Content Block

Society 28/03/2017

Article 50 has arrived, and now is the time to get real

We shouldn’t shy from the fact that Brexit negotiations will be nasty, brutish and long

Here it is, then. Le Grand Depart. Die große Abfahrt. El Quitico. Potentially the single greatest act of unnecessary self-harm the UK has engaged in since the BBC agreed to co-produce Mrs Brown’s Boys.

It would be nice, encouraging even, to imagine that everyone who voted Brexit was invested in re-igniting what Michael Gove recently described as Britain’s “global, maritime, buccaneering, individualistic, liberal destiny”. At least that delusion is optimistic. But the far more nihilistic Brexit viewpoint, that of Leave.EU, of Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks et al, is the one that still sets the mood.

This is tied not to a vision of Britain embracing the world, the excitement of the digital, interlinked, multipolar yada yada, but rather a Britain raging against its perceived decline (one Brexiter told the BBC this week that the country had been going downhill since Britain withdrew from India in 1947).

Hence the insatiable anger. It’s the reason why UKIP can’t hold it together for more than five minutes. Nothing on Earth can sustain itself on such relentless negativity. In spite of the belief that the rage can nourish it, UKIP ends up eating itself. Its continual failure in general and by-elections (and its punishment of the few who win elections for them) point not just to the lack of a meaningful policy platform, but its outright aversion to anything approaching a policy platform.

To acknowledge any sort of complexity, or imagine any sort of difficulty in what will clearly be a difficult process, is to distract from the main task, which is to continue convincing the world that this was a good idea, that this is what you wanted in the first place, rather than what you believed to be an unobtainable transitional demand. That you did the right thing, regardless of the consequences, and if there are consequences, they are the fault of everyone else but those who chose it.

As this continues to be the tone in which Brexit is discussed, one almost feels a certain sympathy for the government – or at very least feels glad not to be a member of the government, dealing with Remainers who never wanted this in the first place and Brexiters for whom what you do will never be enough.

The likes of Farage, free as ever from the constraints of responsibility, insist that Britain will get a brilliant deal from Europe, refusing to mention what they know deep down: that it is not in the interests of the European Union to make things easy for the UK.

Article 50 has been triggered, and it’s too late to change that. But how we react to what follows could be just as important for the nation’s health as the 23 June vote itself.

The injury is self-inflicted, but survivable. Breaking your leg is not normally fatal, but that’s not a good reason to break your leg.

Meanwhile there needs to be acknowledgement on all sides that the negotiations will be nasty, brutish and long.

Allowing the delusional Weltanschauung of Brexit extremists to dictate the national debate will only mean one thing: no matter what deal Theresa May, David Davis et al reach, they will be met with a rancour that could poison Britain for a generation. That may be perfectly fine for plastic patriots who know only bile, but it will be a disaster for the rest of us. It's time for moderates on all sides to take the field and start talking about the country's future. 

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms. He is Director of Editorial at 89up and has written and ghostwritten for The Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Observer, The Irish Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Sun, and The Irish Post.