We still don't quite know what "Brexit means Brexit" really means. But after stalking the Conservative Party conference's fringe meetings around Birmingham, I've started to get the gist, which is... er... something about "freedom", as envisaged by self-important PPE students who've watched too much Hornblower on ITV4.
Brexiteers are bounding around the conference like dogs who've just had their bellies stroked. On Sunday evening, Doctor Liam Fox MP spoke at a meeting of Conservative Voice and the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, held at an art gallery selling prints for £25,000. Fox has long been an advocate of leaving the EU and now he's in charge of international trade. This was pretty much the pinnacle of his career, and he was off his tits on Brexit.
Eyes wide, he talked about "that moment" on the 23rd to 24th of June when the result of the referendum was announced. "We certainly did a great deal for French champagne exports that night," he joked.
So what's the plan, Dr Fox? Basically, it's all about trade. "It is unbelievable that a country like the United Kingdom has contracted out its trade negotiation [to the EU]," he said. "It's time to get that back, and I'm sure amongst the 1,000-odd people who've actually applied in our department to be a trade negotiator, some of them are genuine. Some of the CVs make interesting reading, I have to say." Another great joke as the country sinks.
He referred to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, a classic economic tome from 1776, saying that the "invisible hand" will regulate the market without the need for regulation. The crowd was enthusiastic. I was surrounded by the cult of Smith.
"We, the British people, are going to once again... show the world exactly how you can liberate in order to create greater prosperity for all," he said next. Ah yes, a return to the glory years, where everyone was free to lose their arm in an industrial lathe and die in penury, or be liberated of their land by some red-coated soldiers.
"This is not just another political moment. This is history in the making. All my political life I have waited for this moment. It is a golden opportunity for our country and for the wider world," he said. "Every single one of us has a moral duty to ensure that it succeeds, and that is the challenge that we have. Good luck!" Good luck, guys! Said the man who is literally in charge.
Earlier that evening, at a meeting of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group – the anti-Europe grouping in the European Parliament – Conservative MEP Syed Kamall pointed to the example of the Danish People's Party – which rejects the multi-ethnic transformation of Denmark – as one we should follow.
He was speaking with Timo Soini, Finnish Foreign Minister and leader of the Finns Party, formerly the True Finns, a keenly anti-immigrant party. And there was Sanders Loones, an MEP from the NVA, a party that wants to see Flanders succeed from Belgium. Here was the true face of internationalism.
Before long, Loones went full Trump. "Civic integration has failed" and created "unease", he said. "Peaceful society in the European Union is under pressure as a result of migration and the refugee crisis; migrants have not integrated and are hostile to our values and society, and we need to close our borders and put a halt to illegal migration."
"People fear the terrorist threat. People fear that Europe will not be able to stay European," he said. Glad to see we're in such good company now.
On Monday I went to a meeting of the Bruges group – a Eurosceptic pressure group named after a famous speech by Margaret Thatcher, whose picture was in the middle of the speakers' table. It was perhaps the most triumphant meeting yet and was called "Brexit: Winning the Peace", implying, I guess, that the EU is basically the Third Reich.
The speakers were Charles Moore, biographer of Margaret Thatcher; James Delingpole, a Breitbart journalist who was applauded by the crowd for not believing in climate change; and David Middleton, an accountant who said that the economics of Brexit "doesn't really matter". They all cooed about Brexit and the freedom it would bring, with Delingpole calling the night of 23rd June his "special happy place".
As the floor was opened to questions, Caroline Stephens – director of VoteLeaveUK, "the campaign for complete Brexit" – started asking questions about TTIP and CETA, the Trans-Atlantic trade deals that have been criticised for steamrolling through the privatisation of public services and for enabling corporations to sue governments. She said it could mean the privatisation of the NHS, and pointed out that the British government had approved them. In that context, "What does liberation mean?"
"I rely on Adam Smith. I refuse to get into the detail," said David Middleton, reassuringly.
"I'm fighting the fight for the working person – for the man in the street – and I don't think there's enough politicians that are doing that. Why aren't all these Brexit politicians talking about the fact that the trade commissioners have given the green light to TTIP? What was the point of the 23rd of June?"
It was a good question. People voted for Brexit for a variety of reasons, but it has vindicated some very stupid, very bigoted people. And it's the weird obsessives who brought it about who will now drive it through. Everyone's going on about the free market and fan-boying over 18th century economist Adam Smith as if that's a panacea. When somebody brought up an actual trade deal that poses real risks to people's lives, there wasn't really an answer. So weirdly, I'll sum up by restating the question posed by the director of VoteLeaveUK: What does liberation mean?
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