Lady Chatterley’s Brexit
Not accepting or being able to discuss the damage caused by Britain’s exit from the EU leaves the country in an unsustainable position, writes Chris Grey
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One of the most famous moments in legal history occurred during the 1960 obscenity trial seeking to prohibit the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. At one point, the prosecuting barrister asked the jury:“Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
By 1960, this Victorian combination of patriarchy, elitism and prudishness was ludicrous and dated, and it caused much public hilarity. Yet something not dissimilar can be seen in the astonishing way that the current political elites, like Victorian patriarchs concealing all talk of sex, are trying to hide any mention of Brexit.
It is deeply ironic since Rishi Sunak came to power for a single reason and on a single proposition: his claim to economic realism. Finally, after Boris Johnson’s toddler-like cakeism and Liz Truss’ adolescent stubbornness, there was supposedly now an adult in the room.
But how can any realistic approach to economics simply refuse to acknowledge Brexit?
According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, it will cause a long-term reduction of GDP of 4%. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says “it has had a substantially negative effect on the UK economy relative to other economies”. And a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary committee believes “the UK economy has been permanently damaged by Brexit”.
Yet, asked about this in an interview last weekend, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt simply asserted “I don’t accept that Brexit will make us poorer” – as if Brexit hadn’t yet happened and the evidence of the actual consequences wasn’t already piling up.
Perhaps – like Jacob Rees-Mogg and, apparently, International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch – Hunt simply doesn’t accept the validity of the analysis coming from ‘bodies with acronyms’. If so, that runs directly counter to the idea that the Sunak regime marks a break with Truss, since it was exactly this disdain for experts that contributed to the mini budget disaster that finished her.
But even if Sunak and Hunt don’t share – or don’t reveal – that disdain, their refusal to acknowledge the damage of Brexit is part of the same mindset, whereby reality can just be wished away, that caused Truss’ downfall.
What makes the Brexit taboo all the more extraordinary is that this was supposed to be the great project of national liberation; the unleashing of a new age of freedom and prosperity. Yet now – to reprise another phrase redolent of Victorian prudishness – it has become the love that dare not speak its name. At most, there are vague references to ‘Brexit opportunities’, the precise nature of which are only coyly hinted at.
The political reasons for this are, of course, well-known.
The Conservative Party cannot admit that Brexit has been a failure. Large chunks of its membership and MPs and, a great many of its voters, are simply incapable of accepting it. So, even if some of its leaders know it has failed, they dare not say so – or not until, like George Eustice, revealing the true disaster of the post-Brexit trade deals negotiated with Australia and New Zealand, they are no longer in positions of leadership.
Perhaps that disaster might itself have been averted had the governing elite allowed full parliamentary scrutiny of the deals or if it hadn’t been so determined to do symbolic deals at any price just to ‘prove’ that Brexit hadn’t been an abject failure.
Labour is similarly scared of some of its voters and fearful of opening itself up to a revival of Conservative attacks of defying ‘the will of the people’. But, just as the economic realities of Brexit cannot be denied, the political ones are changing. ‘The people’ have, in increasing numbers, made up their minds that Brexit is damaging to the economy and that it was a mistake.
Sooner or later, political debate has to acknowledge both of these realities. Its failure to do so as yet isn’t simply a matter of rational political calculation, though. It seems more to be a trauma of political psychology.
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In retrospect, the decision to leave the EU was taken almost by accident. Yet, having been taken, it became bound up with an unstoppable frenzy in which the language of betrayal, treachery, sabotage and ‘enemies of the people’ displaced any normal political discourse.
Some of that was deliberately whipped up by politicians and will be again, if they get the chance, which makes other politicians frightened. That’s understandable, in a way, simply because so many of them faced abuse, death and rape threats and, in some cases, actual assault and in one case murder. It’s perhaps also understandable at the level of public order concerns.
Nevertheless, it is not sustainable to continue to live in a politics of fear, whereby the toxicity of the post-referendum period forever frames the parameters of what can be openly discussed.
No polity – and no economic policy – can permanently survive denial of reality. It is all the more incompatible with the democratic anti-elitism which Brexiters claim to lie at the heart of their project. Just as the prudery of Victorian patriarchy came with great hypocrisy, so the political elite are trying to hide Brexit, like an illicit copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover buried in the sock drawer, away from innocent and easily-corrupted eyes.
But the rest of us – we latter-day boys and girls and wives and servants – already know all about Brexit. The only question is whether we are going to talk of it in whispers and in corners, or out in the open, like adults. If Sunak, Hunt and Starmer are really to be regarded as ‘the adults in the room’, they need to lead that conversation, not hide from it.