The revelation that Dominic Raab had not until now “quite understood”
the UK’s reliance on the Dover-Calais crossing for goods trade between the UK and the EU has attracted widespread criticism and understandable mockery. It is indeed shocking that the Cabinet Minister in charge of Brexit should only now grasp something so basic to his brief. Yet it is not surprising. It is part of a pattern of ignorance for which there is plenty of evidence – including Raab’s own bemusement
(prior to his current role, but after years of campaigning for hard Brexit) that leaving the customs union would increase bureaucracy.
It would be wrong to single out Raab. Scratch the surface of just about any prominent Brexiter and the same kinds of ignorance are revealed. It’s perfectly understandable and reasonable that no one, on any side of the debate, has anything like a comprehensive knowledge of Brexit and its effects – it is just too huge and hydra-headed a phenomenon for that to be possible. But it’s not at all unreasonable to expect politicians – who, after all, have access to numerous resources, including the excellent House of Commons Library briefings
– to understand the core, basic issues of what they argue for. Especially when that is so fundamental and total a shift in national history as Brexit.
That they do not have such an understanding has been revealed time and time again. Sometimes it is ludicrous, as with the revelation that convinced Brexiter MP Nadine Dorries was asking as recently as last January what a Customs Union was
and, when it was explained, opined that as it sounded complicated that confirmed that Britain should leave. Or the belief of another Ultra, Andrew Bridgen, that English people are entitled to Irish passports
. Or the mistaken claim
, made by just about every pro-Brexit MP, but let’s take John Redwood as an example
, that the UK currently conducts its non-EU trade on WTO terms. It would be possible to fill a book – and no doubt, one day, someone will – of such nonsenses.
At least Dorries, Bridgen and Redwood have never had any responsibility for delivery (though that isn’t to say they don’t influence it). Unlike David Davis who believed
that post-Brexit the UK could negotiate trade deals with individual EU member states. That was a particularly egregious error given that one of the Brexiters’ most fervent complaints is that membership of the EU Common Commercial Policy precludes Britain, as a member state, from doing such deals.
Almost worse than outright ignorance is the lofty deployment – Rees-Mogg is a particular specialist - of supposedly technical arguments, almost invariably on the basis of semi-digested factoids
, or half-truths, or selective quotations, or just plain errors. Examples include periodically recurring claims that ‘an EU Report’ has shown how there can be a soft border in Ireland (it’s not an EU Report and it doesn’t show that), or that there is a frictionless border between the USA and Canada, or Switzerland and France (there isn’t, in either case). Again, there's a book to be filled of similar examples.
To repeat, the fault here is not making errors – we all do that, myself certainly included – it is regurgitating them endlessly even when the errors are corrected. It should also be said that there are plenty on the Remain side who are guilty of the same thing, and that it is not confined to Tory politicians (Labour’s repeated claim that a Customs Union with the EU would solve the Irish border issue is an especially gross example, as is Jeremy Corbyn’s mistaken claim
that it is impossible to be in the single market if not a member of the EU but that it is
possible to ‘retain the benefits’). The difference, though, at least as regards remainers, is that the policy the UK is pursuing is that of the Brexit, so the onus is on Brexiters to get their facts right.
Of course there is nothing new in any of this – many of these points have been made before on this blog, and also by many other people apart from me. But they are worth repeating because we are now hurtling towards what is very possibly going to be the point of no return. It seems increasingly likely that there will be a Withdrawal Agreement within the next few days, and it is going to be put forward by politicians, some or most of whom are ignorant of basic facts, to be voted on by other politicians who are similarly ignorant. Even in these dog days of the negotiations, Brexiter Cabinet ministers – Raab, again, and Liam Fox – are talking of the Northern Ireland backstop as being something which could be time-limited
or unilaterally revocable
by the UK, neither of which can, by definition of a backstop, be true.
What is also important – and perhaps crucial to what has unfolded - is that the entire impetus for the Brexit project is predicated not just upon ignorance of, but an absolute refusal to engage with, the complex practicalities of Brexit. After all, it might have been expected that those who have schemed, dreamed and campaigned – sometimes for decades – for Brexit would be falling over themselves in a rapture to have the chance to put it into practice.
Not a bit of it. Those who support Brexit most strongly are far happier standing outside the delivery process rather than taking responsibility for it. That is clear in the way that Boris Johnson prefers to act as if he is still campaigning for Brexit
rather than stay in the government delivering it, and why several other Brexiters – perhaps more principled than Johnson, although that is not to put them in a vanishingly small minority – such asSteve Baker
prefer the pleasures of purity to the dull compromises of governing. It is most bizarrely evident in David Davis’ criticism today of the Government’s Brexit negotiating strategy: he was responsible for it until last summer
So we have a strange and, to the best of my knowledge, unprecedented situation. A group of people who are passionate and uncompromising advocates of a fundamental economic and geo-political shift for a nation don’t actually know much about what it means in practice, and have very little interest in delivering it. It is political irresponsibility on a wanton, scandalous scale.
Ironically, though, it is just this ignorance and irresponsibility that is one of the things Theresa May will gamble on in what I suspect we will see next week: an attempt to play on the fact that her MPs don’t really grasp or care enough about the detail to get her deal through. If that’s right – and, if so, I’ll write about next week – that will be an even greater irresponsibility, as it will set the stage for years of political infighting, strategic drift and economic decline as the meaning and implications of her deal unfold and unwind.