Saturday 3 November 2018

The polarised Brexit debate keeps missing essential points

Given the intense polarisation of the Brexit debate, it’s perhaps not surprising that each twist and turn of events is seized on by the different sides as confirmation of their positions – but, in the process, crucial points about these events are missed or side-lined.

Hence the news last week that the certification of Britain’s post-Brexit WTO commitments had been challenged by other WTO members was leapt on by some over-enthusiastic remainers, saying this meant that the whole idea of ‘trading on WTO terms’ was dead, or even that Britain’s WTO membership had in some way been vetoed. In the world of social media this rapidly did the rounds as if it were fact.

With understandable irritation, many trade experts pointed out that this was not the case at all: trading on uncertified commitments is perfectly possible, and by no means unknown, whilst negotiations with WTO members continue, possibly over many years. Indeed, Liam Fox put out a statement to that effect.

But much of the commentary, from some of those who were factually right as well as from those who were blatantly wrong, missed the essential point about this story. What mattered was that, despite numerous warnings going back years, Brexiters had presented ‘regaining our seat’ at the WTO as an entirely simple matter.

The big lie: Brexit would be easy

As the Chair of the Commons Select Committee on International Trade, Angus McNeil, pointed out, Liam Fox had in the past assured the committee that the certification of commitments was well in hand, whereas in fact it is going to entail years of bi-lateral negotiations (quite apart from, and on top of, the negotiations with the EU). It’s a foretaste of the way that, far from meaning that with one bound Britain is free, trading on WTO terms means entering a whole new arena of international compromises, alliance-building and back-room deals.

The days of having to negotiate with just 27 other countries as an EU member, from a position of some power, and of acting as part of a bloc of 28 within the WTO may come to be viewed with some nostalgia compared with being one of 160 or so.

So it’s not that what has happened is some crushing blow for Brexit, it is that it’s just one, relatively minor, example of the multiplicity of ways that Brexiters have misrepresented or ignored the complexities of Brexit. As Nick Cohen has put it, the big lie about Brexit was not the £350M a week for the NHS on the side of the bus, but that it would be easy.

Being a third country

Other Brexit stories this week showed a similar propensity to miss the essential in the rush to make partisan points. One especially convoluted example related to the port of Calais. It was falsely reported that France would seek to create chaos – and perhaps even a ‘blockade’ – at the port. Evidence, said Brexiters, of Britain being ‘punished’ (in fact, France is attempting to find ways to streamline the application of the third country controls that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would inevitably entail).

Piling nonsense upon nonsense it was also reported that Britain had a plan to circumvent this supposed punishment, by chartering ships to go to other EU ports in Holland or Belgium – but, of course, such ports would also have to implement third country controls. Then, as it became more widely reported that there were no plans to cause unnecessary delays at Calais, Brexiters pivoted round to dismiss the whole episode as a Project Fear story because nothing would change at Calais – which, in fact, it would if there is no deal because it would, indeed, be necessary to introduce third country controls.

In a more muted way, the same thing could be said of reports (later denied) that a deal on financial services post-Brexit had been done, with sterling rising as a result. This was a puzzling story, anyway, in that any such deal would surely be part of the future terms agreement to be negotiated after Brexit, rather than something to be completed now as part of the Withdrawal Agreement phase.

But, more to the present point, it was unclear why such a deal – reported to be based on ‘regulatory equivalence’ between the UK and EU – would be much of a break through, still less a triumph. Such equivalence would be a fairly standard offering to a third country, inferior in very many respects to existing market access as an EU member, and, in practice, pretty close to the ‘vassalage’ that Brexiters abhor. So the story here – if it was a story, which it probably wasn’t – was neither remarkable nor what it was claimed to be.

In both of these stories the essential point being missed was nothing about punishment or breakthroughs, but the simple, remorseless factual logic of what choosing to be third country – that is to say, choosing Brexit – means. It seems that, even now, both politicians and the public don’t really understand that meaning.

The Leave.EU investigation

Within the swirl of these and other stories, claim and counter-claim are difficult to disentangle and each is saturated with the attempts by various sides within the debate to inscribe them with their preferred narrative. That clearly applies to the most substantive of this week’s developments, the news that Arron Banks (and Liz Bilney) have been referred to the National Crime Agency for the investigation of alleged crimes committed in the funding of the Leave.EU campaign during the referendum.

For some remainers, this opens up the issue of whether leave’s victory in the referendum had been obtained by dishonest means, and that without them the result would have been different. For some leavers, the relevant issue is the money spent by the government in support of remaining in the EU (but not as part of the official campaign).

But both of these responses miss the point. The issue isn’t the outcome of the vote (and, anyway, for all anyone knows the number voting to leave might have been higher without the stridently xenophobic tone of Leave.EU segment of the campaign). The issue isn’t even the fairness of the resources each side had at its disposal. The issue is the specific, procedural one of whether the law was broken.

Of course, there have already been fines levied by the Electoral Commission on Vote Leave (£61K) and on Darren Grimes (£21K) of BeLeave. These are the subject of on-going appeals. How long this will take I am not sure. At all events it would seem likely that the NCA investigation of Banks will take quite some time and, if it were to end in criminal prosecutions, it will surely be many months at the very least before the outcome is known. In these circumstances it seems incredible that the government does not seek to pause the Brexit process (clearly this might not succeed: it would entail the EU-27 unanimously agreeing to extend the Article 50 period).

I don’t mean by that that I expect the government will do this, just that it seems obvious that it should be attempted. Otherwise, what are we really saying about the country’s commitment to having a legal framework within which democratic politics is conducted? If those laws exist for a reason, they must surely be adhered to. It cannot be enough to say that anyone who breaches them can be punished, but with no implications for the vote which was conducted in breach of them. It would be like fining those who mis-sold PPI but not compensating the victims of mis-selling.

Given how strongly people feel about Brexit, the best way to think about the principle here is to forget that it is Brexit which is at stake and imagine it simply in the abstract: what should happen to a vote about anything in such circumstances? From that perspective, first, we need to establish definitively if the law was breached and then, if it was, there seems a compelling argument for a re-run of the vote. (This is quite separate from the argument about a People’s Vote on the final deal: it’s an argument for an exact re-run of the ‘in or out’ question, although undoubtedly the campaigns would be different in the light of what has been learned about Brexit since 2016).

An outlandish proposition?

That such an obvious proposition seems so outlandish, and extremely unlikely to be realised, grows out of the deformed political culture engendered by the referendum and the Brexit debate since. Theresa May bears much responsibility for this – the stubborn, monocular idea that nothing but that vote and delivering her narrow interpretation of it matters – as, of course, do the media. There’s no doubt in my mind that, especially since the Mail’s infamous ‘Enemies of the People’ headline, most politicians have been virtually terrified into abdication of their sense, logic and judgment.

However that may be, insisting now that a pause is necessary might not cause the earthquake that some may expect. The Brexiters would cry betrayal, of course, but they have debased that currency through over-use. Once you call everything a betrayal – as they have from day one – it soon loses its rhetorical power. Especially given that if Brexit is enacted, and however it is enacted, they will call that a betrayal anyway. More narrowly, the post-Dacre Daily Mail is markedly less strident in tone, and less to be feared.

As for those – probably the majority of the population – who don’t compulsively follow Brexit, a pause would probably hardly register amongst the interminable talk of transitions and backstops and backstops to backstops. Indeed there is a sense that many voters, including leave voters, feel that, having voted, they have done their bit and are not that bothered about what happens now or how.

On the other hand, we are often told that a second referendum (i.e. a final deal referendum) would in some way dent people’s faith in democracy. That argument seems to have no logic, but even it were true how much more would such faith be damaged if it emerges that there was large-scale, criminal conduct in the original poll? Once we are past Brexit day it will be too late to do anything. By then, it might seem self-evident that we should have pursued what is currently dismissed as an impossible course of action.

Suppose, even, that compelling evidence emerges of major interference by Russia? Which of our patriotic politicians will then want blithely to tell electors that nothing had been done when the allegations were first referred for criminal investigation because Brexit was the will of the British people? Might ‘I was just doing the will of the people’ end up being as discredited a defence as its closely-related cousin ‘I was just following orders’?

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