It’s becoming abundantly clear that Theresa May and her merry Brexiteers have rather strange ideas about what the country needs to get out of Brexit (innovative biscuits, anyone?) and how to get Brussels to agree to a good deal. I’ve been somewhat puzzled by the reasons for this, but recently several article and comments have converged to create a clearer picture in my head. I’ll be quoting several of these below.
The first piece in the jigsaw was an
article in the Financial Times by Simon Kuper, who was at Oxford with many of the current Tory politicians:
[P]olitically minded public schoolboys inhabited their own Oxford bubble. […] Their favourite hang-out was the Oxford Union, a kind of children’s parliament that organises witty debates. […] It’s no coincidence that the Houses of Parliament look like a massive great Gothic public school. That building is a magnet for this set. Whereas ordinary Britons learn almost no history at school except a UK-centric take on the second world war (as evidenced in the Brexit debate), the Union hacks spent their school years imbibing British parliamentary history. Their heroes were great parliamentarians such as Palmerston, Gladstone and Churchill. I don’t think most Union hacks dreamed of making policy. Rather, Westminster was simply the sort of public-school club where they felt at home […] [When] Margaret Thatcher gave her legendary anti-European “Bruges speech”, […] this set began obsessing about Brussels. Ruling Britain was their prerogative; they didn’t want outsiders muscling in. Tory “Euroscepticism” is in part a jobs protection scheme akin to Parisian taxi drivers opposing Uber. The public schoolboys spent decades trying to get British voters angry about the EU.
This explains amongst many other things why the Brexiteers keep going on about free trade, not realising that today businesses are more interested in not getting their just-in-time supply chains interrupted by customs officials — they have spent too much time reliving the free trade debates of the 19th century.
Something I observed when seconded into Whitehall from the EU was how the Bubble (Westminster and Whitehall) does not ‘get’ the EU Institutions, to the point that it seems almost wilful. What do I mean by this? I mean that Whitehall — even UKREP veterans — deploy almost all of their resources in lobbying other members of the Council while ignoring the other institutions, the Commission and Parliament. London seems to think that building alliances with other capitals is the only way to get things done in Brussels. It almost felt like wishful thinking on their part — “we want it to be intergovernmental so we’re going to pretend that it’s intergovernmental”. Yes, the Council is the most powerful of the EU institutions and yes Member State positioning counts but not exclusively so. As much as Whitehall would like to pretend that Berlin and Paris will be conducting these negotiations, they won’t be. London will have to deal with the Commission. And boy it is not going to be an easy ride. The Commission are very used to tough negotiating on behalf of EU citizens and EU Member States.
This is really shocking, but it explains why David Cameron approached his renegotiation in entirely the wrong way by talking almost exclusively to the other heads of state.
Bjsalba then followed up with this insightful comment:
It seems to me that the UK reluctantly left the era of Gunboat Diplomacy for the era of lobbying other governments behind closed doors where I would suspect double-dealing, bullying and bribery are the order of the day. I don’t think that works too well in Brussels, and the old methods would be seen as what they are, a means the UK getting its way by divide and conquer tactics.
The British Government does not understand how to operate in an organization that works by co-operation. I would suggest that they are “not genetically programmed” to do so. That they are now plan to send round the Royals does indeed smack of desperation.
I think this ties in with the first article I quoted above. The Brexiteer Tories spent their school days studying Westminster debates of the 19th century, so of course they want to revert to the foreign politics of that era, too.
On a similar topic, Cath Ferguson left this comment under a post on Facebook:
I think, ironically, English political leaders have the same thing in reverse with Scotland — a kind of projection. I’m pretty sure none of the sane ones really wanted (or want) Brexit. They just want to blackmail the EU into giving them what they want with the threat of leaving. So with Scotland and the SNP, they assume Salmond, Sturgeon et al are doing the same thing, ie they don’t really want independence, just to force more concessions out of the UK. They view both as games of poker where you “don’t show your hand” to the EU, and “don’t back down” with the Jocks — just tell them what’s what. There’s a real and horrible danger for England there that they end up out the EU on their own because they’ve mis-read both situations and assumed everyone plays daft political games the way Westminster does.
So basically, they don’t just have strange and old-fashioned ideas about how politics should be done, but they assume everybody is the same.
[In Germany] when somebody offers you something to eat, and you want it, you say “Yes”, not “No.” These well-brought up [British exchange student] ladies would usually say, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly eat a biscuit” the first time around and wait to be persuaded before giving in with a genteel, “Oh, go on then.” In Germany, [their teacher explained], “No” actually means “No.” You won’t be offered that biscuit again.
Last year, David Cameron tried to persuade German chancellor Angela Merkel to let the UK have a special deal to opt out of free movement of people while staying in the single market. She said “No”, and she meant, well, “No.”
Not “No, but okay if you push hard enough maybe yes”, just “No.”
When she said this again before the referendum vote, she meant “No.”
And last week to Theresa May in Brussels, the answer was “No.” She’s not quite sure how to make this any clearer.
But in the UK, poiticians and journalists are asking the question, “What does Merkel really think?” The chatter in Westminster is all about how Britain can persuade Germany to give it the best bits of the single market and amidst all the talk of red lines and not revealing your hand, there is continuous speculation about how to interpret the signals coming out of Berlin.
In fact, this is all quite simple. Merkel means what she says, and German politicians are getting increasingly frustrated by London not seeming to understand this.
Interestingly, several people pointed out on Facebook that this is perhaps only a problem for the southern English middle classes — a Scot doesn’t typically have any issues with understanding what the continental politicians are saying.
It’s very worrying, though, because it means the Brexiteers will waste everybody’s time in the negotiations.
In short, they’ll speak to the wrong people, in the wrong way, asking for the wrong things, and they won’t understand the reply. Wow.