Friday, 2 June 2023

As Brexit fails, attention turns to Labour

The failure of Brexit is now widely acknowledged and ever-more openly discussed. But there isn’t going to be some quick, neat or easy epochal change. Brexiters aren’t going to give up quietly, and the process of addressing the failure of Brexit is going to be complex and fraught with difficulties.

Still, there is a gradual shift underway. For a long time after the transition period ended, the damage Brexit was causing lurked in the shadows. It’s not that it wasn’t reported, but those reports were often piecemeal in nature, rather than drawn together, and Brexit often featured in the small print as a factor in whatever damage was being discussed rather than as the headlines. That is increasingly changing, with a good example being the two-part series assessing Brexit in this week’s Times newspaper (here and here). There’s far too much in it for me to summarise but, although striving almost painfully at times to be ‘balanced’, the overall picture was undeniably clear, and undeniably negative.

Even without much media prompting, and despite a barrage of pro-Brexit reporting from some parts of the media, as well as much Tory boosterism, the public view has for many months been settling to the view that Brexit was a mistake and has failed. The latest YouGov polling records its lowest-ever level of people thinking Brexit was the right choice (31%) and the joint highest-ever level of those thinking it was a mistake (56%). It also shows 62% think Brexit has been ‘more of a failure’ and just 9% that it has been ‘more of a success’. Inevitably the responses of leave voters and remain voters are rather different, but even amongst leave voters the figures are 37% saying failure and 20% saying success, with a lot who think ‘neither’ (35% of leaver voters compared with just 6% of remain voters).

It's worth pausing to consider just how damning an indictment of Brexit those figures are, so I’ll repeat them. Just 9% of all electors, and only 20% even of those who voted for it, think Brexit is a success. By comparison, a 2019 survey found that 16% of the UK adult population believe that the moon landing was staged.

Brexit betrayed

However, there’s an important difference between those remain voters who think Brexit is a failure, of whom about three-quarters think it was always going to be, and those leave voters who think it is a failure, of whom about three-quarters think that it could have been a success if it had been implemented differently. That isn’t a surprising finding, but it matters because it shows that disillusionment with Brexit ‘as an idea’ is far from universal, and also that there is quite a deep seam of opinion susceptible to a narrative of Brexit ‘betrayal’.

It's a seam which Brexiters were always going to mine assiduously, and a particularly unhinged example was provided by Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn last Friday. It wasn’t just about Brexit, but slurs about ‘salivating remoaners’ with ‘loyalty to the EU’ permeated a wider attack on the “New Establishment” – an apparent nod towards political scientist Matthew Goodwin’s half-baked ‘new Elite’ theory - and its supposed “coup” against the government. But careful readers, if such the Mail has, would notice, even if Littlejohn is too careless a writer to realise it, that this was all rather let down by the observation that “to describe all this as a conspiracy is not entirely accurate [as] it's not co-ordinated.” So not, in fact, a “coup” at all.

This kind of ‘stab in the back’ myth (the on-line version of Littlejohn’s article was actually illustrated with a bloody dagger) has always been the most dangerous potential outcome of Brexit, and Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian recently and rightly warned that what follows from it “may be very dark indeed”. That said, it’s worth remembering that, with or without Brexit, Littlejohn has been squeezing stuff like this out of his anger-tightened sphincter into the eager maw of the Mail’s lavatory bowl for 30 years, on and off. In fact, the kind of aggressive victimhood of a ‘lost country’ his writing exemplifies is a big part of what drove the leave vote. It’s not even the first time he has posited a “coup staged by remainers” – he did so as recently as October 2022 – despite having assured his readers in January 2021 that Brexit was “all over bar the shouting”. You couldn’t make it up, to coin a phrase.

Whilst Littlejohn fulminates, other members of the Brexiter commentariat have adopted a more listless and resigned attitude to how the glorious possibilities of Brexit have been squandered. For example, Fred de Fossard of the Legatum Institute wearily bemoans (£) the government’s failure to pursue a deregulatory agenda, though that was never the automatic consequence even of hard Brexit, and laments the forthcoming introduction of import controls, which was. The “climbdown” on Retained EU Law is also dolefully recounted (“the less said about [it] the better”, de Fossard sighs), but with no recognition of why that, or any of the other foregone ‘opportunities’, have failed to materialize. Indeed, scratch the surface and the explanation offered is a more urbane version of Littlejohn’s, whereby “our entrenched bureaucracy ensures [that voters always] get the same Left-wing, Europhile outcomes”. As a result, “the whole concept of Brexit” is now imperilled, the sometime special adviser to Jacob Rees-Mogg glumly concludes.

Brexit’s last defences

Whether blamed on betrayal, or just lack of political will, these responses at least acknowledge that Brexit hasn’t been a success. But some Brexiters aren’t ready to accept that (and never will be). Instead, individual pieces of economic good news are still trumpeted as evidence that it has been triumph, a recent example being the thuggish Tory MP Lee Anderson's boast that the reported decision by Tata to build a gigafactory in Britain rather than Spain is “another Brexit bonus”. The obvious problem is that something can only be a Brexit benefit if it couldn’t or wouldn’t have happened without Brexit, which isn’t the case in this example. And, of course, even where there are any such benefits, they need to be set against the many costs to justify Brexit as a success overall.

It’s also typical of such claims to invoke a strawman that ‘remainers said there would be no more investment after Brexit’ or ‘remainers said there’d be no more trade with the EU after Brexit’, or the slightly different one that ‘remainers blame all Britain’s economic problems on Brexit’. Needless to say, no serious analyst has ever suggested such things, but even if they had then the most it would mean is that Brexit hasn’t been as bad as some said it would be, or that it may not have been a success, but at least it hasn’t been a failure.

For example, in a Telegraph article (£) the pro-Brexit economist Julian Jessop discusses the impact of Brexit on the services sector. It’s headlined as a “success story”, but the content is less ebullient. “If one thinks back to all the apocalyptic claims made by Remainers, our services industry should be a smoking ruin by now”, he says, conjuring up “doomsday predictions”. But worry not, for “the overall impact has been far less than feared”. It’s hardly an inspiring defence. To be fair, Jessop recognizes this, saying “it is not enough just to say that Brexit has been less damaging than expected. It was supposed to benefit the City. But this is a process.” However, this is just another of the stock defences: the benefits are always just over the horizon.

Still less compelling is the current fashion for comparing UK economic performance with that of Germany (£), or perhaps a wider selection of EU countries (£), selected over this or that timeframe, to argue that the UK’s is no worse, and perhaps slightly better. That fashion seems to have arisen because the IMF, its forecasts suddenly now in favour with the Brexiters who usually disparage them, upgraded its 2023 forecast for the UK from a 0.3% contraction to a 0.4% expansion, whilst forecasting the German economy to shrink by 0.1%.

Even if it made sense to ascribe these (rather negligible) differences to Brexit, it would not be much of an argument because, again, Brexit wasn’t undertaken on the basis that it wouldn’t be a failure but that it would be positively advantageous. But, in any case, it doesn’t make any sense. Whether in the EU or not, the UK’s economy, like any member state, fluctuates at different times and for sometimes different reasons to that of Germany (or any other individual country). In particular, Germany’s current economic difficulties are very obviously connected to its rapid diversification from over-dependence on Russian energy. So, except as a kind of schoolyard ‘what about you?’ taunt, such comparisons tell us nothing one way or the other about Brexit.

The key comparisons are between Brexit UK and how the UK would have performed without Brexit. That inevitably involves a counterfactual model, and the latest version of the best-known such model, the Springford CER ‘doppelg√§nger, shows that by June 2022 the UK GDP was 5.5% lower than it would have been without Brexit. That may overestimate the damage or may underestimate it. But (to the best of my knowledge) neither the government nor any of the pro-Brexit economists have ever produced a comparable counterfactual model showing Brexit to have been economically beneficial to the UK. So on this key test there is, at the very least, no evidence of Brexit being an economic success.

What about Labour?

With Brexiters now engaged in the last stages of their attempt to deny Brexit has failed, and the latest stages of developing fantasies about why it has failed, and with the Sunak government in the throes of a protracted death, attention is increasingly turning to the prospects of a Labour administration. Interestingly, Brexiter fears for what that will bring are diametrically opposite to those of many erstwhile remainers. At least some Brexiters are convinced that Labour has “a secret 10-year plan to take Britain back into the EU” (£), whereas some remainers believe that there is no difference at all between Labour and Tory approaches to Brexit. The reality is more complex than either view allows.

Although by definition it’s unprovable either way, it’s absurd to think that Starmer has a ‘secret plan’ to re-join the EU. There’s literally no evidence for it, so Brexiters are wrong and rejoiners are right about that. However, it’s true that the logic of Labour’s position on Brexit – everything it says about the damage of it – points in the direction of eventually re-joining. So, forgetting any idea of a secret plan, the Brexiters are right to suspect that this would be the direction of travel for Labour (though they may be wrong that it will be the point of arrival), and re-joiners are wrong to dismiss the possibility of it going in that direction (though they may be right that it won’t be the point of arrival).

Remainer or re-joiner scepticism about Labour’s intentions was reinforced this week by Keir Starmer’s Express article, in which he again re-iterated Labour’s policy of no return to the EU, single market or customs union, but of wanting to improve the existing UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Most strikingly, and to many remainers most reprehensibly, he referred to the inadequate nature of that deal as meaning that “our European friends and competitors are not just eating our lunch – they’re nicking our dinner money as well”.

The clue to understanding this article is the polling figures I referred to earlier. It was written for the three-quarters of the 37% of Leave voters who believe Brexit has failed because of the way it has been implemented. More particularly, it was written for the erstwhile and potential Labour voters within that group who may be minded to blame that on the Tories. That is an important segment of voters for Labour to speak to, and the Express is a good place to reach it, with the pitch being based on tapping into, but subverting, the narrative of Brexit betrayal. The language may have been ugly and grating, but politics can be a dirty business, or at least it is for those who value winning above high-mindedness.

Of course, there is a tactical dilemma for Labour: in making its appeal to such voters it may lose support elsewhere (£), and there’s some polling evidence that this is happening. But the delicate calculation is presumably that many who respond to things like the Express article by angrily saying ‘I’ll never vote for Labour now’ will, when it comes to it, do so. Or, if not, that the votes lost will be in constituencies where the outcome isn’t affected, whilst those gained prove decisive in other seats. Again, it’s all grubby stuff for the squeamish, but perhaps they should reflect that after fourteen years in opposition squeamishness isn’t something Labour can afford to indulge.

Beneath Labour’s tactics

Tactics aside, what matters is what lies beneath. In his discussion of Starmer’s article, Ian Dunt, who has been consistently acute in his analysis of Brexit from the start, and often very critical of Labour, argues that “in truth, Labour’s Brexit position is far more nuanced, and much more radical, than it first appears. It has been carefully couched in the language of Brexit defence, but the proposals themselves promise a return to a much closer relationship with the Continent. It is the start of a journey back to Europe.”

The key word here is “journey” or, as I’ve put it, ‘direction of travel’. Starmer is cautiously going with the grain of public opinion, with a poll this week suggesting that 53% of voters favour ‘closer ties’ with the EU, and even in strongly vote-leaving areas a plurality doing so. What they mean by it is undoubtedly varied, but a first-term Labour government can be expected to push its possible meanings to the maximum it could without breaking manifesto commitments or suffering too much electoral kickback.

For an important example of what this would mean, in a footnote to my previous post I suggested that the seemingly arcane difference between Swiss-style ‘dynamic alignment’ and New Zealand-style ‘regulatory equivalence’ in Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) standards might become an issue under a Labour government, since Labour’s apparently preferred policy of a New Zealand-style deal had already been rejected by the EU, whilst a Swiss-style deal had been ruled out by Starmer.

I meant that we might hear more about this in years to come, so it was much to my amusement that, just a few hours later, and presumably coincidentally, the Telegraph carried a report (£) ‘revealing’ this EU rejection of a New Zealand-style deal and, with almost heart-stopping irony, quoting David Frost castigating Starmer for “trying to sell unnegotiable fantasy proposals to voters”. In a mirror-image of that critique, some remainers, too, leapt on this report as evidence that Starmer was just reproducing the impossibilities of “cakeism”.

But it is easy to imagine Labour in power, having pledged in their manifesto to negotiate a ‘veterinary agreement with the EU’, agreeing dynamic alignment with the EU. That isn’t cakeism, as it has already been offered by the EU, and the fact that Starmer has previously said he doesn’t want a Swiss-style deal will be irrelevant as he has also said he wants a ‘bespoke deal’ and, almost by definition, any UK-EU deal will be that. Will electors who support ‘closer ties with the EU’ object? Highly unlikely. And if there is a ‘bespoke UK-EU’ SPS dynamic alignment deal then it means the hard Brexit ECJ red line will have been comprehensively breached, allowing it to be breached in all manner of other ways, in relation to trade, security, and participation in various programmes and agencies.

Beneath Labour’s hints

Much of this has already been hinted at by the public statements of Starmer and other senior Labour politicians, including Rachel Reeves and David Lammy. A much more detailed set of proposals for what it could mean in practice was published this week by the UK Trade and Business Commission, an unofficial but highly professional grouping of cross-party MPs, business people and experts. Their report, which is based on extensive evidence-gathering from a huge ranger of stakeholders and experts, contains 114 recommendations. So far as I can see, all of them are compatible with Labour’s stated position and so the report amounts to a blueprint of how to operationalize that position.

Some, though by no means all, of this entails EU agreement, and there are obviously important questions about whether that would be forthcoming, and a particularly valid question about the extent to which Labour are putting too much reliance on using the scheduled 2026 TCA review as an occasion for a more substantial re-negotiation. It certainly isn’t automatically entailed by the review. However, in his recent evidence to the European Parliament, Anton Spisak, a Brexit expert at the Tony Blair Institute, urges that both the EU and the UK would be wise to use it in that way, so as to “begin a more strategic discussion”.

It is at least possible that this view will prevail and, of course, it will still entail negotiation, but much that could have been negotiated had it not been for the Frost-Johnson ‘sovereignty’ line will become possible. Nor is the TCA review the only game in town. The European Political Community (EPoC), established last year and which had its second meeting yesterday, offers the UK a new vehicle for dialogue and cooperation with the rest of the European continent. How it develops remains to be seen but, with enthusiastic and effective participation, which would be unlike Sunak’s approach to it but consistent with Labour’s stated policies, the UK could at the least repair some of the relational and reputational damage of Brexit. Potentially, there would be more substantive outcomes.

All of this could be done without violating Labour’s red lines on rejoining the EU, the single market or the customs union. Those red lines don’t prematurely box Labour into a corner because there’s just no way that, simply from an EU perspective, the UK re-joining is viable in the timeframe of the next parliament: we’re in that corner anyway. Equally, going as far as possible within those red lines wouldn’t be ‘re-joining by stealth’ since there would be no re-joining unless there was a referendum. It would all be subsumed within the rubric of ‘closer ties’ and ‘co-operation’, potentially leading to such a referendum, perhaps in Labour’s second term, as Dunt suggests.

This is exactly what Brexiters fear, which is also why the hostility of some remainers/ rejoiners to Labour’s approach is misjudged. At the very least, even if it never gets to that point, the ameliorations Labour are likely to enact will be somewhat better than the current situation, and much better than would be the case if the Tories were re-elected and the Brexit Ultras got their way.

The long road ahead

This isn’t to disown what I said In a recent post, where I argued that the strategic problems posed by the failure of Brexit are not “addressed by Labour’s pledge to make Brexit work, since the solutions don’t exist within the modest tinkering with Brexit that Starmer has committed to. Not until the diagnosis that Brexit is a failure is accompanied by realism and honesty about the causes and solutions can it be addressed”. It’s true that even if what I’ve said about Labour’s position today is right it still fails to meet this test, but the issue is the process and timescale for getting to that point. It is clear that this is going to take some time, so the question is whether a Labour government would take use closer to or further from that point.

On this, to quote Ian Dunt again, “if you put aside the tedious and unconvincing hardline rhetoric, a clear picture emerges. Brexit is collapsing. And Britain is, slowly but surely, drifting back to Europe”. It’s also true that the longer this drift takes, the more damage that will accrue in the meantime. That’s undeniable, even if Labour isn’t able to admit it. But it presumably goes without saying, at least to readers of this blog, that Brexit was a seismic event, so the political road to rebuilding from the earthquake is going to be arduous and slow. Opinion polls showing increasing national regret are vital, but they are a long way from being enough. Like it or not, we’re still barely on the first step of that road but, that being so, the worst thing we can do is refuse to take it because it is only a step. Equally, it’s perfectly right to keep pushing for the next steps, and necessary, too, if they are to be taken.

Friday, 26 May 2023

Punch-drunk Britain

I don’t purport to provide anything like a comprehensive weekly record of reports of Brexit damage – fortunately the indefatigable Anthony Robinson curates the closest thing there is to that with the Davis Downside Dossier – which some weeks would be almost a full-time job. It would also be a heartbreaking one, partly because behind many of them lie lives disrupted if not devastated, partly because of what this damage means for all of us, and partly because it was all so predictable but the warnings were ignored with the mocking parrot cry of ‘Project Fear’. It is heartbreaking enough to discuss just some of them, which keep coming like punches on a bruise.

The latest punches

In this week’s crop, there is the record level of Foreign Direct Investment (£) – no, not in the UK, in Germany, and partly driven by a surge in UK investment projects as companies seek to maintain a foothold in the single market. It is the latest evidence of what was bound to happen, even if only at the relatively minimal level of UK firms setting up companies and sometimes offices in EU countries to avoid the extra bureaucracy of Brexit – as advised, in a sub fusc governmental recognition of the damaging reality of Brexit, by the Department for International Trade in 2021. So far as the bigger overseas investment projects are concerned, it can only be assumed that these are at the expense of domestic business investment, which was recently estimated to be £29 billion less than it would have been since the referendum result.

To refer to the next story as one this week’s crop of damaging Brexit news would be a bad pun, for it is the report that the value of UK exports of fruit to the EU have dropped by more than half since the end of the transition period. It’s not a coincidence, and it has persisted post-pandemic: it is because of the new regulatory and customs barriers created by Brexit. This, of course, is just one of the many examples of the adverse effects and risks for British farming post-Brexit.

Another newly emerging example affecting food producers and retailers is the one I mentioned last week, namely the requirement for all UK-produced foodstuffs, including vegetables, fish, meat and dairy produce, sold in the UK to be marked ‘not for sale in the EU’. It has since been reported that this may entail four labels (£) (on the individual product, the packing case, the supermarket shelf, and posters). As I explained before, this arises from the requirements of the Windsor Framework, but is being applied UK-wide, rather than just in Northern Ireland, partly to reduce the costs of different labelling as between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and partly for the political symbolism for unionists.

I noted then that Brexiters are furious about this, but subsequently I’ve seen multiple comments on social media, apparently from non-Brexiters, saying that this labelling obviously means that the produce is not of a high enough standard to meet EU requirements, and that they would therefore be wary of consuming it. This is not necessarily so, and in most cases won’t be so, but it is an interesting misunderstanding as it is the mirror-image of the Brexiters’ complaint that there’s no reason why UK produce should not be sold freely into the EU as it continues to meet the same regulatory standards.

Both misunderstandings go to the heart of what the single market means, and what being outside of it means. The issue isn’t the standard of the product or the product standard, as such, it is about being part of a common system of standard-setting and standard certification to demonstrate compliance, as well as a legal system to enforce it and provide redress for breaches. The UK has chosen to be outside of that system, because it wants the freedom to set its own standards and regulations, and that puts UK products outside of that system even if the actual standards and regulations have not changed. It's true that maintaining the same standards is still advantageous, since, albeit with different labelling in the case of food, the product can then be sold in the UK or sold to the EU, but if sold to the EU it will be as an export into the single market, after going through regulatory and customs checks, rather than sold freely within the single market.

As regards foodstuffs, in order to ease the Northern Ireland situation (though it would have benefitted the whole of the UK), in 2021 the EU actually offered a deal on Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) standards whereby UK produce could effectively be treated as if it originated within the single market, but only if the UK agreed to ‘dynamic alignment’ i.e. not just following existing EU SPS standards, but changing in line with them, as they changed. The UK rejected this as not being compatible with ‘sovereignty’, and also as potentially preventing it changing SPS standards, perhaps in order to secure a trade deal with the US.

The latter looks extremely unlikely now and was a bogus reason anyway, as the EU offered a temporary dynamic alignment deal which could have been ended if and when the UK ever did change standards. The former is simply theoretical, unless or until the UK actually does change standards, and one cost of that theory is that food of an identical standard to that required by the EU must be marked ‘not for sale in the EU’. It is the cost not of divergence, but of retaining the right to diverge.

This is the madness* that not just hard Brexit but the Johnson-Frost ‘sovereignty-first’ Brexit has brought us to. It is most visible with food, because it is an everyday product, but in various ways is present in other sectors (e.g. chemicals firms having to register with the UK REACH regulatory system which, in the government’s words, “replicates the EU system as closely as possible”, at an estimated additional cost of £2 billion). And, by the way, the cost of ‘not for sale in the EU’ labelling will be even greater if large numbers of British consumers do, indeed, mistakenly conclude that British food marked in this way is sub-standard, and decide to buy imported alternatives, perhaps from EU producers.

A coming punch: import controls

All of this will begin to be introduced from October 2023, although the exact details have still to be decided, adding uncertainty to all the other problems. That date is also when we will finally see the beginning of the much-delayed imposition of UK controls on imports from the EU. Again, there’s quite a bit of misunderstanding in all quarters about this.

One is that many people are under the impression that this has already happened – hence, for example, the rash of stories about UK customers having to pay import duties on goods delivered from the EU that started immediately after the end of the transition period. But the point is that hard Brexit created (or re-instated) two kinds of ‘border’ (I put it in speech marks, as it doesn’t necessarily refer to a physical border, but also to the processes and formalities of border control). One is a regulatory border, by virtue of leaving the single market, and the other a customs border, by virtue of leaving the customs union. The latter was erected by both the UK and the EU from the outset, and is what gave rise to those stories (it is more complicated than that, as it was also do to with VAT: for more details on this, and the more general issue of what happened immediately after the end of transition, see my post of January 2021).

The former, the regulatory border, was erected by the EU but not the UK (again, it’s more complex than that, as UK checks on certain “high-risk” products did begin in January 2021), and doing so was delayed four times, most recently in April 2022. On that occasion, the minister responsible was Jacob Rees-Mogg who, in a rare moment of candour, admitted that Brexit does indeed involve substantial costs. He estimated that completing import controls would add another £1 billion a year to the costs of British business and, although he didn’t spell it out, this also implicitly admitted that there are costs in the other direction, as a result of EU import controls.

Another persistent misunderstanding (and it is a variant of the one about what ‘not for sale in the EU’ means) is that not having full import controls doesn’t matter because EU goods conform to high standards anyway. That’s a fallacy, for reasons I explained in detail in yet another previous post, in April 2022, of which perhaps the biggest is that, as a result of Brexit, the UK no longer has access to the EU early warning databases, for example for outbreaks of animal diseases or food contamination.

But underlying that fallacy is something much deeper, and it was perhaps the central delusion of Brexit, which is the way that Brexiters seemed to envisage leaving the EU as a kind of ‘symbolic act’ in which nothing needed to change. In this particular context, that is reflected in the common Brexiter comment ‘if the EU want to erect borders that’s up to them’, as if there were no concrete meaning to leaving the institutions that got rid of borders, or needn’t be but for ‘EU protectionism’ (Rees-Mogg, inevitably, furnishes a good example of this fallacy).

This total ignorance (which, by the way, is also an ignorance of the ‘WTO rules’ that so many Brexiters used to get so moist-trousered about) isn’t just a matter of this or that comment by Brexiters trying to score debating points. It went right to the heart of government policy so that, astonishingly, it was not until February 2020 – that is, over three years since Theresa May finally confirmed that Brexit meant the hard Brexit of leaving both the single market and the customs union – that a government minister, Michael Gove, officially confirmed that this meant there would be import controls on EU goods.

Undoubtedly it is this, along with the paranoid rush to get Brexit done as quickly as possible, including the refusal to extend the transition period, which explains why, unlike the EU, the UK wasn’t ready to introduce import controls in January 2021. Even now, their introduction is reported in both the Telegraph (£) and the Mail as being a ‘blockade’, rather than the inevitable consequence of the UK’s own decisions.

However they are described, their introduction is likely to prove as big a shock as the EU’s introduction of controls did. Again, fresh produce, including meat and dairy products, will be most affected, with shortages likely initially and, in the longer-term, higher prices and reduced choice for consumers. So this isn’t some obscure technical change but, to use another unfortunate pun, a literally bread-and-butter issue which will affect daily life. A report this week from the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance estimates that of the 25 percentage points rise in UK food prices between December 2019 and March 2023, eight percentage points are attributable to Brexit (i.e. about 30% of the total rise). It is an astonishing finding, and, as the authors, explain, it is the result of increased non-tariff barriers (the things which David Frost airily dismissed as “exaggerated”, and which Boris Johnson dishonestly said were abolished by the trade agreement with the EU) meaning, primarily, EU import controls. 

The introduction of full UK import controls will, by definition, further increase those barriers. And, for all the government’s boasts that this will be a high-tech, “world-class” border, the reality, according to Shane Brennan (£), the Chief Executive of the Cold Chain Federation, will be “a step back to the 1950s in terms of the types of supply chains options we have, in terms of getting hold of goods from Europe”. Nor will it just affect what we eat. For example, gardeners have been warned by the Horticultural Trades Association that they, too, will face higher costs and less choice, and that this industry alone will face an added “£42 million a year in red tape … for no economic gain”.

A rabbit punch to watch for: data protection

The introduction of import controls has at least received quite a bit of media coverage. That is less true for something potentially very nasty lurking in the undergrowth: the Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill. This again has a long history, made more complicated by the churn of ministers responsible for it. 

Very early on in the Brexit process the UK passed that 2018 Data Protection Act and when it was still in development I discussed it as an example of how, in practice, post-Brexit regulation would follow that of the EU. That proved true, and is the reason why the EU has accepted UK regulation as “adequate”, meaning “essentially equivalent” to EU GDPR. However, this is subject to periodic review and renewal, with the current adequacy rulings due for review in 2024 and possible renewal when the current period for which adequacy is granted expires in June 2025. Moreover, in the interim, the UK’s provisions are monitored by the EU and, if found to lack equivalence, the adequacy decision can be revoked earlier. The implications would be profound, as, without adequacy, sharing of personal data between the EU and UK for commercial and security purposes would be severely curtailed.

Nevertheless, Brexiters have always regarded divergence from GDPR as a ‘prize’ of Brexit, and the new Acting Minister responsible for the latest Bill is John Whittingdale, an arch-Brexiter. Last month, he stated that it would not be “a complete disaster” to lose EU adequacy, referring to various work-arounds that would be possible. It’s a mark of how low Brexit ambitions have been set that ‘not a complete disaster’ apparently now counts as an acceptable benchmark. It is also worth considering what that actually means: industry insiders estimate that losing adequacy would cost between £1 billion and £1.6 billion a year and, beyond that, there would be the cost, perhaps in lives, because of the impact on data sharing in relation to serious crime and terrorism which the adequacy ruling allows.

Punching ourselves in the face: student visas

It remains to be seen what will happen in terms of the detailed provisions of the new Bill, and perhaps Rishi Sunak’s ‘pragmatism’ will prevail. Yet that pragmatism looks increasingly flaky. Last week I alluded to how the expectation of record high net migration figures (now announced) was re-energizing Brexiters’ discontent, and one consequence has been the government’s announcement this week that overseas postgraduate students on taught courses will no longer be allowed to bring their families with them. Inevitably that means that at least some of those who would otherwise have come to the UK will go elsewhere, in what is a highly competitive market for such students. Why, if you want to study abroad without being parted from your family, come to the UK now?

It is a wretched policy, at multiple levels. It is directly economically damaging, in terms of the loss of fee income to what is one of the UK’s few thriving sectors, and the loss of the general expenditure of those students and their families – a loss that will be felt by everyone from taxi drivers to food stores – often in areas where the local economy is fragile. It damages university finances, when universities are held, rightly, to be central to Britain’s economic future. It is a loss of the intellectual and cultural contribution of those students to university life. And it is a loss to UK ‘soft power’ – all those students and their families who might look back on their time in the UK with affection and pride, and act as ambassadors for the UK in their home country, who will now do so for another country. It seems that the Labour Party don’t care about any of this, either, since they support this cretinous policy.

Its architect is Suella Braverman, who has been in the news for other reasons this week, namely her handling of a speeding offence. That wouldn’t be a Brexit story except in the general sense that it is unlikely that, were it not for Brexit and her zealous support for it, someone of such mediocrity would be holding high office. But it has been made so by Brexiters absurdly insisting (£), as they did of Dominic Raab’s resignation, that Braverman is being targeted by the ‘Woke Blob’ for being pro-Brexit (and generally ‘right-wing’). That is now also being run together with attempts to depict (£) the continuing scandals surrounding Boris Johnson as victimization at the hands of those the ever-puerile Rees-Mogg calls “highly-strung remainiacs”.

It is all of a piece with the paranoid victimhood that runs through Brexit, and it would be laughable if it were not so deforming of political discourse, not least in striving to keep politics forever in the toxicity of the post-referendum period. That is damaging in itself, but in turn contributes to the additional damage of making it is so politically difficult to address the realities – the lost investment, the lost trade, the rising prices, and all the other things – of what Brexit is doing to our country.

Punch-drunk Britain

I increasingly wonder and worry about how much more incremental damage can Britain take. Each individual example isn’t necessarily so terrible. Each can be, and is, argued away by Brexiters as overstated or ‘not a complete disaster’. A billion pounds here, ten billion there – big numbers, for sure, but not overwhelming. But it is the cumulative impact which is so alarming, and the way it is ripping through every sector of the economy, from cars to farming, from higher education to financial services, from social care to live music.

Brexit Britain is increasingly like a punch-drunk boxer. Once a world champion, age and booze and drugs have taken their toll. But he decides to enter the ring again. He’s still a big name, of sorts, though not as big a name as he thinks. Once he fought in the big arenas, but now he takes on all-comers at country fairs. Flame-eyed, porcine, puce-cheeked, he brags that he can take any punch thrown at him and, it’s true, he has enough residual strength to absorb a certain amount of punishment, and even to trade the odd counter-punch. But each blow takes its toll, each adding a fresh bruise to a dull bruise to form a livid, purpling mass.

He stumbles and flails, an ugly, humiliating sight even to those who once admired him. Many of those watching never wanted him to come out of retirement, and even more now wish he hadn’t. But others, smaller in number but loud in voice, endlessly re-watch videos of the glory days, and insist that, even now, he is only being brought down by the doubters. The metaphor is wrong, though, in that the boxer isn’t external to us, but is all of us: we are all the Brexit-bruised flesh. And the punches are not those of some antagonistic bully but self-inflicted by our own body politic.

*It actually gets even madder and more absurd than I have presented it here, because although rejecting the offer of ‘dynamic alignment’ the UK did propose a ‘regulatory equivalence’ deal (see my post of May 2021 for more detail). This isn’t just arcane past history, and may yet come back to prominence. The two different approaches are sometimes referred to as ‘Swiss-style’ and ‘New Zealand-style’, respectively. Labour have said that they would seek an SPS agreement with the EU if they come to power, but in doing so have mentioned New Zealand, but not Switzerland (e.g. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves in June 2022). Unless this is just down to not understanding the issue, then it will be a problem, as the EU have already rejected, and will never accept, a New Zealand style regulatory equivalence approach.

Friday, 19 May 2023

Brexit has failed, but there’s no solution in prospect

It’s not at all surprising that so many leading Brexiters, especially those not in government office, now pronounce, as Nigel Farage did this week, that “Brexit has failed” (though it is possible he was interrupted and intended to qualify that bald statement along the usual lines of ‘because it hasn’t been done properly’). It was always embedded in Brexit that this would happen, through a combination of the impossible promises made for it and the addiction to betrayalism and victimhood of so many of its advocates. Indeed, that has been a recurring theme of this blog, and of my book about Brexit.

The rumblings that Brexit has been betrayed, or is Brexit in Name Only, started even before the UK left the EU. But they began to grow more clamorous afterwards and there came a point, which seemed to occur around the time of Spectator Editor Fraser Nelson’s Telegraph column in November 2021 (£), after which it became a common complaint. Now, amongst Brexiters, it’s not even so much a complaint as an uncontentious statement of fact. Farage’s comment wasn’t shocking. Something similar is said day in and day out by Brexiters. For example, also this week, Telegraph columnist Sherelle Jacobs wrote (£), not as the argument of her article but as the taken-for-granted first sentence of it, that “Brexit is dead in all but name.” There are any number of other examples.

Labour can now say the B-word but still not the F-word

No, none of that is surprising. What is surprising is that those who opposed Brexit, especially in the Labour Party, are so shy of saying the same thing. Keir Starmer’s policy of ‘Making Brexit Work’ implicitly acknowledges that Brexit has not been a success, but it is surely bizarre that it is taboo for him or any other Labour frontbencher to say in terms what to so many Brexiters is no more than self-evidently true. Brexit has failed.

Of course, what Brexiters like Farage mean by Brexit having failed is quite different to what Starmer means when he says it needs to be made to work. Starmer’s idea, which now seems little different to Rishi Sunak’s, is to rub some of the harder edges off the Brexit that Boris Johnson and David Frost negotiated, but without changing the fundamental nature of it. For Farage and others, by contrast, the issues are the continuing high level of net migration and the absence of significant regulatory divergence from the EU.

Labour’s policy was re-iterated by Starmer this week, when he committed to “improving” the Brexit trade deal whilst ruling out seeking to re-join either the single market or the EU, and there seems almost no chance of it changing before the next election. Their continuing lead in opinion polls and the results of the recent local elections will be taken to vindicate it, and, anyway, arguably it is the only realistic policy open to them in their first term of office.

Clearly Labour are also wary of allowing the Tories once more to weaponize Brexit against them, as happened this week when they floated the proposal to extend the right to vote in general elections to EU citizens living in the UK. Immediately, Tories started thundering that this was a plot to hold a vote to reverse Brexit. The fear of such attacks is understandable, although given that even the cautious policy of improving the TCA, which is due for review in 2026 anyway, was also represented as reneging on Brexit, arguably Starmer is taking the hit without getting much credit in return.

I still think that this approach could be augmented by the one I set out in my post last December, in brief, by stating that re-joining would be economically desirable but cannot be pursued responsibly or practically until embraced on a cross-party basis by the Tories. In this way, Labour could openly acknowledge the failure of Brexit whilst keeping the Tories responsible for owning it, and still limit the credibility of the accusation of seeking to undemocratically reverse Brexit.

As for the Brexiters’ diagnosis of their project having failed, this was given new impetus this week by two things.

Brexit delivers (one version of) one of its promises

The first is the expectation that figures are about to be released showing a record high level of net migration, exceeding the record already set by last November’s data. As Jonathan Portes, the leading economist in this area, has repeatedly pointed out, this is a policy area where Brexit has actually delivered what it promised, in the sense that freedom of movement of people has ended, and the UK sets its own immigration criteria and levels. That is also Grant Shapps’ defence of government policy. If Brexiters now feel betrayed, it is because of the dishonesty of a referendum campaign that certainly dog whistled to leave voters that immigration levels would fall.

As it happens, the public seem relatively relaxed about this not having happened, perhaps because of a recognition of post-pandemic labour shortages, but it still has salience amongst politicians on the political right, most notably Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Yet, again reflecting the dishonesty and incoherence of Brexit, her and others’ attempts to claim low immigration levels as a promise of Brexit are at odds with the prominent Brexiter business people like Tim Martin, Rocco Forte and Simon Wolfson who have called for a still more liberal regime.

At all events, Braverman is certainly at odds with the UK’s post-Brexit economic needs, as shown by Rishi Sunak’s announcement this week that more visas will be made available for agricultural workers. It is also the case that overseas students, who are rather stupidly included in migration figures, are vital, both economically and intellectually, to UK universities, one of the country’s few genuinely ‘world leading’ sectors.


The other salt added to Brexiter wounds this week came with the fallout from the scaling back of the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill, as pre-figured in my recent post, including the listing of the 600 pieces of law to be considered for cutting. This was presented as, and to an extent is, a pragmatic approach by Trade and Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, although she also managed to imply it resulted from civil service failings (£). But pragmatism is a dirty word to Tory Brexiters, with the likes of John Redwood and the ubiquitous Jacob Rees-Mogg denouncing it, and the creaking great-grandfather of Brexit, Bill Cash, ponderously deriding the triviality of the laws included in the listing.

It may be the case that axing these laws will have little or no effect, since many of them are defunct anyway – although there remain uncertainties and concerns (£) about whether this is so – but if Cash is right it doesn’t seem to occur to him or his fellows that this is one reason why their perpetual complaints about being under the yoke of EU law are so absurd. It certainly won’t occur to them that there are good reasons why their Brexit dream of de-regulation has foundered. One is just that, whatever they may have said since, neither this nor any other form of Brexit was specified at, and therefore mandated by, the referendum. Nor has it ever been put to the electorate by the Tory Party. So if they thought they could smuggle it in by stealth, under cover of Brexit, they have only their own dishonesty and incompetence to blame.

The other is the sheer impracticality of most ideas for significant regulatory divergence, discussed in detail in numerous previous posts, including the recent one on REUL. I won’t repeat that here, but an illustration of the basic point came in a different form this week with the government’s announcement that British food products sold throughout the UK will have to carry a ‘not for sale in the EU’ label. This arises because the Windsor Framework requires food sold in Northern Ireland to be marked in this way, but it is to apply across the UK “for practical and philosophical” reasons.

Not for sale in the EU

The ‘philosophical’ reason is as a sop to unionists and Brexiters: Northern Ireland will not be treated differently, even though the labeling only conceals the basic truth that there is no longer a single Great Britain (GB) and Northern Ireland (NI) goods market. The ‘practical’ reason is so that businesses do not have to use different labelling according to whether the food is sold in GB or NI, and can avoid almost all checks on GB-produced food being transported for sale to NI.

Cue outrage from Brexiters (£), such as Iain Duncan Smith, who declared “this is not why we left the EU. We were meant to be leaving the EU to deregulate, not to over-regulate.” Clearly the penny still hasn’t dropped that acquiring the right to diverge on regulations, even if that right isn’t exercised, automatically increases red tape. That, along with the bureaucratic burdens of being outside the customs unions, is what Brexit has done to businesses, and greater divergence, as envisaged by those who want to scrap the entirety of REUL, ultimately leads, in effect, to the literal or metaphorical marking of all goods and services as ‘not for sale outside the UK’. Meanwhile, it requires those firms which do export to meet the standards of the EU or other destination markets: double regulation, exactly what the single market avoids for trade amongst its members, and, to an extent, with those countries that follow its regulations.

It is astonishing that this still isn’t understood, the more so as, at the same time as complaining that Britain has “squandered the opportunities of Brexit” by failing to deliver regulatory divergence, Brexiters like the Telegraph’s Matthew Lynn (£) are up in arms about the decision of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to block Microsoft’s takeover of Activision Blizzard, which the EU has now approved. And why is the CMA so foolish, according to Lynn? Because, he explains, “the UK simply does not matter that much. The EU was already looking increasingly ridiculous in its attempts to pose as the world’s regulator – the so-called ‘Brussels effect’, whereby its standards would be adopted globally … For the UK, accounting for only 2.3pc of global output, the idea is even more laughable.” The obligatory sideswipe against the EU aside, the point is both correct and obvious. Yet it seems to elude Brexiters in the wider context of regulatory divergence.  

Tories in turmoil

Although it’s not clear whether they will be able to do much about it when it returns from the mauling it is currently receiving in the House of Lords, the reaction from Tory Brexiters to the watering-down of the REUL Bill looks like being less muted than it was to the reversal they suffered with the Windsor Framework. There are various reasons for that.

Possibly they simply don’t care that much about the arrangements for Northern Ireland – after all, they agreed to the original Protocol which established the basic fact of the Irish Sea border – or reckon that most voters outside Northern Ireland don’t. By contrast, regulatory divergence matters to Brexiters a lot, and they may think that the idea of ‘still being subject to EU law’ will resonate with some leave voters. Moreover, whereas the Windsor Framework, once signed, became very difficult to re-open, and the government categorically confirmed this week that it will not do so (£), it will always be possible to push for the resuscitation of REUL or something like it.

But the biggest reason is, undoubtedly, the now tangible sense since the local election results that Sunak’s grip on power is fading, and that the Tory Party is in turmoil, effectively preparing for who will replace him after the next election is lost.

That was most evident this week with the appearance of Cabinet Ministers Michael Gove and Suella Braverman, as well as Tory MPs Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Hayes, Lee Anderson and Danny Kruger, and aspiring MP Lord David Frost, at the ‘National Conservativism’ (NatCon) Conference, an ironically global gathering of extreme right-wing ideologues.

Meanwhile, at the weekend, there was a gathering of the ‘Conservative Democratic Organization’ (CDO), the pro-Johnson group of grassroots Tory Party members, founded by Peter Cruddas, the disgraced former Tory Party treasurer and Vote Leave and Tory Party donor, who now sits in the House of Lords courtesy of Johnson though against the advice of the Appointments Commission. Johnson himself didn’t bother to attend in person, but Priti Patel, Nadine Dorries and, yet again, Jacob Rees-Mogg did.

Part of what is going on here is simply some of the aspirant replacements for Sunak burnishing their leadership credentials. That almost certainly applies to Braverman, probably to Patel, possibly to Rees-Mogg, and conceivably even to Frost. In itself, that is indicative of Sunak’s faltering authority, as well as presenting a menu of options for his successor which might turn even the strongest stomach and dismay the unfussiest of eaters. More fundamentally, it is about the incipient ideological war within the Tory Party which is going to explode assuming they lose the next election.

I have written about the implications of the NatCon Conference for the Conservative Party in my ‘Brexit Britain’ in the latest edition of Byline Times, so won’t do so here. But the wider picture, as the Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff writes, is an attempt by “Tory populists” to capture “the ideological soul of the party” at the expense of “Tory realists”. It is a struggle inseparable from the entire story of Brexit and the Conservative Party, and the latest manifestation of the process I discussed at length in February, whereby ‘Brexitism’ threatens to completely displace ‘Traditionalism’ (in the same meaning as ‘realist’ rather than the NatCon sense of traditional Conservatism). Within that, as Rafael Behr wrote this week, Sunak “has not picked a side between reality and dogma, but stands awkwardly between them, in the churned-up bog of a political no man’s land, sinking.”

According to David Gauke, it is “perfectly plausible” that after the election the NatCon (or Populist or Brexitist) takeover of the Tory Party will succeed, and whilst that may do little for its electoral fortunes it will make it impossible for as long as it lasts to envisage a cross-party agreement on substantively closening the relationship with the EU, which would surely be a pre-condition of the EU considering such a change.

Damage and decline continue

As the Tories implode, the damage and decline caused by Brexit grows remorselessly. One issue which put Brexit in the headlines this week has been lurking ever since the TCA was agreed – I think I first mentioned it in January 2021, though, astonishingly, Kemi Badenoch says it “isn’t to do with Brexit” – namely the looming end-of-year deadline by which, in order for electric vehicles to be traded tariff-free between the EU and the UK, their batteries must be at least 60% (by value) sourced in the EU or the UK. Without urgent action, car makers, including Vauxhall, are likely to close factories in the UK.

There is a fairly straightforward, if temporary, solution which Sam Lowe, who has been flagging up this issue for years, explains is to extend the deadline for the application of this ‘rule of origin’ (the link given also explains in more detail the intricacies of this issue, which are greater than my summary of it). But the underlying problem is that the UK has failed to develop what was supposedly one of its post-Brexit industrial priorities, the development of a domestic electric battery industry, exemplified by the failure of BritishVolt gigafactory. And, lurking beneath that, is the UK’s lack of access to the critical minerals needed for such batteries and lack of capacity to process them.

This temporary solution requires, of course, EU agreement to amend the TCA: having ‘sovereignty’ doesn’t give untrammeled freedom of action. As it happens, the EU also faces these problems, making it quite feasible that an extension will be agreed. But the crucial issue will be what happens then. Both the US and the EU (£) are devoting huge resources to securing the minerals and processing capacity, and developing the battery manufacturing capacity, so as to be free of reliance on, especially, Chinese imports. This in turn is linked to the even wider issue, which I discussed in August 2021, about the EU drive for ‘technological autonomy’ and its active efforts to secure supplies of critical raw materials (it also arguably links to the even wider matter of what the growing protectionism of both the EU and the US means for the UK).

There’s little sign that the UK has the political will or resources to do the same. So, even assuming an extension is agreed, if by its expiry the EU has succeeded in making the necessary developments and the UK hasn’t then it will presumably mark the end, in effect, of the UK car industry. And, on the more general issue, that the UK will be squeezed between the US, EU and China in the race for secure and stable access to the materials needed for advanced manufacturing (it’s not just batteries they’re needed for) and, crucially, environmentally sustainable advanced manufacturing. As with regulation, the UK is too small to go it alone.

In a somewhat related way, it was also reported this week (£) that post-Brexit interim arrangements for energy trading make costs for British consumers £1.1 billion a year higher than they would otherwise be. It’s yet another example of the failure of Brexit, and – as with another Brexit development this week, an agreement about how to address the ‘small boats crisis’ (£) – the remedy is closer cooperation with the EU. Yet such remedies are seen by those most willing to admit in public that Brexit has failed as being the cause of, rather than the solution to, that failure.

The invariable cry of those Brexiters bemoaning all this failure is, like Rocco Forte this week (£), that post-Brexit Britain has lapsed into ‘declinism’, which is equally invariably blamed on the “declinist Remainer elite” (£). It’s the same analysis that lay behind Truss’s disastrous mini-budget. The irony is painful. For the reality is that the more Brexit is pursued in the manner they want the more sharply Britain declines.

This is the serious stuff of high-level strategy. It isn’t remotely addressed by the government’s blithe assurances of its commitment to ‘finding solutions’, solutions that don’t exist within the parameters of the Brexit it has created. Nor is it addressed by Labour’s pledge to make Brexit work, since the solutions don’t exist within the modest tinkering with Brexit that Starmer has committed to. Not until the diagnosis that Brexit is a failure is accompanied by realism and honesty about the causes and solutions can it be addressed. There is little sign that the British polity is getting close to that point, and by the time it does the decline may have become irreversible.

Friday, 12 May 2023

Pain, exile and progress

This week’s post is the latest of the series of book reviews I began in March and intend to continue as, no doubt, more and more books about Brexit are published. Generally, I’m doing them as additional posts to the normal weekly discussion of Brexit news but, this week, there’s not much of this that’s worth discussing.

One development has been the confirmation of what I discussed last week, namely that the government will only axe 600 pieces of retained EU law by the end of the year (not even the 800 floated). A sensible move, to the outrage of the Brexit Ultras, though there remains the important question about what exactly these laws are.

There were also the Local Election results which, amongst other things, gave rise to questions about what salience Brexit now has to voting patterns and about what the implications for Brexit policy would be if the results foreshadow a hung parliament. The latter question is discussed by Nick Tyrone in his latest Week in Brexitland, and I largely agree with his analysis.

Book review

Behr, Rafael (2023) Politics: A Survivor’s Guide. How to stay engaged without getting enraged. London: Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-1-83895 504 5 (Hardback). 404 pages. £20.

This isn’t, strictly speaking, a book about Brexit, but Brexit runs through it as a theme and a context, and because of the focus of this blog it is mainly this aspect I will discuss. I bought it because its author, Rafael Behr, is, to my mind, one of the best political columnists in the country, and not just in relation to Brexit although he has written a great deal about that. Almost all his columns are excellent, especially because he so often finds a distinctive angle or a fresh insight on whatever it is that he is discussing. Moreover, he has a superb writing style, at once elegant and punchy, acute and amusing.

I mention this because I’m not sure that I would have been drawn to it by its title, or more especially the sub-title, which, almost literally, makes it sound like a ‘self-help’ book. Thankfully, it isn’t really that and, towards the end, Behr makes it clear that there will be no “list of practical tips for a less infuriating democracy” (p.371).

Balance and perspective

Saying that I was drawn to it because of regard for Behr’s writings opens a difficult question which is partly what the book is about. Might the reason I think his writing so excellent be because I generally agree with it? Isn’t it a symptom of the enragement of politics that Behr’s book discusses that we all become partisans, seeing unquestionable virtue in our heroes and irredeemable iniquity in our foes?

Spending, as I do, much time trawling through the writings of Brexiters, I am struck by how often they will point people towards an ‘excellent’ article by one of their fellows which, when I read the recommended piece, I find to be vapid, disingenuous or worse. But, no doubt, they would think the same of writings that I admire about Brexit, or indeed of my own writing about it.

It may be simply impossible for any of us to know for sure whether we are open-minded, and perhaps that is most true for those who are open-minded enough to even consider the question. Anyway, as Behr says, “it is consoling to discover my perceptions of things reflected in another mind; not just reflected, but clarified, analyzed and organized. That is how I know I am not alone and not going mad” (p.371). Confirmation bias is always a possibility, but it would be absurd to dismiss all confirmations as being the result of it.

Agonizing and ambivalence is both a theme and a characteristic of Behr’s analysis, so that even ambivalence is subjected to agonizing questions about “the threshold where equivocation [becomes] complicity” (p.349). He records how, on the occasions he has been pre-interviewed for possible appearances on the BBC’s Question Time, his responses are measured, discursive and qualified: “On and on it goes like that, on the one hand, on the other, everything depends, until consensus is reached that I should not appear on Question Time.” (p.169)

It’s only an anecdote, but it gives a flavour of Behr’s intellectual curiosity and innately liberal sensibility, as well as his wry and often self-deprecating humour. It also illustrates the fact that “a recurrent theme of this book [is] the need for balance and perspective, which involves the more subtle art of keeping balance itself in perspective.” (p. 368)

At all events, I approached the book with at least enough open-mindedness to be prepared for disappointment, in that it is one thing to write fine columns but another to write fine books. They are very different forms and disciplines, and few can master both. I wasn’t disappointed, for it turns out that Behr is one of those who can.

The pain of politics and the politics of pain

This is a book by a political journalist about politics, but of a most unusual kind. It weaves together personal experiences, family stories, political theory, and particular political events within an over-arching narrative of some key aspects of modern history (especially in the UK and Russia, but also Lithuania, Europe generally, the US, Israel and South Africa). It’s not the kind of book most journalists (or academics) would or could write, precisely because it operates in so many different registers, and is all the better for that.

Much of it is a meditation on the nature of democracy and threats to it, the polarisation and toxicity of contemporary political discourse, the rise of the alt-right and, to an extent, the alt-left, cynicism, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. Anyone who has followed politics in recent years will find these familiar topics, but Behr brings a freshness to the discussion that is engaging and readable. But I think it is the interweaving of the personal and the political which is most arresting and, for me and I suspect others, most ‘relatable’. It is very much a book about the pain of politics, a pain that feels personal. By the same token, this review is to a degree about my personal responses to the book, rather than simply being a rehearsal and appraisal of its contents.

I used the word ‘arresting’ deliberately, because it was a massive cardiac arrest, with which the book starts and ends, which both stopped Behr in his tracks and then motivated him to write the book. That doesn’t make it self-indulgent: on the contrary, it is an analytical book which seeks to explore not simply the personal pain of politics but the political significance of that personal pain.

The pain of exile

Whilst Behr is careful not to ascribe his heart attack to politics or to Brexit (he explains it mainly in terms of genetic pre-disposition and lifestyle), he does connect it to the way that he and others he knows experienced the “furious mess of British politics” (p. 12) following the Brexit referendum. The pain of that wasn’t simply that of an observer: the political mess wasn’t experienced by people as something external to them but as something that, so to speak, messed them up, creating what Behr describes as a “state of emotional and psychological exile.” (p. 118)

The notion of ‘exile’ is, in various forms, a central motif of the book, along with the related idea of political disengagement being “internal emigration.” (p.344) Thus, the overall puzzle of the book is the political, psychological and emotional challenge of “treading the line between complacency and despair” (loc. cit.) or, in other words, between the temptations of internal emigration and the pain of exile.

It is the motif of exile which I am going to focus on in this review. Indeed, one reason why I find the book relatable is because the first thing I wrote after the referendum finished with these words:

“As for me, I feel distraught and physically sick. As the Brexiters crow of having ‘got their country back’, I feel that I have lost my home and now live in exile.”

That was on another blog, but the feeling was the impetus for this blog, and all that I have written about Brexit which, in its own way, has been an attempt to bring an analytical perspective to bear upon what was, and to an extent still is, a visceral sense of pain; to engage as a way to make enragement productive or perhaps to assuage or displace enragement.

For Behr, that sense of exile is refracted through the lens of his family’s migration from Lithuania to South Africa to Britain, and freighted by his Jewishness, which gives particular weight not just to the experience of Brexit but of the anti-Semitic strain within Corbyn’s Labour. Thus, he writes:

“Even in twenty-first-century Britain, safe by any historical measure, the hearts of the survivors’ grandchildren beat with a trace of inherited dread. It is the cautionary tale about the worst-case scenario that was handed down: it is the emotional baggage and the passport kept ready for sudden flight. It is the inescapable suspicion that no matter how rooted Jews feel in a country and its culture, one day there will come a mob armed with the rusty old prejudice to let us know that we don’t belong.” (p.72)

I’ve quoted this at some length, because it captures powerfully and eloquently something which is immediately intelligible, even to those of us who are not Jewish. I’ve heard or read similar sentiments, but rarely, if ever, expressed with such clarity.

I also know, not from first-hand experience but from family members, the somewhat adjacent and sometimes overlapping fear of being found not to have one’s paperwork in order, and to be passport-less, a fear that also gets transmitted down generations. It was a fear suddenly experienced, after the referendum, by those millions of EU-27 nationals in the UK and, often, the British people with whom their lives were deeply intertwined. It was no comfort – in fact, a source of intense anger and upset – when leave-voting friends and neighbours, explaining that immigration had got ‘out of control’, told them, rather as Behr was told by his anti-Semitic landlady in Russia (p.215), that ‘we don’t mean you, of course’.

And then, somewhat adjacent to and sometimes overlapping with this, there is that experience that I, and many others, felt on the morning after the referendum of having becomes exiles in our own country, newly revealed as alien to us and alienated by us. That wouldn’t have been felt by all remain voters, of course, but the volume and visceral nature of the response of many, and the way that it has endured over the years since, shows how widespread and profound it was. Equally, though more quietly, alongside that enragement I’ve witnessed the gradual disengagement of many erstwhile remainers who, rather than shout impotently at the news, have retreated into the “internal emigration” of the personal and the local or even a literal, external emigration to other countries.

A lost past and a lost country

Behr’s other point of reference for the feeling of exile engendered by Brexit and post-Brexit politics is the comparison with the apparent stability and prosperity of the ‘Great Moderation’ of the 1990s, and especially the second half of that decade, when he was in his early twenties: “What I have more recently found intolerable about British politics can only be properly diagnosed with reference to that glorious fin de si√®cle. To know the present feeling of exile means revisiting the country as it was when I felt most at home in it.” (p.74)

I don’t doubt the authenticity of the sentiment, but I think it is slightly off-target analytically. I am ten years older than Behr, and have a similar feeling about my ‘salad days’ a decade earlier, at a much less politically auspicious time. But I also recognize the contrast he draws between the late 1990s and the recent period. My point, then, is that the two issues of youthful hope and political hope shouldn’t be conflated just because, for Behr, they happened to coincide.

For certainly, at the time, and still in retrospect, the late 1990s did indeed seem to be a time of hope and possibility in Britain. That is not rose-tinted – even then, and more clearly now, it had some obvious limitations. But the morning after the 1997 election, as I got the train to work having been up all night, and people of, presumably, many different backgrounds, were spontaneously smiling at each other, was unforgettable. It was an experience repeated across the country.  As Behr writes, “it had some of the character of a cultural revolution: a moment, like the Brexit referendum 19 years later, when the democratic process seemed to express a metamorphosis in national identity.” (p.80)

However, whereas in 1997 there were, no doubt, some bitterly upset Tories, that election had a sense of bringing people together that was wholly lacking in 2016, when even the victorious leaders looked shocked and frightened, and whilst some were cheering in the streets, many others were behind closed doors contemplating what seemed like tragedy.

I’m attracted to Behr’s point – which is very much in keeping with his disposition to ‘balance and perspective’ – that “the other side” had also felt a sense of exile of ‘having lost my country’, which drove the nationalist desire to ‘get my country back’: “it is possible, and I think necessary, to acknowledge that symmetry.” (p.118) It’s a wise and charitable observation, as well as having some truth. But the difficulties of acknowledging such a symmetry go beyond being “hard when the losing side sees most of its arguments from the referendum vindicated by subsequent events” (loc. cit.). For I think there is an important asymmetry in the political psychology of these two exiles, and considering it may also reveal some of the limits to where ‘balance and perspective’ can take us.

Asymmetries of exile

The leave sense of exile was a grumble, perhaps much more than that, which had built over many years. The exile of remainers was an instant trauma, an overnight ripping up of the old order, and not just that of EU membership. That was made worse by the fact that, even then, it was known that plenty of leave voters weren’t motivated by their own exiled hurt but by more frivolous motives of ‘wanting a change’ or ‘giving Cameron a kicking’, or simply ‘assumed remain would win anyway’.

Behr anticipates this point in noting that the collapse of the centre (meaning Brexit, but not only that) “felt sudden … because we hadn’t been paying attention to the shifting ground beneath our feet” (p.245), and it’s true that, like many things in life which come as a shock, there now seems a kind of inevitability about Brexit. But if the narrow margin of victory had gone the other way, we would be writing with equal assurance something like ‘when it came to the point, a traditional pragmatism, allied to fear of adding more economic damage to that of the financial crisis, unsurprisingly carried the day’.

The small numerical difference between the outcomes was, of course, epochal in its effects, but an identical electorate, with exactly the same groundswell of discontents and grievances, might on another day have yielded a different result. It’s only because there was, in fact, an earthquake that we now say the tectonic plates beneath our feet had already shifted.

Initial shock aside, the aftershocks of the earthquake were profound for remainers because of the way that Brexit was then prosecuted in a form which was so ‘hard’, and without any attempt to build consensus. Notably, it wasn’t until after that became clear that the People’s Vote campaign got underway and gained ground. At the same time, a kind of ‘Brexit McCarthyism’ emerged in which remainers (whether actual or alleged), especially in the civil service, academia and judiciary were talked of, and even to some extent treated, not just as exiles within their own country but as its internal enemies. Increasingly, that seems to have extended to treating anyone who is educated as part of an alien ‘new elite’ judged against populist loyalty tests that include but are far more extensive than Brexit.

Although he doesn’t mention the McCarthyism comparison, drawing it might be an example of Behr’s highly incisive discussion of “the paradox of vigilance” (the title of chapter 14) and his contradictory “dread at how bad things might get” and “irritation at the casual invocation of worst-case scenarios” (p.349). He means, primarily, Stalinism and Fascism, but McCarthyism could fit as well. Arguably the McCarthyism comparison is a more legitimate one, in that it refers to a scapegoating that happened within a society which was, nevertheless, essentially a democracy, but it is still a form of catastrophising and one which can be too glibly made.

For what it is worth, I don’t think that in that respect things have turned out as badly as I and others feared but there, again, is the paradox: perhaps, with less vigilance, things would have gone worse? At all events, my point is that, to whatever extent the fear was justified, it was a fear felt only by one side (it’s true that the ‘other side’ invokes its mirror image of a ‘woke thought police’ set to ‘cancel’ those who speak out, but such a situation would arise despite rather than because of, or out of, Brexit).

It's also worth pointing out that both the ‘aftershocks’ of how Brexit was done in such a hard way, and with no process of consensus-building, and the incipient McCarthyism (if that’s what it was) of 2017-2019 happened under Theresa May. Behr’s book isn’t, and doesn’t purport to be, a history of Brexit, but the account of Brexit it gives is perhaps surprisingly muted on May’s role, certainly by comparison with the extensive, and extremely acute, analysis of Johnson. Yet May set many of the directions for how Brexit turned out, and in many ways her character and motivations are more difficult to decode than his.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the idea of a symmetry of exile is that, almost from the outset, and certainly now, the most committed Brexiters and many leave voters have insisted that Brexit has been betrayed, and that ‘this wasn’t the Brexit I voted for’. Many of us thought that was inevitable, and it’s the central theme of my own book about Brexit (a revised and updated edition of which will be published in September, by the way). But, inevitable or not, it is the case that Brexit hasn’t restored the homeland of previously-exiled leavers at the expense of newly-exiled remainers; it has aggrieved just about everyone, albeit for different reasons.

Behr is well aware of this, of course, and it surfaces several times, especially in Part 3 of the book (‘Revolution’) which is one of the best analyses of Brexit I’ve read (again, perhaps reflecting the fact that it is one I very much agree with, and have advanced on this blog, including many times referencing Behr’s newspaper columns). For example, he points out that “a revolution that has achieved its defining purpose while meeting none of its higher goals condemns its leaders to a cycle of endless grievance-mining.” (p.294) Just so, and by the same token not just the leaders but the followers were left trapped in grievance. But that is doubly galling for the other ‘tribe’ who, in addition to their own grievances about Brexit having happened must listen to the victors still complaining, perpetually dissatisfied.

Building a new home

I don’t want to give the impression that Behr projects a kind of flabby relativism about Brexit, or anything else. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, whilst he understands the frustrations that drove people to vote leave, “it boiled my blood when the impeccably-credentialled professional politicians who led that revolution excused themselves from belonging to the Establishment so they might claim to be overthrowing it” (p.268), using what he calls the “Brexit ju-jitsu ... that defined the losing side as the authors of their own defeat” (loc. cit.). And notwithstanding his post-cardiac avoidance of enragement there’s plenty of anger on display, and an acceptance that “when politics degrades the country you call home there is a responsibility to stay angry in defiance of those who seek to gain from disengagement.” (p.381) The trick, Behr suggests, is to discharge that responsibility without getting stuck in a cycle of personal anger that leads to nowhere but more anger.

There’s so much in this book that I haven’t touched on, even in what is quite a long review. Much more about Brexit, and much more about much more than Brexit. Almost every page has a fresh insight or a thought-provoking argument, usually accompanied by a compelling story from his family or professional life and always informed by a deep knowledge of modern history and politics. The last book on politics I can recall reading with such attention and pleasure was Tony Judt’s (2011) Ill Fares the Land.

If, at the end, it’s not quite clear how to be engaged without being enraged – and the route that Behr involuntarily took to do so isn’t one anyone would want to have to follow – well, this isn’t, after all, a self-help book. The main tools it advocates are also those of the balance and perspective it deploys, to be applied to oneself, but also to history and politics where it reveals that “the balance sheet, read across a long enough timeline, is net positive for progress.” (p.364). That enables an engagement which can’t reconstruct the home from which we have been exiled, but can build a new home in the new land where we find ourselves. In that sense, it is an optimistic book, and if Behr has become less enraged by politics, he doesn’t seem to have lost a passion for its possibilities.