Thursday 29 December 2016

The end of the beginning of Brexit

The holiday season has meant that there have been few substantive developments, but the successors of the Leave campaign have made some high profile interventions in favour of hard Brexit. First, the Leave means Leave group have written to the Chambers of Commerce in all the other EU states asking them to put pressure on their governments for a tariff-free trade agreement for the UK. The initiative is really just a reprise of the familiar refrain that ‘German car manufacturers’ will ensure that the UK gets a good deal, and it suffers from the same difficulties. First, trade policy is not determined by business interests. If it was, there would be no question of the UK leaving the EU! Second, many EU businesses see great gains to be made at the UK’s expense if it gets a bad exit deal. And, yet again, the focus is on tariffs rather than the non-tariff barriers to trade the erosion of which are the main characteristic of the single market. It will be interesting to see what replies they get.

Hard Brexit was also promoted by Lord King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, as bringing “real benefits” but beyond the usual talk of the opportunities of doing new trade deals there was no detail of what these were, and he conceded that no one should think it was going to be “a bed of roses”. Although it was greeted with delight by Brexiters, it seemed to me a fairly cautious, even downbeat, assessment. Detail was provided by another hard Brexit pressure group, Change Britain, which estimated savings of £450M a week as a result. But as usual it was predicated on dodgy assumptions and bogus statistics, with Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) denouncing it as “junk” not least because it confused government revenues with exports. And, yet again, it was predicated upon airy expectations of future trade deals with third parties the terms and timescale of which are unknown.

What was really alarming about this was that Portes – a heavyweight figure, formerly the Chief Economist at the Cabinet Office – was then denounced by Michael Gove of Change Britain as a remainer who should have learned some “humility”. In fact, Portes never publicly endorsed either side of the Brexit campaign, leading Gove to challenge him to declare how he had voted. This seems truly monstrous: are we now required to reveal our vote (to leave) in order to be regarded as a legitimate voice in the debate about what to do now?

This mind set is reflected in another alarming development. The leader of the First Division Association (FDA) – in effect the trade union of senior civil servants – has said that politicians, including the Prime Minister, lack the political courage to acknowledge the complexities of Brexit. As a consequence, whenever civil servants raise these complexities they are attacked as seeking to subvert ‘the will of the people’. There are real dangers in all this, both in terms of effective policy-making and also in terms of an incipient totalitarianism in political culture.

One aspect of this is the growing narrative amongst Brexiters that we all somehow have a patriotic duty the ‘get behind’ Brexit. Thus Tory MP Charlie Elphicke responded to the Change Britain report by saying that “now everyone, Remainer or Leaver, has a duty to get on with the job of delivering a brighter future for our land”. Many similar views have been expressed across internet discussion forums. It is nonsense, for the reasons I set out in a previous post (‘Why remainers shouldn’t move on’) and most fundamentally because there is nothing patriotic about getting behind (whatever that really means) a course of action that will be catastrophic for our country.

This bogus patriotism should be completely rejected, as should the emerging Brexiter meme that all would be well if the EU were not refusing to give us a good deal – by which they mean full membership of the single market without free movement of people, budget contributions or EJ jurisdiction. But such a deal was never in prospect and nor is there any reason whatsoever why it should be on offer. That was abundantly clear before the Referendum, but Brexiters refused to accept it. So for them now to try to whip up ‘patriotic’ fervour about it is ridiculous: what it reveals is the mixture of lies and unrealism of their campaign.

On a perhaps lighter note – or is it? – take a look at this mashup video on Brexit ('Brexit means Brexit and we’re making a mess of it’) by Cassetteboy. Next year, we’re going to begin to see the full extent of the mess. It will see (presumably) the triggering of Article 50 and the revelation of whether the UK is seeking hard or soft Brexit. If, as seems increasingly likely, the former it will very likely mean a catastrophic further fall in the value of sterling and significant disinvestment in the UK. It won’t be the beginning of the end of the Brexit process, but it will be the end of the beginning, as the Phoney War of the hiatus between the referendum and A50 finishes.

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