Mary Kenny: 'We have only to look at our own past to grasp the Brexit mindset'

I have a vote in Kent, but I didn’t vote for Brexit, nor would I – it certainly isn’t in Ireland’s interest. But I am surrounded by those who did, here in strong Brexit country.

And those who would do so all over again, were there a second Referendum. I’ve even encountered people who voted Remain the first time who now say they would choose Brexit because they’re so cheesed off with the way the political establishment has mismanaged the process of leaving the EU.

“I’m no fan of Donald Trump,” a retired scientist told me, “but I wish to heaven we’d had him on our side in dealing with Brussels.

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“He understands that you can’t approach a deal as a supplicant. You have to start out by applying maximum leverage.”

It’s a puzzle to many Irish people that possibly up to half of the British electorate stubbornly sticks with Brexit when there are so many practical downsides: problems with trading, the threat to jobs, the logistics of moving goods in and out of ports like Dover, and the inevitability, it seems, of having to accept – or “align” with – EU rules anyway.

Don’t they see that, economically, they’re acting against their own interest? The Remainers certainly do grasp that and make the case repeatedly, even threateningly.

But Professor Matthew Goodwin of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), who has done 10 studies into why people voted as they did, says economics were not the Brexiteers’ priority. The main motive is “identity”. It’s not an economic rationale: it’s a “feeling”.

In the recent Channel 4 docu-drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’, the Leave campaign mastermind, Dominic Cummings – played by Benedict Cumberbatch as an odd but weirdly inspirational character – cracked that feeling with the slogan he devised: ‘Take Back Control’. This was seen as control of sovereignty, but for some, it was also personal. People who felt they had been marginalised, ignored, considered to be “nothing”, left behind, sneered at and discounted, believed they could now “take back control” of at least one thing in their lives – their national identity.

Back in 1904, George Bernard Shaw wrote a political comedy called ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ (which, incidentally, Michael Collins saw, in 1915, along with Lady Lavery, and it seems to have impressed him).

It was regarded as hilarious because it reversed stereotypes between England and Ireland: it featured a rational, logical, and business-like Irishman in partnership with a romantic, impractical and easily-fooled duffer of an Englishman.

Audiences roared with laughter because everyone knew the Irish were dreamy poets, patriots and mystical romantics with little practical sense, while the English, formed by the hard industrial landscape and the practice of commerce, were down-to-earth, unimaginative pragmatists. What a scream!

Some 115 years later, the stereotype reversals seem to have come true. Irish people express their bewilderment at the sheer lack of practical economic sense of the British Brexiteers, dwelling in some la-la land where they think they can go it alone in defiance of geography, logistics and – above all – economics.

Today it’s the Irish who are giving tutorials to the Brits on how to be sensible and stop all this day-dreaming about “sovereignty”. Get real!

Yet, 100 years ago, the Irish nationalists who embarked on a War of Independence against the United Kingdom knew they would be economically disfavoured by breaking with the UK – but they believed independence to be worth it. They upheld the slogan “better to die on your feet than live on your knees”. They adhered to Pearse’s ringing words about “the right of the people of Ireland… to the unfettered control of Irish destinies”. Not too far from “Take back control”, then.

It was indeed heedless, and self-centred, for Brexiteers not to consider the impact on the Border in Ireland, a problem which has so far proved to be so intractable. But nations often are self-centred about acting in their own interests – even where they pledge to pool sovereignty. Italy, Hungary, Poland, even Denmark – currently maintaining a tough attitude towards migrants they regard as unacceptable – are all doing just that.

It’s true Brexiteers had varied motives. Some objected to the number of migrants entering the country – about half-a-million every year. Perhaps a few are old-fashioned types still fantasising about days of empire, though personally I can’t say I’ve encountered any.

In Kent, fishing rights are a big issue. And the young man who told me “we were being increasingly governed by laws we haven’t voted for – which no one voted for” represents a thoughtful democratic constituency.

Brexit is the divorce of a marriage that was never much of a love-match anyway. Britain was always semi-detached, demanding various opt-outs, rejecting the euro, retaining miles rather than switching to kilometres, even reluctant enough about the metric system – those obstinately trading in pounds and ounces elevated to the status of “metric martyrs”.

Ireland, for every rational reason, doesn’t like Brexit, but for old times’ sake a sense of understanding for that impulse of national sovereignty shouldn’t be beyond our ken.

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