16/11/2018 16:02 GMT | Updated 16/11/2018 16:02 GMT

We Are Paying The Price For Brexiteers' Political Cowardice

It didn’t have to be like this - Theresa May didn’t have to interpret the referendum result as a popular demand for the hardest Brexit imaginable

PA Wire/PA Images

They didn’t know.

They didn’t know how complicated it would be.

They didn’t know how intricately woven is the UK’s membership of the EU.

They didn’t know that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland might turn out to be a bit of a problem.

They didn’t know how divided their party was. Or how divided the country was.

Boris Johnson. David Davis. Michael Gove. Liam Fox. Jacob Rees-Mogg. None of them knew.

Or perhaps they did know, but they lied. They said Brexit would be easy-peasy. They promised a glorious future, as a proud, independent nation forged a new beginning, freed from the shackles imposed by pesky foreigners. In the words of Mr Fox, speaking just last year, agreeing a new trade deal with the EU would be ‘one of the easiest in human history.’

I am reminded of the Scottish preacher who is said to have told his parishioners the tale of the sinners who were cast into hell and then pleaded with the Lord to save them from eternal torment as they had not known what would be the price of their sinful behaviour.

‘Well,’ replied the good Lord. ‘Ye ken noo.’

In the case of Brexit, the sins were those of the Brexiters, but the torment is all ours. Their wilful blindness, born out of ideological zealotry, has led the UK to the precipice. I have no doubt that future historians will marvel at how two successive Conservative party leaders – first David Cameron and then Theresa May – sold their souls to the zealots.

I am no EU fanatic. I have attended far too many EU summits to be blind to its shortcomings, the most serious of which has been the refusal of its leaders over many years to recognise that voters throughout Europe were increasingly unhappy at where the union was heading.

But its benefits still far outweigh its failings. Having just marked the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War, and having remembered that the Second World War erupted barely twenty years later, how can anyone fail to give thanks for the more than seventy years of peace that Europe has enjoyed since 1945. The EU has played a major role in that achievement.

All nations think that they are special, and Britain is certainly no exception. We are an island nation, unbeaten in war, a former imperial power with a democracy, admittedly imperfect, that has stood the test of time.

But go it alone? In the age of globalisation, international organised crime, cyber-warfare, climate change? Seriously? Go it alone? Who do the zealots think they are kidding?

Their recklessness, their cavalier disregard for the truth, their nonchalant shrug that we may have to suffer what David Davis calls ‘a hiccup or two’ – what it all adds up to is a truly appalling abdication of responsibility for the well-being of the nation.

Believe me, I understand why so many people voted for Brexit. They have watched their towns slowly die, their incomes stagnate, their children’s life chances diminish. They have seen the Polish supermarkets take over from their local greengrocer and heard the builders on construction sites and the patients in their GPs’ waiting rooms speaking languages they don’t understand. They have heard their children complain that all the extra help in the classroom goes to their classmates who can’t speak English.

And when the ideologues and charlatans offered them a miracle cure – an extra £350million a week for the NHS; an end to ‘uncontrolled’ immigration; no more laws ‘imposed’ by Brussels – well, why wouldn’t they jump at the chance?

Did anyone try to explain why the world has changed? Or how the EU has helped some of the UK’s poorest regions? Did anyone extol the virtues of international cooperation to counter the cacophony of xenophobes and nationalists?

The crisis which now confronts us is the result of the abject failure of an entire political class. (And yes, I include the Labour party, under a succession of leaders.) A failure to listen, and a failure to be honest. British voters were lied to, again and again and again, and now the liars are taking to the hills. In the words of David Aaronovitch of The Times: “The Raabs are deserting the sinking ship, a scurrying made additionally poignant by the fact that they are the ones who sank it.” One by one, faced by the inconvenient reality of the world as it is, rather than as they would wish it to be, they adopt a look of injured innocence and head for the door marked Exit, not Brexit.

Remember Dominic Raab, who resigned as Brexit secretary because he didn’t like the deal that, in theory, he himself had negotiated? He admitted just a few days ago that he had been surprised to learn that Britain is what he chose to call a ‘peculiar geographic entity’, which is ― who would have thought it? ― particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing for its international trade. Gosh. Britain is an island. Who knew?

It didn’t have to be like this. David Cameron didn’t have to bow to the demands of the Europhobes in Ukip and his own party – and Theresa May didn’t have to interpret the referendum result as a popular demand for the hardest Brexit imaginable. They each made a conscious political choice, and we are now paying the price of their political cowardice.

By the way, if you didn’t see my article in last Sunday’s Observer about becoming a German citizen, you can read it here.