Politicians who fail to make the case for the UK remaining in Europe’s single market will be “guilty of a serious dereliction of duty”, the chair of the prestigious Russell Group of universities has warned.
Economist and University of Glasgow principal Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli said a hard Brexit - which would remove Britain from both the single market and the customs union - would be “the most unhinged example of national self-sabotage in living memory”.
Faced with these difficulties, he argued politicians must show leadership “which stands up against the fevered ideological goals” of hardline Brexiteers.
The UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) has exposed bitter divisions in the Conservative Party, with those such as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson deeply critical of Theresa May and her Chequers plan.
Prof Sir Anton also said the PM’s proposals - which have failed to win the support of EU leaders - were “dead”, branding them an “ex-plan”.
The academic, speaking at a Brexit summit organised by Glasgow City Council, was also sceptical about a so-called blind Brexit - where a deal is done in principle between the UK and the EU, but without all the final details being resolved.
Prof Sir Anton, who is also the chair of the Scottish Government’s Standing Council on Europe advisory body, said: “It would be tempting to try and take some comfort in the possibilities afforded by a blind Brexit - to kick it into the long grass and tell ourselves that sanity will prevail and a softer Brexit deal will emerge in time.
“But a blind Brexit is no cause for blind optimism.
“To me, that is the equivalent of a child covering their eyes when watching a horror movie. The horrors of a hard Brexit are still going to be there when we open our eyes - unless we do something about it.”
He continued: “In my view, a hard Brexit would represent the most unhinged example of national self-sabotage in living memory - and everyone in public life has a duty, a moral obligation, to do what we can to prevent it.”
While he accepted it could be “difficult” for politicians to put the country before their party, Prof Sir Anton said: “When we are faced with the economic calamity bearing down upon us now, failure to do so would have gravest economic consequences for millions of people.
“As an economist, I may judge these politicians harshly - but I can assure them that the judgement of historians will be significantly harsher.”
He backed the “sensible and credible” proposals put forward by Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Government to keep the UK in both the single market and the customs union.
And while he said there would be “inherent” difficulties in getting such a deal though the House of Commons, he added that “given the scale of the economic and social disaster about to unfold on ordinary people across this city and across the country, we have the right to expect an effort to be made - the right, in short, to expect leadership”.
Prof Sir Anton insisted: “Any politician refusing to try - who won’t even attempt to soften the pain of Brexit by making the case for single market membership which all logic tells them is the right thing to do - is guilty of a serious dereliction of duty.
“And if their failure of leadership sets our economy and our society back for generations, history will judge them very harshly indeed.”