Thursday, 16 February 2017

Our Brexiter masters need to accept that they have won

I caught a report on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning discussing how Brexit would affect Cornwall. The county, which voted to leave the EU, has received some £1billion in aid over the last 15 years because it is an area of substantial economic disadvantage. Now, people are worried that although the government has guaranteed funding of pipeline projects until 2020 the money will dry up after that. Similar concerns have been expressed in Wales, which also voted to leave and also receives substantial EU payments.

As I listened to the report I imagined that somewhere in the country a pro-Brexit listener was shouting at the radio something like ‘but it was our money in the first place’. That is so, but are the worries of the Cornish people likely to be assuaged by it? In the referendum the notorious headline claim of the Leave campaign was that leaving the EU would allow £350M a week to be spent on the NHS. That promise has now been disowned, or at best morphed into the idea that ‘let’s spend it on the NHS’ really meant ‘we could do so’ but let’s not go down that semantic rabbit hole. The point, of course, was that the £350M was the gross figure, including money that came back in various forms (and, in fact, some which never even went at all). And some of what came back was the money that went to Cornwall.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that absolutely nothing changes economically as a result of leaving the EU except for the end of all budget contributions. That’s an absurd assumption, of course (not least because the government have indicated that they will continue to pay into some EU projects and may pay for some form of single market access) but let’s make it anyway. It would mean that either there will not be the £350M for the NHS that leave voters in Cornwall and elsewhere were promised would be available, or that there will be none of the money that the EU previously sent not just in regional subsidies but in science funding, farming payments and so on. It can’t be both, so one way or another leave voters in Cornwall have been misled.

But suppose that we don’t take the gross figure and say that the NHS will just get the difference between the net and the gross figures. If so then maybe Cornwall can still get its regional development funds. Unfortunately, there is still a problem for those who were persuaded by the leave campaign. Because many prominent leavers, including Theresa Villiers, held out the prospect of things like farming subsidies actually increasing after Brexit. But if that is so, then something else that used to come from the EU receipts will no longer be paid, possibly the Cornwall development money. It can’t be both, so either the farmers who voted leave have been misled or someone else who voted leave has been.

Of course the reality is that money for Cornwall, or for farming, or for science that used to come from the EU will be just one more lobbying claim on the Treasury. Whether they are successful in the face of the demands to fund, for example, social care or prisons is anyone’s guess. If I lived in Cornwall I wouldn’t be optimistic, though. Also anyone’s guess is whether all the promises made by the leave campaign to Britain’s fishing industry about being freed from EU quotas can be kept – a leaked report today suggests not.

The point in all this is not to re-run the Referendum campaign, on the contrary. Remainers are constantly told to ‘move on’ and accept the result (see this post for my views on that) but that cuts both ways. The Brexiters also need to move on and accept that they have won. With that comes taking responsibility for what they have won, and accepting scrutiny of how it matches what they claimed for Brexit. Are all the things they claimed to be so easy such as, to take another example from today’s news, the Northern Ireland border really as easy as they said? With the referendum over, it’s no longer important to know whether ‘Project Fear’ was true; what matters now is whether ‘Project Complacent’, across all the myriad of complex areas that Brexit affects, is true. This is beginning to happen now – in Wales for example – and it will inevitably happen more and more in the years to come.

Shortly after the 1945 Labour government was elected it is reputed that a government minister (possibly Hartley Shawcross) said ‘we are the masters now’. The victorious Brexiters are the masters now, but with power comes responsibility and accountability. Brexiters often talk about themselves as the victims of ‘the elite’ and ‘the establishment’. Now they are in charge they need to answer not just the questions of remainers but also the questions that those they persuaded to vote leave in Cornwall and elsewhere will, ever more vociferously, ask of them.

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