Fri, 19 May 2023 at 5:06 pm BST
It lasts no more than a second, but it is a moment for the ages. Interviewed on BBC Newsnight on Monday, Nigel Farage made a confession that, by rights, should end the debate that has split this country down the middle for much of the last decade. A month ahead of the seventh anniversary of the 2016 vote that took Britain out of the European Union, Farage said three words of striking simplicity and truth: “Brexit has failed.”
You can watch the clip over and over, for it is something to behold. Here is the arch-Brexiter himself, the man who dedicated his life to the cause of rupture from the EU, admitting it has been a disaster. Of course, as we shall see, he and his fellow Brexiters do not blame that failure on the idea itself, but it’s the admission that counts. It offers grounds for modest celebration: now, at last, the contours of an emerging national consensus are visible, as remainers and leavers alike can join in agreement that this thing has not worked. And yet it comes at a price, one that also became darkly visible this week.
Start with the facts that even Farage can no longer duck. During the referendum campaign, he and his allies promised that Brexit would be a boon for the UK economy, unshackling it from Brussels red tape and releasing it into a roaring future. Seven years on, we can see the reality: a country in the grip of a cost of living crisis that means millions can no longer afford what they once regarded as the basics. Britain is becoming poorer and falling behind its peers. Ours is now forecast to be one of the worst performing economies in the world, not merely seventh in the G7 but 20th in the G20 – behind even a Russia under toughening international sanctions – according to the International Monetary Fund.
The consequences of being poorer are seen and felt everywhere, whether it’s in the 3m food parcels delivered by food banks last year, the family who can’t get a mental health appointment for a troubled child, or in courts that are jammed and backlogged for years. For a while, the Brexiters could blame all our woes on anything but Brexit: Covid or Ukraine. But there’s no hiding place now.
This week came a warning that post-Brexit trading arrangements with the EU threaten the very existence of the entire UK automotive industry, which employs some 800,000 people. Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and the owners of Vauxhall called on the government to renegotiate the Brexit deal. Such demands are getting louder. Next month, a thousand businesses, alongside representatives of farming and fishing, will gather in Birmingham for the Trade Unlocked conference, called to discuss a post-Brexit landscape most say has made commercial life infinitely harder and more bureaucratic. “Business is beginning to find its voice,” one organiser tells me.
But it’s not just the economic numbers. Remember, Farage and the others argued that a hit to GDP would be worth it, so long as Brexit fulfilled its other promises – most cherished among them, a reduction in the number of immigrants to the UK. Yet if you were among those persuaded, against the evidence, to see immigration as a cost, rather than a benefit, to the country, Brexit has failed on even that measure. Immigration has gone up, not down, since we left the EU, with one analysis suggesting net annual migration figures published next week could see a rise to 700,000 or even 1 million. Turns out Britain needs migrants – but now they have to come from far away, rather than in reciprocal movement between us and our nearest neighbours.
Given all this, what are the Brexiters to do? Some still deny reality altogether, insisting that we should disbelieve the evidence of our own eyes. The rest admit that Brexit has failed, and then face one of two options. Either they can atone for their role in visiting this calamity upon the nation and move to correct it. Or they can blame others for not doing it right.
On Newsnight, Farage made the latter choice. Yes, it was true that Britain had “not actually benefited from Brexit economically” but that was because “useless” politicians had “mismanaged this totally”. It’s the manoeuvre perfected in an earlier era by western communists confronted by the brute realities of the Soviet Union: nothing wrong with the communist idea, they insisted, it just hadn’t been implemented properly.
But that logic is tricky for the Brexiters, because it’s they who have been in charge. The exit deal was signed, sealed and pushed through parliament by one of their own, Boris Johnson, and a conviction Brexiter is in Downing Street now, in the form of Rishi Sunak. So there has to be someone else to blame, other shadowy forces who betrayed the cause.
Some point to Sunak himself, aided by Kemi Badenoch, who this month halted the planned shredding of thousands of EU-tainted regulations. For others, it’s the Blob or the “remoaner elite”, made up of the civil service, the BBC, the universities, the unions: anyone who, along with desperate refugees in small boats, can be blamed for standing between Britain and the promised Brexit nirvana.
This is hardly a new dynamic. Nationalism, with its impossible promise of a perfect future, always has to have a traitor to blame for perfection’s delayed arrival. That is the process we are witnessing now: the steady nurturing of a stab-in-the-back myth for Brexit. History suggests that this hunt for the wielder of the treacherous dagger will only get nastier.
Which is why many were rightly alarmed by this week’s gathering in the name of “national conservatism”, where the writer Douglas Murray declared that nationalism need no longer hide its face just because the Germans had “mucked up” in the last century – a novel way to describe the murderous record of national socialism. That conference was a three-day search for those whose betrayal could be blamed for the failure of the Brexit project.
The quest will intensify as the damage caused by Brexit piles up. The worse the economy gets, the higher interest rates rise, the tighter incomes are squeezed, the louder and more vitriolic the attacks on the supposed true culprits will have to be – if only to quieten the obvious thought: namely that it is Brexit itself that is to blame.
It means those who opposed this madness from the start now have two reasons to break the understandable, if still bizarre, omertà on Brexit that prevails in Westminster. The first is the need to point to the source of our national ailing: if the patient is losing blood, you cannot keep ignoring the wounds where he shot himself in both feet. Less obvious, but no less urgent, is the need to acknowledge that Brexit’s failure is injecting a new toxin into the system, one that will spread the more apparent that failure becomes – and spread faster if we refuse to name its actual cause.
- Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
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