Brexit did not come from nowhere. The jerry-built utopianism, the indifference to and ignorance of how the British live and what they need to keep them safe, the know-nothing pride in ignorant generalisations and the cocksure love of sweeping solutions have their roots in the right that emerged a decade ago.
Before the Brexiters wrecked the country, they wrecked the lives of the poor. Universal credit was the Conservatives’ fantasy when they took power 2010. Iain Duncan Smith offered a dream so seductive that even his natural critics could not find it in their hearts to condemn him unequivocally. His grand project would remove disincentives to work. It would simplify the complicated and create a benefits system that was “a doorway to real aspiration and achievement”.
Who could object to that? But then who could not want Vote Leave’s promise that we could find £350m a week for the NHS to come good? Or Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s promise that Brexit would involve “no change to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic”? Or Liam Fox’s promise that the EU would grant us the “easiest trade deal” in history? Only when sadists talk to masochists do you hear promises of pain and, although the British now look like masochists led by sadists rather than lions led by donkeys, the record shows that they have been fed on a diet of apple-pie.
That Duncan Smith and the Christian rightwingers who gathered around him meant well and promised inspiring changes in no way exonerates them from the misery that followed. At their best, Tories follow Edmund Burke and are suspicious of idealistic claims that the world can be transformed. “The lines of morality are not like ideal lines of mathematics,” Burke said. “They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence.”
If Brexit incinerated the rules of prudence, the right’s treatment of the poor provided the kindling. Universal credit brought homelessness and pushed families to beg at food banks because Duncan Smith and his fellow half-educated idealists thought they could understand poverty like a mathematical theorem. They say now that their revolution failed because the Treasury stabbed their utopian plans in the back when it failed to provide sufficient resources – and you should get used to “stab in the back” theories because you will hear little else as the disillusionment with Brexit grows and the charlatans who led us on bluster like toddlers denying they wrecked the playpen.
In truth, universal credit was doomed from the start. The right failed to see the poor as they were rather than as they wanted them to be. People are losing tenancies and going without food not only because universal credit is underfunded but because it imposes delays of five weeks or more before it pays anything at all to claimants. The delays are a matter of deliberate policy. In 2010, rightwingers wanted poverty to be the result of chaotic lives, alcoholism, drug addiction and, above all, for this is was what got the religious right’s rocks off, the breakdown of traditional families. They blamed individuals, not the system. A month’s wait for money would make the feckless pull themselves together and learn to live like members of the respectable middle class, who must wait a month for their first salary cheques when they take new jobs.
Leave aside, if you can, that much casual work isn’t paid monthly but weekly or daily, and that by definition if you don’t have money you don’t have savings to fall back on, and consider the lives of the actual poor. Alcoholics and other addicts are indeed chaotic, but the bulk of the working poor are hyper-organised to a degree that their more fortunate compatriots cannot imagine. As Helen Barnard from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says, the mother who is running between childcare and serial part-time jobs, counting every penny in Aldi and watching every minute of her waking day lives a meticulously ordered existence.
Brexit is a globalised version of the same failure to see the world as it is rather than how the right insists it must be. The greatest delusion is one that Burke would have laughed to scorn: the belief that we can have a wrenching economic, diplomatic and constitutional change without breaking into a sweat. Don’t laugh. Millions still believe in a Brexit without tears and their leaders are still promising they can have it.
A second delusion flowed from the first: that the countries of the European Union would quail before the newly resurgent British as we awoke like lions from their slumber and scramble to meet our demands. This is what David Davis meant when he said British negotiators would be striking deals in Berlin rather than Brussels. As it is, the supposedly squabbling nations of the EU have held together, while the British political system has imploded.
In 2013, when Duncan Smith was still rhapsodising about his coming utopia and no one apart from a handful of cranks was thinking about Brexit, the Conservative MP Jesse Norman published a fine study of Burke. I don’t wish to attack him or his work – it’s a relief to find a politician who can write so well. Inevitably, given the author and his subject, it read as a hymn to the Tory belief that the “proper attitude of those who aspire to power is humility, modesty and a sense of public duty”.
Now Norman sits in a “Conservative” party surrounded by immodest men and women who prefer to wreck the nation’s finances and threaten the peace in Ireland and the union with Scotland rather than consider, even for a moment, that they might be wrong. Whether the Conservative party can survive the loss of its Burkean tradition is a question that will worry only Tories. Whether Britain can is the only pressing concern for the rest of us.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist