Brexit: A country's critics are its best friends

"Right now, Britain is the political laughing stock of the world. And it's our self-proclaimed "patriots" who have turned us into a joke"
"Right now, Britain is the political laughing stock of the world. And it's our self-proclaimed "patriots" who have turned us into a joke"

By Chaminda Jayanetti

Nobody destroys a country's interests as quickly as its self-proclaimed patriots. George W Bush's presidency was built and sold on patriotic fervour, with critics regularly denounced as "un-American". By the time he left office, he had wrecked his country's economy, military reputation and global standing, all in the space of eight years.

Meanwhile the usual suspects of the British press saturated the country with similar rhetoric in order to build support for the invasion of Iraq - supporters of the war were the true patriots, while critics gave "succour" to the country's enemies.

Not just Iraq, in fact - the Daily Telegraph ran a series of editorials denouncing critics of the Afghan invasion in 2001 as "useful idiots" who were effectively doing Osama bin Laden's work for him. Happily for the Telegraph, the Islamist terror threat has now long since passed.


The disaster in Iraq and the quagmire in Afghanistan are well documented, but disasters stemming from patriotic zeal have a long history. Nationalist fervour helped drive France into the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, to stop the new German state attaining pre-eminence in Europe. The result was the fall of the French military, its capital, its emperor, and its dominance, with Germany becoming the continent's main power. 

The point is this - your mate who eggs you on to down a bottle of neat vodka might be your favourite friend, but your best friend is the one who knows when you should probably stop.

And so to Brexit. Before June 23rd, many Leavers tried to squash criticism of the Brexit case as unpatriotic, as "doing Britain down". This has become more marked since the vote. As the government stumbles through the phoney war of pre-Article 50 megaphone diplomacy, those who warn of Britain's limitations at the negotiating table are cast as "Remoaners", with the frothing Ukippers all but invoking the Treason Act.

Telling a Ukipper that Britain can't dictate terms to the EU is like telling a toddler on Christmas Eve that Santa doesn't exist. Like St Nicholas, Britain's ability to call the shots existed once, but the toddler has only read and dreamt about it, and so have the Kippers.

As with Scottish nationalists shouting down Alistair Darling for not accepting their oil price fantasies in 2014, the Kipper tendency of the Brexit brigade want us to just wrap our head in a flag until we can't see through it.

Every country exists amid the complex realities of the world. Even the USA - the most mighty, or overmighty, nation that has ever existed - discovered its limitations in Iraq. The best friends a country has are not those who would giddily allow it to hurtle headlong into disaster. Its best friends are those who will give it the information it needs to do the best thing for itself. Not its most exciting friends, admittedly, but certainly the most helpful.

Why does this matter? Because those urging Britain to trigger Article 50 as soon as possible are acting directly against this country's interests, no matter how often they fly the flag. The people the government needs to listen to, both on timing and on the best Brexit model, are those who are willing to speak truth to power about the pitfalls of different options and the extent of Britain's bargaining chips. This country needs better guidance than "lie back and think of England". Insta-Brexiters such as Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith and Aaron Banks would do such damage to Britain's prosperity that they, ironically, constitute an enemy within.

Brexiters may point to the lack of a post-referendum economic crisis as evidence that critics should pipe down. If so, they have no self-awareness. Mark Carney's firm commitment to doing whatever it takes to keep the economy afloat has been central to calming investors and markets. He made that commitment because he knows how risky Brexit is. We know he knows that because he said so. And because of that, Brexiters wanted his head on a spike.

This is not about "reclaiming patriotism for the left". What's best for a country is a nebulous concept - what really matters is what's best for a country's people. This is where Kipper types fall down; as Jon Stewart once said of the US Republicans, they love their country - they just hate half the people in it.

But there is something fundamentally pathetic about individuals whose national identity is so fragile, so delicate, so easily bruised, that they take any criticism of their country - any suggestion that it might have imperfections or limitations - as an outrageous insult. 

Forget campus warfare over no-platforms and trigger warnings - Britain's militant Brexiters are our real special snowflakes. Britain once prided itself, rightly or wrongly, on a stiff upper lip. Now those who most noisily bloviate about British pride ring the thought police whenever someone asks a question about non-tariff barriers under the Canada model. It's not exactly Dambusters stuff.

Right now, Britain is the political laughing stock of the world. And it's the self-proclaimed "patriots" who turned us into a joke.

Chaminda Jayanetti is a freelance journalist, and a Eurosceptic Remain-voter.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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