Thursday, 24 May 2018

Semi-digested factoids are no substitute for sober judgment

There is still no more detail on what the UK is proposing as the solutions to the linked issues of the post-Brexit Irish border, customs arrangements and trade. So far as I know, no documented proposal has been made public or been supplied to the EU negotiators. Perhaps that is not surprising. After all, as pointed out in my previous post, this is not some well-worked out strategic plan: it’s a tactical response to the woeful inability of the government and of Brexiters more generally to agree on anything else. Their worst plan except for all the other plans, perhaps.

It’s worth briefly recalling the roots of this. These lie, in general, with the abject failure of Brexiters to address or even accept the complex practicalities of what they urged people to vote for. As regards the Irish border, in particular, voters were told by Boris Johnson and Theresa Villiers, then the Northern Ireland Secretary that absolutely nothing would change if they chose Brexit. This was based on the claim that the Common Travel Area (CTA) had existed pre-EU, so would just continue afterwards. To the casual listener, this may have sounded plausible and well-informed. But of course it was irrelevant, since the CTA has nothing to do with the movement of goods across borders.

Brexiters continue to deploy such pieces of misinformation (including, in some cases, the CTA line), often based upon garbled or semi-understood versions of much more complex facts. Examples include, amongst many others, claiming or supposing that Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status means something like the best possible trading terms, when in fact it means almost the opposite, and of course the (related) old chestnut that ‘we can just trade on WTO terms as we do with the rest of the world’.

We’ve recently seen an especially egregious example, with Jacob Rees-Mogg claiming that Article 24 of GATT would allow the UK to continue to trade on its present terms with the EU for up to ten years. In a typically acute article this week, this claim was debunked by Ian Dunt. But as Dunt points out, to a normal member of the public it sounds technical and abstruse but as if Rees-Mogg knows what he is talking about. And it lodges in the public mind long before, and with much greater effect than, any subsequent debunking by experts.

I do not think that what is at stake here is necessarily dishonesty by those saying such things, or credulity by those accepting them. It is more, I suspect, that both want it to be true, believe it must be true, and feel certain that all of the complexities and practicalities of Brexit have been made up or exaggerated in order to thwart common sense and decency. So little gobbets of half-digested ‘technical’ information are latched on to, so as to say to the so-called experts: ‘hah, gotcha’!

The Rees-Mogg claim was originally made on the BBC’s Daily Politics show, and this week he was invited back (there is, as always, a chair kept warm at the BBC for our man) to discuss it with Cambridge University expert in WTO law, Dr Lorand Bartels. Bartels stated clearly that the Article in question related to countries entering new trade agreements, rather than to a country leaving, as in this case, the EU (there are other objections to the Rees-Mogg claim as well, as outlined in the Dunt article). In response, Rees-Mogg started scrolling manically through the text of Article 24 on his mobile phone, snatching out words in support of his claim.  It resembled nothing so much as man going to his doctor after having googled a couple of medical articles and bullishly insisting on a treatment his doctor knows will kill him.

In a similar vein, last weekend several photos were doing the rounds on social media of roadside checks on red diesel (reduced duty diesel for agriculture, which may not be used by ordinary vehicles) at or near the Northern Ireland border. This, supposedly, ‘proved’ that the Irish border problem was a non-issue, got up by Ireland’s politicians, the EU and remainers. The image was even re-tweeted, apparently approvingly, by Stephen Baker, Minister at DExEU. But Baker must surely (hopefully!) be aware that such checks are made all over the United Kingdom and Ireland, and have no implications whatsoever for the Irish border. In particular, they have no implications for the fact – which Brexiters seem incapable of understanding – that it is not that leaving the EU creates a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, it is that it creates a hard, visible border because it becomes the external border of the EU (and of the UK). Again, a half-understood ‘fact’ becomes seized on by those desperate to do so to ‘prove’ that all the obstacles and practicalities of Brexit are specious inventions.

Still, at least cases like this show some attempt to minimally engage with the practicalities. The same cannot be said of a truly abysmal piece written this week by John Longworth of Leave means Leave which simply repeated the long-discredited nonsense about ‘trading on WTO terms’, along with the more recent nonsense that the Irish border will only exist if the EU impose it, that being ‘excluded’ from EU projects is punishment or ‘extortion’, and that the EU will come running for a deal if the UK pulls out. And with the obligatory World War Two reference thrown in. This is pure Bourbonism – from Brexiters who have forgotten nothing and learned nothing – so detached from reality that scarcely a word of it was true, and, where true, distorted or misunderstood.

The fact is that if Longworth and those of similar views actually held power, they would within five minutes be forced to accept that as, indeed, has been shown by the government’s misguided attempts to implement the hard Brexiters’ agenda. The moment their ideas attempted, they are found to be impossible (hence, as I’ve argued before, they would have been far happier if they had lost the Referendum). Cries of betrayal are a luxury that only those who have to take no responsibility can indulge in. This mixture of bull-headed jingoism, technical drivel and truculent victimhood was bad enough before the referendum; that it should still be spouted by those who have actually won and should be taking responsibility for the consequences of that victory is utterly dismal.

One of those consequences became clearer this week when Jon Thompson, the boss of HMRC, estimated that the cost of the ‘max fac’ customs plan would be in the order of £17-20bn a year. (Max fac – keep up at the back – is the customs plan that the Brexit Ultras favour but which the cabinet can’t agree on, the EU won’t accept, and no expert thinks is technically deliverable). That sum is about the same as the infamous £350M a week, of course. Predictably, it was dismissed by Brexiters as scaremongering, but somewhat uncomfortably so given that just a few weeks ago they were lauding Thompson for saying (although, again, it was a cherry-picked ‘gotcha’ quote) that there need not be any new physical infrastructure at the Irish border.

Against this backdrop of lies, misunderstandings, semi-truths, quarter-truths and just plain nonsense, came a sober and sensible appraisal of Brexit from Sir Ivan Rogers – formerly the UK’s Ambassador to the EU until he was, effectively, hounded from office for giving such appraisals (a sign, as I remarked at the time, of dangers ahead). In a detailed lecture, which is well worth reading in full, he made amongst many others two of the core points that I – with, of course, much less knowledge and authority – have made repeatedly on this blog.

First, that Brexiters and, now, the Brexit government have constantly failed to understand that being a third country to the EU entails real, practical, legal consequences. It’s not just a kind of theoretical or symbolic change. Second, and relatedly, that the government’s entire approach is based upon trying to imagine that most of the features of being in the EU can be re-created by the UK after Brexit, as if, alongside the categories of member and non-member there is some sort of ‘alumni’ status available.

Rogers' limpid analysis makes many other acute and detailed arguments, and he finishes with the hope, or perhaps the plea, for Britain to realise that “there are no perfect choices” but rather “serious trade-offs” which should be approached through “stone cold sober judgments”. It is wise advice, but on the evidence so far Brexiting Britain remains unwilling to engage seriously with such practicalities and, far from sobriety, is still in the middle of an uncontrolled binge. Indeed, the tone of many Brexiters – oscillating between bellicose aggression and maudlin self-pity – is markedly similar to that of a drunk at the latter stages of inebriation. The hangover is going to be very nasty indeed.

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