Friday 23 June 2017

One year on: lied to, lost, and leaderless

It is now a year since Britain, in a catastrophic and historically unprecedented act of national self-harm, voted to leave the EU. Everything about that vote was flawed, from having it at all to the numerous concessions made to the Brexiters about the form of the question, the lack of a super-majority requirement (rather than 50%) to leave, and the exclusion of under 18s and those who had lived abroad for more than 15 years and EU nationals here. All this reflected Cameron’s blithe certainty of victory in a referendum he need never have called.

The campaign itself was a travesty. Leave was (at least unofficially) fronted by a man, Boris Johnson - let’s not use the matey ‘Boris’ of the media – who didn’t really believe in it and was transparently motivated solely by his own sense of entitled ambition; whilst Remain was officially headed – well by who? Almost no one knew, but in fact it was businessman Lord Rose who remained almost invisible throughout leaving Cameron as the de facto leader and, with that, the motivation for some to vote leave purely to ‘give him a kicking’.

It’s become fashionable to say that both campaigns were equally dishonest, but that simply is not true. Leave mainlined on what even they admitted was a lie about the EU budget contribution and NHS funding, and another about impending Turkish membership of the EU. And these were just the headline lies. Beneath them were a myriad of others, such as that future terms could be sorted out informally before Article 50 was even triggered so there was no danger of a cliff-edge fallout; or that a good, quick exit deal was assured because ‘German car makers’ would insist on it as endlessly claimed by Brexiters, including businessman Peter Hargreaves who paid for a leaflet to be sent to every UK household at the start of the campaign urging a leave vote. No one has ever been held to account for these and all the other lies.  By contrast, Remain was certainly pedestrian and passionless, but its projections (based on assumptions and models, of course, but not lies) of the consequences were not ‘Project Fear’, as alleged, but attempts to counter the vague and unsubstantiated claims of Leave that all would be well, or even rosy, if we left.

One reason why that did not work was the way that the BBC – still the country’s most trusted and widely accessed news source – adopted a policy of supposed neutrality derived from its approach to elections. This meant that each side received equal airtime and equal respect for its claims, giving the electorate the impression that there was as much – especially economically – on one side as on the other and voters might as well toss a coin. This was combined with a virulently aggressive and dishonest anti-EU press (quite different to that of the 1975 Referendum), a growing hysteria about immigration, and a populist disdain for ‘experts’, despite this being a highly technical and complex issue, along with a situation in which any and every dissatisfaction was projected on to EU membership.

There are reams that could, have been, and will be written about all this. The outcome we know: a narrow victory for leave. The narrowness is important as it means there has never been the unequivocal result subsequently claimed. The most accurate way of describing the result would be that the country replied ‘don’t know’. Moreover, the combination of Leave’s lies and their failure to specify what leaving meant in terms of the future means that there is not (as many Leavers seem to sense) any real mandate for Brexit, and certainly not in any particular form: many leading leavers campaigned on the basis of staying in the single market, for all that they deny it now. From this, crucially, much has flowed: Britain voted against being in the EU but not for anything else.

In the year that has followed, we have seen economic and political chaos. Economically, what was dismissed as project Fear has largely come true – that it has not been more severe is only because Article 50 was not triggered immediately in the way that forecasters had assumed because Cameron had said it would be the case. So we have had a massive currency collapse (which, in itself, would in any other circumstances have been a major political crisis) and consequent inflation and real wage erosion, collapsing investment, a recruitment crisis in the NHS and elsewhere, and the beginnings of a catastrophic brain drain, corporate pull-out and tax base collapse.

Whole sectors – from strategically crucial science to socially crucial care homes - are in turmoil as, relatedly but perhaps even more importantly, are the lives of millions of rEU people here and UK people in rEU who have based their entire life plans on Britain being in the EU. There has been not a single economic positive attributable to Brexit – for example, not one company has made a decision to invest in the UK because of (rather than despite) Brexit. Even the fall of sterling that, after it happened, Brexiters claimed a positive (strangely, they had not written on the side of their campaign bus ‘Vote Leave and we can crash the £’) has not put much of a dent in the UK trade deficit.

Politically, the vote saw an immediate crisis that was resolved by anointing a Prime Minister who failed to do the obvious act of leadership which was to find a form of Brexit which would be bearable for most people on both sides of the divide. Instead, she has insisted that Brexit must mean the hard Brexit of the Tory Eurosceptics and of UKIP. With that, she has not only ruled out an EFTA/EEA soft Brexit for trade but by insisting on there being no role whatsoever for the ECJ she has created massive problems across a host of other areas. The implications for Northern Ireland have begun to be widely recognized, but there are many others. For example, it is the hard line stance on the ECJ which means that we must also leave Euratom, with numerous consequences including for the availability of cancer treatment. Such a prospect was not even remotely discussed during the referendum and is highly unlikely to be what anyone thought they were voting about. Something similar could be said of EASA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, also thrown into doubt by hard Brexit with potential effects on flying rights within Europe. There is not even the shadow of the pretence that this approach to Brexit in ‘the national interest’. It is about, as the whole situation has always been about, an implacable, dogmatic minority of Tory MPs and the ungovernable party and country they have created.

Nowhere is this lack of concern with the national interest clearer than on the international stage, rendered all the more complex by the election of Donald Trump. Britain now no longer has any coherent or workable geo-political strategy, something which is good news only to ISIS and Vladimir Putin. Worse, we have become an international laughing stock both for the crazy Brexit decision and for the woeful ignorance and ill-preparedness of the way we are attempting to implement it. But the Christmas cracker patriots don’t care about that. No harm that they do to our country can ever be too much in exchange for their intellectually moribund and practically flawed notion of sovereignty, and no lie is too great to be told in pursuit of it. For that matter, these great patriots have been more than happy to ramp up the internal divisions they have created. More sinister than their adolescent sneering at ‘remoaners’ is their McCarthyite rhetoric of ‘saboteurs’ subverting ‘the will of the people’, matched at street level by the upsurge of violence against EU – and indeed non-EU - immigrants. Their ambition to pauperize and isolate our country is not sufficient: they also want to grind us into cultural dust.

Yet alongside that is a huge irony. From the moment of the referendum result, and ever more clearly as the year has gone on, it was plain that despite years of having dreamt of Brexit the Brexiters had not the tiniest clue as to how to put it into practice. Not even a rough plan. All they had were vapid slogans which could not begin to address the cataclysm they had unleashed. Even now they continue to talk in meaningless or nonsensical terms of ‘securing access’ to, and having ‘frictionless trade’ with, the single market, or of ‘trading on WTO terms’, refusing to engage with the enormous practical complexities that Brexit entails. Perhaps that lack of substance explains the viciousness of their rhetoric. At all events it has meant that they are wholly dependent on ‘the establishment’ – the civil service, business and civil society leaders, most of whom know that Brexit is a crazy idea - to try to implement their nonsense. But, even with that dependence, they still lash out at any expert who dares to inject any realism into the debate meaning that government policy has been constructed within a bunker of yay-saying groupthink.

Indeed victory has neither assuaged the anger of the Brexiters nor given them much joy. They have almost completely given up on making any positive claims for its possibilities and, at best, offer a dour, Dunkirk spirit, backs-to-the-wall grind and at worst a ludicrous, lachrymose self-pitying victimhood that the EU is ‘punishing’ us for leaving rather than taking responsibility for the consequences of the choice that they urged, so mendaciously, upon us. I say ‘us’ because it is not just remainers who have something to complain about, so too do those who were duped into voting leave by the breath taking lies of the Brexiters. Many, as the voting statistics show, were from the poorest and most vulnerable in society who will be most badly affected by Brexit and least able to insulate themselves from its effects.

In particular, apart from the NHS funding lie and the pretence that leaving would have no adverse economic consequences, they have been tricked into voting for something which was presented to them as protectionist and nationalist by leaders like Liam Fox who now proclaim the result to be a mandate for even more intensified globalization. I think it’s a near certainty that if it were possible to sit down with each voter individually and talk them through what Brexit is going to involve there would not be very many takers for it. That is not to patronize leave voters, but to say that the issues involved are far more complex than the referendum campaign acknowledged. For example, the practical meaning of the customs union, let alone things like Euratom or EASA, are only now receiving media attention. Meanwhile the lies still pour incontinently out of the Brexiters, the latest and most egregious being that the General Election ‘proves’ that there is a huge majority who support hard Brexit.

We have now belatedly begun Brexit talks with the EU. That belatedness is itself a consequence of the reckless irresponsibility of the Brexiters in triggering Article 50 before holding an election, thus wasting three of the twenty-four months available. We do so with a declining economy, an unstable government, an inadequate negotiating team, a lack of clear and agreed negotiating objectives or detailed plans, a backdrop of having alienated those with whom we are negotiating, and a country still bitterly divided. Moreover there is neither in parliament nor – if recent opinion polls are correct – any longer a majority in the country for Brexit and certainly not a majority for hard Brexit. Yet still the Brexiters march us on, like First World War generals - high on gimcrack patriotism, plethorically flushed with self-righteous certainty, prideful of their own willed and wilful ignorance - urging the troops to one more big push, regardless of – no, glorying in - the resultant slaughter.

The causes of the First World War can be debated, but Brexit is without question an entirely self-inflicted disaster. All of it was avoidable, going right back to the entire way that the UK has related to the EU over many decades. More recently every step of the way – from the decision to hold a referendum right through to the way that May has, since her General Election humiliation, refused to soften her stance – we have been the victim of bad, stupid, and unnecessary decisions. It is still, even at this late hour, just possible that we can avoid catastrophe – there is much that is unpredictable about the coming years – and I fervently hope that we do. Precisely because of the botched election, in which Brexit was scarcely discussed, a space for some softening of the government’s White Paper position has opened. It seems increasingly likely that the form this takes will be years of transitional agreements and ongoing talks which will be unsatisfactory to leavers and remainers alike. That may be the best we can hope for. But even supposing that by some miracle a way emerges to simply continue as EU members and to drop this Brexit nonsense entirely, our country will never be the same again.

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