The Brexit fanatics go for broke. This is their chance of counter-revolution
No compromise may look crazy to many, but the hard-Brexiters’ aim is to cause chaos
Likerevolutions, counterrevolutions abhor compromise. “Citizens,” cried Maximilien Robespierre in 1792, as he prepared the French for a reign of terror, “did you want a revolution without revolution?” Tories should be “unafraid to go forward without an agreement”, echoed Steve Baker, the Robespierre of the English right last week. We cannot tolerate “a half-in, half-out Brexit”.
Boris Johnson agreed. All that is needed to make his impossible promises possible was a Riefenstahlian triumph of the will. “Go in bloody hard”, cause “all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos”, said Johnson and the purifying fire would consume the EU’s resistance.
To outsiders, whose number include many who voted to leave, their fanaticism is incomprehensible. From a rightwing point of view, now is the time for half measures. Remainers’ small but distinct chance of forcing a second referendum may depend on the Tory right and the Democratic Unionist party. Either they exert such pressure on May she has no choice but to crash out of the EU without an agreement or they vote down her deal when it comes before parliament. A “people’s vote” to break the deadlock will then be their fault and their responsibility. They will not be able to blame the “Remoaning” elite. Their own extremism will have reopened a question they wanted to keep closed.
The Labour leadership’s fainter hopes of forcing an early general election also depend on the European Research Group destroying May’s government. The feeling among Scottish nationalists and Irish republicans, that a hard Brexit will make union with an England that no longer cares about how the nations of the UK voted ever less attractive, is once more a product of the right’s determination to inflict the most damaging Brexit imaginable on these islands. From a purely party interest, a no-deal Brexit, or one that cuts British business off from its largest market, will destroy the Tories’ unearned reputation for economic competence and further alienate the young and the professional middle classes whose votes the Conservative party will need one day.
A people’s vote, a Labour government with Marxists at the top, a threat to the union – everything conservatives once abhorred – are being brought closer by the tactics of the Conservative right. You can understand their determination to push Brexit to the limits only when you grasp that, to its promoters, Brexit is the best and only chance they have to launch a counter-revolution.
They have hardly made a secret of their ambitions to reverse protections for workers. “The weight of employment regulation is now backbreaking: the collective redundancies directive, the atypical workers directive, the working time directive and a thousand more,” said Johnson in 2014. Liam Fox told the Financial Times in 2012 it was “unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable”. Jacob Rees-Mogg said he could not “support all the employment rights that come from Europe”. David Davis, John Redwood and the older Brexit crew were against the social chapter from the moment of its inception. Meanwhile, Andrea Leadsom outbid them all when she dreamed of a future when there was “absolutely no regulation whatsoever – no minimum wage, no maternity or paternity rights, no unfair dismissal rights, no pension rights – for the smallest companies that are trying to get off the ground”.
Leaving the EU can make their dreams come true, as Davis came close to admitting in 2016 when he told a City audience that his “alternative strategy” was to compete with the EU by offering “lower tax, softer regulation and other strong business incentives”. It is not coincidental that so many of the loudest supporters of Brexit are against gay rights: “As a Christian, I am well aware of the biblical view of marriage and I support it,” said Steve Baker. Gay Labour MPs were “bent” said Arron Banks, while Peter Bone opined that “gay marriage was ‘completely nuts’”. Women’s rights are treated with the same disdain. Nadine Dorries brought forward an amendment that would have stripped abortion providers of their role in counselling women: Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson supported her.
It is not a coincidence either that the leaders of the Brexit backlash insist we deny what is in front of our eyes. Paterson yawned and said: “We should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries” when he was environment secretary. In apparent seriousness, Redwood added that scientists who warned about climate change “revealed an ignorance of the way science works”.
The original sin of the authors of Brexit was to refuse to admit that it must either bring a shuddering dislocation as Britain tore itself out of an integrated European economy or turn Britain into an EU vassal state that obeyed EU rules but had no say in their formulation.
The greater dishonesty was that the EU referendum was never just about the EU. It was a howl of rage from Thatcherites, who cannot accept that their ideology failed, from the old against the young, and from all who could not make their peace with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the environment science of the 1980s and the multiculturalism of the 2000s. Their leaders see the chance to abolish a modern world they neither like nor comprehend. Hence their fanaticism. Hence their determination to go for broke and tolerate no compromises.
Men and women whose views I respect are warning that a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal could backfire. It might tear the country apart or produce another narrow result that achieves nothing beyond a further poisoning of the public sphere. I have no idea if they are right, but then they don’t either. With so much at stake, however, I know this: it’s worth a try.
Andrea Leadsom dreamed of a future with ‘absolutely no regulation whatsoever’
Andrea Leadsom: ‘No minimum wage, no unfair dismissal rights, no pension rights…’