IF you want to understand Brexit, read an Irish newspaper. I don’t just say this because of working on one for two days a week, although I have put in the Brexit acreage.
Sometimes it seems that I have swallowed more words about Brexit than the Irish have pints of Guinness, but never mind. The opinion piece in question appears in a rival publication, The Irish Times.
A Facebook friend pointed me towards the article by Nicholas Boyle, Emeritus Schroder Professor of German at the University of Cambridge.
Prof Boyle’s main point is encapsulated in the headline, “Brexit is a collective English mental breakdown” – backed up by a smaller heading, which reads: “English people living on dreams of empire never learned to see others as equals.”
An interesting point is made in the first paragraph. Here, Prof Boyle points out in that in the White Paper of February 2 last year, introducing the process for quitting the European Union, the government made “an astonishingly frank admission”. This is contained in the sentence: “Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign through out membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.”
He elaborates his point by saying that it was false for the Leave campaigners to insist we had to “take back control” of UK laws, “since control had never been lost; and the campaign was based, not on fact, but on what it ‘felt like’ – on illusion, therefore, and emotion.”
If the scales didn’t exactly fall from my eyes, something did suddenly make sense. The push for Brexit, on the part of the Leave lobby, was all about emotion and illusion. And emotion and illusion are easy to inflate with the rusty old bicycle pump of patriotism; oh, what wordy fun Boris and the others had puffing themselves up with what it ‘felt like’ to be an Englishman abroad in the hostile lands of Europe.
And it is an English attitude, according to Prof Boyle’s thesis, as Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for Remain.
Leavers painted the EU as a threat to our country – or as an enemy who had already made off with our country. Somehow, they believed that by voting No to the EU, they would be “getting their country back” – even though that country hadn’t been lost in the first place.
I don’t wish to recite all of Prof Boyle’s argument, as this is after all my ledge and not his. But it is worth repeating his view that older Leave voters were in some way compensating for the loss of Empire, or for the feelings that loss had created.
Here’s a final word from Prof Boyle: “That is the terrifying truth that membership of the EU presents to the English and from which for centuries the empire insulated them: that they have to live in the world on an equal footing with other people.”
If Brexit was, in strong part, based on illusion and emotion, that helps to explain why everything now seems such a slog. The emotion was the easy part; the illusion was seductive because it said something about what it felt like to be English in an alien modern world.
But illusion and emotion aren’t much use when it comes to striking hard deals with the other members of the club you have just decided to leave. And not just leave, but leave in a giant huff as if it was all their fault for making you hold the referendum in the first place. Well, it was in truth David Cameron’s fault, but that’s an argument for another day.