Comment | The UK government’s rhetorical trench warfare cannot hide Brexit’s grim realities forever

As another round of Brexit negotiations disintegrates, we need to ask questions about the mental maps UK representatives bring to the negotiations and decide whether they are fit for purpose, writes Paul Walsh.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Wednesday, September 6, 2017 16:12 - 0 Comments

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(Photo: Creative Commons)

For Siegfried Sassoon, the frontline was the one place he could get away from the war. For the UK government, the Brexit negotiations are the one place they can get away from Brexit, as this is where their strategy of ignorance is deployed, a strategy which has turned these negotiations into something resembling an out-of-control drinking game — with round after round of insults, half-truths, and accusations — rather than the most important political and economic event in a generation. The process has descended into rhetorical trench warfare.

So when UK leaders compare the process to a divorce they have a point, of sorts. There are important decisions to make, there are bills to settle, and worse still, lawyers to pay. Yet when a couple divorces, splitting the dog and car in half, divvying up the CDs and tallying up the tablecloths, they tend not to argue about what divorce means as a concept, as a phenomenon, and as a thing. Although there may be an emotional war, there’s no epistemological gulf to bridge. A divorce — messy, soft, hard or amicable — means a separation and a reckoning for both parties.

Divorce means divorce. And we know this because we have dictionaries and Google. Just imagine the confusion otherwise. Divorce loses its meaning in a sudden freak accident, and one person is taking out cardboard boxes to the car (‘I’m leaving you!’), while the other flicks through travel brochures (‘How about a European River Cruise this year?’) You’d have two people living in two different semantic spheres, each with a completely different understanding of reality and events. Sounds familiar?

This semantic dementia explains how the UK government, like a modern Miss Havisham, has morphed into a person avoiding the pressures of a real breakup; someone who prefers to wallow in the warm nectar of the past, the nostalgia of yesteryear — a nostalgia that can, in English minds ever susceptible to flickering daydreams of Empire, inflate to unmanageable proportions and like a balloon, just float away.

This is the misty, nostalgic dream-world of the jilted lover; stranger still, the jilted lover who campaigned for the separation, voted for the breakup, yet who is dumb-founded by the reckoning. This is magical thinking, denial thinking, and the stuff of dreams.

And in that other dream-world of Alice in Wonderland, at the end of a race in which everyone runs in circles, whichever way they like, for however long they like, the Dodo announces: ‘Everybody has won and all must have prizes.’

And so maybe the Dodo and the ardent Brexiteers are right. Maybe there will be prizes for all after Brexit. Control over immigration. Sovereignty. New trading relationships and new ties. New opportunities. New neighbours! (Who will become, inevitably, good friends.) Why can’t we have a ‘global Britain’ and a leaner, fitter EU?

Yet as this divorce of separate semantic spheres spins out; as the pound keeps sinking, prices keep rising, and the economy splutters, it’s unclear whether the prize is worth the risk.

And the questions to ask are these: Are you ready to be taken ‘over the top’ by the Brexit officer class of Boris Johnson and co? Are the blithe reassurances and Cheshire cat grin of David Davies, Michael Gove’s invitation to “take back the billions we give to the EU […] squandered on grand parliamentary buildings and bureaucratic follies”, and Liam Fox’s promise of the “glorious joy of free trade” really enough? Or is this officer class simply deluded?

Perhaps when thinking of the coming Brexit journey, we might heed the words of soldiers serving in the real trenches of Ypres, a hundred years ago: “This farce promises to be a great success and a long run is expected.”

So be warned. As we fight across a no man’s land of our own making, the distant goal of national strength regained may turn out, on closer inspection, to be mere post-imperial frailty in disguise. And somewhere between now and March 2019, the UK government will realise that the rhetorical trenches from which they fire, and in which they hide, offer no escape from a Brexit reality growing more dangerous and absurd by the day.

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Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh is a teacher, writer, and precarious worker. He writes mainly on grassroots politics, social movements, and neoliberalism. Find him on twitter:@josipa74

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