Friday 26 May 2017

Brexiters in denial: we didn't mean 'that' or 'you'

Because of the General Election there is not much Brexit news to write about, although there are daily reports of Brexit causing companies and sectors to be in difficulty or pulling out, losses of vital EU staff, falling growth, and rising inflation. In fact there is not a single example of something good happening which would not have happened had it not been for Brexit. Even the paltry crumb of comfort that the falling pound helps exports turns out to be minimal.

The General Election hiatus is also bad news in that it represents a waste of what everyone agrees is the already inadequate 24 month time frame for the Article 50 exit negotiations. It means that at least two of those months are being squandered. To put it another way; suppose that you had a vital task to complete and had just 12 days to do it. You and everyone else knows that 12 days is way too little. So you begin your 12 days by spending a day in bed. That’s what Britain is doing.

It’s not as if there was any compulsion to trigger A50 at the end of March. It was the government’s choice to do that, and then almost immediately call an election. In some peculiar way we seem to have decided, both as a nation and in our government, to start doing incredibly stupid, self-damaging things.

Anyway, since we are in that hiatus, I am going to write more today about Brexiter logic – or, rather, illogic – because I think it is going to become an increasingly important issue once the negotiations start. I’ve written before about Brexiter illogic in terms of them thinking any piece of evidence to ‘prove’ that they were right. That’s quite easy to demonstrate from the public statements of leading Brexiters, but here I want to talk about something much more nebulous, which I’ve observed mainly in online discussion forums and social media.

There is the strange sense from those who argue most vociferously for Brexit that, somehow, Brexit won’t change anything. For example, I’ve seen Brexiters ridicule the idea that leaving the EU could mean needing visas to travel to the EU or that it could mean restrictions on air travel within the EU. Or that security cooperation with EU countries would be diminished. Or that European fruit and vegetables might be less easily sourced. Or that British people would face restrictions on retiring in EU countries. Or, possibly the most ubiquitous since the referendum, leave voters saying to their friends and neighbours from EU countries: ‘oh, but we didn’t mean you when we said there were too many immigrants’.

I don’t think that these things are necessarily to do with the idea that Britain can ‘cherrypick’ some parts of the EU that they like, and it is more subtle than simply rejecting warnings as 'project Fear'. Rather, what underlies such sentiments is two related things. One is a taking for granted of the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, institutional arrangements. So of course ‘nowadays’ planes fly us to wherever we want without restrictions, as if this were not the outcome of complex agreements such as the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), and ‘of course’ we can travel visa-free in Europe, as if that were not the outcome of freedom of movement rights. In some ways, Brexiters, who despise Euro technocrats and bureaucrats and rail against extra-national decision making, also treat it as an act of nature that there are Europe-wide regulatory systems which, on Brexit, British citizens will still have available to them.

The related underlying issue is that for many Brexiters the vote to ‘take back control’, with all its emotional resonance, was not thought about in concrete legal or institutional terms but as a kind of symbolic, feel-good act. That, indeed, is the implication of the Brexit White Paper which affirms (para 2.1) that sovereignty was never lost by EU membership but that “it has not always felt like that”.

The problem is that both the assumption that familiar freedoms are an act of nature and the symbolism of taking back control are now in collision with the reality of leaving the legal institutions of the EU. This isn’t going to be a matter of assumption or symbolism: it will have hard, concrete effects. It will be no good saying to your EU neighbour that ‘you didn’t mean her’ when she quits her job as a Paediatric Consultant and your child is ill. It will be no good saying that ‘of course, they will never introduce visas to go on holiday to Spain’ when you have chosen not to be a part of ‘them’.

One reason why this situation has come about is because of the way that the Leave campaign chose to conduct itself. Rather than accept that there would be adverse consequences of leaving the EU but that these were, in their view, worth accepting, the leave campaign hyperbolized so as to dismiss those consequences. Thus, to take the most obvious example, when remainers talked about the EU’s role in keeping peace in Europe, the leavers said ‘ah, so World War Three will break out if we leave’ – making a perfectly reasonable claim into a ludicrous one that could then be dismissed. It was the same with travel. When remain warned about restrictions, leave hyperbolized that to say ‘ah, so you’ll never be able to go on holiday if we leave’. The legacy of that, now, is that when WW3 has not broken out and the end of foreign travel is not in prospect, Brexiters taunt remainers with the claims that the latter never, in fact, made. But that in turn means that Brexiters still believe that leaving the EU doesn’t make any difference at all.

From this mixture of lack of realism about EU institutions, symbolic understanding of leaving, and dishonesty about the consequences of leaving flows a great danger. As the realities of what Brexit means kick in, the leaver mindset that leaving ‘didn’t mean that’ or ‘shouldn’t mean that’ or ‘needn’t mean that’ is morphing into a belief that ‘the EU is making it mean something that it doesn’t, or shouldn’t or needn’t’. So whereas a rational response would be to say that by voting to leave leavers have chosen the consequences, what is emerging is the punishment narrative that Brexiters are already beginning to deploy to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their decision.

Although I have said that the sentiments discussed in this post are more obvious amongst grassroots Brexiters than their leaders, traces are visible amongst those leaders. For example, Nigel Farage recently ranted about the idea that British people would no longer be able to travel to Europe in response to point made by Guy Verhofstadt that Brexit would be likely to mean restrictions to travel. On the one hand, it was a hyperbolization (it wasn’t the effect claimed), on the other it was used to imply that, despite Brexit, ‘nothing would change’. Similarly, David Davis has recently opined that key EU regulatory agencies, the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority, could stay in London post-Brexit (as if Brexit ‘made no difference’) whilst the Brexit press depicts the loss of those agencies as ‘Brexit Punishment’ (as if Britain hadn’t chosen to leave the EU or ‘didn’t mean that’ when it did).

Once this unnecessary election is over the Article 50 negotiations will start and the consequences of Brexit will become ever clearer and the cries of ‘EU punishment’ will get ever louder. It will then be vital to remind leave voters that whatever they may have thought that voting to leave the EU meant, what it actually meant – it seems extraordinary to have to write this - was something very simple: leaving the EU. It will be a rich irony, given the months in which this absurd slogan was deployed to scarify remainers, that Brexiters will need to learn the rather brutal truth that, indeed, Brexit means Brexit.

[Updated with minor edits 28 May 2017]

Sunday 21 May 2017

What size of Tory majority should remainers hope for?

The best outcome of the election from a remainer point of view is obvious: a parliament with a majority of SNP, LibDems, Greens and Plaid Cymru. Arguably, and with many caveats, the next best thing would be a Labour majority because although Labour are pusillanimous and confused about Brexit, and have a leader who appears to be at best uninterested in and at worst in favour of Brexit, there would be many anti-Brexit MPs in place.

But if we assume that both these scenarios are highly unlikely and that the result is almost certain to be a Tory majority then the question is: what size of Tory majority is best for remainers? Given the current tightening of the opinion polls the range of possibilities now looks to be quite wide, between 40 and over 100. Judged solely from the point of view of being against Brexit, which is better?

Let’s leave aside Theresa May’s wholly spurious argument – which even she cannot believe – that a large majority will in some way help Britain to ‘get a good deal’ by ‘strengthening her hand’ in negotiations. That has rightly been denounced as nonsense from all sides to the Brexit spectrum because the EU will simply be negotiating with the British government, without regard for or interest in its domestic majority. If anything, a small majority can help in negotiations because, as the astute Tory journalist Ian Birrell argues, it enables the government to argue that it could not get the deal through parliament. But, really, it’s irrelevant except as an electoral ploy.

For remainers, the main argument for favouring a large Tory majority is the possibility which I floated in a previous post, and which some media commentators have also advanced but others vehemently rejected, that this would enable the government to be less controlled by ultra-Brexit Tory backbenchers. There are several assumptions in that, first and foremost that May’s government will, if unhampered by the ultras, seek to advance a pragmatic Brexit. That means, so far have we gone from any kind of sense, avoiding a ‘no deal’ crash out. There are some signs that this assumption is valid, since the Tory manifesto seems to accept that there will have to be compromises, the payment of some kind of ‘exit bill’, and is muted on CJEU jurisdiction. But it cannot be taken for granted, since May’s position is so unclear.

The other assumption is that the new intake in the event of the big Tory majority would not augment the numbers of (ultra) Brexiters. This assumption is also, I think, a reasonable one if the first assumption is also correct. If it is the case that May will seek to avoid an ultra Brexit then the new intake is likely to go along with that. Firstly because there is some evidence that Conservative Central HQ have sought to parachute May loyalists into safe seats to detriment of Brexiters (Daniel Hannan’s failure to be selected in Aldershot being a high profile example). Secondly because, in any case, new and ambitious MPs are always more biddable than old salt Brexiters like Redwood, Cash and Duncan Smith, whatever their personal views may be.

An additional argument for a large Tory majority is that it would be more likely to lead to a new Labour leader, who might be more anti-Brexit than Corbyn. Yvette Cooper, Clive Lewis, Chuka Umanna or Keir Starmer are all possibilities. But, of course, even if that happened it would have little effect, at least in the crucial period of the Article 50 negotiations.

A smaller Tory majority, by contrast, might be good from an anti-Brexit perspective in that it would bring into play whatever is left of the Tory remainers. Admittedly, they have been utterly feeble so far (with the honourable exception of Ken Clarke, who will most likely be in the next Parliament) but they might be emboldened by the combination of a small majority and the unfolding, inevitable, rising tangible costs of Brexit. Moreover, a smaller majority would make it much harder for May to claim – as she and the Brexit press clearly want to – an overwhelming Brexit mandate in which all opposition is deemed to be ‘sabotage’ and against the ‘will of the people’. That would be important not just, or even primarily, in terms of parliamentary arithmetic but in terms of the legitimacy of wider voices in civil society, business, academia and so on. It would make the Brexit McCarthyism that I have posted about previously a bit less potent.

Embedded within that is a peculiar unintended consequence of the way that the Tories called the election and the manner in which they have so far fought it. From the beginning, the assumption was that a huge majority was all but certain. This means, though, that a perfectly strong result, and one much better than achieved by Cameron in 2015 – a majority of 40, say – would in some sense be construed as a failure. In fact, given the extravagant predictions, anything less than a 100 majority will be a kind of a let-down. At the same time, the vagueness of the Tory manifesto both in general (the lack of costings) and on Brexit in particular, which might give freedom of action if the majority is large, will sap legitimacy if the majority if small. For Brexit that could matter especially in the pro-remain House of Lords, which would be wary of defying a landslide Commons majority and/or very specific manifesto pledges.

I am still not sure what the answer to this question is, partly because there are so many other imponderables – for example, a small Tory majority with a much enhanced LibDem representation might be quite different to a larger Tory majority with less LibDems, and the extent to which the SNP hold their seats will matter, as will the vote in Northern Ireland. But with all that said I suppose that the least-worst outcome is a small Tory majority which could at least strike some kind of deal with the EU and get it through parliament in defiance of the Tory ultra Brexiters with the support of the other parties. That shows, though, how shrivelled and limited the options for Britain now are: none of them are good, it is just a matter of the bad, the worse or the catastrophic.

A final thought, about what may well become a big issue in the future. Suppose that the next Tory government negotiate a deal which contains some compromises on issues like free movement of people, ECJ jurisdiction and budget payments. It would, of course, be a far less good deal than staying in the EU or even than a soft Brexit of staying in the single market. But it would be better than the ultra-Brexit ‘no deal’. In that scenario, the agreed deal would have to be ratified by the European Parliament, in what could well be a close vote. UKIP would by that date be (presumably) irrelevant within UK politics, having been outflanked by May in this election, but would still have MEPs. Is it, then, possible that they would join what could be a successful vote to veto the deal? And, if so, what an irony that a Brexit endorsed by the British parliament might be undone by the European Parliament courtesy of UKIP.

Thursday 18 May 2017

The Brexit election: but what about Brexit?

Theresa May framed the calling of the general election in terms of Brexit, but what is truly remarkable is in how little it is actually being discussed. You have to take a step back to see just how peculiar this is. Whatever side you were on in the referendum, leaving the EU is the biggest national event since the Second World War – far bigger than the decision to join – and it’s also possibly the most unusual political event in any developed democracy in living memory. When else has such a country decided unilaterally to re-write almost all its foreign and economic policy, and to seek to simultaneously detach and re-attach itself on unknown terms to the global trade system?

In those circumstances, one might expect an intense debate about the ins and outs of what Brexit will mean and how it will be pursued. It is no good saying that this was settled by last year’s referendum. That vote, whatever else can be said about it, only opened up new issues. It was a vote to leave the EU, certainly, but it was not a vote for anything else in particular. The way it is now taken forward will affect every single area of daily life, from air travel through to nuclear waste disposal, and every industry from fishing to computer game design. And the very existence of the country as a United Kingdom will be called into question.

So where is the detailed discussion of different options and their consequences? What exactly does the government’s White Paper Brexit plan, endorsed in the Tory manifesto, mean? Is ‘no deal better than a bad deal’? How would a ‘bad deal’ be defined? What does a ‘no deal’ scenario look like? Most extraordinary of all, where is the discussion of the costs of the Brexit plan? Every single other policy, from whatever party, is relentlessly scrutinised for affordability. How will this or that spending pledge be paid for? Yet no questions at all are asked about the cost of Brexit, even though in any realistic scenario it will be in the high billions of pounds, with reductions of GDP/capita in the range of 6.3% to 9.5% according to an authoritative study by MIT. Even halve the lowest estimate, and that is an economic disaster in prospect; at the higher end, which might by the same token be an under-estimate, it will be a catastrophe.

What will the effect on employment be? How will the tax take be affected? What is the impact on that totemic issue of recent years, the fiscal deficit? What about the balance of payments? Will the UK’s credit rating be affected? Will sterling’s status as a reserve currency be affected? And what about the value of sterling, anyway? Brexit has seen a huge currency depreciation which at any other time would have been a massive election issue. So why isn’t it being talked about except, sporadically, in muted terms of rising inflation?

Beyond the economics, where is the discussion of what foreign policy looks like post-Brexit? Trump’s election, itself one of the biggest issues of recent times, even were Brexit not happening, in combination with Brexit means that Britain’s place in the world and its core alliances are all in flux. But this has barely been mentioned by any party. For that matter, one might think that the fate of the over one million Britons living in the EU and who are directly affected by Brexit would merit some significant debate – not least since at least some of them have a vote in this election. But they are hardly discussed.

That this bizarre situation is being allowed to exist is partly a matter of the failure of journalists to ask any of these questions. It is also the responsibility of the two main political parties themselves (the LibDems are certainly making Brexit central, but focus mainly on the case for a second referendum). The Tories are content to let the only Brexit-related issue be which of May or Corbyn will be able to negotiate ‘the best deal’ – with no sense whatsoever of what that deal would be. Instead, the Tory manifesto re-iterates the White Paper commitments to a form of Brexit that was neither voted for in the Referendum nor advocated by many leading leavers. That is, to leave the single market and customs union, prioritising immigration control. But there is no explanation of why this is the preferred approach, how it will work in practice even if achieved, nor what costs – financial or otherwise – it will entail, and no one bothers to ask. So, for example, the news of Tory manifesto launch was dominated by discussion of social care funding. Yet the very viability of the care system, which is heavily dependent on EU workers, is in peril because of Brexit.

Labour are simply in a mess on Brexit, without a policy position that makes any sense at all. Their manifesto statement about wanting to retain the “benefits” of the single market and customs union but without being members of either is meaningless and in consequence so are the rest of their pieties about the kind of deal they would seek if in government or even support if in opposition. Nor are they asking any significant questions of the Tories about their policy in a misguided attempt to assert that the election is not, in fact, anything much to do with Brexit. Yet all of the issues that they are mainlining on will inevitably be hugely affected by Brexit, the NHS being just one obvious example. They are not even making the point that the outgoing Tory administration has foisted the greatest instability in living memory on the UK and yet are now insisting that only the Tory party can provide ‘strong and stable’ leadership. Nor do they mention how by calling this election Theresa May has blown two out of the already tiny twenty-four month time frame for the Article 50 negotiations.

The most extraordinary things about all this is that the only half-way intellectually respectable justification put forward for Brexit was that it would mean that the British electorate could choose and dispose of its political direction of travel via the general election ballot box. But what is now in prospect is the use of that ballot box to endorse a scarcely specified, barely discussed and yet central, historic policy. Although commentators are saying that this is the first election in recent times where there has been a very clear distinction between the main parties, on the core issue of Brexit they are both committed to a virtually identical hard Brexit.

This matters hugely, because on the basis of the result – presumably, a large win for the Tories - a mandate will be claimed to enact Brexit pretty much as they want. Included in the Tory manifesto is, again, the phrase that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ – giving cover for an outcome absolutely at odds with what voters were led to expect during the referendum campaign. Yet in her manifesto launch speech the PM said that the consequences of not getting the right deal would be “dire”. So what are voters endorsing if they vote to allow ‘no deal’ to be an option?

And it is certainly not just remainers who should worry about this. It is perfectly conceivable, and consistent with the manifesto, for Brexit to entail, possibly in backdoor form, many of the regulatory and legal institutions of the EU. In fact, if that does not happen then the stated preferred aim of creating a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the EU is unachievable. It’s noteworthy that the manifesto is not even explicit about leaving the ECJ (which isn’t mentioned directly). So what are voters endorsing if they vote to allow this ‘deep and special partnership’ to be an option?

So we have an election ostensibly about, and in the middle of, the biggest strategic and economic change that this country has made in the lifetime of most voters, and with consequences which will last for decades, but the actual nature of that change is barely being talked about, certainly not at any level of detail. With this farcical election on top of a farcical referendum we drift every more rapidly not, in fact, to the jolly, trouser-dropping British farce with which this all started, but to the theatre of the absurd: nihilistic, incomprehensible, dark and slightly mad.

Addenda (19 May 2017):

1. Comments now disabled on this blog due to volumes of spam
2. My briefing, 'The Business of Brexit: What happens next?' is now available.

Friday 5 May 2017

Brexiter (il)logic and where it could lead us

One of the most dangerous things about Brexiters is the constant re-invention of their claims. So each time one claim is falsified, it is used as ‘evidence’ that they were right after all. Equally, they use completely contradictory claims to ‘prove’ that they are right.

There are numerous examples of this. Sometimes, although now decreasingly, they say that the EU is bound to give the UK a good deal because we are (or were, before the referendum) the world’s fifth largest economy. But at the same time they criticise the EU for not having trade deals with the world’s largest economies. Sometimes they say that a deal can be done quickly. But at the same time they criticise the EU for being slow and lumbering in decision making. Sometimes they accuse the EU of riding roughshod over nation states. But when the Wallonian regional parliament seemed to be scuppering the EU-Canada trade deal they said this proved that the EU couldn’t act decisively.

Or take another set of issues. Prior to the referendum, whenever the situation of British people living in the EU was raised, they blithely said that nothing would change; now that the situation of those people is in doubt they say it proves the EU is heartless. On freedom of movement of British people generally they said that leaving the EU would make no difference as people had moved to other countries long before the EU existed. So freedom of movement rules don’t matter. Except that when talking about immigration, those same rules mean we can’t control our borders.

The overall paradigm is, first, a series of claims about how easy and/or beneficial Brexit will be, so we should leave. Then as the claims meet reality they are not abandoned, but used to claim that the EU is punishing Britain, so we should leave. Intellectually, this is completely moribund. No amount of evidence or rational argument can touch it. In fact, I think that one reason why the Remain campaign failed in the referendum was that it tried to counter the Brexiters’ claims in that way, and did not have any kind of emotionally or rhetorically powerful narrative of its own. And that, in turn, was because even most remain campaigners approached the EU in purely transactional terms, and had done for many years.

That is neither here nor there now: the referendum was lost. What is very much still relevant is that the same hermetically-sealed, evidence-proof and argument-proof logic now drives government policy. And it drives it in one direction only: towards a more and more calamitous form of Brexit. Each time reality demolishes one of their claims (the most ubiquitous, perhaps, and the most absurd, certainly, being that German car makers would ensure a good deal in double quick time) the Brexiters do not acknowledge that they were wrong, but move on to a harder position. So, first, we can somehow be in the single market but with no strings attached. That’s proved wrong. So it will be a trade deal. Now that that is looking increasingly difficult they move to saying that no deal would be perfectly fine. And, in any case, it’s all the EU’s fault and ‘just goes to prove’ that we are right to leave.

There’s no way out of this kind of thinking. It is completely circular and unfalsifiable. There is no imaginable event that could shake it. Suppose the UK gets a great deal? It proves we were right to leave! Suppose we don’t? It proves we were right to leave! The same cannot be said of remainers’ logic. No doubt we are all prone to confirmation bias in the evidence we notice and put value on. But it is very easy to imagine an event that could shake remainers’ logic. If there were, indeed, a great deal for the UK – one that was as good as or even better than being in the EU - then that would be it. Remain would be completely discredited.

So once you buy into Brexiter logic, there’s no going back and there’s also only one way of going forward. Harder and harder. Nothing can be said, nothing can happen that will make a difference. And that Brexiter logic has now – so far as can be seen, although it is still just possible this will change – captured government right up to and including Theresa May.

That is incredibly dangerous because it is beginning to look as if the government is prepared to walk out of the EU with no deal; and even that it might be prepared to renege on its existing commitments. If that happened, it would make Britain virtually a pariah state, untrusted by other countries and unable to make agreements with them in the future. Even more dangerous, any ‘no deal’ scenario would be likely to provoke a nationalist frenzy in which internal ‘fifth columnists’ would be identified and hunted down as traitors. Who can doubt that we have a press prepared to endorse that? We can already see this possibility in some of the rhetoric of Brexiters, and it is inherent in, precisely, a logic that is impervious to reason. In those circumstances, opposition can, indeed, only be understood as sabotage.

Until recently, this would have seemed an entirely unimaginable scenario, but so too would that which we are in. It’s less than a year ago that many Brexiters were advocating single market membership, and it’s only a few months since a no deal exit was unthinkable whereas now it is being openly championed by many leading Brexiters. In the meantime, despite their victory, they seem to be as angry as ever they were, and that anger is directed at remainers – partly for lacking the true faith but also, I suspect, from a deep but unacknowledged fear that they have made a terrible mistake. As they push harder and harder towards a mirage, with worse and worse consequences, they will get angrier and angrier with those of us who remind them of the insanity of what they are doing.

Unless something very unexpected happens in the forthcoming election, Theresa May will be in a commanding position. It may be, as I’ve argued before but feel less confident of now, that she uses it to rein in the Brexit ultras. At the least, it must be hoped that she resists the intolerance of dissent that their logic takes us to. If not, the infamous referendum claims about the dangers of Turkey will come true, albeit in reverse: Britain will follow down the path that Erdogan is taking that country.