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Not martyrs, masochists: Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable launches a ferocious attack on desperate Brexit fanatics whose zealotry is igniting a new McCarthyism

By Sir Vince Cable - Mail on Sunday / 6 August 2017

Before his career in politics, Vince Cable was an economics lecturer and economist for Shell. Here, he says that the “Remain argument about economic damage is now largely accepted”. As you will have noted, this view is emphatically not shared by Brexit economists. 

Question for Vince, from Tim. Vince – you say the old shafted the young. Do you not agree that the most valuable gift to the young is democracy, rather than an uncertain promise of money in the EU? Thanks, Tim.

The Brexit debate is hotting up with public splits in the Cabinet and early signs that Brexit will have serious consequences: banks taking their jobs to the Continent; lengthening queues to cross national frontiers; rumblings in the dormant volcano of Ireland. 

Both sides in the Brexit debate have claimed to offer a route to better living standards. The Brexiteers used to tell us about the money that would be saved for the NHS and the jobs created through new trade agreements. Remainers warned that Brexit would be economically disastrous (albeit with an immediacy and exaggerated sense of drama that was probably counter-productive).

But there has been a subtle change. The Remain argument about economic damage is now largely accepted. Mounting evidence of a slowing economy and rising inflation give substance to earlier warnings. The issue has become one of how to minimise or postpone the damage. And instead of countering the arguments, more and more Brexiteers are embracing economic pain as a price worth paying for ‘taking back control’: almost as a badge of honour. This attitude has reached worrying proportions. Press stories refer to ‘martyrs for Brexit’ based on a YouGov survey suggesting 61 per cent of the public would accept ‘significant damage to the economy’ from Brexit and 39 per cent ‘don’t mind losing their job’. These figures seem wildly implausible. I don’t encounter people running around saying ‘please make me poorer’ or ‘please sack me’. These figures are also difficult to reconcile with polling which shows 66 per cent of voters wanting to remain inside the single market. But let us assume for the moment that the numbers are accurate. To describe such masochism as ‘martyrdom’ is dangerous. We haven’t yet heard about ‘Brexit jihadis’, but there is an undercurrent of violence in the language which is troubling. We have already had the most fervent of Brexiteers, such as Nigel Farage, warning of civil unrest if the ‘will of the people’ is frustrated.

Brexiteers may well be frustrated since the practical difficulties of Brexit, as well as the costs, could result in Brexit never happening. But the last thing the UK needs is further polarisation. There is already more than enough bad-mouthing of opponents and questioning of the patriotism of those who criticise the Government. Last week saw a sinister twist in Brexiteers’ tactics. Hardliner Iain Duncan Smith called on some of Britain’s parliamentary trade envoys to be sacked. Their crime? Daring to criticise aspects of our withdrawal from the European Union. One of the envoys (all of whom are unpaid and do it to serve their country) targeted as a result of Duncan Smith’s intemperate attack was Lord Janvrin, the Queen’s former private secretary. An ex-Royal Navy submarine officer and distinguished public servant with no political ties, he was ‘named and shamed’ merely for wanting to protect the rights of EU nationals. Labour MP Rushanara Ali, trade envoy to Bangladesh, was another in Duncan Smith’s firing line. She has won praise from diplomats for her efforts to boost Anglo-Bangladeshi trade. And, with Bangladeshi roots, she is better placed than Mr Duncan Smith or one of his fellow white, male, middle-aged Brexiteers to win trade. Outrageously, the Right-wing Brexit Central website that launched Duncan Smith’s tirade quoted an unnamed Minister as accusing the envoys of ‘talking down our country’ and said ‘others in the Government feel the same way’. This is how McCarthyism started. At this rate, we will have Brexit thought crimes before long. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Brexiteers are becoming desperate.

Rather than closing down dissent, they might like to explain how Britain can possibly flourish if cut off from the world’s largest single market after what senior civil servants have called a scandalously wasted year, with Ministers waging civil war rather than working out what they want from Brexit.

Another concern is that the self-declared martyrs may be planning to sacrifice other people rather than themselves. It is striking that the martyrs appear predominantly elderly (indeed the YouGov poll confirmed that fact). This is unsurprising since 64 per cent of over-65s voted Brexit in the referendum and 71 per cent of under-25s voted Remain. In the campaign, I was struck by the heavily Remain sentiment in colleges and schools and the heavily Brexit mood of church-hall meetings packed with retired people.

The martyrdom of the old comes cheap, since few have jobs to lose. And even if the country were to become poorer, their living standards are largely protected by the ‘triple lock’ on the state pension and many can rely on occupational, final salary, pensions which are closed to younger people. When I joined the Coalition Cabinet in 2010, we took pride in the ‘triple lock’ to banish the scourge of pensioner poverty. But one of its unintended consequences has been a growing rift between generations.

Pensioners have suffered relatively little from the aftermath of the financial crisis – unless they were slow to shift savings from banks to shares or property. The burden of austerity has been carried by the working population. Young people suffer the additional disadvantage of prohibitive housing costs, growing job insecurity and limited career progression. The old have comprehensively shafted the young. And the old have had the last word about Brexit, imposing a world view coloured by nostalgia for an imperial past on a younger generation much more comfortable with modern Europe.

At the Election, the young took their revenge, or thought they had. They got behind Jeremy Corbyn, seeing in him a pro-European champion, and punished Theresa May’s Tories for pursuing an extreme Brexit. Little did they realise that Mr Corbyn detests the EU, believing it, and especially Margaret Thatcher’s single market, to be a major obstacle to Britain embracing revolutionary socialism. And he is probably right about that. Britain is now in a bizarre place with a Remain Prime Minister pursuing a hard, extreme Brexit and a Brexit leader of a Remain Opposition actively helping her. Only the Liberal Democrats are fighting to remain in the single market and customs union.

At the centre of government, meanwhile, there has been a shift in the balance of power. The grown-ups, led by the Chancellor and Business Secretary, have been seeking to postpone Brexit for three years, keeping the full discipline of the single market, to give our companies time to adjust. Sensible enough, even though it is postponing pain, rather than avoiding it. They appear to have lost the argument.

No 10 confirms that freedom of movement will end in 2019. Therefore, the single market ends. There will be no transition. The cliff edge draws closer. For the Brexit martyrs, paradise beckons. No longer Project Fear but Project Here.

MP for Twickenham and leader of the Liberal Democrats