Brexit is a mistake. It’s also an illustration that we are truly free. Free to screw up, big time. The vote was an exercise in breathtaking political irresponsibility. But it happened. No one stopped Mr Cameron. He wasn’t clapped in irons and carted off to The Tower, although he did lose his job. He was free to do what he wanted. Free to order a plebiscite that should never have taken place. Free, to force the electorate to do Parliament’s dirty work for it.
Boris Johnson was free to play fast and loose with the facts about the cost of EU membership; free to ride the coat tails of Mr Farage’s dog whistle racism. Everyone was free to compare refugees to swarming migrants. Theresa May was free to keep her head down, vote Remain but not fight for it.
To be fair to Mrs May, no one fought a Remain campaign. It was a Don’t Leave campaign. There’s a big difference. You can say to your lover “I don’t want to leave you because I will be worse off”. But it’s a far cry from saying “I want to be with you because we will be better together”.
The electorate was free to behave like children, inexplicably permitted to decide their bedtime. Free to choose the splendid isolation, as one commentator put it, of “desert island sovereignty” over the graft of managing essential relationships in a globalised economy. Free to cleave to the rich legacy of Empire without ‘fessing up to the moral duty to share it.
The European Union mandarins and leaders were free to exude, as they say in Ireland, “the smell of burning martyr” in their incomprehension that some felt the EU was just not working; free to have failed down through the years to manage their PR effectively to avoid this outcome. Above all, free to allow the weakening of a great, if flawed, post-World War II peace process.
So, here we are living through a phony Brexit. Let’s be clear: there has been no Brexit. Just a vote. And everyone is behaving as we if we have left already. We haven’t. Oops, I’ve written “we”. What a slip. I’m an Irish migrant. I’ve lived in England for 25 years. At a recent networking event in London a man I didn’t know, with a glint in his eye, clocked my accent and asked me if I felt “they would let me stay”. It was an unthinkable joke, even six months ago. But people are free to joke.
We won’t be leaving for another two years at least, but we are free to go if we trigger Article 50. But that’s only a nicety. I believe the PM when she says that “Brexit means Brexit”. We have already left in our hearts. The markets know it. It’s as if a decree nisi was handed down and it will take us two years to split the CDs and sell the house.
Would that the cost of the break-up was that cheap. As I write, news has broken that Lloyds Bank will shed thousands of jobs partly because of Brexit. Daily I hear of the severe negative impact of the vote. I’ve yet to read a positive story.
So, look at what we have achieved with our freedom. Witness what we have done with the liberty for which those who died in trenches fought. It’s a travesty. But bizarrely it’s also a triumph. Liberty gives us the right to decide. But it also gives us the right to make the wrong decision, if you feel it’s wrong.
If history judges Brexit to be the greatest own goal ever, what does that say about the value of freedom? Is it, as Churchill said, only two cheers for democracy? No, because the Brexit vote has exposed an inconvenient but important truth: a significant majority of people in the UK are not simply ready for globalisation.
They don’t get that globalisation is the process by which the world is becoming increasingly interconnected as a result of massively increased trade and cultural exchange. The Remain campaign failed to sell the benefits of globalisation – starting with a reformed EU – over leaving the EU. In fact, they didn’t even try.
As any rookie salesperson will tell you, the first rule of selling is to accept responsibility for the sale. The Remain campaign ignored this and every other rule in Sales 101. They went for the “assumed close”, a rare occurrence. It happens only where the close is such a slam dunk that you don’t even have to ask for the business. They were wrong. Liberty is about the freedom to be buyers or sellers of ideas and, crucially, the right not to buy.
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