‘Tasking the Brexiters with managing Brexit was like asking the winners of a debating contest to engineer a spaceship’
It’s possible that Brexit — treated strictly as an intellectual concept — is a brilliant idea. However, it was sold with falsehoods and is now being mismanaged. To cite just a few Brexiter politicians: David Davis sketched a deal with the EU as simply a matter of a quick visit to Berlin; Daniel Hannan said that obviously the UK wouldn’t leave the European single market; and Nigel Farage predicted that other countries would follow Britain out of Europe. It hasn’t quite turned out like that. More than a year after the referendum, the cabinet still can’t agree on what kind of Brexit it wants, or when. The British state is steaming towards its third disaster in 15 years, after the Iraq war and the financial crisis. Like both previous disasters, Brexit reveals three enduring flaws in the UK’s workings.
The first flaw is running a country on rhetoric. Brexit was made about 30 years ago at the Oxford Union — Oxford university’s version of a children’s parliament, which organises witty debates, and where future Brexiters such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were presidents in the 1980s. In 1990, Hannan founded the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House on the city’s high street. This generation of mostly former public schoolboys didn’t want Brussels running Britain. That was their caste’s prerogative.
The referendum was won like a Union debate: with funny, almost substance-free hot air. Remember Johnson’s policy on cake: he was pro-having it, and pro-eating it. In Britain, humour is used to cut off conversations before they can get emotional, boring or technical.