Monday 30 July 2018

We don't have to do this

With the daily grind of events around Brexit it can be hard to step back and recall the enormity of what is happening and why. It’s easier either to get caught up in the minutiae or to tune out the endless Brexit noise. But the recent discussions of what ‘no deal’ would mean serve as a stark reminder of the scale of what Brexit itself means.

A self-inflicted crisis

It is not simply the dangers of food and medicine shortages, of planes not flying, plans to draft in the army, and all the rest of it. After all, these things may not happen. It is that this extreme scenario is a reminder that even in less extreme scenarios Brexit involves the reorganization of much of our way of life. Moreover, this relates not just to the economy and to public services but to the fundamentals of Britain’s geo-political strategy. Meanwhile millions of lives are in limbo and our political culture is becoming ever more toxic and degraded.

For sure, Brexit still has plenty of supporters – and amongst the wilder fringes of Brexiters that includes for the no deal scenario itself. But it is striking that it is still the case that almost all people with direct practical knowledge of the economic, business and political consequences remain opposed to it. They can be dismissed as the elite or the Establishment – and often are, ironically often by people who clearly qualify as both. But that misses the central point: over two years after the referendum no practical, workable plan for Brexit has been advanced by its adherents.

Instead, those outside government have merely continued to peddle semi-digested factoids and slogans, meeting any challenge with more or less sophisticated versions of ‘we won, get over it’. It is visible how relieved those who have served in government are when, on leaving, they can revert to this comfort zone of complaint and victimhood. Meanwhile the government’s initial – and ill-judged - attempt to operationalise the ‘dream’ of hard Brexit foundered precisely because it is not practical or workable. Dreams, it turns out, are the easy bit; policies, not so much. It has also made a series of gross and unnecessary mistakes, most flagrantly in the premature triggering of Article 50.

Had the Brexiters within or outside of government come up with something credible, the objectors would have been easily silenced, and negotiations with the EU proceeded in an orderly fashion. Instead, all that has been achieved is a political crisis, a paralysed parliament, and negotiations with the EU that have achieved little and are now stalled.

To describe a nation in such turmoil, facing in any scenario economic and political damage and actively planning for a state of emergency in the worst case scenario, would normally mean it was the victim of some terrible externally imposed crisis. But the most absurd and extraordinary thing about Brexit is that it is entirely self-inflicted. We – collectively – are doing this to ourselves. We are acting as if we have no choice but we do. We don’t have to do this.

People make mistakes

Ah, but the referendum and, with it, the ‘will of the people’ narrative that is used as a blackjack to bludgeon all questioning, all opposition and, even, any sober discussion of practicalities. It has become, in the new political correctness of Brexit, taboo to say something quite obvious: people sometimes make mistakes. That’s not an awful or a startling thing to say. We make them as individuals, and therefore we can make them as collectivities. It would a harsh world indeed if we held individuals to every mistake they made, with no possibility of redemption or revision.

But with the referendum, we have supposedly lashed ourselves forever to what was, of course, a very narrow outcome after a campaign that was mendacious and which, we now know, involved significant breaches of electoral law and, possibly, foreign interference. At the very least, we know that it invited people to vote against EU membership but did not present a workable plan, or even any single plan, that people could vote for as to what would come afterwards. And we know that not least because after all this time there still exists no such plan. Thus it could hardly have been known and voted on by people two years ago.

The consequence is that, now, we are being told that there is nothing we can do even though recent opinion polls clearly show extreme disquiet about what is happening. A Sky News poll today has results showing that 51% think Brexit will be bad for the country (40% think good), 42% think it will be bad for themselves personally (31% think good) and 65% think the government will get a bad deal (14% think good). That latter figure does not, of course, mean 65% are against Brexit but it does mean they are not happy about what it actually looks likely to mean in practice (i.e. it must include many who think Brexit is a good idea, but that the government are doing it badly: in fact, 78% think the government is doing a bad job of negotiating Brexit, and just 10% think good). Overall, 50% want a referendum on the terms of Brexit when they are known, with an option to stay in, and other polls have for some months now suggested a narrow majority would vote to stay in the EU.

What this adds up to is a country which remains as deeply divided as it was at the time of the referendum, if not more so. A vote on any given day could as easily go one way or the other. There is certainly no overwhelming popular support for Brexit. By the same token, nor is there for continued EU membership. But in those circumstances it is common sense to stick with the status quo. That is why, in most countries, a referendum on a constitutional change requires some form of super-majority rather than a simple majority. Without very strong support for change, the status quo prevails. Indeed, the reason given for that not being so in the 2016 vote was because it was an advisory referendum – something rendered politically meaningless, however, in large part because of the government leaflet to households saying that the outcome would be implemented. (This, presumably, was an ill-judged attempt to stop voters concluding that they could, without danger, vote to leave as a kind of protest or anti-government gesture).

In the context of such a close result, the way that May’s government sought to handle matters has been a travesty and has ensured that the divisions remain as great as ever. It was not inevitable. There could have been a kind of moratorium with, say, a Commission established to consider ways and means. There could have been a soft (single market) Brexit plan, which might have had some chance of generating consensus. Instead, May, after many months, plumped for the hardest form of Brexit and, since, has had to backtrack - leaving almost no one satisfied, as the Sky poll shows.

There are still choices

That has happened and, to use the old political cliché, we are where we are. It’s still not impossible that a way could be found out of this mess, although all routes – parliamentary, electoral (including another referendum) – to this are fiendishly complex, as are the EU- related issues of suspension and/or revocation of the Article 50 process. But of an equally fiendish complexity are all the routes to continuing with Brexit. It would be quite crazy for a country, as for an individual, to back itself into a corner and say that having made a series of bad decisions and botched attempts to deal with them it must now just submit to fate. As when individuals get into dire situations – through debt or addiction, say – the first step on the road to salvation is to admit that you have a problem, and then to start making the right choices to address that problem.

With Brexit, it’s now becoming abundantly clear to most people, whether they voted leave or remain, that we have a problem. They certainly do not all think that it is a problem with Brexit in principle, but at least with what it is becoming in practice. It is a problem of our own making. And we have choices, the 2016 referendum notwithstanding. As David Allen Green writes, the mandate of a referendum can be democratic or it can be irreversible, but it cannot be both.

Perhaps the most dangerous and dishonest of political slogans is ‘there is no alternative’. It is only true, if at all, when faced with some overwhelming external threat such as war or natural disaster. In other cases, there is always an alternative: that’s what politics means. That is the situation with Brexit. We are doing it to ourselves. We don’t have to. There is not much time left, but we can take back control.


A final and, I think, important thought. If it were to come about that Britain decides against Brexit, and finds a way out of it, that will be the beginning not the end of something. It will be important not to make the mistake the Brexiters made of having no plan. A reversal, or even just a softening, of Brexit would be a delight to some and a relief to others, but it would leave a dangerous legacy of extreme bitterness and anger amongst a sizeable percentage of the population. It will become an urgent task for political leaders, and for all of us, to address and heal that. No one should imagine that reversing Brexit will be an easy path – there are no easy paths now – but, unlike Brexit, it will at least give us a chance of getting to a better place.

(This will probably be the last post on this blog for a while. I will be taking a break from it over August and will resume again at the beginning of September.)

Friday 27 July 2018

Rules mean rules: we reject them at our peril

In a recent post, I suggested that the latest Brexit White Paper should, like an injured horse, be put out of its misery. Yesterday, Michel Barnier went some way to doing so when, in a single sentence, he rejected a central part of one of its central planks saying: “The EU cannot – and the EU will not – delegate its customs policy and rules, VAT and excise duty collections to a non-member who would not be subject to the EU’s governance structures”.

There’s no surprise in this. It was always an impossible idea that the EU could agree to it even if such a “fantastical Heath Robinson” arrangement (as Boris Johnson called it) could have been made to work in a basic, practical sense. It seems unlikely that the government thinks it could have flown, either, rather than being a staging post to something that would. But, if so, it is boxed into a corner with Brexit Ultras – not just on the backbenches but in the cabinet – saying that the White Paper is a final offer, rather than an (extremely belated) opening negotiating pitch. If that view holds sway then, indeed, we are in ‘no deal’ territory.

It seems likely that over the summer nothing much will happen in terms of the negotiations, and that the government will act as if the White Paper proposals are still afloat, even though they have been holed below the waterline. But we can expect the discussion within Britain to polarise even further as the temperature, literal and metaphorical, gets higher.

The rising temperature of Brexit debates

One indication of that came this week with a call from David Bannerman, a Conservative MEP, comparing people with “extreme EU loyalty” to jihadis who should have the Treason Act applied to them (he later deleted the tweet and replaced it with one referring to those “working undemocratically against UK through extreme EU loyalty”*). It’s easy to dismiss this as crankish raving, but we shouldn’t be too blasé. After all, it comes from an elected politician in a mainstream political party and, so far as I know, no senior member of that party has seen fit to disown it.

Perhaps more insidious, several Conservative MPs, including at least one former cabinet member, have publicly committed to funding the appeal of Darren Grimes against the decision by the Electoral Commission to fine him for breaking electoral law during the Referendum. One such, Nadine Dorries, did so in terms of the “need to expose institutional bias”. This (presumably) is a reference to repeated claims by Brexiters that the Electoral Commission is a partisan body, opposed to Brexit, and its judgments tainted as a result. As with similar claims about judges during the Gina Miller case this is very dangerous territory because it seeks to undermine rules and institutions by positioning them within a kind of cultural civil war for the political soul of the country.

Decisions have consequences

This kind of rhetoric is growing in intensity precisely because the real choices and meanings of Brexit are now becoming unavoidable, with the ‘no deal’ discussions pointing them up in their starkest form. Ian Dunt has today written an excellent detailed account of what such a scenario would look like for the availability of food. At its heart is the point – which I’ve also made on this blog from time to time – that the systems we take for granted are not there by some act of nature but by virtue of specific organizational and institutional arrangements. If we choose exit them, then we cease to benefit from them. If we exit them abruptly and with no alternatives in place (which is what ‘no deal’ means) then we suffer the consequences immediately. Yet Patrick O’Flynn, the UKIP MEP, writes of these consequences in terms of the EU trying “to starve the UK into submission”.

The core proposition of this punishment narrative is that Britain could leave the EU and yet there would be no damaging consequences of doing so. Voters were told that claims to the contrary were Project Fear and, now, that they are punishment. The same proposition has been the guiding theme of the government’s approach to Brexit, as I argued in an article in Prospect this week.

A different and much more subtle inflection of the same idea can be found in calls for the EU to be more flexible, as, for example, in an article today by the highly respected and pro-EU journalist Timothy Garton Ash, warning of the dangers of a Treaty of Versailles style humiliation. Similarly, also in today’s Guardian, Henry Newman, Director of Open Europe, argues for the EU to “see sense” about what no deal would mean for the EU, especially in terms of security and international relations.

I’m certainly not and never have been of the view that the EU can do no wrong (for that matter, I’m not sure that anyone is). It is an imperfect institution like all others. But I find it difficult to see what flexibility the EU could reasonably be expected to show in the face of the red lines put forward by the British government (nor is it very clear what this flexibility would consist of). The EU, like any multi-lateral organization, is and has to be rules-based or it will fall apart. That is so not least because, despite what some Brexiters claim, it is not and cannot act like a State.

Britain, prior to Brexit, understood that very well, and one way to understand the present situation is to imagine if it were not Britain but another country leaving. I do not think that in those circumstances many in Britain, and certainly not those of a Eurosceptic persuasion, would then be calling for special arrangements whereby that country could continue to have many membership benefits without accepting those rules it disliked. Which has been exactly the EU’s position, and signalled as such since long before the referendum.

The rejection of rules

What links the various developments discussed in this post is a lack of understanding, or simply a rejection, of a rules-based order. Whether in relation to the EU itself, or specific aspects such as the customs union, or the regulatory systems governing food standards, or the operation of judicial and quasi-judicial institutions such as the Electoral Commission, that rules-based order is treated as irrelevant or politicised as being at odds with the ‘will of the people’. This, which is one of the commonalities between Brexit and Trumpism, is one of the defining features of populism as well as one of its greatest dangers. It is also fantastical, as is clear in the call from Brexiters that the way to escape EU rules is to embrace … WTO rules.

It is strange that Britain – a country whose attachment to rules, captured in the stereotype of our propensity to form orderly queues – should be in the grip of such a mood. It’s worth recalling the lines in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, set in another period when such a mood held sway, and dissent was deemed treason. Will Roper, the prospective son-in-law of Sir Thomas More, declares that he would cut down every law in England to get to the Devil. More replies:

Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat. This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

On 6 July 1535 More was executed, having been found guilty of High Treason under the law which David Bannerman MEP, would like to see updated to cover those with “extreme EU loyalty”.

*We might wonder what this means. I’m not aware of anyone working undemocratically against Brexit. The main call from those opposed to it is for another referendum, which is plainly a democratic way of working, whatever the other arguments – made cogently by Anand Menon this week - against it might be. Yet Brexiters insist that such calls do not respect democracy which might, were Bannerman’s proposals accepted, imply that to call for a vote would be treasonous.