Imagine you have just been thrown into a tank at a sewage treatment plant. It reeks like hell, you have nothing solid to grip, and you’re flailing around madly trying to grasp something firm to hold onto, but you never manage.
That’s what it has felt like to try to debate Brexit online this past seven days, a period that – as I see it – has taken the discussion around the UK’s exit to new depths of rancid absurdity.
For me personally the worst started when quoted by Julia Hartley Brewer:
Those bloody voters making democratic decisions in a free and fair referendum, eh? https://t.co/BSswcAGPmc
— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) November 30, 2016
The issue was Angela Merkel saying that she wanted no pre-negotiations before the UK triggers Article 50, even on the issue of the rights of UK citizens in the rest of the EU. But Hartley Brewer took my tweet that sought to attribute blame to Brexit rather than to Merkel as an attack on the referendum itself. That the referendum had consequences for people does not mean I am criticising the democratic legitimacy of the vote, but that’s lost on her. Of course the whole attack on Merkel is ridiculous – Merkel is fine with freedom of movement for 500 million EU citizens, yet Hartley Brewer is turning the issue on its head as Carl Gardner points out. Also don’t forget that the House of Commons had the opportunity in October to solve this issue but declined it.
But then Hartley Brewer is followed by such a bunch of crazy people that her tweet started a never ending stream of idiocy. That Angela Merkel wants refugees in Germany more than she wants me. That anything not written in English “means nothing”. That because there are more EU citizens in the UK, than UK ones in the EU, the EU will give the UK what it wants (that’s an alternative Prosecco argument). That I am selfish because I spoke about my own circumstances (second version here, third here). A Brexit troll thought she knows my work situation better than I know it myself. Another one said I lost my right to be a Briton by living in Germany. That people moved before the EU (yes, but a right to something isn’t the same as asking for it). And then, to cap it all, “it’s the remoaners who are realising that remaining would have been disaster and just grizzling“.
There is nothing you can do really do with any of this. I tried, as patiently as I could, to reply where I could, explaining that practical consequences of Brexit were not at odds with the referendum or with democracy, or that I cited my personal experience to make the issue concrete and less abstract. The best I essentially managed was to get a few less expletive-laden tweets in response. I was flailing, but did not quite sink. I think.
But then look at the wider context of the Brexit debate this week, and the pool of shit looks deeper, wider, smellier and more daunting than even before.
David Davis said the UK might still have to pay into the EU budget after Brexit. And he said immigration would be controlled in a way that would suit business, but business does not want much in the way of controls, so who knows what that all entails. Davis also said that Brexit will mean a better relationship with the EU (dream on), while Iain Duncan Smith clearly did not get the message, attacking elected MEP Guy Verhofstadt for being unelected – something that Guy was happy enough to set straight.
Meanwhile Boris Johnson apparently told 4 Ambassadors that he favoured free movement, that a spokesman then denied, and even his old
foe friend Michael Gove stepped in to defend him. Meanwhile Johnson, who lied his arse off in the referendum campaign, had the temerity to complain democracy was in retreat in the world. Planks, eyes, Boris?
Then UKIP’s new leader Paul Nuttall said Britain should leave without even using the Article 50 process. Matt Holehouse diligently tried to explain to ex-UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom how this couldn’t work, and Bloom just cited his time in the army back at him.
Elsewhere the Telegraph managed to surpass its usual awfulness by calling EU citizens migrants and Brits expats, within the same tweet. A memo that was handily photographed in Downing Street stated that the UK’s strategy was to have its cake and eat it. A Tory MP at PMQs said in all seriousness that Brexit would result in a “50% increase in global world product” (whatever that means). Cameron’s former advisor Steve Hilton was surprised that Brexit is not making the UK more of an outward looking country. And John Redwood – a Tory remember – wrote that austerity in the EU was causing austerity in Britain and that Brexit would mean the end of it.
There were a couple of life buoys of relief this week. Peter North’s broadside was the most sensible pro-Brexit piece I have read in ages. Jolyon Maugham wrote a solid strategy for Labour to oppose Brexit (not that I think Labour is listening). YouGov found that a majority of the British people think the government is negotiating Brexit badly (PDF, p. 6). And – best of all – the Lib Dems defeated Zach Goldsmith in Richmond.
Anyway, until next week – and the supreme court ruling on Brexit – try not to drown.Jon