changing global history.

Now the likes of Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage change tune as their nationalist dreams turn to dust. They bleat about betrayal and look to different chapters in our island story. May’s deal ‘recreates many of the worst aspects of the EU the British people voted to leave… ultimately it is the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200,’ tweeted Rees-Mogg. Meanwhile Labour’s Kate Hoey claimed the EU is despised as its president Donald Tusk ‘just doesn’t get democracy’ – imperiously ignoring how that particular Johnny Foreigner courageously risked his liberty to fight for freedom under Communism.

As ministers draw up contingency plans to stockpile food, health chiefs seek to protect medical supplies and firms look at shifting abroad if Brexit talks collapse, leading Brexiteers blame anyone but themselves for the appalling consequences of their costly actions. ‘This is no longer an argument about whether Brexit was a good idea but is about standing by the democratic decision made by the people,’ claimed Priti Patel. She was, of course, fired from the cabinet in disgrace over dodgy diplomacy rather than flouncing out like Johnson when the terrain got tough.

These self-serving charlatans talk of democracy yet refuse to sanction compromise with differing views. So let them face the facts. Yes, they are right: May is proposing a dreadful deal. They are right that it weakens Britain, subjecting us to vassal status as rule-takers while wrapping us in extra red tape. They are right ‘the Brexit dream is dying,’ as bemoaned by Johnson. Above all, they are right that this is not taking back control; it is the precise opposite, leaving us less power to shape our destiny.

Yet these Brexiteers, posing as anti-establishment rebels, are wrong in one key aspect: this proposed blueprint is the predictable consequence of their foolish actions. Any deal is better than no deal, but all corrode national interests. Brexit means Britain will go from semi-detached membership of the European Union, shaping its future but avoiding the euro, to outsider status with face pressed against the Brussels window as our global authority slides. The day of reckoning is dawning fast – but even Bennett’s brilliance would struggle to do justice to some of these slippery characters as dark farce descends on our land.

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