Saying 'Hard' and 'Soft' Brexit Stops Us Talking About a Better Future

Why do we only have two terrible options to chose from?
October 25, 2016, 1:30pm

(Picture by Alastair Grant AP/Press Association Images)

The Prime Minister doesn't much like talking about "hard" or "soft" Brexit. Neither do I; it's not a pretty landscape. Some of us, exhausted by all the bickering and uncertainty, just want to lick fat greasy dollops of Marmite directly out the jar and then collapse into a Brexit as soft and cushioned as possible to fall asleep. Others have stranger desires; they dream of hard Brexits, rock-solid and throbbing, to splinter the crummy illusions of middle-class Britain in kinetic streams of nationalist rage. Theresa May, meanwhile, insisted at the start of this month that "there is no such thing as a choice between soft Brexit and hard Brexit". On Friday she offered her alternative, announcing that her personal preference would be for a "smooth" Brexit (as opposed, presumably, to a "crunchy" Brexit or a "bebop" Brexit). May disapproves of the hard/soft dichotomy because it runs against her own grim tautological catchrphrase, that "Brexit means Brexit". Nevertheless she might have a point.

In the end, it's a deeply boring binary metaphor; hard or soft is no useful way to arrange our political choices. It's not as if there were some kind of Mohs scale measuring the hardness of potential Brexits, from the easily lacerated flaccidity of mere human flesh to the adamantine glint and dart of Theresa May's eyeballs. There are so many options, and our future's at stake: we need to dream bigger, certainly we need to do more than just asking for things to be smooth. The Europeans, who tend to be better than us at this sort of thing, have today warned that we might see a "dirty", naughty Brexit. It's a good start.


Why aren't we thinking in terms of a "wet" or "dry" Brexit? Will the country slosh over its borders in flows of international aid or prowling gunboats, or will it shrivel and desiccate into itself? Will our future be flying or burrowing? When we went to the polls this year, did we vote to exit the EU in a way that was straight-laced and boring, or screamingly, fabulously camp?

One could plot Brexits on multiple axes, ending up with an n-dimensional phase space of potential futures. Hot/cold and moist/dry are the obvious options, following ancient humoural theory – a cold and moist or melancholic Brexit would look something like the Norwegian model, involved but sullenly unparticipating, while a choleric Brexit, hot and dry, might involve invading France – but we could invent others.

Or given that, as all sketchwriters know, politics is basically an extended metaphor for what's on TV, why not propose a Lannister Brexit (protect the banking sector at all costs), a Targaryen Brexit (mass ritual suicide in front of Buckingham Palace), or a Stark Brexit (every citizen is assured one bowl of turnip soup a day)?

We won't do this, of course; it'll most likely be hard or soft Brexit right up until it actually happens, at which point everyone will be too busy trying to fend off the inevitable giant rats to bother complaining about nomenclature. But why is it this particular metaphor, rather than any of the more interesting ones, that's being so repetitively drilled into the national consciousness?


Like any political metaphors, it's a deception, and one that's very convenient for both sides. Its associations allow us to think that our options are rigour or moderation – and, crucially, that these are the only options. It's not true. The choice that the government has outlined for itself isn't one between hard or soft, it's between leaving everything pretty much the way it is, to rot slowly, or dynamiting it all in one go.

A "hard" Brexit means cutting off the imported labour that prevents us from fast-tracking our way to demographic crisis; it means abjuring London's status as a one-stop shop for international finance and in doing so instantly popping the housing bubble that's pretty much the only thing keeping our economy afloat; it means systematically wrecking our institutions of higher education because we're terrified of foreign students; it means shutting out refugees from a country that soon might not even be able to honestly offer safe asylum; it means descending further into social madness and fascism, and the conversion of what was once only an ugly imperialist power into the North Korea of Europe. Much easier to just say "hard", or even (like May) to collapse the distinction altogether, and sound like you're only following the referendum vote to the letter.

But as moderate Tories and their sycophants like to insist, this isn't what people voted for; there was nothing on the ballot paper about sending the finance sector to Frankfurt and subsisting off domestically-produced gruel. People voted for Brexit, not hard Brexit – it was just a "leave", an abstract negation waiting for someone to come along and determine it.


If we're going to play at this kind of cack-handed crowd psychology, then it'd be far more reasonable to argue that 52 percent of the electorate really voted for voluntary human extinction and the end of the world, a full-nihilist cataclysm of which the destruction of, say, the British universities system would only be a minor part. "Soft" Brexit is another euphemistic fiction; it allows the referendum vote to be represented as a measured and rational request for some minor policy tweaks. Its advocates want to change precisely nothing: we'd lose our vote but carry on participating in every important EU institution; Britain would continue to rely on financial speculation and overinflated house prices forever, and all the while the inequalities and resentments that led to the Brexit vote would keep on bubbling, waiting to burst out again in a different form.

This is why it's essential to think beyond these two paths off the same cliff: for all the nightmares it's created, the blank abstraction of a referendum result really does offer some slim opportunity to introduce something new. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party has done a decent job at outlining alternative priorities for the Brexit negotiations, but it's not as if anyone's listening. It's on us, and at long last we need to get creative.


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