Albion through the looking glass: Britain’s nervous breakdown

By on 01/02/2019
Britain is choosing from an unappetising menu at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – but if it can’t make a choice, people will go hungry (Image courtesy: Toronto Public Library (Osborne))

Magical thinking, perverse incentives and growing anger are pushing the UK ever closer to a No Deal exit from the EU, as the country’s political establishment suffers a bout of collective madness. All is not lost, says Matt Ross – but the risks are growing fast

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

Here in Brexit Britain, we do indeed see; and we are determinedly building that world.

When Lewis Carroll published Through the Looking Glass, putting those words in the mouth of its protagonist Alice, he can’t have known that he was depicting the Britain of 150 years hence. But in February 2019, it is clear that UK politics has taken a running jump down the rabbit hole.

The inversion of political gravity assumed a new clarity on Tuesday, when – having repeatedly insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) she’d spent two years brokering with the EU was the only one available – Prime Minister Theresa May caved to Brexiteers, backing an amendment from influential Tory MP Graham Brady.

Negotiate the deal – then wreck it

This requires the government to find “alternative arrangements” to replace the ‘backstop’: the plan to keep the UK aligned to the Customs Union, and Northern Ireland to aspects of the Single Market, if no trade deal has been agreed by the end of the ‘transition period’ following Britain’s exit from the EU. But it was the EU’s lack of faith in these “alternative arrangements” – generally described nebulously as “technological solutions” by Brexiteers, and as imaginary “unicorns” by those more familiar with contemporary border control systems – which led to the need for a backstop in the first place.

In the Tory party and tabloid press the Brady amendment was presented as a victory for May, giving her a mandate to re-open talks with the EU. But the reality is that the PM’s party has destroyed her deal and sent her back to Europe – where her only argument is that Parliament won’t pass her plan. To people on the Continent – the other side of the looking glass – it is obvious that she is returning not as a leader, but a hostage; and if she can’t swing a parliamentary majority behind a deal, what’s the point of talking to her?

Over the last couple of years, Britons have grown used to such inverted logic. After all, there is almost unanimous agreement that May’s deal would be worse for the UK than remaining in the EU. The WA would damage the economy and strip away Britain’s influence in Europe. And the UK would be unable to effectively broker new trade deals with third parties until the EU was content that future trading arrangements safeguarded the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland (ie. until those unicorns have been found). Yet the deal was, until Tuesday, government policy.

No positive arguments

Even May’s ministers (those which remain: almost as many have quit in the 20 months since the 2017 election as during Thatcher’s entire 138-month premiership) only attempted to defend her deal as the best available compromise which respected the ‘will of the people’. Outside Northern Ireland – which might enjoy some commercial advantages under the backstop – I have not found a single prominent politician, business person or sectoral expert who believes the WA would leave the UK in a better economic or diplomatic position than prior to the referendum. Yet until Tuesday, it remained the set position of the UK government to lead the country into a deal that it knew to be damaging and disadvantageous.

And the only obvious way to retain the status quo – to hold another referendum, winning a democratic mandate countermanding the first – is the hottest of political potatoes. Whilst Brexiteers use the 2016 poll result to push the country towards an ever-harder exit, they argue that holding another vote would be “undemocratic”: that when the people of 2016 exercised their sovereignty, they somehow robbed the people of 2019 of theirs. And then the Leavers – who regularly hark back to Churchill’s brave and uncompromising stand against fascism in the 1940s – warn that holding another vote would lead to trouble in the streets and drive up support for the far right.

So what have we learned?

That a deal forged to address the absence of technological solutions can only be rescued by recourse to technological solutions.

That revealing the PM’s weakness increases her strength in negotiations.

That it’s undemocratic to invite people to vote, and that they’d riot if asked their opinion.

That we deny the far right power and influence by doing what they want.

As the White Queen noted in Through the Looking Glass, “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Perverse incentives

To those on the other side of the looking glass, Britain’s political discourse offers little room for finding common ground. And whilst many MPs of all parties are genuine in their desire to avoid No Deal, key groups have powerful incentives to allow the March 29 leaving date to creep closer.

The 40-odd hard Brexiteers of the Tory European Reform Group do genuinely seem to believe that, following a brief period of discomfort, No Deal would carry the UK to the sunlit uplands of life as a free sovereign state, trading around the world. And the Brady amendment plays a highly political role here: if the EU won’t ditch the backstop, they calculate, the pain of a No Deal can be dumped on the Continent’s shoulders. So Brexiteers run down the clock.

Diehard Remainers, for their part, believe that if May’s faced with a choice between No Deal or a second referendum, she’ll opt for the latter. Her priority ever since becoming leader has been to hold together her fractured party, but either outcome would probably tear it apart; and May understands the chaos that would result from a disorderly exit. It is notable that, after the government properly researched how a No Deal exit would pan out, the PM dropped her “No Deal is better than a bad deal” rhetoric. And the closer Britain comes to leaving without a deal, the more likely it is that moderate MPs will coalesce around a new poll or a revocation of Article 50. So Remainers run down the clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and a longstanding ‘Lexiter’, is no fan of the EU. And whilst his members and MPs are strongly Remain, many Labour-held constituencies voted Leave: if he was seen as trying to block Brexit, the shift of working class voters to the Tories – evident in the 2017 election – would gather pace. But if the Tories can be left with the blame for a Brexit that every day appears still more damaging and disruptive, he’ll be well positioned to cash in at the next election. So Corbyn runs down the clock.

As for Theresa May, time pressure is about the only weapon she has left. Ever since she unveiled the WA, her strategy has been to scare people into backing her deal – the Brexiteers for fear of another referendum, and the Remainers for fear of No Deal. And whilst the Brady amendment weakens perceptions of her as a credible negotiating partner, it kicks the can a little further down the road: even if the EU gives her nothing of substance – and this is the consistent message from across the English Channel – then she can revert to Plan A, returning to the Commons with a dressed-up version of the WA. By that time, fears will have grown still higher on both sides – pushing more MPs towards her deal as the least worst outcome. So May runs down the clock.

‘You’re hurting my hand’: Theresa May meets President of the EU Council Donald Tusk

Tempers rising

Meanwhile, another dangerous factor creeps into the equation: emotion.

Brexit has always been built on emotion. One factor in Leave campaigners’ victory over the ‘experts’, the ‘establishment’ and the party leaders lay in their appeals to people’s sense of Britain as a proud, independent nation. And Remainers lost, in part, because they relied on facts, logic and expert opinion to make their case; these proved no match for gut instinct and half-baked ideas of British exceptionalism.

As the UK-EU talks have become more acrimonious, a narrative is growing amongst Brexiteers that the EU is being unreasonable: that it’s attempting to bully plucky little Britain. Stoked up by the tabloid press and unscrupulous Leavers, this is extraordinarily dangerous: if it continues to take hold, it will become ever more difficult for the government to come to any kind of a deal with the EU.

And across the Channel, national leaders, MEPs and European Commission negotiators – who have to date tried to conceal their irritation at the UK’s inability to forge a common position – are sounding ever more impatient. But every warning that Britain faces a No Deal, every insistence that the WA cannot be reopened, swings UK public opinion further behind the hard Brexiteers’ intransigent, we-stand-alone rallying cry.

The biggest SNAFU ever

So we have a UK discourse whose roots in political and economic realities are ever more tenuous. We have crucial groups whose incentives are to push Britain ever closer to the cliff edge, in the hope that things will break their way at the last moment. And we have growing anger and irritation on both sides of the Channel, raising the barriers to agreement.

As Global Government Forum has argued since November, Theresa May has a better chance of pulling off her deal – or something close to it – than conventional wisdom would suggest. An extension of Article 50 would probably be required, and the PM would need to show greater courage than she’s revealed to date; but the outcome she seeks looks no less likely than all the others. Lewis Carroll, again, has the words for it: “So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.” 

Yet the UK political system is suffering a collective nervous breakdown. And the country faces a huge and growing risk that the country’s Parliamentarians – who overwhelmingly see Brexit as bad for Britain, and No Deal as catastrophic – may deliver not only the first of these, but the second too. We may be about to produce incontrovertible evidence for the cock-up theory of history.

Let’s end with one more Carroll quote, this time from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

3 Comments

  1. Michael Rae

    04/02/2019 at

    I like your article. But I’ve never read ALice in Wonderland, and doubt if many people have, so it is a very obscure basis for your analysis. Is it perhaps required reading in English public schools?

  2. mike page

    04/02/2019 at

    Another remainer – nothing new or unbiased here.

    One referendum at a time please…

    The government has not actually enacted the Brexit referendum result – to leave the EU INCLUDING the Customs Union.
    Set up a negotiating group with that aim [what can possibly be the point of including remainers in this except to weaken the arguments – would a Trade Union go into negotiating wages with anyone who doesn’t believe a payrise, more holiday, or better work conditions is totally justified?]

    Time is not needed to come to a decision here – only logic and leadership – on both sides of EU [including Eire – the backstop and Irish border is, if not irrelevant, already decided – NO hard border] and the UK.
    Sooner or later the EU will realise that the UK is leaving the EU [in all its forms] to make its own decisions, and trade will continue or not on what both sides can agree on. Much of the £39 billion has to be held back unless actually owed for the UK having previously agreed to funding future projects.

    • Richard Humphreys

      05/02/2019 at

      Why should the UK fund future projects, agreed when a member, whilst access to past projects that the UK funded when a member is now to be denied to the UK? If the UK is to be excluded from the Galileo global navigation satellite system then the EU can fund its future projects itself as the UK can’t depend on the slippery EU to give it access to the results of those projects.

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