Friday, 2 August 2019

Government by cult

We are beginning to learn what government by cult looks like, with every ministerial pronouncement about Brexit now indistinguishable from the rabid outpourings of the legions of pseudonymous Brexiter social media warriors. It’s as if all the seats at the cabinet table have fallen into the hands of @bleiveinbrexit38754 accounts.

No bogus statistic, half-truth, misunderstanding, naivety or downright lie is left unuttered. The world looks on, bemused and amused, at the spectacle of a once-respected country now simultaneously belligerent and absurd, daily trashing its global reputation even as it proclaims and romantically remembers itself as a global power.

Old nonsenses, such as the pivotal role the German car industry will play in securing a great deal, are dusted down and joined by new ones, such as Dominic Raab’s assertion that only by not having a deal will getting that great deal be assured. Every report of the resulting damage is dismissed as not being caused by Brexit, or discounted as being worth it because of Brexit.

The signs of that damage are all around us, from the latest collapse of the pound in anticipation of no-deal Brexit, to the latest news of the collapse of investment in the car industry, the latest desperate plea and warning from that industry, and the latest warning from the Bank of England. But no evidence or rational argument is allowed to intrude on the cult, putting civil servants, in particular, in an impossible position. True belief is all.

Yet, even there, as with all cults, true belief is bitterly contested, in the never-ending round of betrayal and purity. Thus, as prefigured in my previous post, Brexit Ultras such as Steve Baker, John Redwood, and the ever-ludicrous Mark Francois chunter their suspicions that Johnson’s hard line government is remainer-heavy or going to sell out on them, whilst Farage lambasts Dominic Cummings (£) for not being “a true believer” in Brexit.

Re-writing history

Perhaps the most grotesque aspect of current events is the latest attempt to re-write history by pretending that no-deal Brexit was always the plan, or at least a plan (£), and as such has a democratic mandate. There are multiple, complex strands to this lie.

The first is just the idea that it is a plan at all. Actually, it is the latest iteration of the fact that Brexiters have never had a plan. It doesn’t present any answer to the ‘trilemma’ of the incompatibility of a) hard Brexit, in the meaning of no customs union or single market membership b) a whole-UK Brexit and c) having no Irish border.

Instead, it simply ignores, or denies the existence of, this problem, as if no-deal can make it disappear. More generally, advocating no-deal Brexit is a throwing-up of hands into the air and saying Brexit is all too complicated, fantasising that by doing so the complexities dissolve. They don’t, they just re-appear the day after no deal but in more acute and urgent form.

The very existence of the trilemma arises from a previous re-writing of history, that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, which was to insist that Brexit had to mean leaving the single market and any form of customs union – in other words to render soft Brexit illegitimate. In this way, a gradual shift occurred whereby what used to be called hard Brexit was re-described as soft Brexit, and no-deal Brexit, which used to be denied as being what Brexit meant at all, was re-described as hard Brexit.

Whilst this shift has been underway for a long time, it is now being doubled-down upon in order to legitimate the new government’s attempt to normalise no deal. As that happens, the bogus nature of the claim is being more heavily scrutinised. Thus Dominic Raab’s recent insistence that he had always and repeatedly made it clear that Brexit might mean no-deal Brexit was quickly discredited (for anyone retaining a belief in facts) when a Channel 4 fact check revealed that he had done no such thing.

Indeed, to the best of my recollection, no leading figure in the leave campaign put forward no deal as being what voting leave would be likely to mean. Rather, they disparaged any such warnings from remainers.

Yet now, with quite extraordinary dishonesty, they claim that the very existence of those warnings is proof that it was an outcome people voted for. The ‘logic’, if we can grace it with that term, is that since it was warned of, but people still voted to leave, that means that they believed those warnings and decided to vote to leave anyway and in so doing endorsed the outcome.

Dishonest claims

There is a similar dishonesty in related claims, such as that because MPs voted to trigger Article 50, and because that means that if there is no deal Britain leaves without a deal, then ‘therefore’ MPs voted for no deal. But, of course, for better or for worse, they voted for it in order to begin the process of securing a deal. No deal may be a possible outcome, but so too would revoking Article 50 notification. If MPs can be said to have voted for no deal by voting for Article 50 then, by the same token, they can be said to have voted for having the subsequent option to revoke.

There is no logic to any of this except that it demonstrates the sheer desperation of the Brexiters to pretend to have the democratic mandate for no deal that they know they lack. That, of course, is also not new. The repeated use of ‘the 17.4 million’ as a sledgehammer figure - and the untrue claim that the referendum was the biggest democratic exercise in history - to disguise the wafer-thin margin of victory are obvious examples. But what they are now doing traduces those very voters, for, on the basis of Google searches of the term, no one was giving any thought to no deal in 2016.

It also yet again stamps on the faces of those who voted to remain. Whilst it has become commonplace for Brexiters to attack ‘remoaners’ for not accepting the result the reality is that by gradually pulling the interpretation of that result in an ever-more extreme direction, resistance to it has been stoked. I am almost certain that had the government quickly moved to define Brexit as soft Brexit then most of the resistance – from both sides of the debate – would have largely dissipated by now.

Whilst little in this is new, it is vital to keep saying it precisely because of the attempt to re-write history. Those doing so rely upon the rest of us becoming too exhausted by, or too inured to, their lies. If we do, then they have succeeded. Until we do, they haven’t.

The paradox of no-deal planning

In any case, the intensity of the present effort to re-write history is also, indeed primarily, in order to justify what is currently being done. So this is not some theoretical debate about the past, but an ongoing battle for the future of our country. In particular, the attempts to legitimate no-deal Brexit go hand-in-hand with the ramping up of no-deal planning.

That planning reveals one of the many paradoxes of Brexit. To the extent that it involves an honest and open portrayal of the effects of no-deal Brexit, then it demonstrates the extraordinary damage and disruption that will be caused. To the extent that it does not honestly and openly portray those effects, then it cannot function as effective planning.

This paradox, which is coming to prominence now, has again been apparent for a while. The need to invest in no-deal planning was one of the many demands Brexiters made of Theresa May. Only in that way, they argued then as they do now, would the EU be made to see that Britain was serious in being willing, and able, to leave without a deal. Yet when she gave in to that demand, they immediately denounced it as Project Fear Mark 2.

That same paradox impales them now, and it carries a real political risk: already the majority of voters do not support no deal, and they may well become very alarmed when they learn more about what is entailed by it. Moreover, for all that Brexiters may present it as a moment of national crisis, plenty of people – leavers and remainers alike – will see that, if so, it is a crisis which is entirely self-inflicted. But if the government just produce Pollyanna-ish guff about how wonderful no deal will be then they will be laughed out of court both domestically and by the EU, who are supposed to be impressed by it.

The limitations of no-deal planning

The paradox also plays out when it comes to no-deal planning. So deafening has been the Project Fear narrative that many businesses may simply ignore messages to prepare, especially when they are being told by Boris Johnson that the chances of no deal happening are a million to one against. Why bother to prepare for such an unlikely contingency, especially if you have internalised the idea that the consequences have been overblown by dastardly experts peddling remainer propaganda?

In any case, there are very significant limitations on what planning for no deal can achieve, as was set out in an excellent report from the Institute for Government this week. This is for various reasons – the lack of time, the lack of resources that smaller businesses, especially, have to devote to it, the fact that the impacts of no deal are by no means predictable. Some of the plans are simply unworkable, such as buying up unsold lamb because it turns out there is nowhere to store it. And beyond all that lies the huge irony that the UK will be largely dependent upon EU institutions, member states, and their businesses to mitigate the effects of no deal, even as it ‘takes back control’.

There are other ironies, too. The trope that remainers are ‘the elite’ is ridiculous – how can 48% be an elite? – but the demographics of the vote do suggest that many, if not most, of the people charged with implementing no-deal plans in business and the public sector will not have voted for Brexit, let alone no-deal Brexit. Brexit Ultras regard themselves, with some reason, as revolutionaries. But they are perhaps the first revolutionaries in history to expect and need those they denounce and disdain to deliver their programme.

Beyond all that there is a central flaw in the entire notion of no-deal planning, and it is a version of a flaw within most Brexiter thinking. It treats (in this case no-deal) Brexit as a one-off event to be ‘got over the line’.

The Y2K comparison

One way of approaching this is to consider the Millennium Bug, or Y2K. This featured in the past in Brexiter logic as an example of Project Fear. They frequently claimed that the fact that warnings about Y2K did not materialise ‘proved’ that any warnings about Brexit would be similarly falsified. It was a nonsense, for two reasons. First, because even if it was true, the idea that since warning X had proved false then all warnings would also prove false is absurd. Second, because, in fact, Y2K was averted by massive investment and effort.

Now, Y2K is being invoked in a different way, which recognizes the latter point and concludes that with sufficient planning the effects of no-deal Brexit can also be annulled. But that imagines 31 October 2019 to be like 31 December 1999. A single date the day after which, if preparations are made, everything continues as usual. But even with the most extensive no-deal planning that will not be true.

From November 1, businesses and other affected organizations will not just continue as they did on 31 October, they will be operating in an entirely new environment in which their costs have been increased by export tariffs, their competitive position undermined by (according to what seems to be the government’s plan) the abolition of almost all import tariffs, and their operations damaged by non-tariff barriers, the end of freedom of movement, the lapse of many trade deals with non-EU countries, the exclusion from regulatory systems, data protocols, security systems and much else besides.

Preparing for all this – unlike work on Y2K – will not, and could not, remove its consequences. Planning for the effects of being a third country to the EU does not mean that those effects will not exist. As the CBI put it this week, you’ll probably still lose the kitchen but you might save the bedroom. Great.

What now?

The endless speculation about what will happen next is understandable, but pretty much pointless. There’s really no way of assigning meaningful probabilities to a situation with so many moving parts and doing so is an attempt to impose rationality on what is no longer, if it ever was, a rational process.

Equally, it is impossible to decode what Johnson is really intending to do, what his strategy is, whether he is bluffing, or preparing a U-turn, or planning a pre-Brexit election. He may well not know himself.

On the key question of whether no-deal Brexit, if that really is or becomes Johnson’s policy, can be prevented the answer depends almost entirely on whether anti-no-deal MPs, including and especially those in the Tory Party, get their act together. As the ever-astute Brendan Donnelly, Director of the Federal Trust, has observed, they have the five weeks of the Summer parliamentary recess to do so. Otherwise, and if the cult really do push on with the current insanity, we’ll simply have to live as best we can with the damage – economic, political, and cultural – they inflict on us.

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