Friday, 31 May 2019

The Brexit aporia

As anticipated in my post a month ago, Britain is well on course to squander the extension period, primarily by virtue of the Tory leadership contest. That will take us to July, when everything will pretty much stop for the summer in Westminster and Brussels. So Brexit is effectively on hold until September, as, apparently and astonishingly, is Labour’s decision on whether to have a clear policy on it. Then there will be a couple of months left before the extension is due to expire.

The next Prime Minister seems highly likely to seek to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and especially to try to replace the Irish backstop with ‘alternative arrangements’, or to place a time limit on it. This is a non-starter, one very good reason being the terms under which the October extension was granted which specify (paragraph 12): “this extension excludes any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement”. There will be no renegotiation, something reiterated by Michel Barnier in an interview this week and underscored by the EU starting to dismantle its Brexit negotiating team.

As for the nonsense of ‘alternative arrangements’, this has been discussed ad nauseam on this blog and elsewhere but an excellent new piece this week by Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform provides a measured summary. Yet a belief in this nonsense is now hard-baked into Tory thinking on Brexit, found not just amongst the Ultras but generally more pragmatic politicians such as Damian Green and Nicky Morgan.

Any half-way honest candidate for the Tory leadership would admit these obvious facts now. But of course then they would not be elected. So instead they will be forced to face them later. Thus we are set for exactly the same dynamic as characterised May’s premiership. In order to manage the internal disputes of the Tory Party, the government pursues impossible fantasises. The EU has no need to manage the Tory Party and exposes the fantasies as just that. Cue more outrage about how unreasonable the EU are being.

A thought experiment

But there’s a very easy way to see the flaw in that. Imagine that, the WA completed, the UK had been all geared up to ratify it and it was the EU-27 that had fallen into disarray and could not do so because of internal divisions. And so it was they who were seeking renegotiation of something that the UK regarded as having been agreed. It’s not very difficult to see that the UK, and Brexiters in particular, would be outraged. And, no doubt, would be saying that, in that case, let the EU-27 accept the consequences of no-deal if that’s what they want.

In that context, too, imagine if it were the EU-27 who were saying that the thing they wanted changed (the financial settlement, say) could be resolved if the UK accepted the one solution that the 27 had agreed on (that the settlement be recalculated according to an unspecified formula, say). What, then, would the Brexiters’ response be? Again, it’s not hard to guess. But this is exactly the logic of what Brexiters argue when they say that the Brady Amendment (i.e. to remove the backstop in favour of alternative arrangements) should be accepted by the EU as it is the only thing that the British Parliament has voted in a majority for.

Of course, so elementary a thought experiment is beyond Brexiters, plumped up with outrage and entitlement. So, come the autumn, the possibility of no-deal will get ratcheted up several more notches by the new Prime Minister (in the unlikely event that the race isn’t won by a ‘no backstop or no dealer’, we’ll just be back to the impasse of May’s deal). But that will face several formidable hurdles, even leaving aside the issue of whether Parliament could and would prevent it.

The illegitimacy of no-deal Brexit

The most obvious is that, for all that Brexit Ultras wrap their no-deal preference in the threadbare cloth of 17.4 million voters, it wasn’t remotely what the Leave campaign promised Brexit would mean in the 2016 Referendum. Indeed, Vote Leave promised those voters (mendaciously, for it could never have happened) that negotiations would be completed before the UK even began the formal process of leaving. It’s inconceivable that a no-deal platform would have won in 2016, and it is a mark of how cowed many mainstream politicians have become that they would even countenance it as being the ‘will of the people’.

Certainly it is not justified by recent polling evidence, which suggests that no-deal is supported by 25% of the electorate – a bit less than support leaving with a deal (27%), and considerably less than support not leaving at all (41%). Even amongst those who voted for the Brexit Party in last week’s European elections, where support for no-deal is presumably highest, only 67% want it. It is emphatically not a popular policy.

This means that if the next Prime Minister does try to implement it next autumn – and if so it will be amid growing economic chaos as the October deadline approaches - there will be a huge problem of legitimacy. In the past, the constitutional reality that the PM can change mid-way through a Parliament was broadly accepted. Few questioned Callaghan’s accession in 1976, or Major’s in 1990. But, largely because politics has become more presidential, that acceptance has faded. Brown’s takeover in 2007 led to immediate questions about the need for another election, as did May’s accession in 2016.

That is going to be as nothing compared with what will happen in 2019 when a Prime Minister - with no Parliamentary majority, holding office on the basis of the votes of (estimates vary but at most) 160,000 mainly ageing Tory Party members (of whom, extraordinarily, 59% voted for the Brexit Party at the European elections, and just 19% for the Conservatives) - tries to enact so all-encompassing and so divisive a policy as Brexit. And if the approach is the most extreme, no-deal, version of it then there is going to be a very serious crisis of legitimacy.

It just will not wash to say that a narrow vote in 2016, one General Election and three leaders later, interpreted by a PM, who has not faced a General Election, in a way that was never proposed, which only a minority of voters support, and which is against the wishes of parliament, is in any real way a democratic process. Farage has been talking a lot in the last few days about the need in a democracy for “losers’ consent”; such a situation would not even have “winners’ consent”.

The politics of the grotesque

The “losers’ consent” argument is in any case entirely bogus, even leaving aside the grotesque hypocrisy of it being made by Farage, who clearly stated that had Leave lost by the same margin they won it would be “unfinished business”. For it suggests that the reason Brexit has gone so horrifically wrong is because the losing side didn’t accept the result.

That is a further illustration of Brexiters’ refusal to take responsibility for that fact that they had no idea – and in Farage’s case no interest in – how to deliver a viable policy. Had there been such a policy, most opposition would have quickly dissipated. In fact, it has grown as the false promises of Brexiters have become clearer. No one – ‘loser’ or ‘winner’ in a vote – is obliged to consent to something that, within its own terms, has already failed.

Or perhaps I am unfair to say that Brexiters refuse to take responsibility. After all, hasn’t Farage – shrilly supported by Ann Widdecombe – demanded a seat at the negotiating table by virtue of the Brexit Party’s showing in the European Elections?

But that, too, is grotesque: MEPs are not in any way a part of the British government. They have an important job to do – not that Farage seems to realise that, judging by his woeful record in the European Parliament, where his ‘productivity score’ shows him to be ranked at 736 out of 749 MEPs – but it is not governing Britain and you might expect that Brexiters, of all people, would appreciate that. It is in any case bizarre to propose involvement in negotiations when his policy is to ditch all negotiations, and to have a role in making a deal when his policy is not to have a deal.

Culture war

But, of course, Nigel Farage – “the most dangerous man in Britain” as a New York Times article this week dubbed him - has no commitment to delivering anything in the national interest. His interests lie elsewhere, whether that be westwards or eastwards if indeed there is any difference any more. Everything he says and does is in pursuit of a culture war which has little to do with Brexit.

And it should be admitted that, through Brexit, he and his allies have been successful in this. Whatever happens now, that culture war is here to stay for the foreseeable future. At worse it will intensify. Whatever happens now, Brexit will dominate British politics for years, crowding out vital issues such as, currently, the social care crisis. At worse, it will overwhelm all other policies. Whatever happens now, the damage already done will persist (to take just one of many of examples: the European Medicines Agency is gone for good and with it the hub of the strategically crucial biomedical industry). At worse, it will cause a catastrophe.

Another referendum may, conceivably, get us out of the worst practical consequences of the Brexit mess. But that will not win the culture war (what, anyway, does victory or defeat look like in a culture war?) and it is certainly fanciful to think that it would “cauterise the gaping national split and confront once and for all the many dark issue that lurk beneath the nativist Brexit idea”, as Polly Toynbee suggested this week. That’s not an argument against another referendum but just to say that, even if remain won, all it would mean would be Britain remaining in the EU, nothing else.

For remainers, there is no way to get back to 2016, just as for leavers there is no way forward to get what they were promised in 2016. In that sense, just as Brexit is on hold so too is Britain – suspended between an unrecoverable past and an unattainable future. Brexit has ceased to be, if indeed it ever was, understandable simply as an ‘institutional’ question about Britain’s membership of the EU. Instead it has morphed into a cultural battle about what Britain - England, especially, but not just England – is. So it has ceased to have an institutional answer, deliverable by normal forms of politics and policymaking. It is an aporia, a pathless path, with no way forward and no way back.

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