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.

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