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Thu 3 December 2020

Chris Grey explores the political psychology behind the increasingly extreme demands made around Brexit that satisfy one primary desire: not for sovereignty but of the constant need to feel robbed

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The most surprising feature of Britain since the Brexit referendum is just how unhappy Brexiters have been.

On the face of it, you would expect there to have been joy and jubilation, especially on the day that Britain actually left the EU. In fact, any celebration has been muted if not non-existent, while Brexiters seem to be angrier than ever. Their latest fury, expressed by Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith, is about the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – even though he voted for it.

A complex political psychology has played out since 2016, the consequences of which are having a major impact on British political culture. But there is a danger, due to the swirl of events and the rapidity with which even very recent history is being rewritten, of this being forgotten.

Almost as soon as the EU Referendum result was announced, Brexiters such as Nigel Farage began to talk about their fear that it would be betrayed. Meanwhile, within the Conservative Party, a battle was underway to define – as the Vote Leave campaign had not – what Brexit meant. At the time, that was principally about the distinction between a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit – the former denoted by the ‘Norway model’ and the latter by the ‘Canada model’. In practice, it was about the difference between seeking to retain single market membership or not.

Brexit must be done because it is the ‘will of the people’, but any actual form of Brexit is a betrayal of the will of the people.

But the key point to understand is that, whatever concession was made to the hardcore of Brexit Ultras – Conservative MPs in the European Research Group (ERG), Farage, Brexit Party MEPs, committed activists within these parties and their many supporters in the media and various think tanks – they would always demand another.

The numerous historical opt-outs they wanted – such as from Schengen and the Euro – were achieved but just led to new demands. As soon as David Cameron offered them a referendum, they started agitating about the wording of the question, the framing of the response and who should be able to vote in it.

They got their way on all these things – mainly to head off the possibility that if, as was expected, they lost, they would cry foul. But there were bigger issues at stake.


Never Enough

Until fairly recently – although not during the referendum campaign itself – Farage and UKIP were quite happy with the Norway model of Brexit. And, during the campaign, many in Vote Leave said that this was exactly what Brexit would mean. But, as soon as they had won, this was not enough.

Brexit, they now insisted, had to mean a ‘hard’ Brexit: leaving the single market but also any form of European Court of Justice jurisdiction and negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU. In other words, the Canada model.

It was this which was the subject of the internal battle in the Conservative Party in the second half of 2016, during the period that Theresa May would only offer that “Brexit means Brexit”. It was not quite the meaningless slogan it seemed as it denoted that Brexit would happen and that the referendum result would not be revisited. But her public utterances were ambiguous about whether that meant single market membership or not.

That ambiguity ended partially with her party conference speech in October 2016 but definitively with her Lancaster House speech in January 2017. Brexit now, unequivocally, meant a ‘hard’ Brexit – reportedly on the whim of her advisors rather than by any wider discussion. Briefly, the Ultras were placated but, very quickly, they started demanding that a true Brexit meant no deal at all – and that anything else would be a betrayal.

That demand intensified as the pragmatic realities of hard Brexit became clear, culminating in the Chequers proposal of July 2018. Notably, in the same period, ‘no deal’ Brexit began to be renamed as ‘hard’ Brexit, with what used to be ‘hard’ Brexit re-badged as ‘soft’ Brexit, and what used to be ‘soft’ Brexit dismissed as not being Brexit at all.

Already weakened by the ill-judged General Election of 2017, May’s Withdrawal Agreement limped on until her demise. By that point, the Ultras’ principal demand was the removal of the Irish backstop from the Agreement. This Boris Johnson has done – by reverting to the previous – rejected – means of an Irish Sea Border. This was the “oven-ready deal” on which he won the 2019 General Election. With the support of the ERG, he got this deal though Parliament and signed it with the EU.

But now things have changed again.

Hardly had the ink dried on what was now a binding international treaty than the Brexit Ultras began to repudiate it.

Suddenly they discovered that, despite having voted for it, it was a ‘poisoned pill’ which betrayed the Brexit referendum’s vote for sovereignty. This can be seen in how Iain Duncan Smith and others are currently mounting a concerted campaign against honouring the Withdrawal Agreement.


Searching for Cruelty

At one level, there is an obvious pattern: trying to give Brexiters what they want in order to appease them proves to be pointless because, whatever they are given, they come back – like blackmailers or protection racketeers – with even more extortionate demands.

But beneath that is something much stranger and far more dangerous.

The Brexit movement was always one of campaign and complaint, feeding on a sense of victimhood. It thrived on the idea of being the powerless ‘silent majority’, forbidden by the ‘PC elite’ from ‘saying what we really think’. Given such a mindset, winning the referendum was actually a disaster for them because, from then on, they were in charge and their policy has defined British politics.

Ever since then, they have sought to regain the comfort zone of victimhood. Their driving force is not, as it might seem, the constant fear of betrayal but the constant need and desire to be betrayed.

Given that, it would make no difference if ‘Remainers got behind Brexit’, for that is the last thing the Ultras actually want and would just lead to them saying that this is ‘Remainer Brexit’, not a ‘real Brexit’. Indeed, when Theresa May did so – with a conviction that shocked Remain voters – they destroyed her for being ‘Theresa the Remainer’. Now that they have Boris Johnson, they are saying that he has struck a deal that isn’t ‘sovereignty compliant’.

Invariably, the Brexit Ultras claim that that they are speaking for the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU in 2016 – but this is nonsense. Not only was no definition of what Brexit would look like put forward at the time, but there has never been a polling majority for leaving the single market, still less for exiting all the various EU agencies and programmes that the Ultras revile because they have some lurking role for the European Court of Justice.

But, bogus as it is, that claim matters – because it has the effect of creating an insoluble paradox. On the one hand, Brexit must be done because it is the ‘will of the people’. On the other hand, any actual form of Brexit is a betrayal of the will of the people. That is a consequence of the Brexit Ultras constantly asking for more and – at a profound level – of their need for the victimhood that comes from not being given more.

Since the referendum an entire nation has been shackled to the political psychology of a relatively small number of people who – like rebellious teenagers secretly wanting to be set boundaries – demand total victory whilst craving defeat. It makes it impossible to turn Brexit into a workable policy because, at heart, it is not a policy demand at all, but a demand to be thwarted.

It is an old joke that the cruellest sadist is one who refuses to inflict pain on a masochist. That joke is now being played out in the politics of Brexit Britain. The thing is – it is not very funny.


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