Friday 23 March 2018

The passport and fishing rows expose the lies and contradictions of Brexit

It’s easy to dismiss the fuss over where British passports are going to be printed. But it is a microcosm of the way that leave voters were, and are still being, misled, as is the row over fisheries. It’s widely understood that one important segment of the leave vote was those ‘left behind’ by and hostile to globalization (the Lord Ashcroft Poll immediately after the referendum showed that 69% of those who thought globalization a force for ill voted leave). For such voters, the question of whether things are produced in the UK or not matters, especially when it is linked to such a clear symbol of national identity as a passport. Yet almost as soon as the Referendum votes were counted, leading Brexiters were lining up to say that the result in no way mandated an unwinding of globalization. On the contrary, according to Liam Fox in his September 2016 ‘Manchester’ speech:

“I believe the UK is in a prime position to become a world leader in free trade because of the brave and historic decision of the British people to leave the European Union.”

Wherever it is produced, leave voters may well get the symbolic victory of a blue passport (an empty victory, of course, since nothing in EU membership precluded having this anyway). They are not going to see, as during the campaign I heard some of them say they expected, a return of those industries which existed in Britain prior to EU membership (although even the most ‘patriotic’ leavers don’t show any great propensity to buy British goods). The reason for that is simple: they were not lost because of EU membership. On the other hand, what is being lined up for them by the ‘Global Britain’ Brexiters – such as the ever-ludicrous Daniel Hannan’s Initiative for Free Trade - is a more intensified globalization without the regional framework and protections afforded by the EU. As regards passports in particular, the competitive international tendering of such contracts would almost certainly be a feature of any trade deal Britain ends up making with the EU.

That feeds into a wider issue. Whereas during the referendum campaign the leave side majored on immigration and only sporadically mentioned an independent trade policy, ever since the result these priorities have been reversed. It is solely because of this that exiting any customs union and, hence, the common commercial policy, has become an impregnable red line (whereas within hours of the referendum Brexiters like, again, Hannan disowned the immigration promises). As the government’s own forecasts show, the economic rewards of an independent trade policy will be nugatory, and far outweighed by the economic damage of leaving the single market, but for Brexiters it is an iconic prize. But with it will come much that ‘nativist’ leave voters will find repugnant. India will not be the only country wanting visas in exchange for trade, and any deal with the US will very likely entail opening up the NHS to private companies. This was precisely what the Leave campaign, wrongly, claimed would happen under TTIP if Britain voted to stay in the EU.

As for fishing, it has been clear for over a year that the promises made by leave campaigners would not be met, and it is increasingly likely that the industry will be bartered for favourable treatment for other, larger and more economically important, sectors in the negotiations with the EU. Ironically, had Brexiters been willing to accept soft Brexit this would not have been so. In those circumstances, Britain would leave the Common Fisheries Policy but there would not be the wider re-negotiation of trade that makes the sacrifice of fishing likely. Moreover, soft Brexit would have been much quicker to organize, and very likely there would be no need for a transition period. Fishing would have been ‘free’ of the EU long before January 2021. That aside, given that there is to be a transition period, there was never any prospect whatsoever of fishing, uniquely, being exempt from the standstill for everything else even though Michael Gove was saying otherwise only a few weeks ago. In every conceivable respect fishing communities have been used and misled.

This most certainly does not mean that Farage and others, with their cries of ‘betrayal’, have got it right. His formula for Brexit is that of someone who knows he will never actually have to take responsibility for it. So he can continue to con fishermen and everyone else that there is a quick, simple ‘clean Brexit’ in which all of the fantasies of the Brexiters come true by simply walking away from the EU. This is contemptible dishonesty, and in relation to fishing especially so since Farage virtually never turned up to meeting of the EU Fisheries Committee when he was a member.

The great achievement, and the great lie, of the Leave campaign was to make voting leave mean all things to all people. It could mean soft or hard Brexit; liberal or illiberal Brexit; Nativist or Globalist Brexit; a vote against the neo-Communist ‘EUSSR’ or against neo-liberal Capitalism. As a vote-winning strategy, that got Leave over the line – just. Since then, the chickens of ambiguity have come home to roost. That’s most obvious in the still ongoing conflict over soft versus hard Brexit. But the passports and fisheries rows expose the nativist-globalist dimension of the dishonesty. What is politically important now, in the very few months left, is whether leave voters come to see that all the contradictory things they were promised cannot and never will come true. And, if they do, who they will decide to blame.

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