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Brextremism Is Hard

British prime minister Theresa May (Reuters photo: Francois Lenoir)

The way things are going with the Brexit “process” (to give that shambles a kinder name than it deserves), the U.K. is looking at a choice between two alternative forms of Brexit. The first is a version of Theresa May’s already humiliating “Chequers” proposal, watered down in a manner that will make the U.K. even more subservient to Brussels than May is already suggesting. The second is (essentially) a hard Brexit, or if you prefer euphemisms, the mirage better known as the “WTO option.” The infinitely better alternative remains, as it always has done, the . . . (wait for it) . . . Norway option. This still continues to be something that May has rejected, whether through cowardice, ignorance or a basic lack of political imagination remains a little unclear.

One reason, however, for May’s stance is the power that the Tories’ fragile parliamentary position has given to a  gaggle of ultra-Brexiteers, mainly clustered within the “European Research Group,” a poorly named (as I am not the first to observe, the European Research Group does not appear to have done much research) collection of Tory MPs, of whom the most prominent is Jacob Rees-Mogg, a charming and clever man, whose behavior in this matter is a daily reminder that erudition and commonsense do not necessarily go together, something that has been well-known in Britain since at least the days of King James I, “the wisest fool in Christendom,” as he was unkindly, if accurately known.

In a speech in Cambridge (England), Sir Ivan Rogers, who was the U.K.’s “Permanent Representative” to the EU until 2017 (and, yes, something of a europhile), had this to say both about the way the convictions of the hard Brexiteers have — if this is the word — evolved and the key contradiction inherent within their position.

The whole speech (not all of which I agree with) is a must-read, but for now I’d focus on that contradiction and that Darwin-disappointing “evolution.”

First, the contradiction:

[There was] the curious paradox of those who believed that the EU had inserted itself into virtually every nook and cranny of the country’s social and economic life — a proposition with which I would also rather agree — also believing that all these strings could be cut extremely rapidly, and that nothing would go awry for the UK.

Quite.

And then on that “evolution” (my emphasis added):

As tends to happen in revolutions, the ambitions for the hardness, cleanness, abruptness of Brexit have now risen well beyond the stated ambitions of the vast bulk of Brexit supporters at and after the time David Cameron committed to an in-out referendum. Avowed long standing supporters of Brexit regularly used to trumpet ideas of ongoing Single Market participation and deals close to those of Norway and Switzerland and did so, arguing, correctly, that these would liberate the UK from a sizeable proportion of the legal acquis to which it was subject by membership. But as Brexit radicalised, former proponents abandoned these options and increasingly loudly declared all other versions of Brexit a betrayal of the manifest “will of the people”. Of which of course, only they were the true interpreters.

Indeed they did.

On the question of the will of the people, a team from King’s College London has updated an earlier (very detailed) survey. The conclusions are, well, interesting (KCL’s emphasis):

In our 2017 survey, the most popular choice was EEA membership (similar to a Norway-like deal), with 38 per cent selecting a package of options amounting to this type of arrangement. Among those with whom we repeated our survey this year, the level of support for this option has increased to 43 per cent. The EEA option has therefore grown in popularity. This was established by presenting people with a choice of four unlabeled options described by their key attributes only: remaining in the EU; joining the EEA [Norway]; remaining in the customs union but not the rest of the single market; and no deal, falling back on the rules of the WTO.

As a reminder, the referendum (which, strictly speaking — and this matters — was only advisory) was won by a fairly narrow 52-48 majority. Under the circumstances, it is not only logical, but politically prudent, particularly given the bitterness of the referendum’s aftermath, to go for a solution that aims at that most British of things, a compromise. What that ought to mean is that (1) the U.K. leaves the EU — and leaves it properly — (“Norway” delivers that), but (2) there is more flexibility about the manner of leaving. Ideally Brexit should not only involve the minimum of economic disruption (“Norway” delivers that) but also goes some way to take some of the sting out of Britain’s current destructive political debate (“Norway” is the best chance of achieving that).

According to KCL, 88 percent of Remain voters opted for either the EEA or Remain options. What’s more, 34 percent of Leave voters opted for “Norway,” up from 24 percent in 2017, not a  bad total given the way that both May and the ultra-Brexiteers have consistently misrepresented what “Norway” would mean in the 2+ years since the referendum. It’s also worth noting that, according to KCL, “52 per cent of respondents now say they would vote Remain in a referendum, up from 48 per cent in [the] 2017 study and the actual 2016 referendum.” Making a mess of Brexit is proving to be Brexit’s worst enemy in more ways  than one.

It’s true that some Remainers will only see “Norway” as a least bad option, but for most, I’d guess, it would be good enough — or maybe even better than that. One of the most striking aspects of pro-EU sentiment before the referendum was just how lukewarm it was. There was no great love for the EU (let alone its post-democratic project) but there were genuine fears about what leaving it might mean. Turn away from “Norway” and many more of those fears will turn out to be justified than hard Brexiteers appear to imagine.

And Americans need to care about this. A chaotic and/or economically damaging Brexit will, after the next election, hand control of the British government to a hard leftist Labour party that, despite some honeyed words, is deeply opposed to the Atlantic Alliance and everything it represents.

It won’t just be Britons who will be cursing Rees-Mogg and those he has gathered around him.

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