Are we Remainers making a simple mistake about Brexit?
What I mean is that we think of Brexit in consequentialist terms – its effects upon trade, productivity and growth. But many Brexiters instead regard Brexit as an intrinsic good, something desirable in itself in which consequences are of secondary importance.
Thinking of Brexit in this way explains a lot of otherwise strange behaviour:
- Why the Tories have a big poll lead even though voters think they’re doing a lousy job of managing the Brexit process. If you think Brexit is worth having for its own sake, then you’ll be pleased the Tories are getting on with it, because a second-best Brexit is better than none.
- Why most Brexiters had no plan for the process. They just weren’t thinking in consequentialist terms.
- Why Theresa May says “Brexit means Brexit”. To consequentialists, this is pure gibberish. From the perspective of those who want Brexit as a matter of principle, it’s not: it’s an assurance they’ll get what they want.
- Why preparations for Brexit are so chaotic. If you regard Brexit as an intrinsic good, then it’s not so important how we achieve it. Of course, there are good and less good types of Brexit. But if you prefer to satisfice than optimize, this isn’t necessarily decisive.
= Why the government is offering ad hoc support to businesses likely to be hit by Brexit, be it handouts to Nissan or assurances to farmers that they’ll still be able to hire cheap foreign labour. There isn’t a systematic plan here or conception of what Brexit should look like, just one-by-one attempts to buy off specific discontents.
- Why technocrats and Brexiters have a mutual incomprehension and loathing. Technocrats haven’t grasped that because Brexit is a good in itself, the process of achieving it is a secondary detail. And Brexiters have had enough of experts because they are irrelevant as consequences (up to a point) don’t much matter.
Of course, Brexiters might well be under-estimating those consequences. But if so, they are not the first people whose wishful thinking causes them to under-estimate the force of Isaiah Berlin’s point (pdf) that “some among the great goods cannot live together”.
All this poses the question: what is the nature of this intrinsic good? I suspect it’s to do with self-image. Brexiters want to think of themselves as independent people free of the yoke of Brussels, an image that trumps technocratic consequentialist considerations – or at least is incommensurable with them. The fact that many cannot say what exactly they’ll be free to do after Brexit isn’t important: freedom can be desired for its own sake.
In this sense, Brexit is another form of identity politics. Remainers who complain about its adverse effects might be making a point that satisfies themselves, but not one that has much influence upon many of their opponents. As with so much identity politics, we’re left with a rather futile dialogue of the deaf.