Friday 29 September 2017

Brexit: political correctness gone mad

In October 2015 when the Referendum campaign was in prospect but not underway I wrote an article on The Conversation website outlining the main scenarios if the vote were to leave. These were the now familiar options of single market membership on the Norwegian or Swiss models, an FTA with the EU, or WTO terms.

Although somewhat overtaken by events, that article argued two things which continue to be relevant. One was that advocates of Brexit typically oscillated between, and often treated as interchangeable, these fundamentally different forms of Brexit. That persisted right through the campaign and beyond, with different Brexiters espousing different models or fudging the differences between those models by vague – meaningless – talk of ‘access’ to the single market.

The second argument was that if what leaving meant was not clarified, and if the vote was to leave, it would be no good saying – as Brexiters repeatedly claim about the 1975 Referendum – that ‘we did not know what we were voting for’. By then, it would be too late.

Well, the vote was, indeed, to leave and the ‘then’ I wrote about has become ‘now’. I was reminded of that article by the very interesting, albeit extremely depressing, ‘Brexit Reality’ feature on last night’s Channel 4 News. The format was to take a group of people who had voted to leave, along with some politicians who had been leading advocates of leave including Daniel Hannan and Paddy O’Flynn, to discuss how they saw Brexit now. It was a worthwhile format because it meant that the discussion was not a re-run of leave versus remain but disclosed what leave meant for leavers (a similar programme featuring remainers will be broadcast soon).

What emerged were very striking differences in motivations and of understandings of what Brexit meant, ranging from neo-liberal global free trade advocacy to socialist anti-austerity politics. Some were beginning to be concerned about the complexities of leaving, others were impatient of the complexity and wanted an immediate, no-deal exit. Some wanted to stay in the single market, others not. Some seemed to regret their vote and several believed that they had, on various grounds, been misled as to what voting leave meant. It was especially delicious to see Hannan put in the position of having to defend May's Brexit 'strategy' to those even more deranged and peculiar than himself. Most contributions – most certainly including those of the politicians – were lamentably ill-informed and in some cases downright dishonest. In all, it seemed like a fair cross-section of the leave leadership and the leave vote.

None of this was particularly surprising, but it served to point up very sharply the ludicrousness of the notion that there is a ‘will of the people’ for Brexit. Of course it is ludicrous, anyway, to describe the 52% of those who voted as ‘the people’. But it is even more ludicrous given that those 52% are themselves massively fragmented as to what they think Brexit means and how it should be undertaken.

The tragedy is that the long-term future of Britain is now being driven by a policy devised and supported by the people represented by this group. The angry, plethoric, we ‘aren’t allowed to say what we think’ demeanour of many of them suggests a strong overlap with those who rail splenetically against ‘political correctness’ and ‘the human rights brigade’. If so, it’s ironic that there is a new Brexit political correctness in which it is deemed unsayable to mention a very obvious truth. It is that the people who lead the campaign and those who voted for Brexit do not have any idea whatsoever about the realities of what it means.

This is not just a matter of opinion, because they constantly show ignorance about very basic, factual matters, as well as telling outright lies. The consequence is that just about everybody with any knowledge of what Brexit means, and just about everyone who has to take responsibility for dealing with it, is opposed to it. Whilst just about everybody who supports it does not have the responsibility for delivering it or the knowledge needed to do so. This, indeed, is only too evident when we see how Brexiters like Davis, Johnson and Fox who have responsibility for Brexit flail around cluelessly whilst experienced civil servants despair at what they are being asked to do. And, meanwhile, the Brexiters outside of government continue to propound myths and lies about how Brexit could be done if only they were in charge, knowing that they never will be.

To say such things offends Brexit political correctness because it is depicted as elitist disdain for ‘ordinary people’. That is, of course, an absurd proposition. On the one hand it invites us to think that the very many ordinary people who voted to remain are in some way part of an elite. Since 48% of us did so, that’s a very big elite. On the other hand it requires us to believe that Jacob Rees-Mogg (Eton and Oxford), Daniel Hannan (Marlborough and Oxford) and Boris Johnson (Eton and Oxford) are horny-handed sons of the toil. Such is the grotesque political spoonerism of populism.

Political correctness in its conventional trope is a ridiculous fantasy in which local authority five-a-day advisers prance around in high-viz jackets promoting trans-gender Winterval whilst ordinary folk are slapped down for ill-advisedly mentioning blackboards. Brexit political correctness is made of altogether sterner stuff, with dissidents being dubbed enemies of the people, traitors, saboteurs and – if they achieve sufficient profile – receiving rape, acid attack and death threats. That would be disgusting in any circumstances, but when built upon so fragile a basis as the confused and fragmented group represented in the Channel 4 discussion it is absurd. Elevated, as it now is, to be the basis of Britain’s long-term strategy Brexit is, to coin a phrase, political correctness gone mad.

Friday 22 September 2017

May's Florence flop

Anyone expecting Theresa May’s Florence speech to live up to its ‘momentous’ billing will have been disappointed. The part that was most heavily trailed and which will be most extensively focussed on is the willingness to continue to pay into the EU budget for a probable two year transition period whilst staying in the single market and, it seems, the customs union. But this is not some ‘open and generous’ offer: it is the bare minimum in order to achieve that transition, which all but the most cretinous of Brexiters (step forward, Peter Bone) knows that the UK desperately needs. It’s also, for all that it is being touted as a large amount of money, quite trivial in the context of the overall costs of Brexit, including those incurred so far.

In any case, it’s still not clear what this transition period (which May insisted, illogically, on calling an implementation period) means. It seems to entail freedom of movement, but with a new registration process (which may or may not be compatible with EU law) and continued ECJ jurisdiction (though May ducked the question about what happens with new EU rules during the transition). But she implied it would not involve the common commercial policy (i.e. so Britain can start negotiating trade deals) which is unlikely to be acceptable to the EU.

And May has failed to explain in detail what that final arrangement would be because her cabinet and party can’t agree on what it should be. The idea seems to be a “Canada +” deal, with the plus presumably being considerable coverage on services. If so, it will be unlike any other FTA in existence, will be a long time in the making and will involve a high degree of ongoing regulatory harmonization with the EU, whereas May wants also to have scope for regulatory divergence. She appears to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the Brexiter myth that existing harmonization makes for an easy agreement. It would, if we were joining the EU; it doesn’t, because we are leaving.

The wider issues of the ‘exit bill’ in terms of future liabilities for past commitments – for example to pensions – remain unresolved and were not mentioned beyond a vague statement that Britain would honour its existing commitments, which seemed to pertain to the current budget. Nothing new or useful at all was said about the Irish border, and on citizens’ rights May continues to maintain the primacy of UK courts - there was a nod at taking ECJ judgments ‘into account’ but what this might mean in practice is unclear.

So there was very little said that properly addresses the points raised by Michel Barnier, in his Rome speech, that set out what the EU were hoping to hear from May. It therefore seems unlikely that what she said will ‘unlock’ the talks so as to allow a move to phase 2 on future trade. This phasing, don’t forget, is in line with the wording of Article 50, has always been the position of the EU, and was accepted by the UK at the start of the negotiations. There’s nothing sinister about it, and the longer the UK refuses to face up to dealing with the phase 1 exit issues the closer we get to leaving with no deal in place. In effect, we have only one year to do that deal since the final six months of the Article 50 period will be required for ratification.

Thus May’s speech changes nothing, but that doesn’t mean it is insignificant. It was an attempt to get the EU to solve the problems that Brexit creates for the UK. Hence the talk of ‘shared responsibility’ and of an ‘imaginative and creative’ approach. Indeed the backdrop slogans of ‘shared values, shared challenges, shared future’ all seemed to point to this as the central message. What it codes – and the same code can be found in most of the UK position papers – is the idea that the EU should come up with solutions to the hundreds of vexed issues and, moreover, in a way that respects the UK’s red lines, red lines deriving entirely from the need to appease the Brexit ultras in May’s party.

It is an approach which is unequivocally doomed to failure, and lacks any kind of political realism whatsoever. As an EU member, the UK was frequently able to extract ‘imaginative and creative’ solutions because the other countries recognized the constraints and pressures of UK domestic politics and had some interest in keeping Britain on board. Hence all the opt-outs, such as from the Euro and Schengen. Choosing to leave the EU means that horse has died and can’t be flogged back to life. The EU-27 have no reason to care one way or the other about Britain’s domestic difficulties. And that is compounded by the multiple ways over the last year or so that May and others have squandered what goodwill there might have been. If Britain wants to leave, then it is for Britain to solve the problems that leaving creates. The EU-27 will try to minimise the harm to themselves so far as possible; as for the harm to the UK, that’s our problem.

Fundamentally, May’s speech simply went around the same loop that Brexit has been in for months, albeit in different language. In essence, although she claimed otherwise, the idea is that everything stays the same and yet everything changes. We keep everything the Brexiters perceive as benefits whilst dropping all those things they don’t like. It really is – still - as simple and as stupid as ‘having our cake and eat it’ and if the EU don’t allow that then they are being awkward or punitive. It’s as if Brexiters still don’t grasp that leaving the EU isn’t some act of symbolism but has real legal and institutional effects. On March 29 2019 at midnight the UK becomes a third country with respect to the EU, with all that that entails.

Of course there is no mystery as to why we keep going around this loop and keep getting the same result. It’s squarely down to the refusal of ultra Brexiters to accept that they are living in a fantasy world. Whether May has now entered that world, or whether it is just that she is too politically weak to face down the ultras hardly matters. The effect is exactly the same. But with Article 50 triggered despite having failed to deal with the ultras something important has changed. Each time we go round the same loop we get closer to that day we become a third country without anything remotely like a deal in place. It was noteworthy that, when asked, May did not repudiate the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ formula, although not with any great conviction it’s true to say.

And, to be clear, what that would mean would be far beyond anything conjured up by ‘Project Fear’. It would mean, overnight, that Britain ceased to be connected not just to the EU but to all of the global agreements it participates in via the EU. Britain would – quite literally, because of the effects on air travel – be cut off from the world. It would be a massive and unprecedented economic and social dislocation. In practice, if we get to within a few months of that date with no prospect of a deal some of this will begin anyway, both in terms of growing company relocations and things like plane bookings not being available. So even if – as some on both sides of Brexit imagine – at the last moment the EU or the UK caves in much damage will be done, and much of that damage will be permanent.

May has blown what is getting close to being the last chance she has to re-set the course of Brexit. Admittedly, it would take political leadership of an extraordinary skill to do so. But the speech re-affirmed that she lacks any leadership qualities at all. She is entirely devoid of flair, imagination or charisma. Despite her one-time reputation for mastery of detail she seems not to understand the most basic facts about how the EU works and the issues at stake in the negotiations. She has neither the courage nor, now, the strength to deal with the ultras in her party. For that matter, as the peculiar choice of Florence as a venue and the audience who attended show, she doesn’t have the courage to speak directly to the EU itself. There’s no reason at all to expect that she will miraculously acquire any of these qualities before March 2019 any more than the Tory party and cabinet will agree what they want.

There was at the heart of May’s speech a terrible, tragic irony. All that she said about shared values, history, security challenges, economic needs and how co-operation and partnership could and should arise from these sounded like a speech making the case to join the EU rather than to leave it.

Sunday 17 September 2017

The irrelevance of Boris Johnson

A quick post on the row over Boris Johnson’s Daily Telegraph article (£)*. Most of the attention has been on the reprise of the £350M a week for the NHS claim, which has now led to a dispute between Johnson and the Head of the UK Statistics Authority. That’s important, but its importance resides in something bigger, which is that way that the article overall was no more than a re-run of the arguments made by the Leave campaign during the Referendum. There was nothing whatsoever on the real and pressing issues that Brexit is now giving rise to – the Irish border, the rights of EU citizens, the ‘exit bill’, the nature of any transition arrangements and that to which they would be a transition.

If – as is widely assumed - Johnson’s aspiration is to position himself as a contender to be Prime Minister then I suspect it will misfire badly. The tricks and deceptions that worked for him as de facto leader of the Leave campaign hardly work for a Foreign Secretary trying to become a PM (and may well find him in breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct). In fact they only serve to re-enforce the damage he has done to himself whilst Foreign Secretary in demonstrating the lack of the statesmanlike qualities he wants to claim for himself. Re-opening the £350M absurdity was especially ill-judged since it has now passed into history as a notorious political lie, disowned even by ardent leavers. He can do himself no good by re-associating with it.

In fact, Johnson has not just done himself harm but has done the remain cause a favour by reviving this row. Our most potent line is to persuade leave voters that what they are going to get from Brexit is not what they were promised, whilst our weakest point is the argument that the decision has now been made and Britain has to get on with it. By going back to a campaign position, in general, and the £350M claim, in particular, that potent line becomes stronger, and that weak point becomes protected.

But all of this – and all of the media coverage of Johnson’s ambitions and Labour attacks on ‘splits within the government’ – is pretty much irrelevant. Political journalists like it because it is about the business-as-usual Westminster game. However, that is not the game which will determine the future of our country. That future is about the remorseless ticking of the Article 50 clock, bringing us ever closer to Britain being a third country, outside of the EU.

None of the complex, practical matters of that are affected by the internal wrangling in the Tory Party. It is relevant only to the extent that it is a reminder that it is impossible for the government to develop any half-way realistic Brexit policy – assuming that the government would, otherwise, be minded to have such a policy. It underscores that the government is now caught in an unsquareable circle: if it attempts to develop a pragmatic approach to Brexit it will rip apart the Tory Party; if it holds the Tory Party together, the country will be ripped apart by Brexit. That is the grim situation we are in, and it is hard to see a way out of it.
*See Jon Worth’s blogpost for a comprehensive analysis of the Johnson article.

Friday 15 September 2017

What the OECD aid rules row tells us about Brexit

The OECD aid rules which prevent Britain using its aid budget for the overseas territories hit by Hurricane Irma do not have anything to do with the EU or Brexit. But their existence and the reaction to their application reveals something about one of the central myths of Brexit. That myth is that it is both possible and desirable for Britain to regain ‘sovereignty’ by exerting full control over what it does, including how it spends public money.

It is mythical, because that is not how the world is or how the world has been for a very long time, if ever. Instead, for all sorts of reasons, Britain like other countries participates in a wide variety of international collaborations. These inevitably require some framework of rules, and inevitably those rules cannot be decided by individual countries. If they were, then they would cease to be rules and so, in turn, collaborations would cease. Individual countries can and do seek to shape and negotiate the rules of international bodies, of course, but they do not invariably get their own way.

The EU is just one of many examples, albeit particularly far-reaching in scope. Within it, member states agree and then enforce common frameworks of rules, whilst also seeking to shape those rules. Britain, in fact, has been especially successful in framing EU rules to its liking – most obviously in the many opt outs, including those from the Euro, the Schengen Agreement and refugee sharing, and in its budget rebate deal which has ensured that every single year it makes the lowest contribution as a percentage of GDP of any member state. Equally, individual members have a degree if latitude in the application of EU rules – amazingly, in view of what has happened, an example of this is the way that Britain never made use of the restrictions on immigration available under EU freedom of movement rules.

One irony of Brexit is that it will not much diminish the need for Britain to conform to many EU regulations. The inevitable regulatory pull of a much larger nearby market makes that inevitable, and not just in relation to trade but also, for example, air travel and nuclear safety. Thus, as I have remarked on before, Brexit is largely about recreating in new form all kinds of agreements and rules – such as those on data protection – to conform with EU standards and systems. The main difference is that, post-Brexit, ‘sovereign’ Britain will have less, not more, control over these than it had as an EU member.

It’s unsurprising to read that ardent Brexiters like the Tory MP Philip Davies have reacted with fury to the OECD rules on aid, calling to “stop this madness and take control of taxpayers’ money and spend it on our own priorities”. This comes straight from the Brexit playbook and shows exactly the same naivety. If we are to exist in the modern world then we will be part of international agreements that circumscribe complete national self-determination. The OECD aid example is a rather trivial one – certainly compared with NATO membership which can entail British people fighting and being killed under the command of foreign generals and in defence of foreign countries. Do we pull out of all such alliances and co-operations in pursuit of a mythical sovereignty, or recognize that through co-operation we have much to gain and can actually magnify rather than diminish sovereignty, whilst also, inevitably, having to conform to collectively constructed rules? In defence and foreign policy, in particular, that question should have been put to bed in 1956, if not 1941.

The adolescent ‘take back control’ foot stamping of the Brexiters has its most ludicrous irony in the fact that, as regards trade, they invariably resort to the idea of ‘reverting to WTO terms’. Apart from the fact that they have no idea what that actually entails, what is extraordinary is the idea that this is a bestowal of sovereignty. For what are WTO terms other than a collection of rules, internationally agreed upon? The proud boast that ‘we will regain our seat’ just means that we will be one of 160 or so nations who in negotiation try to set those rules. And trade is often only ostensibly the issue, as Britain may find when it comes to, say, the Argentina’s response to setting beef quotas. Similarly, the idea that there is sovereignty to be found in ‘negotiating our own trade agreements’ will not survive contact with the reality of, for example, the acceptance of increased immigration or of food standards that typically comes with them. Brexiters rarely understand this, since they imagine a nineteenth century world in which trade negotiations are principally to do with tariffs.

To all of this the only counter-argument I have heard from Brexiters is that, at least, it is possible to vote out a government that makes some agreement or engages in some collaboration that the majority do not like. But that of course is true as a member of the EU. The British people could have voted out governments which were committed to staying in the EU, or which signed the successive treaties which shaped it. They did not, perhaps because they were not that bothered about it; perhaps because people vote on a whole basket of issues most of which (contrary to Brexiter propaganda) are entirely unaffected by being in the EU. Conversely, it’s highly unlikely that any post-Brexit election will be determines by, say, a particular negotiation within the WTO or a particular free trade deal with another country.

So the OECD aid rules story tells us something, in microcosm, both about how the world works and about how the Brexiter view of the world doesn’t begin to address those realities. Typically, Theresa May has played to the Brexiters’ gallery by announcing her ‘frustration’ with the OECD. But when a Prime Minister does that it makes it a matter of international moment rather than just a domestic tabloid story about some maverick backbenchers. Britain helped to draft these rules that she objects to only a year ago, so what is she saying about Britain? Convulsed in a nationalist frenzy which now makes central what were once just fringe voices, Britain, long considered the most reliable of international partners and the most stable and pragmatic of countries, is becoming absurd and flaky. Or – if ultra-Brexiters who urge Britain walking away from her pre-existing commitments to the EU budget get their way – something even worse. Since we hear so much about patriotism from Brexiters, perhaps they should reflect on that.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Can the Brexit ultras be defeated?

It has become a truism that Brexit cuts across traditional ideological (left-right) and party (Labour-Conservative) lines. One way of describing this new politics, which I’ve favoured, is between cosmopolitans and locals – more often rendered as globalists and nativists – and in terms of the big picture that’s accurate enough. But within the narrower terms of UK politics there’s a different way of characterising things: as a division between pragmatists and purists, or perhaps more crudely between the grown-ups and the juveniles.

This is evident in a series of recent interventions. On the grown up side, there have been statements by former politicians of both parties (such as Peter Mandelson and Michael Heseltine) and current politicians of both parties (such as Nicky Morgan and Keir Starmer) urging softenings of Brexit. On the juvenile side there are things like the letter from the ‘European Research Group’ insisting on a Brexit even harder than that proposed by the government, or John Redwood’s ludicrous assertion that there is no ‘cliff edge’. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves: it is the latter side which is in the ascendant and which is most effectively framing the politics of Brexit.

The contrast here is not solely between pro and anti-Brexit in the way that it was during the Referendum campaign. It’s between ways of doing Brexit, and so it has opened up significant new divisions between what might be called ultra Brexiters, hard Brexiters, soft Brexiters, soft remainers and hard remainers (and even amongst these categories it is possible to find further shades of opinion). In turn, this has created complicated new dynamics in the Brexit debate.

Of course the soft versus hard Brexit division (the meanings shift but I mean, principally, single market membership or not) is not a new one. During the campaign it was hidden by ambiguous or contradictory formulations of what Brexit meant, which enabled a broad coalition of leavers to be held together. From that has flowed the interminable debate about what the vote to leave actually meant, with hard Brexiters insisting, mendaciously, that there had never been any question but that it meant leaving the single market.

The hard Brexiters have won that battle to the extent that hard Brexit is now government policy, but this has opened up a new schism, with the ultra Brexiters now opposed even to that policy. At the same time another shift is occurring, with soft Brexiters and soft remainers beginning to find common cause. This can be seen in the way that blogs like Leave HQ and EU Referendum are mounting devastating critiques of how Brexit is being pursued, and accordingly are being referred to with approval by many remainers. It’s most obvious in the blog of Oliver Norgrove, a former hard Brexiter, who is becoming an increasingly influential advocate of soft Brexit and who almost uniquely is trying to build bridges between soft Brexiters and soft remainers.

It’s certainly possible to criticise some soft Brexiters for political naivety: they got into bed with the ultras and probably wouldn’t have won the Referendum without them, and the outcome of that was always unlikely to be their version of Brexit. But they can’t be faulted for having an intellectually coherent and extremely well-evidenced position. That manifestly isn’t the case for the ERG ultras.

But if the soft Brexiters’ position is an uncomfortable one, so too is that of the hard remainers - I’m thinking here of people like the philosopher A.C. Grayling – who want simply to revert to the pre-Referendum status quo ante. I’d prefer that, too, but it isn’t practical politics, at least at the present time. Many hard remainers believe that the growing chaos of Brexit means that keeping up the pressure will see it relegated to history. But how would that work? For sure, the referendum was flawed in almost every way, including its legal status. But the result is a ‘political fact’ and won’t – barring some dramatic event – cease to be so. Just as it is grotesque that the government have pursued a hard Brexit in contempt of remain voters, so too would it be grotesque to pursue hard remain in contempt of leave voters. Like it or not, and for whatever reason, the country is deeply split and whatever happens now needs to accept and address that.

That isn’t just a matter of UK politics but of EU politics. Just as hard Brexiters have rightly been accused of treating Brexit as a domestic matter, so too do hard remainers. Because the EU has moved on in the year or so since the Referendum and the idea of the UK simply staying in, whilst so internally divided that a move out again would always be on the cards, has few attractions, as Anand Menon has argued. That could have been different in the immediate aftermath of the vote, but the way that the British government has conducted itself since makes it so: there is very little goodwill now. The EU has effectively ‘priced in’ Brexit and, whilst it will surely wish to minimise the disruption for the EU-27, is now in a politically and economically more confident situation than in June 2016.

So, as ever, politics is the art of the possible. However we got into this mess – primarily, the internal politics of the Tory Party - how do we get out of it? The only real answer, politically and economically, is a soft Brexit. There’s a majority in parliament for that and a majority in the country for it. It is – to coin the horrible phrase – the will of the people. But achieving it will be very far from easy and we are currently a long way from doing so. It’s possible but it’s also – because of our party and parliamentary systems – just out of grasp.

That it is out of grasp is largely down to a fairly small number – perhaps between 40 and 80 - of extremist Tory MPs who, because of the Prime Minister’s weakness, are currently driving policy. The question facing Britain now is whether its entire future is to be determined by them. Perhaps the only viable way of preventing this is to coalesce support in the country and of course parliament around soft Brexit; a soft Brexiter and soft remainer coalition. Like all coalitions it would have tensions but, as that during the Referendum between the soft and hard Brexiters showed, they can be effective for short periods of time.

There is of course an attraction in the idea of leaving it to the hard and ultra Brexiters to continue to drive us to disaster. Let the planes stop flying and the food start rotting at the ports. Only then will they finally learn their lesson and the country come to its senses. I’ve argued that case in the past. The problem with it is that I don’t think they will ever learn their lesson. However bad things get, they will blame someone else – the EU, the remainers, the saboteurs – rather than accept that they themselves were at fault. Moreover, the damage done to our country will be huge, and it certainly won’t discriminate greatly in its effects between those who voted leave and those who voted remain. In any case, by the time we get to calamity it will probably be too late to go back.

It’s also arguable, at least, that a soft Brexit outcome would put Britain and the EU in a relationship more comfortable for both. For the EU, losing a perennially awkward member might be no bad thing. Regrettably in my view Britain has never wholeheartedly endorsed, and perhaps has not even understood, the nature of the EU project. For Britain, EEA membership would be closer to the transactional approach to Europe that has characterised our EU membership. At all events it looks like the least-worst outcome of the Brexit fiasco. But even to achieve that limited goal requires that the ultra Brexiters be defeated. Whether it is possible is the most important political question in British politics today. We don't have much time to answer it.

Addendum (12/09/17): (this in response to a question on Twitter from @KatePardoe: “A second ref on final deal with Remain v Brexit (hard or soft) would deal with your concerns about legitimacy of Remain, surely?”)
This obviously has some appeal, although I am not sure that any British government will ever again embark on the gamble of an EU Referendum. That aside, the main problems with it are, first, the fact that there is no legal clarity on whether the Article 50 notification is revocable. If it is not, then there could be no ‘remain’ option. Second, suppose the government had negotiated some kind of hard Brexit: then, the soft Brexiters would have no option that reflected their desires. Likewise if (as seems unlikely) a soft Brexit has been negotiated then the hard Brexiters would have no option that reflected their desires. So we would come out of the Referendum perhaps with another close vote and, anyway, still in a state of disarray and the whole thing would continue to fester. Third, it seems highly possible that by then the atmosphere will have become so poisonous (with talk of EU punishment etc) that a rational debate and decision would be even harder than in the 2016 vote (and, equally, that even if the result was ‘remain’ too much damage would have been done to our relations with the rest of the EU, so that even if it was legally possible to revoke A50 it might not be politically realistic). Fourth, it seems highly likely that by the time we reached that point large and irreparable damage would have been done to the UK economy e.g. in terms of company relocations. I think that the logical time for another Referendum would have been before the A50 trigger, when the government could have said ‘OK, you voted to leave the EU, now we want to ask you whether or not you want to leave the single market’. It is now too late for that. Some of all this also applies to leaving it to a final parliamentary vote on any deal. So for all of these reasons I think a better course of action is to try to swing things toward a soft Brexit now (acknowledging that it is almost too late for that, and that in any case it can’t be assumed to be there for the taking).

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Why remainers shouldn't 'get behind Brexit'

As the chaos, damage and costs of Brexit mount, Brexiters are predictably, and seemingly ever more furiously, demanding that remainers should ‘get behind Brexit’ and ‘stop talking the country down’. This is inane at every conceivable level: absurd as a concept, unjustifiable in principle, unrealistic in practice.

It is most obviously inane because it doesn’t mean anything. What would ‘getting behind Brexit’ consist of? Holding Michael Gove-themed street parties? Writing to the CEOs of ‘German car companies’ to tell them that ‘they need us more than we need them’? Presumably the implication is that if only we were all to talk pollyannaishly about the joys of Brexit it could in some way be made successful. But the damage which is being caused – and will increasingly be caused – by Brexit exists quite independently of what anyone, whether remainer or leaver, says about it.

Take the most obvious adverse consequence of Brexit, the collapse of sterling. This was not caused by remainers’ negativity, it was caused directly by the vote to leave the EU and then exacerbated by the government’s decision to interpret that vote to mean leaving the single market. In economics, and social science generally, establishing causal relations can be very difficult, but in this case it is quite straightforward. Brexit caused the pound to collapse (and investment to stall, etc).

But perhaps it is not the economic consequences Brexiters are thinking about. Perhaps what they mean is that we all somehow have a patriotic duty to talk up Brexit in order to show a united face to the rest of the world? If so, that too is inane. The outside world is almost entirely agreed that Brexit is a stupid, inexplicable and wholly damaging course of action for Britain. All that could be achieved by remainers uniting behind Brexit would be to make Britain look even more ridiculous. At least, so long as remainers keep being vocal, those overseas can see that not all British people have taken leave of their senses. It is the Brexiters who have made Britain an international laughing stock.

Then, of course, there is the stock inanity of Brexiters, familiar since the vote, that we must respect ‘the will of the people’. That is a wholly hypocritical argument which has been widely, and rightly, trashed. Eurosceptics never accepted the 1975 Referendum result – even though it was much more decisive than the 2016 vote – and agitated successfully to overturn it. As regards the 2016 referendum, Nigel Farage, no less, said before the result that if it were 52-48 to remain “this would be unfinished business by a long way” and other leading Brexiters said similar things. Well the result was 52-48, but to leave. So by the same token it is ‘unfinished business’ for remain. Democracy did not start and finish on 23 June 2016, it is an ongoing process in which it is perfectly democratically legitimate for remainers to use all legal and democratic means to seek a different policy.

Similarly, the Referendum result was not a single event. It was the beginning of a process which will last for years and entail multiple decisions which will shape UK politics and economics for decades. Not least because the Leave campaign failed – in fact, refused – to specify what voting leave meant there can be no acceptance of the result because the meaning of the result is disputable. Hence the still ongoing debate about soft versus hard Brexit, red lines, transition periods and so on. There can be no ‘getting behind’ the result by remainers when even the leavers don’t agree what it means.

Perhaps the most important reason why it is inane to expect remainers to ‘get behind’ Brexit is the way that the government has quite deliberately chosen a path which treats remainers with contempt. One might have thought that the leaderly thing to do after so divisive a period would have been to seek to bring the two sides together, and to reach out to the losing remain side - a group which includes most business leaders, professionals and what might diffusely be called the intelligentsia and which numbers almost half of those who voted in the referendum.

In practical terms this would have meant acknowledging the closeness of the vote and pursuing soft Brexit as a solution which would not be perfect for the hardcore on either side, but which called for compromise from each whilst being acceptable to the softcore on each side. For myself, although I would certainly have been unhappy about it, I could have ‘got behind’ such a compromise. Instead, everything has been pitched at placating the hardcore leavers. If the government does not wish to bring remainers in to some kind of national consensus then why on earth should they do so on their own account?

The reason why remainers are being called upon to support Brexit is at heart a simple one but it is laced with complexities and ironies. The simple part is that it derives from the pathological refusal of Brexiters to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And the clearer it becomes just how disastrous those consequences are, the more vociferously they demand that remainers take ownership of Brexit. After all, if everything had been going swimmingly we can be sure that Brexiters would be taking ownership of that for themselves alone.

The more complex and ironic issues derive from the way that, on the one hand, those who have to deal with the practicalities of Brexit are the very people who by and large think it is a crazy idea. But on the other hand Brexiters actually need remainers to continue to oppose Brexit so that they can blame them – rather than Brexit itself – for the damage they have caused. So Brexiters need remainers both to get on board, but also to stay unreconciled.

As for remainers, the reason why they will not get behind Brexit is precisely because they see how damaging it is for the country. There is absolutely no patriotism in pretending otherwise. On the contrary, to engage in such a pretence would be unpatriotic. And, as I already said, to do so would make precisely zero difference anyway. The idea that remainers are going to pat Brexiters on the head and reassure them that they haven’t, after all, done an incredibly stupid thing is preposterous. So too is the idea that we should all – 1940 style – rally round a nation in crisis. For whilst this is indeed rapidly becoming a national crisis, it is one caused not by an external threat but one foisted on us, in the face of every warning given to them, by Brexiters. They, and they alone, are responsible. And they find it unbearable.

Friday 1 September 2017

Anniversary post: looking back and looking forward

It is a year since I began this blog, dedicated to analysing the national disaster of Brexit as it unfolds. It is my response as a private citizen to Brexit but also grows out of my academic specialism which sits broadly at the interface of politics and business. Clearly Brexit is the most significant event at that interface for many years, and will be so for the foreseeable future. This is not, however, an academic blog for specialists, but an academically-informed blog for general readers.

Looking again at the first post, much has changed and the subsequent posts (many of which I link to in this post) have catalogued and commented on that. But it’s easy to get bogged down in detail, and in so doing to normalise the really quite extraordinary spectre of Britain, to international bemusement and dismay, dismantling its economic and strategic relations with the world in pursuit of a chimerical notion of sovereignty based upon a very close vote in a deeply flawed referendum.

Even given the result of that referendum, none of what has happened since was pre-ordained but has been a result of a series of, for the most part foolish, choices. These choices have exacerbated bitter divisions and in particular created a situation whereby almost all of those who understand and have to deal with the consequences of Brexit think it is deeply damaging, whilst almost none of the people who support it have to take any responsibility for its consequences.

So at the risk of stating the obvious, I’m going to start this long post by summarising the four biggest headline developments of the last year before looking ahead to what the future might hold.

The year in summary

First, the government clarified, initially in Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech and subsequently the White Paper, their interpretation that Brexit must mean not just leaving the EU but also the single market, the customs union, and ECJ jurisdiction. There was no necessity for it and the decision to opt for hard Brexit was because of the internal politics of the Tory Party, rather than any sense of ‘the national interest’. The very fact that the announcement did not come until after six months of studied ambiguity following the referendum gives the lie to the now ingrained Brexiter claim that hard Brexit was inevitably entailed by the result. It simply wasn’t, and in fact hard Brexiters lobbied for it to be the government’s interpretation. And whilst no form of Brexit would be good for the country, the hard Brexit decision wilfully exacerbated the economic and political damage and complexity. Even worse would a no deal or kamikaze Brexit, which still remains a possibility not least because, as previous Tory leaders have found, nothing satisfies the ultra-Brexit Jacobins on the Tory backbenches so that even May’s attempts to negotiate hard Brexit may not appease them.

Secondly, the government triggered Article 50 with the shameful acquiescence of MPs, following the Supreme Court ruling that forced a parliamentary vote. This has meant that Brexit has (or should have) ceased to be simply a matter of domestic politics and that the vague claims, unrealistic promises and downright lies of Brexiters are having to meet the realities of negotiating with the EU. This has already shown the Brexiters in government to be woefully unprepared, for example in the largely inadequate position papers they belatedly produced; and already shown how unrealistic they are, for example in thinking that the EU would back down on sequencing (i.e. exit terms first, future terms second). Rarely do we hear now of how ‘German car makers’ will ensure a quick and easy deal, instead foot stamping about punishment and bullying is the order of the day.

Thirdly, and extraordinarily, the Prime Minister chose to call an election after having triggered Article 50. This not only meant a waste of the already short negotiating period but the unexpected result has dramatically re-shaped the Brexit landscape in the UK in part because of the near complete failure to discuss Brexit properly during the campaign. Ironically, this has since opened up all of the discussions about what Brexit would, could and should mean that ought to have occurred before the referendum, or at least in the immediate aftermath of the result. The consequence has been that we are still – even as the negotiations run on – having an internal, UK, debate about soft and hard Brexit, WTO terms, transition periods and all the rest of it. The election result also means that Labour’s evolving – and still far from clear – stance seems more about electoral positioning than any principled policy.

Fourthly and finally, the international landscape had changed. Macron’s election (along with healthier economic news) has revivified the EU. Less remarked upon, Ireland under Varadkar is emerging as a key player in Brexit (not least because of Brexiters’ complete failure to have understood the implications of Brexit for the island of Ireland). But it’s probably the case that Trump’s election is the biggest development. This would always have been a challenge for British foreign policy, but with Brexit it has thrown that policy into complete disarray. I think that in general terms public discussion of Brexit has given far more attention to its economic ramifications than to the equally far-reaching damage it is doing, and will continue to do, to Britain in strategic geo-political terms.

What happens now?

As for what comes now, predictions are of course foolish. But it’s a near certainty that we will see much more talk of punishment and betrayal, stoked by a crazily irresponsible pro-Brexit press which has created an almost McCarthyite atmosphere. Punishment denotes the infantile idea amongst Brexiters that the concrete, adverse consequences of Brexit flow from the EU being ‘spiteful’ rather than from the decision that they urged upon the UK. Betrayal refers to any kind of attempt to implement Brexit without completely catastrophic damage; any attempt in fact to implement Brexit as promised by the Leave campaign since it is based on an impossible fantasy. Hence even the quite limited ‘compromise’ of seeking a transitional period led to months of infighting and, even now, no real clarity about what is being sought.

Punishment and betrayal narratives, and the emerging related narratives of blame, bullying and blackmail, are all consequences of the self-pitying victimhood that underpins Brexit. The continuing, abject failure for Brexiters to take any responsibility at all for the situation they have foisted on us is shameful, as is the almost pathological dishonesty they continue to show on every issue arising from it. Perhaps the most striking thing over the last year is how angry and unhappy the Brexiters are, despite having, as they endlessly remind us, won. And, notably, their tone has changed from one of promising sunny uplands of freedom and prosperity to one of sullen resentment and a ‘backs to the wall’ stoicism.

As a result, it’s possible that the government won’t survive since if it makes any half-way pragmatic compromises the ultra-Brexiters will depose May; but if no such compromises are made the mounting economic damage may bring down the government anyway. If that happens, we’ve seen how the last election shifted the Brexit debate considerably; how much more so if we were two elections on from the referendum? Assuming the current government does survive, almost every scenario from a walk out on the EU negotiations to a parliamentary reversal of Brexit to another referendum (with what result?) is almost equally conceivable. The current approach to the negotiations seems sometimes to suggest an attempt to replicate by the back door just about every feature of EU membership. Yet at other times it seems to be simply trying to provoke a breakdown in negotiations to validate walking away with no deal at all. There’s no obvious strategy in play at all.

What this reflects is something which has been painfully obvious from the start: the complete absence of any kind of competent political leadership – the basic task of which would be to engage in a serious and honest way with the country as a whole, and not just a political party, about the situation that Britain finds itself in. There has been nothing remotely like that, just a series of incoherent slogans and platitudes - from the Labour leadership quite as much as the government – which do not begin to engage with the difficulties and complexities involved. Equally absent is any political courage, in particular from the ranks of pro-European Tories in parliament who have conspicuously failed to show the ruthlessness of their Brexiter colleagues.

So we have the extraordinary situation where the majority of the political class as a whole knows that the country is following a reckless path with no upsides at all and which will do long-term damage to every aspect of the British economy, polity and society. Yet they are so hamstrung by a ludicrous notion of the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in a flaky poll that lies ever-further back in time that they are completely paralysed as we hurtle towards the end of the A50 period which comes ever-closer in time. For this reason it can also be predicted as a near-certainty that there will be mounting economic damage as a result of Brexit, and absolutely no good economic consequences attributable to Brexit. And, not to be forgotten for a moment, the human cost to EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU-27 who have been put in an impossible situation, having built their lives in the perfectly legitimate expectation that freedom of movement was here to stay.

Although the economic damage and political and administrative chaos of Brexit opens up many different possibilities, I think the passage of time – and the way that the British government has conducted itself during that time – means that a return to the pre-Referendum status quo is no longer feasible from either a UK or an EU perspective. The best that remainers, or for that matter ‘liberal leavers’, can hope for is a soft (EFTA/EEA) Brexit, and even that limited hope is still only an outside possibility. It would of course have been perfectly possible after the referendum result had May stood up to the ultras. Now, not only does she not have the power to do so because of the election result, but by promising hard Brexit she has in any case ramped up their expectations so that any reversal would be almost impossible under her leadership.

And what about this blog?

Coming back to this blog, I’ve been gratified by the growth in readership, with page views now exceeding 120,000. Almost all of this has come since I created the accompanying twitter account in February 2017 which has also begun to develop a following. Reluctantly, I have disabled comments on the blog mainly because of spambots but also because of the ridiculous comments from Brexiters, ranging from the predictably silly to the lamentably ill-informed, with a generous helping of the ill-advisedly patronizing. I’m obliged to live in a country where this idiotic nonsense is in the ascendant; fortunately I’m not obliged to give space to it on my own blog.

In any case I don’t (as some people seem to think) write this blog or tweet in order to debate with hardcore Brexiters who, despite what they sometimes say, have no interest in, and for that matter no facility for, debating. Instead, I hope to provide whoever may be interested with my analysis (on this blog) and links to news and the analysis of others (on Twitter) so as to inform or supplement their own understanding, whatever their views may be. I particularly try to seek out and link to the many excellent specialist sources which don’t get much coverage in the media, although there is obviously a limit to the extent to which a single individual can keep on top of the increasingly complex developments around Brexit.

The ‘market’ for Brexit comment is a crowded one since there are huge number of other sites, including many with massive institutional weight and resources behind them whether from media outlets, universities or think tanks. This blog, by contrast, is my sole creation, although posts from it have been syndicated on numerous sites and versions of posts have appeared in the press which may help to publicise it. Moreover, many Brexit-related blogs have a specialism in, for example, economics, law, trade or politics. What I think might be distinctive about this blog is, in fact, that it is generalist in scope. My hope that it offers people who have such a general interest in Brexit, but perhaps not much time to pursue that interest, access to useful summaries of ongoing events and links to further reading. At all events, I’m grateful to all of you who read it – and those who publicise it on twitter and elsewhere - and hope you will continue to do so.