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Brexit Is Not the Holy Grail Its Supporters Are Imagining

Come November 1, the space in which British citizens can live and work would shrink to one country.

Supporters look on as leader of the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage, holds a rally at Trago Mills on May 15, 2019, in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.

Boris Johnson, who has now been the U.K.’s prime minister for a little over three weeks, has pledged to take Britain out of the EU, “No ifs or buts,” by October 31. He says he wants to negotiate a new deal with the EU on the terms of exit but has also committed his government to leaping into the abyss with a “no deal” exit if a negotiated divorce can’t be arranged. That would mean Britain would, suddenly, have no trading arrangements in place with Europe, no political structure in place to keep British universities and health care delivery systems linked to those on the continent, and no protections guaranteed for EU residents currently living in Britain and U.K. residents living in the EU.

Johnson has also committed his government to shore up the country’s crumbling infrastructure with large-scale public investments. At the same time, however, he has pledged to cut corporate and individual tax rates, and, in an attempt to make a no-deal Brexit slightly less calamitous, to make a number of Britain’s ports tax-free. These would essentially allow for the creation of large numbers of import-export zones where normal import taxes, employment taxes and value-added taxes aren’t applied. These zones would basically function as giant duty-free shops, further diminishing the government’s revenue streams.

There is, in this mixture of these contradictory promises, an extraordinary degree of magical thinking.

Brexit has, for the right wing of the U.K.’s Conservative Party, become talismanic — a romantic quest for something that would instantly make Britain thrive economically, politically and psychologically. But, like most talismans, it is something that, if ever captured, might prove as anti-climactic as, say, grabbing hold of the Holy Grail.

In the abstract, the Holy Grail was a potent medieval symbol of Christ’s transcendent powers; in reality, however, it was just a silver cup, the vessel out of which Christ supposedly drank at the Last Supper. To be sure, it would have made for a nice mantelpiece decoration, but in a rational schema it could hardly be considered life-altering. And yet, generations of knights and scores of writers mythologized the Holy Grail to a degree that simply makes no objective sense.

The same thing is happening with Brexit. Proponents of Brexit are spreading myths about the bonds of regulations cast aside, about a country reclaiming its destiny, about a glorious renaissance. And yet, were Johnson to muscle through either a poor-deal or a no-deal Brexit in the coming months, the reality even for those who believe they have something to gain from Brexit would inevitably be tawdry — and for most Brits, it might well prove economically calamitous.

There are many clear examples of how everyday people would be impacted. For instance, most economists believe Britain’s pound would crash in value. Already it’s down to just over $1.20 in U.S. dollars to the pound; many market analysts are saying it’s now only a matter of time before the currency falls to parity against both the dollar and the Euro. At the most basic level, that makes international travel far more expensive for Brits. At the bigger-picture level, it makes the import of everything from food to medicine to cars cost more — fueling an inflationary spiral that will rapidly erode the country’s standard of living.

Another example of a large-scale negative impact: If the U.K. crashes out of the EU on October 31 with no deal in place to cushion the impact, and incomplete bilateral arrangements with other European countries, Britain will, overnight, fall outside the relationships that allow all citizens of any EU state to access medical care anywhere in the union. In other words, millions of British citizens living and traveling abroad will suddenly find themselves with no access to medical care.

Finally, consider the most extraordinary of all the things that Britain is throwing away in embracing Brexit: Currently, someone with a U.K. passport has the right to live and to work in the 28 countries of the EU, plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. Come November 1, all of that would begin to unravel; the space in which Brits could live and work would, ultimately, shrink back to one country.

Only the most dogmatic of politicians believes all of this is a good thing. That is why most moderate Conservative politicians have refused to sign up for the ride. As a result, Johnson’s cabinet is stacked full of ultra-conservatives, people who believe not just in Brexit but in a raft of socially destructive policies, from the death penalty to a slashing of the welfare state, from slashing workplace regulations to rolling back human rights protections. For them, the magical thinking comes in a package deal.

There’s the new home secretary, Priti Patel, who wants to expand police powers and implement the sorts of discredited zero-tolerance approaches to crime and punishment that stacked the U.S.’s prisons full over the past decades. Depending on when she has been asked the question, she has also expressed support for reinstating the death penalty. She is, in addition, an opponent of the Human Rights Act, which incorporated into British laws the rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights — and which conservatives in the U.K. have long loathed as an infringement on national sovereignty. The rights include such things as protection from torture, but they also include protection from discrimination — thus serving to protect rights of sexual and ethnic minorities. There are also foreign secretary Dominic Raab and Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, both of whom have staked ground on the far right of the Brexit debate over the past few years.

Several of those promoted to Johnson’s cabinet are ardent economic libertarians, wanting to shred the country’s regulatory and wage-protection structures. Freed from European constraints, they desire a post-Brexit Britain governed by something akin to a “turbo-charged Thatcherism,” the very ideology that generated the inequalities now ripping apart the country’s social cohesion.

That is what happens when magical thinking takes over. Not surprisingly, much of the British public and a majority of Parliamentarians passionately oppose No-Deal Brexit. But the bizarre political logic of the moment in Britain is pushing Johnson ever-further rightward in this vision, and, by extension, in much of his broader tax and regulatory proposals for the country.

Johnson got elected by opposing Theresa May’s attempts to navigate a messy compromise. This appealed to the parochial Conservative Party base, as I have written in earlier columns. He is operating with a tiny parliamentary majority — down to one vote, following the Conservative Party’s loss to the Liberals in a bye-election in Wales two weeks ago. Increasingly, it’s looking like Johnson’s government will face no-confidence votes in Parliament over the coming couple of months, and it’s also looking more than likely that there will be a snap general election called for some time in September or October.

On the one hand, the fact that Johnson could head into that election with only a tiny parliamentary majority ought to push him to compromise, since several dozen Conservative MPs are determined to block a No-Deal Brexit, and no prime minister wants to lead a party at civil war with itself into an election campaign.

Yet, at the same time, part of the reason the Conservatives are finding it hard to hold onto parliamentary seats is that they are being harried from the right by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which takes enough votes from them to act as a spoiler in close elections. Having alienated the moderate center, despite his spending pledges on infrastructure, Johnson’s election strategy has to be to neutralize the Brexit Party and convince its supporters to shift their allegiances back to the Conservatives — and, at the same time, to take advantage of the massive public distrust of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn — who took over the Labour leadership as a result of disillusion among party members with a swing rightward in the years during and following Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s governments — has, in recent months, seen his popularity and that of the Labour Party plummet. Partly this is because of scandals around anti-Semitism within the party, as well as a sense that Corbyn’s inner circle is increasingly intolerant of dissent; but it’s also because Corbyn himself has been entirely unwilling to take a firm position on whether or not to back Brexit.

In a less chaotic political moment, No-Deal Brexit would be entirely off the table simply because it would be so easy for an effective parliamentary opposition to unite against it. With Corbyn, however, the unwillingness and inability of Labour to cut deals with other political groupings and parties means that Johnson might be able to thread the needle and take advantage of a fractured opposition to ram through what ought to be an entirely unpalatable program.

And thus, we return to the Quest for the Holy Grail. In the classic Monty Python comedy film about this ludicrous quest, King Arthur ends up in a sword fight with the Black Knight. Piece by piece, he lops parts of the knight’s body off. Each time he does, he asks his opponent to surrender, but the knight rises up again to fight once more. “Tis but a scratch,” he says, as his arm is removed. “Just a flesh wound.” Finally, when the Black Knight is nothing but a head and torso, Arthur walks away in disgust. As he does so, the Knight screams after him to come back and finish the fight. “I’ll bite your legs off!” he howls, in anguish, as Arthur leaves.

There’s something about that scene that is akin to the Brexit debacle. The longer it goes on, the weaker Britain will get, and the more vulnerable its constituent parts — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — will be to dismemberment. And yet, Johnson’s team, impossibly stubborn in their quest for the Holy Grail, will continue to claim that all is well, that Europe will soon come to its senses and, the evidence notwithstanding, suddenly cede to all of Britain’s demands.

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