Wealthy men are playing with the lives of 60 million people as if Brexit were a game of chess, writes Joyce McMillan.
It’s the afternoon of the 849th day since the Brexit vote, and I am amusing myself by looking up the definition of the word “carpetbagger” on various authoritative dictionary websites. The word is on my mind because it has just been used by the Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, about his former Cabinet colleague, Dominic Raab, following his resignation from the Government; and there is a strong consensus, among lexicographers, that it is entirely American in origin, and refers to opportunists – one might say chancers – who arrived in the Southern US states immediately after the Civil War, hoping to scoop up confiscated lands or other assets which had been seized by the victorious Union army, and to profit from post-war reconstruction.
This is therefore a particularly harsh word for one senior Tory politician to use about another, under the full spotlight of a media interview, in this case for Borders Television; and it perhaps offers a rare public glimpse of the sheer hatred and contempt now fuelling the internal Tory wars over Brexit. To call a colleague a carpetbagger is to accuse him of seeking personal profit and advancement by moving into situations about which he or she knows little and cares less, and seeking to take advantage of them; and Mundell did not mince his words. “I’m not impressed,” he said, “by Dominic Raab’s latter-day commitment to the Union. I am sure this is more about manoeuvring and leadership.”
Yet if Mundell’s condemnation of Raab is interesting for its public frankness, it is difficult, at this latest crisis-point in the Brexit story, to avoid the conclusion that his low opinion merely reflects the reality of what the cohort of a few dozen hardline Brexiteers – led by just half-a-dozen well-known celebrity politicians – have done to the country they so implausibly claim to love. Earlier in the day, the fine writer Robert Harris – author of the great counter-factual novel Fatherland, among many others – tweeted that “no group of politicians has done more damage to this country than the 50 or so hardline Tory Brexiteers. They have infected the UK with their poison, concealed their real aims, evaded all responsibility, and now knife their own leader for failing to deliver their fantasy.”
And if we take that charge-sheet item by item, there can be little doubt that the whole pack of them – Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, their supporters in government and parliament, and of course their UKIP outrider Nigel Farage – are guilty as charged. Through their powerful connections in the media, they fed and sought to profit politically from a poisonous stream of hate-mongering lies about the European Union in particular, and about the impact of immigration in general, published in highly influential sections of the media over 20 years and more; the EU’s dossier of false stories published in the British media over the years, some of them invented by Johnson himself, makes sobering reading, and is easily available online.
The charge of evading all responsibility is one of which they are almost laughably culpable; not only did they fail to produce any kind of agreed manifesto for a successful Brexit before the EU referendum, but from the moment when they heard – to their evident horror – that they had been victorious, they have thrown obstacle after obstacle in the way of any suggested or negotiated solution, without ever agreeing on or proposing a viable or specific alternative. With hindsight, it is difficult to see the two-year period when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary, and David Davis Brexit Secretary, as anything other than a complete and deliberate waste of time, since they clearly never had any intention of negotiating or accepting any viable Brexit deal; and Dominic Raab is only the latest of them to run away like some Bullingdon Club delinquent from the responsibilities he willingly undertook, and surely has some obligation to see through.
It is clearly true that many of them are now trying to unseat their own party leader for not delivering on a fantasy of painless, glorious Brexit that they themselves have failed to turn into political reality, since the task is impossible. And as for concealing their true aims – well, who can say what strange brew of midlife psychosis and outright political dishonesty has motivated the bizarre wave of retro-imperial fantasy and anti-European rhetoric that has swept through parts of the Tory Party at Westminster in recent years; although investigations into the funding and management of the Leave campaign suggest that there are, at the very least, very serious questions to be asked about the sources of its funds, and its shadowy political connections.
The men who have given us Brexit, in other words, are deluded and incompetent at best, and at worst contemptible political opportunists who decided to deploy the language of narrow-minded xenophobia, and pie-in-the-sky anti-EU rhetoric, to mislead British voters into a decision beset with desperately negative consequences, economic, personal and social. And to make matters worse, all of them are wealthy men playing with the future of 60 million British citizens as if it were a Westminster chess game; while knowing, with the profound confidence of privilege, that they will never feel on their own skins the human cost of their Brexit gamble, or see it impoverish and blight the lives of their own children.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy,” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald of two wealthy characters in The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things and creatures, and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” For Tom and Daisy read David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and you have a strangely accurate account of the situation in which Britain now finds itself; and for us here in Scotland, the only remaining question is whether we hang around waiting for the clean-up to begin, or finally decide to walk away and try to shape our own future, beyond the long shadow of Westminster.