Prophets of doom are not much fun to be around. Nobody wants a “Jeremiah next door”, which is how the Daily Mail recently described Philip Hammond’s relationship to Theresa May. The chancellor was accused of spooking the prime minister with Old Testament fire-and-brimstone economic forecasts. His refusal to spread the Good News about Brexit was cited as grounds for dismissal.
Jeremiah was right, of course. That’s what made him a good prophet. Still, the book that carries his name is not without Brexit parables. Chapter 28 introduces Hananiah, who promises to release the people of Judah from the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar. He will repatriate powers from Babylon (I paraphrase only slightly) and it will take only two years. But Hananiah is a shyster. “The Lord has not sent thee,” Jeremiah tells him. “Thou makest this people to trust in a lie.” Scripture does not record whether reclaimed Babylonian gold had been pledged for the Judean health service.
It is easy for pro-Europeans to scoff at Brexiters who blame insufficient exuberance for the slow fulfilment of their dream, when it is the dream itself that is failing to measure up to reality. But anyone so tempted should remember that leavers also laugh at shroud-waving remainers, on whose head the post-referendum sky failed to fall despite apocalyptic forecasts. One side cries delusion; the other, hysteria.
I happen to think that facts favoured the anti-Brexit argument last year and that the leavers now demand positive thinking because they feel events unfolding at a negative angle. If there wasn’t a gap between what was promised and what can be delivered, there would be no need for leaps of faith. But harrowing jeremiads didn’t win the referendum campaign and they aren’t helping now, except perhaps as therapy for despondent pro-Europeans.
It might be comforting, too, when venerable institutions keep the old remain-flame burning. The OECD today warned that divergence from the EU would lead to the UK’s long-term economic decline. The thinktank also suggested that a Brexit reversal, perhaps by a second referendum, could repair the damage. Last week the IMF identified British economic under-performance as a “notable exception” to an otherwise upbeat global forecast. No prizes for identifying the exceptional decision Britain made in 2016 that might yield such an effect.
But people who voted leave do not relish being told that they embraced national ruin. They appreciate still less the inference that their vote expressed intellectual or moral deficiency: vulnerability to a con or racist dyspepsia in their guts, caused by failure to digest modernity.
The Brexiters' pitch was not, as I recall, that it would be safer than bombardment by the Luftwaffe
If minds were easily changed by a patronising eye-roll and a finger-wagging demand to get real, Jeremy Corbyn would not be leader of the Labour party. His opponents tested those methods to destruction. Recent Labour history is also instructive on the limited utility of doomsday scenarios. The extreme worst-case outcome is, by definition, less probable than something milder. Catastrophism sets the bar low for an opponent. Technically, Labour lost the 2017 general election. But predictions of annihilation, served with macabre relish, made Corbyn’s creditable second-place glisten like a gold medal in his supporters’ eyes.
Brexiters are now surfing a falling tide of expectations. There is a whole sub-genre of chutzpah pioneered by the likes of Chris Grayling and David Davis, claiming that no one said Brexit would be easy in the exact blithe tones in which they once said it would be a cinch.
It is quite common to see leavers compare the scale of the task ahead to mobilisation for the second world war. The analogy is meant to invoke a patriotic blitz spirit, but it sets a grotesque benchmark for success. Anything short of the imperilment of civilisation counts as a good result. Remainer horror stories unwittingly accept that metric.
I don’t think it is asking too much that Brexit rather be judged against the terms of its sale to the public: a quick fix for porous borders, a cost-free carnival of sovereignty and a cash rebate. The pitch was not, as I recall, that it would be safer than bombardment by the Luftwaffe.
The current impasse in negotiations makes a messy outcome look temporarily more likely, although there is a way through. At their summit later this week, the EU27 will offer “internal preparatory” discussions about the terms of the UK’s transition and future trade deal. That is a concession on the timetable, although many Tories will struggle to call it one. Theresa May will then loosen the purse-strings a bit further in discussion of the UK’s outstanding budget commitments. If both sides choreograph their moves, side-stepping the hardliners in May’s party, phase two of the talks can be unlocked in December. The principle is crude but effective: pay to play.
There are still many ways the process can be derailed. Even if a deal is done, it can be undone on its ratification journey through continental parliaments. The most probable outcome, on the current trajectory, is a ragged compromise that meets a technical definition of Britain no longer being a member of the EU, but with enough continuing integration for Eurosceptics to feel betrayed. The UK will be worse off than it needed to be, angrier, and diminished on the world stage. But it will not be a smouldering crater.
Yet Westminster is not equipped to navigate the space between the best and worst cases imaginable. It is a feature of polarisation, accelerated by self-segregation in digital opinion ghettos, that public debate on many issues is framed as if the only options are rapture and calamity: building the New Jerusalem or a Fourth Reich. But soon we will be confronted with choices from the more mundane, middle part of the spectrum: neither perfection nor perdition. I wonder if we can recall the vocabulary to argue in terms of least-worst options. Do we remember how to debate without impugning each other’s motives and integrity?
Last year’s referendum whipped up a millenarian frenzy that only dedicated fanatics would choose to sustain. Pro-Europeans should avoid that trap. British politics does not need more hallucinatory arguments between Jeremiahs and Hananiahs. Promises were made. That is a point of fact, not faith. Whether Brexit can match those promises is a question of evidence. There is no more need for prophecy.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist