There is a paradox. Why, as the evidence that a no-deal exit will do serious and lasting damage to the United Kingdom has become stronger, do the advocates of Brexit increasingly assert that a “clean break” no-deal departure is the only way forward, and the only real way to deliver on the 2016 referendum result? The answer is that this is a logical consequence of the political psychology of Brexit, argues Nick Westcott (SOAS).
There are two elements to the conundrum that while the evidence of the damaging effects of a no-deal exit grows, so does the fervour of its advocates among Brexiteers.
Firstly, many of those who voted for Brexit in 2016 did not do so because they had particularly strong views on the European Union. On the contrary, though some certainly did, many of them voted against it because they knew little and cared less about it. Because it did not matter to them, they felt no loss and little risk in saying goodbye to the EU. Voting Leave was a way to register a protest against the metropolitan elite that were doing very nicely thank you out of globalisation and which spared not a thought for those who felt the prosperity and benefits passed them by, for those left behind. What they wanted was to be noticed. That meant that their voice should be heard, and the decision to leave the EU, whatever its merits, simply be implemented. The real-life consequences are irrelevant: the important thing is that they are heard and their decision to Leave is respected.
Secondly, as the time has drifted by and it has proven difficult to leave, as the evidence mounts that leaving the EU will do damage to the economy, to Britain’s security, and to the political solidity of the United Kingdom itself, Leavers have become increasingly committed to the goal of leaving because they have invested so much of themselves in it. It is now how they define themselves and their self-validation depends increasingly on achieving it. The same applies inversely to Remainers. The fact that Leavers are increasingly willing to pay any price, bear any political cost, is a logical consequence of the reason they voted to Leave. As we have seen from recent opinion polls, a majority of Tory Party members are willing to contemplate lower-income, job losses and the break-up of the United Kingdom in order to achieve their objective. They are now so invested in the objective of leaving as their fundamental political belief that nothing will satisfy them but a dramatic and complete rupture with the existing order.
This may not appear “rational” in traditional political or economic terms. But it is powerfully rational in terms of the political psychology of Brexit. An extreme historical case of this kind of psychology was recently documented by Florian Huber in his book Promise me you’ll shoot yourself (Allen Lane, 2019). The increasingly desperate faith of some Germans in the Nazi project, even as it was obviously failing disastrously and ruining their country, drove unprecedented numbers to suicide. We are far from that. But the psychology is the same. Brexit is already proving a failure before it has even officially begun.
I have said before that Brexit is like a political Ponzi scheme. It was a political movement that promised impossible returns: a swift, painless, problem-free departure from the EU. The fact that it is now obvious this is not the case does not lead them to change their mind, but to double down on the concept. When you have all your capital (political as much as financial) invested in a Ponzi scheme, you cannot accept that it is fraudulent, as then you lose everything. You have to persuade, or force, others to believe it is still a valid investment, in order to preserve your capital. You cannot take it out, so you want others to carry on paying in.
Some Brexiteers still believe a no-deal exit will deliver the fantasy Brexit they were promised: “with one bound, they were free…” Even for those who don’t, rather than change their view on Brexit, they adjust their expectations: “we’ve dealt with worse problems than this in the past. Things will be tough for a while, but we’ll be free to make our own decisions, and British grit and ingenuity will see us through.” Or words to that effect. The trouble is no Ponzi scheme can last. They will always go bust. The question is what will it bring down with it?
That depends how big it has been allowed to become. Boris Johnson has been relentlessly pumping it up, allowing the scheme to get bigger and bigger, keeping the fantasy not only alive, but bigger and more ambitious than ever, as he is convinced (with reason) this is the way to the heart of Tory Party members.
But the Prime Minister-select is fooling himself and his selectorate if he believes he can negotiate a better deal for departure than his predecessor that might find a majority in the Commons, when he has promised that in the absence of a deal he will leave with no deal on 31 October. He must know that there are sufficient die-hards in the Conservative Party who want a no-deal exit to scupper any re-negotiated deal that is anything less than a complete surrender by the EU, or a de facto no-deal exit. So he has effectively committed himself to the latter. Theresa May thought she could force them into supporting her deal, and failed. Johnson has no more chance of success.
The problem for the UK is that its government now faces a stark choice: to go ahead with a no-deal Brexit, which will (1) undermine our Parliamentary democracy; (2) undermine the integrity of the Union and the Northern Irish peace process; (3) have disastrous consequences for the economy, gravely exacerbating the political problems; and (4) leave a large and very angry part of the population who did not want a no-deal exit, even if it can be wangled through, or around, Parliament.
Or to suspend the Article 50 letter and put off Brexit indefinitely. There are no other options. The latter will also create a political crisis with accusations from factions in Parliament, echoed by large parts of the media, that Parliament has “betrayed the people” in failing to deliver Brexit, that it is untrustworthy and should be subordinated to an authority that will respect the will of the people as revealed in the referendum result. Like all good populists, Johnson will then seek someone else to blame. It may be Parliament (a ploy Theresa May ill-advisedly tried); it may be the “metropolitan elite” that spawned him, but which he will think nothing of betraying; it may even be the EU itself, or the Irish, or the French? Anyone will do, as long as it is not him and the Brexiteers themselves.
How did we get here?
This is the direct consequence of Theresa May. She clearly had no comprehension of the revolution that David Cameron’s ill-fated decision to call a referendum had precipitated, or of the political dynamic now underlying Brexit, either in her own party or in the country. So she naively spelt out a series of hard Brexit red lines and rushed into Article 50 without any attempt to think through the consequences. Her mantra, repeated over and over again even after it was obvious that it was patently untrue, that no deal was better than a bad deal and that the UK would leave come what may on 29 March, was a gift to the hard Brexiteers who were seeking a no-deal Brexit. Rather than defining success differently, she played entirely into their hands and gave them all the ideological justification they could need to reject any deal she came back with, all with the intention, it seems, of keeping a hopelessly divided Tory Party together.
Some might wonder why we have heard so little from Nigel Farage lately. This is rare. But it is entirely understandable, and wholly calculated. He needs to say nothing at all, as everything is going his way. Whichever path is chosen by the government, it will weaken the legitimacy of Parliament and leave a large group of very disgruntled people, who will be fodder for a populist revolution. No-one should have any illusions that Farage wants to become Prime Minister through a democratic election. He seeks power by any and whatever means. To establish the sanctity of referendums over Parliament, combined with a widespread feeling of betrayal and a fanatical, almost Leninist, group of Brexiteers in Parliament, is a perfect outcome for him. If we are not careful, the English state will fall into his lap through the successive political incompetence of Cameron, May and Johnson.
The irony in all this is that, far from saving the Tories from Farage’s Brexit Party, Boris Johnson will deliver it into his hands. And we will all pay the price.
Dr Nicholas Westcott is Research Associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS.