I suspect on occasion, solitary moments in bed or on journeys, the leading Brexiteers must have moments of doubt. The leading Brexiteers, whether journalist, politician, strategist, funder, or equivalent, contributed towards the difference in the narrow victory of the Leave campaign. But perhaps they nonetheless ponder: what if Brexit is wrong for Britain? What if I was wrong in my certainty about the benefits of leaving the EU? What if I was part of a campaign of misinformation, manipulated by external and malign influence?
If they have these moments of doubt, they do not show them. Rather, as time passes in the Brexit process, leading Brexiteers increasingly embody the “passionate intensity” W.B. Yeats warned about. Instead of showing a humility in victory that acknowledges the challenges of Brexit, they double down in their self-belief and disregard for warnings or challenging perspectives. Any report that comes out warning of the potential dangers of Brexit — job losses, inflation, decrease in trade — are summarily dismissed as naïve, negative, irrelevant. The produce of a downtrodden and embittered elite who can no longer represent the people. It is so simple to leave the EU, just get on and leave it.
A comforting narrative has been built up by leading Brexiteers about Brexit and how Leave won. Rather than it being about a multitude of interrelated factors — the more effective Leave campaign; fears about immigration; fears about declining wages; a long-term decline of trust in politicians and liberal democracy; an anti-EU press — Brexit is attributable to one factor: the desire of the British people to strengthen these holy isle’s democracy. Anyone who challenges this idea is part of the problem.
David Hume’s Enquiry into Human Understanding, which I read in full for the first time recently, summarises that the key marker of an intelligent mind is not merely what one thinks, but how one thinks: “In general there is a degree of doubt, caution, and modesty, which in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.” Doubt, caution, modesty. These traits are in short supply with a leading Brexiteer. To describe them as being ‘eurosceptic’ would be to attribute them with a scepticism they so dearly lack. There is none of the proportioning of belief to evidence which Hume also advises. To hold a position with such certainty that Britain will definitely be better off because of Brexit, despite its laws being so intertwined with the EU for the last 40 years, is quite something. To dismiss out of hand the perspective of experienced personnel whose careers have been based in UK or EU governance, is really quite brave. For the leading Brexiteer, belief in the liberating potential of Brexit is no longer a standard political position, it is an article of faith, bound up with their identity; for the likes of Daniel Hannan the vote for Brexit is a culmination of his life’s work.
But to suggest that the leading Brexiteers are dim-witted fantasists is to do them a disservice that underestimates their intelligence. They deploy certain tactics and hold certain beliefs that resemble the mindset of the fascist if not in substance, then at least in outline. Central to the leading Brexiteer belief is the fundamental trope of the demagogic populist: there is a problem in the country and my solution alone will solve it. I alone truly understand and can represent the will of the people. They harness legitimation from a wafer-thin, complex democratic vote to claim a mandate that is without precedent in this country. Either they know this is fundamentally dishonest, or they are being cynical. Whatever the intention, it is a political strategy that has no place in a liberal democracy.
There are various problems in liberal democracy, with uneven benefits from globalisation and entrenched inequality. Nuanced analysis might be less awe-inspiring than the promise of Brexit, but it’s likely to be more beneficial than the narrow nationalism of the leading Brexiteer. Their nationalism seeks to monopolise one definition of patriotism: Britain as a strong independent nation, whose greatness is held back by shackling itself to one continent. If you talk Britain down or question it during these talks, you let your country down, you betray our country. If you suggest Britain won’t flourish post Brexit, then you are with them, not us. It is a nostalgic nationalism that exposes the insecurity they have with human will being unable to stop global forces and the churn of history changing the role of Britain.
The propaganda of the leading Brexiteer is so manipulative it’s almost impressive. In the face of any kind of balance or specificity, the stock reply to hard questions given in the campaign is recycled now: it doesn’t matter, we can just ‘take back control’. Don’t you worry, #ProjectFear gets it all wrong. It will be all be ok #DespiteBrexit. We will get £350 million and take it from the Eurocrats and give it back to ‘our’ NHS. £350 million. A figure so easy for a voter to commit to long-term memory. Their sloganeering, while brilliantly effective, is the output of those unburdened by responsibility or the realities of complexity.
Then there are the scapegoats who are ultimately to blame for the causes of Brexit, who are now being blamed on any Brexit misstep and are lined up waiting in the wings to be trotted out if things go wrong. The scapegoats are a nefarious, broad group, but the terms have enough resonance so they can be used and understood by the wider public; the key feature of a stereotype. The metropolitan elite ignored the ‘ordinary’ worker. Experts talked our country down. The establishment, whether in the form of EU or government officials, are bungling the process to frustrate our democratic vote. All collude to deny the will of the people. The rot must be gotten rid of, so the potential of Brexit can be truly realised.
Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, Thomas Jefferson warned. Conjuring up the term fascistic to describe the mindset of people who have good intentions should not be done without caution. But the mindset of the leading Brexiteer has manipulated Britain and debased political debate. This should alarm anyone who cares about Britain’s democracy.