Peter Oborne has had a Damascene experience. He has changed his view on Brexit from leave to remain, and he explains why in a rambling article.
Now if I were predominantly, as opposed to mildly, cynical, I’d put that about-face down to ulterior, pecuniary motives.
You see, Oborne’s prose has been steadily declining over the past few years. His detractors ascribe this deterioration to an excessive fondness for alcohol, that scourge of Fleet Street.
However, his writing is still good enough for the Mail, and Oborne’s bosses would be happy to tolerate the bibulous hack – provided he toed the line.
But the line changed a few months ago when the Leaver Paul Dacre was replaced as editor by the Remainer Geordie Grieg. For the hack to continue toeing the line, he had to change the direction – or risk taking bread off the table.
However, since I’m only mildly cynical, I shan’t explain Oborne’s change of heart by such lowly motives. I’ll accept his integrity as a given and take his arguments at face value.
Alas, the face value is close to nil. According to Oborne, “Brexit has paralysed the system.” The political system is indeed paralysed, but not by Brexit.
Brexit has to be exculpated here for the simple reason that it hasn’t happened yet. What has had a paralysing effect is the government’s mendacious, borderline treasonous, efforts to torpedo Brexit – and hit the constitution by ricochet.
This underhand effort has been spearheaded by Mrs May, who, according to Oborne, has “shown immense fortitude and determination which has won her the respect and admiration of decent people.”
Since neither I nor any of my friends obviously qualify for the distinction of being decent, none of us feels much respect and admiration for the woman who has perfidiously conspired with EU chieftains to defy not only the popular vote, but also the parliamentary mandate that turned Article 50, and therefore Brexit, into a law.
But then one can’t argue against admiration in a man’s heart. As Pascal put it, the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of (le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point).
Unfortunately, one gets the impression that reason isn’t Oborne’s strong point. Throughout the piece he uses the locution “we Brexiteers”, as in we Brexiteers realise that “Britain’s departure from the EU will be as great a disaster for our country as the over-mighty unions were in the 1960s and 1970s.” With Brexiteers like this, who needs Remainers?
Oborne’s respect and admiration for Mrs May are based on his respect and admiration for her awful deal, which Oborne regrets has “zero chance” of passing.
My problems here start with the word ‘deal’. This word has drifted into politics from commerce, where it has horse-trading implications.
Two parties, say a car maker and a tyre manufacturer, identify an area of mutual benefit and thrash out a deal. The former undertakes to use nothing but the latter’s tyres on all new cars, while the latter agrees to lower the wholesale price by 10 per cent.
Everybody’s happy, the deal is done. But politics uses a different vocabulary that features words like ‘alliance’, ‘treaty’, ‘agreement’ and so forth. ‘Deal’ legitimately appears only at the intersection of politics and commerce, as in ‘trade deal’.
But a trade deal is only possible between two sovereign, autonomous parties. In my example, if the tyre manufacturer were not a separate company but merely a division of the car maker, the latter would be issuing orders, not seeking deals.
Extrapolating from companies to countries, trade deals by definition are only possible between two sovereign commonwealths, not between, say, a central government and one of its provinces. Thus HMG could sign a trade deal with China, but not with Sussex.
That establishes a normal sequence of events when one country wishes to leave a federation (which is what the EU is in all but name). Politics must precede economics: the country first establishes its independent, which is to say legally equal, status with the federation and only then discusses trade and other economic arrangements.
Yet key words like ‘sovereignty’, ‘independence’ and ‘constitution’ don’t appear even once among the 5,000 words of Oborne’s piece. It’s all about horse-trading, which is indeed putting the horse before the cart.
In the process, Oborne doesn’t just tug but positively yanks at our heart strings: “It’s a decision which will not just viscerally impact the lives of our children. But also our children’s children. And their children too.”
At least our children’s children’s children’s children will be free of the visceral impact, whatever that means. In fact, the impact Oborne talks about exclusively isn’t visceral but economic, but I agree that ‘visceral’ sounds more sophisticated.
“A clumsily executed Brexit,” he writes, “will hit us in terms of lower incomes, lost jobs and industries, worse public services and restricted opportunities.”
What, no wheelbarrows full of hyperinflated banknotes, no children (and their children) dying of malnutrition, no patients writhing and shivering in unheated wards? I’m disappointed that Oborne’s palette is so short of the black pigment.
That’s it, the whole argument. Everything else is just a variation on the same theme, re-ingesting food already digested. Such as: “The economic arguments for Brexit have been destroyed by a series of shattering blows.”
But not at all. The shattering blows have rained not on Brexit but on the whole nation that has had its will denied and its constitution debauched. Once again, for those who suffer from Oborne’s learning difficulties: Brexit hasn’t happened yet. Hence its economic consequences are a matter of pure speculation, which on the Remain side features nothing but scaremongering.
Oborne generously admits that not all foreign companies will up sticks and leave, but he gleefully enumerates those that have already done so, such as Nissan.
Yes, he acknowledges, such companies invariably state that Brexit has nothing to do with their decision, but they do so only “for political reasons”. I can’t for the life of me imagine what those political reasons might be. I see Nissan as an industrial concern, not a political entity, but then Oborne’s vision must be more acute than mine.
If he’s so worried about this, a real, as opposed to our spivocratic, government could create a stampede of foreign companies falling over themselves to move their business to Britain. All it would take is slashing, or better still eliminating, corporate taxes and getting rid of the red tape.
This would be a healthy idea in any case, Brexit or no Brexit. After all, Manny Macron, when he was still France’s finance minister, threatened that Brexit would turn Britain into another Jersey or Guernsey. My answer was then, as it is now, a resounding “yes, please”.
Even Mrs May mooted that sort of thing when she was still pretending that a no-deal Brexit could happen. Winking and nudging in the direction of her EU Parteigenossen, she’d threaten for the cameras to introduce such measures in an extreme situation. Of course, for our socialists, Lite or Full Strength, sound economics can only be a punitive measure.
But enough about economics. As I’ve written a thousand times if I’ve written it once, first things first.
From its inception, the EU has been a purely political, not economic, project, and leaving it must be a purely political, not economic act. Once that act has been consummated, then economic negotiations should start, ideally delivering a mutually beneficial deal.
However, the political act of secession and re-establishing sovereignty can’t be subject to negotiations or deals even in theory. The American colonies didn’t seek a deal with George III before declaring their independence – they knew that secession is an inherently unilateral act. Too bad Oborne doesn’t know it.
Britain is neither a supplicant nor a mingent pupil asking to be excused. It’s futile asking the EU’s permission to leave because such permission can’t possibly be granted. Hence there’s nothing to negotiate.
But even assuming for the sake of argument that a deal is possible in theory, one ironclad precondition for it in practice is that both sides negotiate in good faith. This is demonstrably not the case.
Neither party wants Brexit to happen, the EU openly, HMG perfidiously. Hence the muddle and seemingly unsolvable problems: neither side wants a deal. They both want Britain to remain, while the EU seeks the extra benefit of discouraging other members from similar audacity.
“I’ve heard the argument that people want to get it over with and ‘just leave’,” writes Oborne. “That’s reckless, stupid and could inflict incalculable damage.”
Now that we resort to that kind of language, it’s stupid and ignorant to believe that any deal is possible in the matter of preserving Britain’s ancient constitution.
The EU isn’t anti-democratic, explains Oborne. It’s merely undemocratic, although all its members are democracies. (He obviously doesn’t appreciate that different types of democracy exist, and they are seldom compatible.)
It’s not exactly like Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany, which is why there’s really no need to resist it the way Britain resisted those regimes. And not a single EU member threatens military aggression against Britain. (No, they just threaten a Napoleonic-style economic blockade if we become truly sovereign.)
A man capable of such statements shouldn’t throw words like ‘stupid’ about – his glass house may shatter. A country may be deprived of its sovereignty by violence or subterfuge – or it may surrender it voluntarily. The result is the same in all cases: sovereignty replaced by vassalage. That’s what “decent people” seem to want.