We now know it beyond doubt: However Britain leaves the European Union (EU), the result is likely to be damage that Britain is in no position to absorb. Job losses are certain. A stack of Brexit impact reports from local authorities obtained last week by Sky News identified a catalogue of dire consequences, from farms in Shetland that could be plunged into impossible losses, through social care services in East Sussex already being hit by labour shortages, to the M26 being turned into a giant lorry park. With his characteristic emollience, the trade secretary, Liam Fox, says a no-deal Brexit is now more likely than a negotiated deal; Jeremy Hunt reckons we could fall off the came cliff-edge “by accident”, and reports about stockpiled food and medicines attest to the awfulness of any such prospect.
March 2019, then, could well mark a watershed point in a drawn-out disaster. But so, in a different way, could somehow nullifying the result of the referendum and staying put. It would be comforting to think that what George Orwell called “the gentleness of the English civilisation” would mean that an overturning of 2016’s outcome would be grudgingly swallowed by the vast majority of leave voters, but I would not be so sure. United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) is back in the polls, and has newly strengthened links to the far right. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Boston in Lincolnshire, the town whose 75.6 per cent vote for Brexit made it the most Leave-supporting place in the United Kingdom. Many of the people I spoke to were already convinced that Brexit was doomed and full of talk of betrayal. Some of what I heard was undeniably ugly, though much of it was based on an undeniable set of facts. People were asked to make a decision, and they did. The referendum was the one meaningful political event in millions of voters’ lifetimes, and we were all assured that its result would be respected. Whatever the noise about a second referendum, this is the fundamental reason why the likelihood of Brexit interrupted remains dim.
If we take that as a given, anyone involved in progressive politics ought to focus on one imperative above all others: The defeat of the zealots who saw the dismay and disaffection of so many potential leave voters, opportunistically seized on it — and now want to pilot the country into a post-Brexit future that is completely inimical to their future. We all know who they are: In the Conservative party, their strength is built on a bedrock of true believers in a weird kind of anarcho-Thatcherism: Jacob Rees-Mogg, Fox, an array of MPs too obscure to mention. Their de facto leader now seems to be that vacant opportunist, Boris Johnson. Close enough for regular chats sit Nigel Farage and the increasingly hapless insurance tycoon, Arron Banks. We might think of them as the reckless right. The Left has failed to really go for them for far too long. Part of the explanation, perhaps, lies in both an aversion to offending Leave supporters who might vote Labour, and a sense that Johnson, Farage et al are an integral part of the crisis that may yet bring down the government. As a result, these people have been able to exert an influence on politics — and, by extension, the future of the country — way beyond their merit. It is time they were battled with.
Two things pull together some of the most notable members of this coalition: Personal wealth sufficient to ride out Brexit with ease, and increasingly evident ties to Steve Bannon, the former strategy guru to United States President Donald Trump, who is now spending half his time in Europe and plotting the arrival of something called The Movement, a pan-European populist organisation. Bannon has reportedly been talking to Johnson and hailed him as a key player on the world stage; his encounter with Rees-Mogg late last year similarly convinced him that the MP for North East Somerset and descendant of coal mine-owners is “one of the best thinkers in the conservative movement on a global basis”.
Keeping Bannon’s company highlights the extent to which these politicians are blazing a trail for a right wing politics that has decisively left behind any semblance of moderation, and fully embraced the reckless mindset of the revolutionary. There is a reason why the hard Brexiteers cannot coherently explain their vision of Brexit: Their chief aim is to break as many things as possible, in the belief that from the rubble might arise a kind of flag-waving, small-state, free-market utopia that even the blessed former prime minister Margaret Thatcher might have found unpalatable. This variety of what Naomi Klein famously called the shock doctrine sits behind Rees-Mogg’s breathtaking view of when the supposed upsides of exiting the EU might materialise: “We won’t know the full economic consequences for a very long time ... The overwhelming opportunity for Brexit is over the next 50 years.” The sentiment is akin to something Che Guevera might have uttered on the eve of the Cuban revolution, but there is a twist: The City outfit Rees-Mogg cofounded in 2007, and from which he makes a great deal of money, is so unimpressed with Brexit-related “opportunities” that it has set up two investment funds in Ireland.
You can smell it from a mile away: The odorous whiff of the hypocrisies and deceptions that tend to come with privilege, and the sense of Brexit as yet another chapter of the class war. In the midst of the summer’s confusion and conflict, it is time it was understood as such, and the real story of the last three or four years was told: Of a cadre of moneyed wreckers cynically manipulating a mess of resentments that their own politics triggered back in the 1980s, cheating their way to victory, and then attempting to bring their revolution full circle by treating millions of people like so much cannon fodder.
The post-2015 Labour party would like its supporters to think it is back in the business of class politics — but having resolved to largely keep silent about Brexit and let the government somehow destroy itself, its key voices have little to say. Even if the big trade unions are formally committed to opposing Brexit, their leaders are similarly quiet. So far, in fact, I have only heard one voice eloquently and passionately tearing into the Brexit officer class: that of the backbench Tory member of parliament Anna Soubry, who back in mid-July rose to her feet in the Commons, eyed her Brexiteer colleagues, and cut to the quick: “Nobody voted to be poorer, and nobody voted leave on the basis that somebody with a gold-plated pension and inherited wealth would take their jobs away from them.”
She well knows something too many Tories choose to ignore: that if these people increase their influence via one of their number becoming the prime minister, they will eventually kill traditional British Conservatism for two generations at least. But the left has to wake up, too. It is the reckless right, not “Blairites” and centrists, that is the real enemy. If we want an end to the fear and anxiety that currently define the national mood and a future worth living for, these are the saboteurs who will have to be crushed.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
John Harris is a noted columnist.