EU Referendum

Brexit: a task too far


It was in December 1962 that Dean Acheson remarked that Great Britain had lost an empire and had not yet found a role. Yet, just over a year earlier in July 1961, the British cabinet had already agreed to join the EEC, marking a shift in national strategy that would eventually define Britain's new role as an active member of the European Community. Even as he spoke, therefore, Acheson was out of date.

Revisiting the current turmoil in British politics, and the demonstrable inability of the government to make rational decisions about leaving what is now the European Union, one could argue that the original decision in 1961, to make an application to join, was the last time a British government made a rational decision.

In its own terms, it was far more than a decision to join a treaty organisation. It was, in effect, an acknowledgement by the government that we no longer had the capability of running our own affairs – or the will to do so.

After the progressive dismantling of the empire, and our humiliation at Suez – one of the defining points in the creation of the European Union, our political elites had lost the will to govern and had decided to hand over the responsibility to Brussels.

But I'm coming to the view that the loss of will came much earlier, possibly around the time of the General Strike in 1926, but alongside the emergence of the Labour Party as a powerful political force representing the working class.

In my thesis, our ruling elite never came to terms with the idea of sharing power with the "great unwashed". The writing was on the wall before the Second World War, and the need to bribe the population with promises of a welfare state and a national health service, in order to keep them in the fight against Germany, underlined how much power had been lost.

These social initiatives were in fact, pursued by Labour while Winston Churchill concentrated on winning the war. Ironically, even in 1940 when things looked at their blackest for the UK, there were people at high level in the British government working on plans for a liberated Europe.

Perversely, there was nothing like the same intensity of planning for a post-war UK. Churchill actually prohibited discussion in Cabinet of what were known as "war aims", demanding that the focus was entirely on winning the war. Only then was he prepared to talk about peace. The effect of that was that Europe was better prepared for peace than was the UK.

The Labour landslide in 1945 further illustrated how much power was slipping out of the hands of the aristocracy. Not being used to the plebs having a say in government, the elites were always uncomfortable with the idea of democracy. And when the concept of a supranational EEC emerged, this served as the ultimate defence measure, putting government outside the reach of the people.

Now, so well-established is the relationship that there is a huge constituency which genuinely thinks that Brussels does a better job than national governments. It does not want self-government. And that constituency includes many of the people who would be called upon to govern when we leave the EU. Thus, it stands to reason that they are never going to be enthusiastic about working up a plan to do something they don't want to do.

Underlying that is a national trait which seems to drive much of our political behaviour. This is the tendency towards negativity, where the first response to any political initiative is reject it. As a nation, we have lost any idea of national purpose, and don't want to be troubled by ideas which require us to step outside our comfort zone. We have become an extremely selfish nation, where there is no concept of the national good.

As a result, we have become ungovernable except, perversely, by a distant, unresponsive, autocratic body. Brussels can rule us because it invokes a feeling of powerlessness, so the other character trait kicks in, an ovine submission to authority. When push comes to shove, we meekly do as we are told.

But then, if we were ever to govern ourselves, we must have some idea of what we want to be as a nation, and how to go about it. If we can't be bothered to define such issues, it ceases to matter very much who governs us. After all, it matters not what types of screwdrivers there are in the toolbox when there are no plans to use any tools.

So much then for a thesis which essentially argues that our elites are happy with the idea of a remote, unaccountable government in Brussels. This, to them, is preferable to having the people determine their own fate. It also embraces one of the most powerful secrets in government – that the process of governance, in the main, is intensely boring, while at the same time demanding great skill and endless amounts of time.

If Brussels does nothing else, it relieves our politicians of the tedium of making many of our laws, and assumes much of the routine burden of administration, leaving them with time on their hands for the theatre of politics and the all-consuming tasks of getting re-elected. It cannot have escaped the attention of our MPs that, outside the EU, they will once again have to start working for their livings.

Much the same goes for the media. There used to be a time when the national newspapers employed specialist correspondents, who really were specialists – in dull subjects such as local government and agriculture. The best of these really did know their subjects and could write with authority, informing the debate and identifying the true motives of government.

Now that much of this activity has gone to Brussels, it becomes "foreign affairs". News on the latest developments on farming and fishing compete for space with developments in Zimbabwe or China, written up by bored correspondents who have little knowledge of the subjects they have to cover, dealing with uninterested editors who want soap opera episodes rather than detail of how we are governed.

In short, the EU is the establishment's dream option. It isolates government from the people, rendering it safe from interference, and neutralises it as a subject, relieving the politico-media nexus of the responsibility of dealing with it.

It can hardly be surprising, therefore, that government doesn't have a plan for Brexit. In just short of fifty years, the scope and complexity of government has multiplied to a staggering extent, but the political classes have been spared the trauma of having to keep up-to-date. Brussels has seamlessly taken up the load, to the extent that few politicians now have anything but the vaguest idea of what it actually does.

To ask those self-same politicians to come up with ideas of how we replace Brussels would first require them to catch up on the events of the last half-century and learn something of what is done, and how things work. Even without time pressure, that would be a huge task. It is one for which most MPs are sorely ill-equipped.

In truth, Brussels activities also embrace areas about which there is little public interest. And what often characterises Eurosceptics is not how much they know of the EU, but how little. All they know, and all they need to know, is how much they hate Brussels. They "want our country back", without the first idea of what that entails.

Those who demand that parliament should make our own laws really have not the slightest conception of what laws are actually made or needed, and show absolutely no interest in finding out. And that goes for both sides of the divide, with the Europhile Roy Jenkins once grandly declaring that he avoided the detail of European integration and focused only on les grandes lignes.

At another level, Brussels has served as the barrier – or filter - between our national legislature and the process of globalisation. We deal with Brussels, and Brussels deals with the global bodies, so silently and effectively that much of the global governance which increasingly dominates our lives remains invisible at the national level.

Thus, when dealing with the implications of Brexit, our MPs not only have to do a crash course in the workings of Brussels, they have to learn about the multiplicity of global bodies that define our legislation and foreign relations, and the very often opaque workings of their diverse systems.

As for the media, if Brussels is a closed book, the chances of journalists getting up to speed on the role of global institutions is next to zero. They retreat behind a wall of silence and pretend that the problem doesn't exist.

And all of this simply reinforces a broader thesis that what I call the "information establishment" isn't up to the job. Be it the politicians, the media, the academics or think tanks, the trade associations or the sector specialists, none of them have covered themselves in glory. Their grasp of the issues, even at this stage in the proceedings, remains lamentable.

Brexit, for all these groups, in the manner of the bridge at Arnhem, is a task too far. We are asking our establishment to do something which is beyond its capabilities, a task for which it has no desire nor incentive to assume.