2018: The Year of the Missing Unicorn
- December 30, 2018
In her study of the ‘pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest’ from Troy to Vietnam The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman once noted that ‘Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs.’
This willingness to rely on ‘fixed notions’ has been a persistent thread in the Brexit process that has unfolded so dismally before us for the last 2.5 years. It was already present during the Referendum campaign itself, in the hysterical representations of a transnational organisation that we joined voluntarily as a ‘dictatorship of Brussels’ that kept the UK ‘shackled’ and prevented from achieving its true greatness.
From 2016 these ‘fixed notions’ about the EU have been accompanied by bright visions of what we could be and what was achievable once we had slipped its chains and emerged blinking into independence and freedom. First and foremost amongst them was the idea that we could leave a club that we had joined without losing any of the privileges or the responsibilities that were associated with membership. We heard that the EU needed us more than we needed them; that the German car industry would come to us with a begging bowl. We heard from our own PM that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’
Throughout 2017 politicians delighted us with visions of our forthcoming transformation into ‘Global Britain’ – a buccaneering Empire Redux sailing across the world to sign swashbuckling trade deals with a world that loved and admired us as much as we admired ourselves.
All through 2017 a parade of unicorns passed before our eyes in a beautiful and glorious procession: Global Britain unicorns; Single Market unicorns that came without any strings attached; trade deal unicorns; customs union unicorns without lorry queues or a hard Irish border. Behind them the Labour Party and sections of the left offered less ostentatious, but no less magical unicorns: ‘jobs-first Brexit’; ‘Lexit’; ‘socialist transformation.’
All these unicorns shared certain things in common. They offered us a vision of our national future in which we would lose nothing by leaving the EU and might become even better. Few politicians dared to tell us the future might be worse. When civil servants like Ivan Rogers pointed out ‘contrary signs’ they were forced to resign and their concerns were ignored or dismissed. Our politicians believed that the public wanted unicorns, and that’s what they gave us.
2018 has been a very different year. This was a year in which the ‘contrary signs’ proved impossible to ignore; when the clumsy arrogance of our government in its dealings with the EU was slowly but inexorably unraveled; when the foolishness of triggering Article 50 without any idea of what we really wanted or any realistic assessment of what was feasible or how to get there was painfully revealed.
Now, 90 days from ‘Brexit day’, we have a government that has conceded most of the red lines that it once established, and come up with a deal whose primary achievement has been stopping the free movement of European citizens – and that of its own citizens – with the European political space.
To achieve this deal, the government is effectively blackmailing parliament with the threat of crashing out with no deal, while preparing with the same ineffectiveness that has characterised everything it has done for what is essentially a national emergency. Even the zealots who now to escape the EU’s ‘vassalage’ don’t seem to talk about the unicorns anymore. Some of them, like Rees-Mogg have already made financial arrangements to protect themselves from what is about to unfold. For others the spectacle of national self-destruction and humiliation has become something to look forward to and celebrate.
Meanwhile the rest of the world looks on, as stunned and appalled as so many of us are by what may well go down as one of the most gratuitous and idiotic examples of ‘wooden-headedness’ in history.
A few unicorns still roam through the ultra-nationalist imaginations of Brexiter zealots, who have ignored political reality from the outset. Even in the Labour Party, the ‘Jobs-first Brexit’ unicorn continues to limp on, in Labour’s belief that it can find a better deal – even in the next 90 days – if it gets an election. Socialist transformation has made a surprising comeback in some Labour circles.
But even these unicorns seem shrunken and a little unhealthy – like the UK itself.
You look at them with pity now, and wish they had something better to feed on. But it would be better for them – and us – if they could go back where they came from. Because the world is a harsh and unforgiving place and national self-delusion has very real costs, and unless we can focus our attention back on the real world and find a way out of this mess, I fear we are going to learn that lesson in ways that once upon a time, we never could have imagined.