It may sound very strange for a Remainer to say that I think hard Brexit has become necessary. But that’s where I think we might now be.
Despite a terrible, shambolic set of negotiations so far by Theresa May and her cohorts; despite forecasts of economic doom, particularly for the North East and the Midlands, for all possible Brexit scenarios; in spite of everything, public opinion has not really moved on Brexit. We’re about 50-50 on the subject as a nation, still. If there was another referendum on EU membership for some reason, it could go any which way, and I certainly wouldn’t bank on a vote for Remain, not by a long shot.
Like many Remainers in the wake of the June 2016 vote, I drifted towards the idea that a soft Brexit was the best option from where we found ourselves post-referendum. That staying in the Single Market if we could, but at the very least the Customs Union was the best plan. I’m far less sure of that now. The Brexiteers do have a point when they say that being in the Customs Union would reduce Britain to being a vassal state – all rule taking and no rule making. I realise the logical answer to all this is just staying in the EU where we can have a say in the rules, but that’s not the point. Recall that pre-referendum Remainers were saying that being in the SM and/or CU without being in the EU was the “worst of all possible worlds”? There’s still something in that.
But my biggest fear about a soft Brexit is that it won’t solve anything. We’ll be in a worse state than we are now, that’s almost certain – but the Remainers will say it is because we left the EU, and the Brexiteers will say it’s because we didn’t leave the EU nearly enough. The culture war around this will almost certainly deepen.
A hard Brexit will at the very least result in a definitive answer to the cultural war in a way that nothing else can. I happen to think a hard Brexit will be a total disaster, probably much worse than the very worst forecasts of it suggest. Given that, some of you might say, “well that’s easy for you to say given you live in London which will be least affected. What about people in the North East and the Midlands?” To which I would retort that the North East and the Midlands voted for Brexit. Yes, I know they almost certainly did so unwittingly against their own economic interests, but democracy isn’t “get what you vote for, unless you’re wrong and then we’ll fudge it for you from there”. I’m sorry that those areas will suffer, but such is the price of democracy.
If it’s a total disaster, we’ll be back in the EU in probably five years or less. If it goes all right, then at least economically speaking we Remainers were wrong. Either way, the cultural rift that’s getting nasty in Britain can start to heal. Remainers want that rift to close without having to go through the pain; to undo the referendum result without undoing democracy. Sadly, I no longer think that’s possible.
If you are shaking your head at me right now, consider the political terrain as it stands. We have a prime minister who, whatever her preference for soft Brexit, and her actions speak to that to a large degree, she is being held to ransom by the hard Brexiteers in her party. If she doesn’t deliver what they want, they will install someone who will. The room for fudging on this is also nearly at an end. We have a leader of the opposition who is commited to hard Brexit himself, and proved this is so by both his words and his actions. The Lib Dems, the only nationwide party opposed to Brexit, is languishing below double digit figures in the polls because it is obsessed with electoral reform and weed and is putting all of its energy into winning back a left-wing crowd that will never return. Unless there is a massive rupture within both of the two major parties, a coming together of Remainers to halt the process, then I don’t see how Brexit can be avoided. Maybe that will happen – if so, great. But given the price of doing so is very high for the participants, I still very much doubt it will. In that case, again, perhaps we need to face up to the idea that hard Brexit has, tragically, become necessary.