Friday, 7 August 2020

The Brexit screw tightens

Almost since the day of the Referendum, the Brexit process has gone round in circles with the same issues resurfacing, and the same contradictions and paradoxes recurring. That continues to be the case, but the repetitions can be misleading in two ways. One is that with each re-run some new evidence emerges to re-enforce the underlying issue or contradiction. The other is that, as the end of the transition period gets closer, each iteration of the circle makes the matter in question more urgent. In the past, I’ve used the metaphor of the Mobius strip to capture these repetitions, but perhaps a better image is that of a thread being screwed inexorably tighter.

Freeports and chemicals

This week has seen several examples. Freeports have for years been touted as a benefit of Brexit, and became government policy when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, with a consultation exercise launched last February. I discussed the issue at that time and won’t repeat that analysis here, except to say that it pointed to the very mixed evidence of their benefit, even in their ‘non-EU’ form. Last week saw another outing of the argument for their virtues but the very same day new research from the UK Trade Policy Observatory showed these to be “almost non-existent” (£). If this is to be a major component of post-transition trade and industrial policy, it is misplaced.

If freeports will not provide an economic boost, the dangers of Brexit to the economically and strategically vital chemicals industry were again laid bare (£) in the latest of a series of excellent reports by Peter Foster on the practicalities of Brexit. The industry is the UK’s second largest manufacturing sector and its trade and supply chains are massively tied to the EU. These dangers have always been incipient because of the decision to leave the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the REACH regulations it oversees, but under Theresa May there had been a plan to seek some form of Associate Membership.

That might or might not have succeeded (a House of Lords Report in 2018, which also sets out in clear detail the entire ECHA/REACH issue, was doubtful), but under Johnson’s even more hard line approach, complete regulatory independence is now the policy. This is going to be hugely costly (£1 billion, according to Foster’s report) and bureaucratically cumbersome however it is done, and the more so if no agreement is reached with the EU on accessing ECHA data – which is doubtful. In short, no one yet knows how it is going to work or whether it will be ready in time for the end of transition, and that’s less than five months away.

But the real kicker is that even if it all goes ahead, what in effect will have happened is to a very large extent a replication of the existing regulatory regime with the sole ‘advantage’ of it being badged British. Indeed, it’s an example of one of the many things that the UK’s budget contribution was paying for, though not included in the crude accounting that dominated the Referendum campaign. Its replication is also an example of how, in practice, Brexit Britain will be pulled by the gravitational force of EU regulation because REACH is also, increasingly, a global standard.

This is the purely theoretical ‘sovereignty’ which is being regained; the costs to businesses, trade and jobs, which are real, are the price. It is a paradigm case of what Brexit is going to mean in practice, as has been clear since August 2017 – back when all we knew about Brexit was that it meant Brexit – when the provisions of the (then) Data Protection Bill were outlined.

Round-up of other news

We have also seen updates on the objections of Kent residents to the new Brexit lorry parks plus the news that Operation Brock is to be revived for the end of the transition (as for Holyhead, goodness knows how its problems will be dealt with), new warnings of food shortages in Northern Ireland because of the Irish Sea border, new warnings of an ‘environmental governance gap’ at the end of the transition,  the revival of government plans for stockpiling medicines in preparation for possible disruptions, a new CBI survey showing business concern about, and lack of preparedness for, the end of the transition period, and the latest culture war volley in the elevation of prominent Brexiters to the House of Lords (forgotten, now, is the Brexiters’ insistence that it is crucial that our laws be made by those the people can vote out of office). As with the list of some of last week’s developments in last week’s post, the sheer diversity of complex problems is striking.

As for the latest good news about Brexit, that’s easily dealt with: there is none. Some might propose that the imminent UK trade deal with Japan is an exception but, although we don’t yet know the detail, it isn’t likely to be significantly different (£) to the EU-Japan deal the UK is currently part of. It’s certainly true that not doing such a deal would have been damaging, but that just means that this story is ‘not bad news’ rather than being ‘good news’ - despite the jubilance of the Brexit press, of which we will have more when the agreement is signed (and, note, this deal is, at Japanese insistence, a speedy re-negotiation rather than a roll over, to which Japan would not agree). It is also possible, as mentioned in a recent post, that if and when the UK and the EU reach a trade agreement then a further, more extensive, deal with Japan might follow.

Similarly, are we really meant to welcome today’s news that up to £355 million is to be spent to support new systems and processes for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? That may be helpful to Northern Ireland’s businesses – though there are many questions as to how, whether and when it will work – and if it was offsetting the damage of a natural disaster might in that sense be welcome. But Brexit is self-inflicted, and all along it was denied that this, or any, damage would occur.

So if good news means something unequivocally good that is happening as a result of Brexit, and which wouldn’t have happened without Brexit then we are still waiting for it.

The significance of Iain Duncan Smith

In the face of this, it might be expected, in any rational polity, that those who have championed Brexit and its unalloyed advantages would now be starting to express some alarm about – perhaps even some contrition for – what they have foisted on us. And in a way they are – but it is a way that is neither rational, nor moral, nor honest. Witness how this week we have seen veteran arch-Brexiter Iain Duncan Smith bemoaning the financial commitments signed up to in the Withdrawal Agreement (WA).

It’s a story with multiple layers of absurdity and disingenuity. He complains that “in the fine print, unnoticed by many” of the WA is a £160 billion bill for EU loans. But this is the WA which was Johnson’s great ‘oven ready deal’ that was presented to the voters at the 2019 Election and which, afterwards, Duncan Smith enthusiastically voted for in the House of Commons. That vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill was rushed through, but did he then join the calls for more scrutiny of “the fine print”? No. On the contrary he said “if there is anything about this arrangement that we have not now debated and thrashed to death, I would love to know what it is”.

So he fully supported it, but apparently didn’t understand its implications which it was his job to scrutinise and to which he now objects, and argued against further scrutiny. But – the final ridiculous twist – the £160 billion story isn’t really true anyway (it is based on the effectively zero possibility of every loan made by the European Investment Bank being defaulted on simultaneously).

It’s easy – almost obligatory - to mock this depressing farrago of stupidity and lies, but to do so misses its deeper significance, which is two-fold.

First, it is the latest salvo in the Brexit Ultras’ attempt to disown the entirety of the WA. In a post immediately after the 2019 election I flagged up the likelihood that they would do this, and have since recorded how it is becoming a growing, concerted campaign, which carries profound dangers of international pariahdom. It will intensify through this autumn, and reach a crescendo if there is no trade deal.

Second, and more broadly, it is the latest indication of the truly tragic fate that Brexiters have inflicted on Britain, whereby they insist that Brexit must be done or else the will of the people is betrayed, but also insist that any actual way that Brexit is done is a betrayal of the will of the people. It is a paradox from which there is no escape, and which dooms us to years, probably decades, of culture war.

Culture war ‘refugees’

One effect of that culture war is to produce ‘refugees’. Again, it’s been obvious from the beginning that Britain would suffer an exodus of people alienated by Brexit. Most obviously that means EU nationals in the UK who both for reasons of practical uncertainty and cultural affront no longer wish to be here. It also means UK nationals, and again for both economic and cultural reasons – those who see Britain headed for economic danger but who also feel politically exiled by Brexit.

Inevitably, those most likely to leave are those with the skills to do so easily. Anecdotally, including from my own experience, this has been underway since 2016 but this week saw the first hard evidence of a brain drain as regards UK nationals moving to the EU (though it is still partial, and it will be a while before we know the full effect, which will also be on emigration to non-EU countries; it can be expected that rates of UK emigration to the EU are now peaking, as after transition freedom of movement and associated rights will cease).

That this is a ‘brain drain’ – a term we have only rarely heard in the UK since the 1970s though in June 2017 I warned it was in prospect – is significant because it indicates that this is another economic cost of Brexit. But it also reflects some crucial issues in the underlying demographics of the Brexit vote in which both post-compulsory education and being economically active associated with voting remain, whilst the converse was true for leave voters.

The consequence of this has become the new ‘unsayable’ in the political correctness of Brexit. It means that those who actually have to deal with the practical consequences of Brexit do not greatly overlap with those who chose it. That can’t be a condescending comment to make, since Brexiters themselves constantly say that the remainers are the elite. And what does an elite do, other than run things? Of course, they aren’t for the most part plutocrats, tycoons or even big business leaders (all of whom, by definition, aren’t very numerous). Rather, they are the private and public sector managers, the professionals, scientists, entrepreneurs, academics, game designers, tech workers, musicians and so on.

In the main they aren’t high born – most probably have working-class parents, many may even consider themselves to be working-class – nor are they necessarily very well-paid. What Brexit has done is to spit in their faces. Not so much because of the Referendum result but because of the ‘winner takes all’ refusal to enact a compromise form to reflect the narrow result. And more than anything because of the constant insults since the vote. They are now open game for every taunt. They have been told every day for four years that they are metropolitan elitists, in the pay of the EU, exploiters of Bulgarian nannies or Polish plumbers, cry-babies, saboteurs, traitors, and enemies of the people. And, constantly, they are told that if they ‘love the EU so much’ then they should go and live there. So it’s not particularly surprising that they are doing just that if they can (or, as seems to be happening with the Civil Service, resigning rather than be used as “political punchbags”).

The culture war on the middle class

It used to be a cliché that any History exam paper answer on any period about any country could gain marks by reference to ‘the rising middle class’. Brexit has in effect declared culture war on Britain’s middle-class – or at least the most productive, active parts of it. It’s that which is leading skilled people to leave or to withdraw from public life. Yet at the same time it is they who are charged with actually dealing with Brexit since, of course, most of them are not in a position to emigrate or resign.

For it is not the archetypal Brexit-voting coastal town pensioner who thinks that immigration has gone too far, is fed up with being told what to do by Brussels and just wants his country back who has to manage social care provision for his peers. It’s his, again archetypal, remain-voting grand-daughter with a social science degree who works in local government, is desperate as she can no longer recruit EU workers, has had her hopes of further study in the Netherlands dashed and her relationship with her Dutch boyfriend jeopardised. The horrible achievement of the Brexiters has been to configure the grandfather as an ‘ordinary, decent person’ who has ‘taken revenge on his remoaner elitist’ grand-daughter.

By setting up that bogus – but vicious - cultural conflict, Brexiters have potentially set in train something much more dangerous. It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that we’re at the start of an unemployment bloodbath with, daily, new redundancy announcements because of Covid-19 and it’s going to be exacerbated by Brexit, especially when the transition period ends. Traditionally, the socially liberal middle classes were happy – or, if not happy, felt a moral obligation – to support through taxes the unemployed, as a kind of implicit social contract.

A broken social contract?

I’m not sure that will be so true anymore for those who, whilst not able to join the brain drain, now feel like exiles in their own country. Whenever some adverse effect of Brexit is reported social media posts immediately focus on who voted for it – so, for example, the current stories about Kent lorry parks, in a county where the majority voted for Brexit, are not viewed sympathetically. Stories about the concerns of people in Sunderland or Cornwall about the effects of Brexit get similar treatment. The response is invariably to point out, often gleefully, that a majority in those areas voted for Brexit so they must accept the consequences.

I don’t defend those sentiments: leave voters were misled, and worse, by the Referendum campaign and years of media poison and, anyway, the adverse effects of Brexit are not going to smartly target leave voters but spare remainers. Moreover, whilst remainers certainly have no obligation to ‘get behind Brexit’, they need not make their own contribution to prolonging the culture war. And, in any case, it would be a cruelly moralistic world if we all got punished for every mistake we made. But, defensible or not, those responses are real and can be read every day.

Perhaps they are not widely shared, and represent only a vocal sliver of remainer opinion. But if these sentiments are more extensively held, as I suspect they are, this means that the economically inactive and low-skill demographic and the ‘left behind’ regions that voted for Brexit will no longer be seen by the liberal middle class as deserving of support. It will be said that they have got what they voted for, and will have to live with it.

That, after all, is the logical consequence of the Brexiters’ ‘elitist’ narrative: they chose to say that leave voters were ‘the people’ and remain voters weren’t. They infected Britain with this culture war as a tactic to win the Referendum. So, harsh as such remainer ‘vengefulness’ may be, it does grow from soil cultivated by leading Brexiters. For that matter, the first part of my critique, above, of this vengefulness is what Brexiters insist to be the elitist condescension of denying that leavers knew what they were voting for.

Yet as I said in a tweet which – by my modest standards – went viral this week, the proposition that voters in 2016, when Brexit had no detailed or settled definition, knew exactly what they were voting for hardly sits easily with Duncan Smith’s claim that, equipped with the detailed Withdrawal Agreement in 2019, he didn’t understand what he was voting for.

Friday, 31 July 2020

The long, slow grind continues

It’s about six weeks since Boris Johnson said there was no reason why the outline of a Brexit deal couldn’t be sealed by the end of July, as he put a “tiger in the tank” of the talks. As we reach that date there is no such outline in sight (unless, of course, you count the Political Declaration he signed, which was supposed to be just that).

It’s true that Reuters reported some slightly optimistic noises from Michel Barnier, and there were some very slight indications of progress this week. Against that, the Financial Times has reported (£) that Dominic Cummings favours a very light touch approach to UK state aid regulations post-transition. If so, that would make the prospect of a trade deal very remote, as it goes to the heart of the EU’s longstanding concerns about a level playing field. It would mean, in effect, that there would be no guarantees that, in the future, the UK wouldn’t use state aid to create unfair competition with EU companies (for a detailed overview of the issues of state aid and Brexit, see this 2019 IPPR Report).

If Cummings gets his way (others, especially the Treasury, take a different view) it seems a strange hill for a Tory government to see a trade deal die on. Escaping EU state aid rules was more a feature of the Lexiter case for Brexit (and, in passing, one based on misunderstandings of those rules). But if the report is correct it can be explained in two ways. One is just that it’s the latest outing for the purist sovereignty-at-any-price dogma. The second is that it shows how far the current Tory party is moving from traditional free market ideology, both in terms of potentially supporting uncompetitive industries and in facilitating cronyism in the award of public service contracts.

In this way, a lax state aid regime can be seen as reflecting two, related, longstanding contradictions within Brexit. On the one hand, it shows the contradiction (£) between Brexit as a nationalist, protectionist project and as promoting a globalist, free trade agenda. On the other hand, whilst it is already being talked about by Brexiters in populist terms of protecting British companies and jobs, its actual use might be to enable elite decision makers to give state hand-outs to their chums. Some have suggested that this might have a particular appeal to Cummings.

As well as showing some Brexit contradictions, the state aid issue also reveals some ironies. One is that it is by no means clear what this new ‘British system’ would be, how it would relate to or differ from WTO anti-subsidy rules, and how it would operate given existing state aid commitments signed up to by the government in the Northern Ireland Protocol (I don’t pretend to understand these exceedingly complex issues but they are addressed in a Twitter thread from George Peretz QC – a leading legal expert in this area, commenting on the FT report mentioned above – who most certainly does). The other is that, despite the fact that a light touch system would be anathema to the EU, some Brexiters are actually suggesting that it would be a betrayal of Brexit and would be compromising with Brussels (this, in turn, reflects the way that any actually existing Brexit is seen by some as a ‘betrayal of Brexit’).

Over-promising and under-delivering

The fact that Johnson’s ‘tiger in the tank’ turned out to be a damp squib shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, in December 2016, when Foreign Secretary, he declared that 18 months would be “absolutely ample” to complete a deal with the EU. This inane boosterism is obviously partly just a matter of his general approach to politics – as has been abundantly evident in his handling of coronavirus – but it also falls into the standard Brexiter repertoire of over-promising and under-delivering. All the now infamous quotes about ‘holding all the cards’ and ‘the easiest deal in history’ are testament to that.

Increasingly, such talk seems like the way that in 1914 what became the Great War was expected to ‘all be over by Christmas’. For although the Brexiters continue to hand out metaphorical white feathers to the supposedly spineless and unpatriotic, what we now see is the long, slow grinding attrition of Brexit reality.

It’s impossible to keep up with all of it, but just this week there has been further detail on the multiple lorry sites to be built in Kent, on the lack of customs preparedness (£), on the extra costs Brexit is causing the Home Office, on the lack of preparedness for the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, on the impact on bank relocations, on the problem of how to manage the Eurotunnel, on the consequences for Gibraltar, on the uncertainty over how Rules of Origin for UK-EU trade will work, and on the impact of Brexit on biodiversity. Meanwhile, a new study from the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance shows the double shock that businesses are going experience when the effects of ending the transition period are overlaid on those of coronavirus, with the sectors relatively unaffected by the virus worst hit by Brexit.

Just from this short list of some of the most recent reports can be seen the enormous range of problems and damage that Brexit is throwing up. It is, to continue the Great War analogy, like reading the daily casualty lists. And just as it seems incredible, now, that there was not more public outcry as those casualties mounted so, too, is it incredible that there is apparently still so little public concern about what Brexit is doing to this country.

Of course coronavirus is a big reason for that since, understandably, it has first call on media time and people’s attention. Another is that the actual impact of many of these things has yet to be felt by the public.  A third is the Labour Party’s decision to remain almost entirely silent about Brexit. That is tactically understandable both because of coronavirus and also because revisiting the Brexit battles would be a gift to the Conservatives. At the same time, it is concerning that it is such a taboo topic. The things just mentioned – and many others – are happening and will continue to happen, and will affect almost every aspect of people’s lives after the end of the transition. To say that is not, in fact, to revisit the Brexit battles but to recognize that we are now on a new terrain, that of Brexit effects.

Public unconcern

The apparent lack of widespread public concern about what is happening, and what is in prospect, may reflect part of the political scientist Professor Matthew Goodwin’s explanation of the continuing popularity of Boris Johnson. In an essay this week in UnHerd, Goodwin suggests that Johnson’s appeal to voters lies in his positivity and forward-looking focus on national renewal and pride, and for this reason “they are generally willing to give him a free pass when he fumbles” on technocratic delivery. They are not “standing behind him because of what Michael Oakeshott called the politics of pragmatism – they do not see the world as the declinists see it, as merely an exercise in performance management”.

Johnson’s positivity contrasts with those Goodwin calls the ‘declinists’ who see Brexit, in particular, as damaging to the international standing and economic well-being of Britain. These “highly-educated” declinists are “Left-wing or liberal”, “gloomy”, “condescending”, often “narcissistic”, “vicious” and associated with “technocracy” and the “elite-driven Remain campaign” (Goodwin is a scholar of populist politics, but it is hard to resist the impression that he has come somewhat to identify with the object of his studies). Their writings, he says, are to be found in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Financial Times (and I venture to suggest that this lowly blog could be seen as a very minor example).

Goodwin is clearly right that Johnson appeals to a political constituency that spans “traditional ‘true-blue’ Tories and instinctively socially conservative blue-collar workers”, and in which patriotism and national identity play a key role, in the way that Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s. But it’s over 40 years since Thatcher’s first electoral victory and what is missing in the comparison is the new distinction between truth-based and post-truth politics. It’s the latter which, distinctively, Johnson embodies – in a way that, irrespective of one’s views of her, could never have been said of Thatcher - and, whilst there can be no doubting its appeal to many voters it’s a major error to ignore its nature and its limits.

For the case against Brexit isn’t declinist so much as it is evidence-based, and it is that which marks it out from all the empty promises and false predictions of Brexiters. That isn’t to say that the evidence speaks for itself – there are always different interpretations, as well as selections, of evidence – but that it is within the terrain of evidential debate and analysis that the anti-Brexit case is made. The opposite to this is not, as Goodwin (again drawing on the Conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott) has it, the “politics of faith”. It’s the politics of post-truth.

Brexit and post-truth politics

It’s important to understand that post-truth politics is not – or not simply – about lies which, after all, have long been part of politics. Rather, it is about blurring the distinction between truth and lies altogether, and positing that, at best, there are alternative truths. That then takes on a particular twist within populism, with the suggestion that, amongst those alternative truths, there are some which have the special status of being ‘the people’s truth’.

That is obvious in the way that Brexiters routinely wheel out claims – about WTO terms, the interests of German car makers, technological solutions for the Irish border, GATT Article XXIV etc – which don’t have a sound evidence base but which can appear plausible. It’s on view every time they extol the benefits of an ‘independent trade policy’. For the most part, then, they sound as if they are offering a ‘politics of pragmatism’ and, even, a ‘technocratic’ programme. It’s certainly the case that there is a faith-based element of Brexit – that true belief is needed to make it work – and that has had a very important impact on politics and the civil service. However, Brexiters don’t appeal simply, or even primarily, to faith but to alternative, sometimes partial, truths, the repetition of which serves to suggest that the claims propounded by remainers are just an artefact of their elitism.

Goodwin himself says pretty much the same thing in his suggestion that declinists “seldom remain in the world of objective reality … [and] … are neither able to see the world in a balanced way nor in a way that most ordinary voters see it”. The key word here, undoubtedly, is “ordinary”, with its suggestion that these voters – despite being, even on Johnson’s polling, a minority - are the ‘real people’, with a more balanced, more objective or perhaps in some way more authentic view than that of the remainer or declinist elites. That they are ‘ordinary’ makes them, paradoxically, ‘special’.

The same logic was evident in Michael Gove’s now infamous line about people having had enough of experts, which is often quoted but rarely in its full context. He made the remark when confronted with a whole list of organizations which had counselled against Brexit, but then went on to say that instead of relying on these experts he “had faith in the British people to make the right decision”. The experts, he suggested, gave their warnings because they were “people who had done very well thank you out of the EU”, thus, implicitly, tainting ‘their’ truth as that of the elite rather than of the people.

The point is that the invocation of the politics of faith only starts when the attempts to couch the argument in terms of the politics of pragmatism fail. Indeed, Brexiters are delighted to cite experts approvingly – Professor Patrick Minford or Shanker Singham, for example – when they make the case for Brexit. It is only when confronted with the vast bulk of expert opinion to the contrary that expertise is derided.

Yet, accepting that there are always differences of interpretation, truth does have its own validity and each and every truth claim made by Brexiters is gradually being demolished. Eighteen months was not “absolutely ample” to do a deal, German car makers didn’t have the influence it was claimed they would, trade deals haven’t all been rolled over, the European Medical Agency and European Banking Authority didn’t stay in the UK (£), Turkey isn’t joining the EU, GATT Article XXIV doesn’t have the meaning they claimed it did, the Irish border isn’t unaffected by Brexit, and the technological solutions to it do not, at least as yet, exist. In fact, I can’t think of a single claim made by the Brexiters that has so far proved true. Again, it’s only at this point, when the limitations of post-truth politics become unavoidable, that Brexit becomes cast as the ‘politics of faith’.

The dangers of populism

The dangers of this are obvious, for they are the dangers of, precisely, populism. As soon as politics invokes ‘the people’ as a unitary, undifferentiated entity it immediately stigmatises those who disagree as not being of the people – and at the extreme as not being people at all. Even the more benign sounding term ‘ordinary voters’ carries the implication that those they are differentiated from are in some way less real, authentic or normal, voters.

These dangers become particularly acute – and the categories particularly untenable – in the context of a highly divided population. For what can it really mean in relation to Brexit, or to Johnson’s support more generally, to take a population split more or less 50/50 and describe only one group as ‘ordinary’ or as ‘the people’? Indeed, much of the damage of Brexit has been to take a very close result as mandating the least consensual or compromising form of Brexit to be enacted as ‘the will of the people’.

This quasi-mythological invocation of ‘the people’ contributes to forgetting that Brexit was sold to voters not on a faith prospectus but on the basis of post-truth claims that purported to be a pragmatic programme. This is very much the point I made in last week’s post, about how it is only since that it has been claimed that ‘it was never about the money’. Without reprising that argument, consider just the Gove ‘experts’ interview linked to above. There he also makes the explicitly economic case that EU membership meant that British people suffered “lower wages” and had their “access to public services restricted” with the implication that, after leaving the EU, these things would improve.

So how will leave voters react as these and all the other claims become falsified? They may well, for the reasons Goodwin suggests, continue to support Johnson and, for that matter, Brexit on the basis of faith. I’m not so sure of that for two reasons. One is just the general observation that as unemployment rises government voter support tends to fall. The other is the particular nature of Brexit in that, however it is delivered, some or many leavers will regard it as a betrayal. Indeed, if Keir Starmer is smart then he will be able to make much of Johnson having ‘bungled’ Brexit.

However, if voters don’t blame Johnson then who will they blame? As can already be seen, it will be the declinists or, as they are more usually called, the remainer saboteurs – those who are not ‘the people’ - as if they, rather than the Brexiters, were responsible for the promises made but not fulfilled. At that point, politics will turn very ugly indeed.

Or an anti-climax?

But there is another, less alarming but in its own way depressing, scenario, which increasingly seems to me to be quite likely. It’s that a minimal kind of deal is done that at least avoids the most immediate, calamitous effects at the end of transition. The other adverse effects will come in a slow, undramatic way and attract relatively little attention. The economic, cultural and geo-political impoverishment will be locked in but also normalised. Bits and pieces of the relationship will get patched and fudged over the coming years - possibly for the better, possibly not.

If so, the whole Brexit saga will fizzle out with an anticlimactic series of whimpers rather than a bang, leaving both remainers and leavers feeling disgruntled, irritated and cheated. Perhaps that would be appropriate to the long, slow, grinding attrition it has turned into. Whether envisaging such a scenario should be seen as optimistic or pessimistic I am not sure.

Friday, 24 July 2020

A 'new start' built on old lies

The ‘Let’s Get Going’ government information campaign, which was just starting when I wrote last week’s post, is now all but unavoidable. This is the ‘shock and awe’ approach which the government rather tastelessly promised. Presumably they meant that the public would be bombarded by a stunning campaign, though the main shock is how vapid the message is whilst the awe comes from considering that someone thought it remotely adequate to the situation we are in.

For it consists of a range of empty slogans about ‘independence’ and ‘the opportunities ahead’ for a ‘sovereign nation’ tagged to vague messages about preparing for this ‘new start’. It is only if you follow this up by looking at the government’s website that it becomes clear that, without a single exception, people and businesses need to prepare for something which will be worse, more cumbersome, more expensive, or more limiting than now. And even then it raises as many questions as it answers about what you actually have to do about this.

The Project Fear conundrum

The nature of these adverts is not accidental. It arises from two things. Firstly, it is the latest example of how this government and its Vote Leave advisory team remain firmly stuck in the mode of campaigning rather than governing. That isn’t a bug of this Brexit government, it’s a feature of the Brexit cause as has been evident since the Referendum. It’s always about the claim, never about the delivery; about the slogans but not the substance; about the sales, not the after-service; the surgery not the post-operative care.

Secondly, and not unrelated, it grows from the hook that Brexiters have impaled themselves upon through their highly successful dismissal of warnings about Brexit as ‘Project Fear’. It’s worth recalling that throughout May’s premiership the Brexit Ultras berated her for not making the ‘no deal’ preparations’ which would have ‘shown the EU she was serious’ about walking away without a deal if the UK’s terms were not met. But when details of Operation Yellowhammer, which was precisely about those preparations, were leaked they were immediately denounced by those who had demanded them as – of course – Project Fear and even “Project Fear on steroids”. As this leak came right at the start of Johnson’s premiership it led him into the ludicrous contortion whereby he sought to “rip apart Project Fear scaremongering with a massive no deal publicity blitz”.

The fundamental conundrum, obviously, is that the only way of showing serious preparedness for no deal is to also admit the massive dislocations that it would cause and, therefore, the reasons why it would be a terrible course of action. That continues to apply now, but with a new twist, which is that many of these dislocations also have to be admitted in order to prepare for any deal which may be done. Even in this best case scenario there’s simply no good news – just as the Brexiters were warned all along – so the only way to square the circle is to foreground all the guff about sovereignty and leave it for the still largely unsuspecting public to grub around for the details of just how much more difficult their lives are about to become.

But ‘it was never about money’?

Of course, to call it “guff around sovereignty” is, for Brexiters, to fail to understand what Brexit is all about. But that is one of the lies that has grown over time. The issue isn’t so much that they are wrong about sovereignty – though, in brief, they are, both in the sense of thinking it was lost as a member of the EU and that it can be found, in the sense they mean it, outside the EU – which is arguably as much a matter of misunderstanding as dishonesty. It’s that Brexit wasn’t sold to leave voters on that basis.

If it had been, the whole Project Fear dismissal would have been unnecessary. The message would simply have been – yes, there are costs but they are worth it as a price to pay for sovereignty. But such a message would never have won them the Referendum. Instead, the claim had to be that, yes, sovereignty would be regained (hence, ‘taking back control’) but that it would be costless or, even, financially advantageous (hence, ‘£350 Million a week’). It’s only since winning that the ‘but it was never about money’ line has been spun – a line which would only have worked with a minority of voters had it been attempted at the time.

Prepared or not, things are going to get worse

So the ‘New Start’ campaign has to be understood as the lineal descendent of Vote Leave campaign. What it conceals is the massive unpreparedness of both businesses and government – worsened by coronavirus – as outlined in an Institute for Government report this week. Almost daily new problems emerge or re-emerge, this week ranging from the shortage of wooden pallets of the sort needed by non-members of the EU to ship goods (much less trivial than it sounds) through to what will happen to the entire ‘CE’ product labelling scheme required to sell a wide range of goods in the EU (£) (even more serious than it sounds). These were both things that have been long-warned about (see here for pallets and here for CE labelling) yet no, or insufficient, preparations have been made.

But even if all the necessary preparations had been or come to be made for this ‘new start’ what they would be preparation for is invariably something unpleasant. It is to be hoped that the sense of sovereignty will be satisfying, because according to the government website every practical impact of Brexit is going to be negative. There is not one single thing listed which will make anyone’s life easier or better.

It’s not clear how, or how soon, the public are going to become fully aware of this, and to some degree this will indeed depend on the extent of preparedness. For example, the impacts on crucial things like food and medicine supplies will be affected by whether new customs facilities and procedures are ready in time. They will also, of course, be affected by whether or not there is a trade deal in place (on which the noises this week range from ominous to cautiously optimistic but as I’ve remarked before there’s no point listening to them – the crunch point will come in autumn). But other things – such as the impact on those buying and selling on platforms like Amazon, or on those taking a holiday in the EU next year – are simply going to have to be dealt with by individuals regardless of whether there is a trade deal and regardless of institutional preparedness. Lots of things which used to be very easy are going to be become, if only in some cases slightly, more difficult.

Given its vapid sloganizing, most people won’t become aware of these things by virtue of the government information campaign, but only as and when they do something that they’ve previously taken for granted, like booking a holiday. I suspect that, even now, there will be people planning to do something more major like, say, buying a holiday flat in an EU country – and, no, such plans are no longer the sole preserve of the elite – who will be surprised next year to find that it is no longer as easy as they had expected. These and all the other surprises are also in large part attributable to the success of the ‘Project Fear’ rebuttal – it has become so ingrained that it is small wonder that many people are not expecting any great changes to ensue.

How will the public react?

Politically, much will depend on how people react to these discoveries. If there are long lorry queues at the ports, or significant shortages of drugs and foods that would be likely to cause a considerable backlash and, whatever some Brexiters may think, would not easily be ascribed to coronavirus. They would clearly be an outcome of Brexit, although undoubtedly attempts would be made, as is already happening, to put the blame upon “EU red tape” or, as discussed in my post last week, on Brexit not having been ‘done properly’. The latter would no doubt be ascribed, as per the emerging narrative from all quarters, to remainers for their ‘sabotage’ or alternatively their ‘refusal to compromise’.

More minor inconveniences may be shrugged off as ‘just one of those things’, although likely to feed the resentment of remain voters at what has been inflicted upon them. And of course, as has already happened, foregone GDP growth will not really register at all and it’s probably true that the continuation of that loss will get concealed by the effects of coronavirus. Few will recall that the UK was already close to recession. Brexit will just gradually make us poorer, make public squalor gradually more squalid, public services gradually more crummy, jobs and investment gradually leech away. And in the same way the opportunities lost – the overseas studies people would have done, the marriages people would have made – won’t directly be experienced as losses. No one lives in the counterfactual.

In fact, so much of what Brexit is bringing is scarcely on the public radar at all. Few will have noticed this week the defeat of an amendment to the Trade Bill, which would have allowed for MPs to vote on any future trade deals the government does (full details are explained by Dr Brigid Fowler of the Hansard Society here). Amongst other things this would have allowed oversight of impacts on food safety, NHS, the environment and animal welfare. This was supposed to be one of the benefits of the UK’s new independence from EU trade policy – the public, via their representatives, would ‘take back control’ of the impact of trade agreements. Yet arch-Brexiter John Redwood this week tweeted that as an EU member Parliament had had no say in trade deals – misleadingly, in that this was only so by the UK’s choice and other member states' parliaments do hold a vote – and, apparently on this basis, voted along with other Brexiters against the amendment.

The convolutions of this logic are dizzying. Brexit must happen so that the UK parliament can take back control from the EU of something over which it did in fact have control but had foregone the right to exercise, but since it had done so then now it has taken back control that foregone right should continue to be denied parliament because it would have no fewer rights than if Brexit hadn’t happened in the first place. That sentence really needs to be read in a ‘Sir Humphrey Appleby’ voice to get its full effect. But, as with all the other issues, this one will only intrude on public consciousness if and when the government do trade deals with contentious or unpopular provisions on, say, food standards or healthcare. By then, it will be too late.

There will never be a reckoning …

It’s tempting to think that there will one day be a reckoning. That the lies told will be exposed to all for what they are, and those who told them held accountable. That the lives blighted will be recompensed and restitution made. That some court – if not legal then moral – will name the guilty and punish them.

It’s tempting to think that, but it won’t happen. On the contrary, some of the most guilty are being amply rewarded, with Vote Leave’s Chair Gisela Stuart receiving a peerage being the most recent example. And I doubt that is just a temporary consequence of what the Conservative commentator Matthew Parris calls this shameless government (£). Rather, that government is itself the latest point in the unfolding erosion of standards in public life, as described this week by the Conservative journalist Peter Oborne. Reversing that is the ‘new start’ we need, but it’s not in prospect.

Certainly those who hoped that the long-delayed ‘Russia Report’ would settle anything will have been disappointed. For what it revealed was that the intelligence services have barely investigated whether there was Russian interference in the Referendum, apparently because it was considered too politically sensitive even to ask the question. The report calls for such an investigation, to see what evidence there is of Russian interference but the government has already rejected this on the grounds – once again, we’re in Yes Minister territory but without the laughs – that there is no need for an investigation because there is no evidence of Russian interference! So we still don’t know and may never know the truth about this, and it neither justified the #RussiaBoughtBrexit hashtag that has been circulating since nor provided the exoneration that Nigel Farage and other Brexiters claimed.

As it happens, I’ve never regarded this as a very central issue – partly precisely because we have no way of knowing, but mainly because I doubt that any such interference would have been a decisive factor. Like it or not, it has to be recognized that very large numbers of British people, for a wide variety of reasons, voted to leave. In particular, any ‘Russia effect’ was surely small compared with the tidal wave of anti-immigration (and anti-EU) sentiment in the British media over many years. Brexit was to a very large extent Made in England, and focusing solely on what Russia may or may not have done – and what effects that may or may not have had - has never struck me as very profitable. We’d do better to consider the beam in Fleet Street’s eye before beholding the mote in the Kremlin’s.

What does matter is that whether or not it interfered, Putin’s Russia most definitely benefits from Brexit because of the damage it has done both the UK and the EU. It’s that which should (but won’t) give the Brexit ‘patriots’ pause for thought.

…. but there is a legacy

Yet for all that there may never be a formal reckoning, there is a legacy, and an important one. The way that they conducted themselves both during and since the Referendum campaign means that Brexiters have permanently denied themselves the possibility of being seen to have won ‘fair and square’. That lack of legitimacy will live on for years in the minds of a substantial chunk of the population and, almost certainly, in perpetuity in the history books.

On Russian interference, the very lack of an investigation means that the suspicion will always remain, as it does over the murky issues of campaign funding and data use. More importantly, all of the lies told to win mean that the winning will forever be tainted. Perhaps at the time they thought it didn’t matter, as they never expected to win anyway. But now, for all (or as shown by) the taunts that remainer ‘snowflakes’ should ‘get over it’, there will be at least some Brexiters who know that their great prize was tarnished by the way it was gained. That can be seen in the now almost daily articles in which they explain why they were ‘right all along’ (£) in desperate search of an affirmation which they know the Referendum result didn’t supply and which a large part of the population will never provide.

So like drug-cheat cyclists or athletes, try as they might, every time they see the yellow jersey or the gold medal they know it does not truly belong to them. It’s a private torment, for it can never be admitted, and an unassuageable one, for there can be no ‘new start’ to make it go away. As much as there will be no punishment meted out to them, there will be no absolution imparted either.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Brexit gets more real, Brexiters get more unrealistic

This week, the practical realities of what Brexit is going to mean came into central focus for perhaps the first time, with a new government information campaign. Although there have been earlier exercises in ‘no deal’ preparation – when that meant no Withdrawal Agreement – now the public are being told what ending the transition period that followed the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) will mean.

The Border Operating Model

Much of this will apply whether that period ends with a trade deal or not (i.e. ‘no deal 2.0’). Given that, one might ask why it is only now, with less than six months to go, that these preparations are being communicated and in some cases being developed. For example, the £705 million border investment just announced was going to be needed anyway, as was the huge lorry park in Kent for which land has only just been purchased (it will be one of over ten similar sites). Moreover, despite Boris Johnson’s bluster and lies, it has been known for months that new processes, which were announced this week with the Border Operating Model, were going to be needed not just for UK-EU trade but for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland yet the facilities for this are only now beginning to be developed.

After all, it has been UK policy to leave both the customs union and the single market since January 2017. To have left matters so late is not just incompetence but, very likely, reflects the refusal to understand or accept that the result of that policy was necessarily going to entail increased border friction. That is politically significant because, recalling the circumstances of 2017-2019, it is at least conceivable that had the government admitted this, rather than pretending that a “frictionless” trade deal was possible, the closely-fought battle over a second referendum would have gone the other way.

Not only is it very late in the day, with significant doubts as to whether either the government IT systems or businesses will be ready in time, but also the new Border Operating Model is still very far from providing all the information that businesses will need in order to comply. For small trading businesses, in particular, this is an impossible situation in itself. Worse, as the full complexity and costs (£) become known some, at least, will simply cease to be viable, especially coming during the ongoing pandemic crisis. For those, large and small, that do continue these new costs will have to be absorbed in some way or passed on to customers.

The cost of customs

These costs – just as regards customs declarations, before any other costs are considered – will amount to £7 billion a year (£) to UK businesses trading with the EU, rising to £13 billion (£) when EU businesses trading with the UK are included. It’s worth reflecting on these figures. They compare to the approximately £9 billion net contribution the UK made to the EU in 2018. It’s not a one-off, but a recurring annual cost. And, to repeat, it exists whether or not there is a trade deal – it is nothing to do with any tariffs that may be levied or any other trade barriers that may arise.

The slogan for the information campaign is ‘Let’s Get Going’, which some businesses might reasonably take as a suggestion to relocate abroad while there’s still time. Individuals might take it as cue to go on holiday but if so they, too, need to be quick as they are now having it spelled out in more detail what Brexit will mean for them when they travel to the EU in terms of new border controls, health insurance, and pet passports.

For those who have been paying attention, none of this will be a shock – although seeing the practical details of what it means may still be a surprise. For others, it may be puzzling. For they were told before the Referendum and ever since that such Brexit effects were just Project Fear, then that Brexit had been done on 31 January with no obvious changes, and throughout that a deal would be negotiated which – although the ‘exact same terms’ lie has been long ago dropped – by implication would mean things pretty much carrying on as normal.

In fact, many of the things that remainers have long warned about are set to happen. Perhaps this is why the government resolutely refuse to describe them as being about Brexit (£) but, instead, as “the UK’s new start”, a new start which is said to bring ‘exciting opportunities’. What these are has not been specified and there is a reason for that, too: there are no exciting opportunities. It’s simply a self-inflicted change for the worse. A new start, perhaps, but the start of new barriers to trade and travel, new costs, new regulations and new bureaucracy resulting from leaving both the single market and the customs union. To coin a phrase, “only a madman would actually leave the market”. Britain is that madman.

What new madness is this?

The speaker of those words was, of course, Owen Paterson MP (whose explanation of the ‘madman’ comment is here; apparently ‘leaving the market’ and ‘leaving the single market’ are different things, so now you know) who has cropped up again this week, being listed as one of the contributing authors of a new report by the Centre for Brexit Policy (of which he is also the Chairman). Entitled ‘Replacing the Withdrawal Agreement’, this is being widely publicized, with coverage in the Daily Telegraph (£) and of course The Express, and a write-up by the Centre’s Director-General, John Longworth, on the Politico website. So it has the look of a concerted campaign.

The report itself, as its title suggests, propounds the extraordinary idea that the government should unilaterally create a new ‘Sovereignty Compliant Agreement’ to replace the WA and present it to the EU. If they do not agree, the UK would no longer regard itself as being bound by the WA. The report lists many ways in which the WA is not ‘sovereignty compliant’, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, and within that the role of the ECJ, as well as the ECJ’s role with respect to Citizens’ Rights and other matters, and the size – and by implication even the existence - of the financial settlement. Contained within all this seems to be a bemusement that the terms of the WA hold whether or not there is a trade deal. The authors – and David Davis in a tweet endorsing them – seem to imagine that the withdrawal terms were contingent on the trade deal, reprising the ‘row of the summer’ of 2017 that Davis famously threatened and then lost (or didn’t fight) which has rankled with the Ultras ever since.

It’s important to be clear – and the report is – that this isn’t about questioning this or that detail within the WA, it is that “the entire WA and Protocol are incompatible with UK sovereignty” (p.7). They want to revisit every single part of the Article 50 negotiations. But those negotiations are over. Unsurprisingly, a European Commission spokesperson immediately ruled out a renegotiation. The Longworth article gives full rein to the sentiments underlying this proposal: they are that the entire WA is a “poison pill” deriving from May’s lack of belief in Brexit, and the way her “government worked hand-in-glove with Remain elements of the British establishment and in cahoots with Brussels and foreign powers”. So Britain remains in “Teutonic chains” paying “reparations” and faces (yawn) a “Dunkirk” moment. It is a spectacularly vicious piece of writing.

Re-writing history

There are some very obvious problems with this proposal – even leaving aside the legal issues involved in breaking the WA - which involves a substantial re-writing of history. The UK signed the WA less than six months ago, as an international treaty. It was signed by Boris Johnson, following his much-trumpeted re-negotiation, and was put to the electorate as the ‘oven ready deal’ which was the centre piece of his re-election. At that election, the Brexit Party initially threatened to run a candidate in every seat if Johnson didn’t scrap the WA but then withdrew that demand and did not field candidates in Tory-held seats. John Longworth, then a Brexit Party MEP (he was later expelled from it), welcomed this change of strategy (£) on the grounds that “the Government’s exit agreement is Brexit and, whilst it has drawbacks, could result in a good deal”. No talk of a “poison pill” then. The Brexit Party itself garnered 2% of the vote and did not win any seats.

Thereafter, the WA Act was passed by a large majority in the House of Commons with support from ERG MPs, including Paterson. Did they not want the British Parliament to make its own decisions? It may be that some MPs did not read or understand it: if so, tough. They should have done their job properly. It may be that they believed it was all up for re-negotiation in the future: if so, tough. They were wrong. As for Longworth, as a, by then, Conservative MEP he also voted (in the European Parliament) for the WA and at the time said that as a result we will leave the EU and “become once again an independent, sovereign nation”. Now he says it was drawn up by “fools or knaves” and is incompatible with being “a truly sovereign nation”.

The proposition that Johnson had no time to re-negotiate properly is nonsense both because the time frames were of his choice and because he himself declared it to be “a great new deal” and the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2019 election also described it as such. The Conservative Party website explicitly said that those who criticized it (in context, this presumably meant Farage) were wrong and that the deal did indeed “take back control”. And even – to be far more charitable than is warranted – if none of that were true, it’s simply absurd to think that any country can conduct itself in such a manner as to rip up major international agreements within months of signing them because it hadn’t created an adequate process to consider the commitments it was making.

The Ultras have never accepted the WA

The roots of this latest outburst from the Brexit Ultras go deep, as regular readers of this blog will know. Immediately after the 2019 election I wrote:

“I suspect that many in the ERG will now be thinking that Johnson’s deal was only the bastard offspring of May’s ill-fated premiership and the ‘remainer parliament’, and feel no allegiance to it. They kept quiet during the election campaign, which required them to pledge support for Johnson’s deal, but that won’t necessarily last. For one thing, many of them are rebels by temperament, with a track record going back in some cases to John Major’s premiership, and ruthlessly indifferent to party loyalty or discipline …. With all that said, in the aftermath of his fresh election victory and on a scale that was so unexpected, it is far more likely that the ERG will keep their powder dry. But all that means is that even as Brexit ‘gets done’ they will hold on to the belief that the WA meant that ‘this was not really Brexit’ and will be watching keenly – in both senses of the word – for further ‘betrayals’.”

That suspicion has now proved correct – though how much overt support the current campaign against the WA will have amongst Tory MPs remains to be seen. It might be tempting to dismiss the CBP Report as the work of a fringe minority group of cranks. But that would be a very serious mistake. Over and over again, this group or one of its other incarnations has quickly seen its initially outlandish positions become mainstream, aided by the way that, as new research shows (figure 2), MPs affiliated with groups like the ERG and Leave means Leave (co-founded by John Longworth) get disproportionate media attention. The concerted way in which they are pushing this new message leads me to think it could rapidly gain traction.

Indeed, as I suggested in a more recent post, there have already been ominous signs that the government – and, implicitly, Dominic Cummings – regard the WA as ‘defective’, with the potential to lead Britain down the path to international pariahdom. I thought then, and still think, that even this government would not renege on an international treaty at least unless no trade deal is reached in which case the pressure to do so will intensify perhaps to irresistibility. The proposition in the CBP report, of course, is that whether or not there is a deal the WA should be ditched.

It is, frankly, an insane idea – politically, legally and diplomatically - but it grows from the long-evident way that the Ultras are never satisfied with Brexit, however hard and in whatever form. This is partly because the ideas they have of what is possible are total fantasy, and so as soon as they encounter reality, as they did in the Article 50 negotiations, they are doomed to be ‘betrayed’. But the deeper issue is that there is, actually, a desire to be betrayed, a desire always to be campaigning for something even more extreme, always to be insisting that Brexit is being denied them. In the most recent example, as in the past, this extends to denouncing as betrayal even things that they themselves have supported or voted for in the past. It is a pathology which has totally deformed British politics so that, now, at the moment of their victory, they are still complaining, still unhappy, still spitting out vitriol, still blaming remainers.

The prospect of endless Brexit battles

Clearly, there are significant and dangerous connections between these demands to scrap the WA and what is emerging about the effects of Brexit. For as these effects unfold the Ultras will never admit that all (or anything) that they were warned of was true. Instead, they will insist that the effects are the consequence of Brexit not having been done properly. In this way, they keep their dream and their pathological victimhood intact, whilst blaming remainers for the effects of the policy they themselves advocated. It is a form of politics that is deeply immature but, worse, totally destructive, endlessly revisiting the same battlefields until there is nothing left but dirt and ashes.

Its consequence is likely to be that even as we all suffer the many adverse consequences of the Brexit they forced on us with lies and fantasies we do not even get the consolation prize of an end to their complaints, their taunts, and their vicious slurs. Any kind of hope – as proposed in my recent post – of initiating a new post-Brexit conversation with and about Europe is dashed as a result. Any idea of healing domestic divisions is destroyed, because these Ultras do not want to heal divisions: they thrive upon them. So we get Brexit and we also get endless screeches of Brexit betrayed. They now call the WA a “poison pill” but it is their own poison, one which has now infected the entire body politic.

There’s still the slimmest of chances of an antidote – but unfortunately it rests almost entirely with Boris Johnson, though others may have some influence. Perhaps it could be possible to finally say to these Ultra Brexiters than enough is enough. It is simply insane for a country to keep putting itself through – or being put through – this torture. We’ve had years of it, and the Brexiters have got their Brexit. Every possible thing to accommodate them has been done. We can’t just go on and on revisiting it, lurching endlessly from one crisis to another in order to satisfy the whims of a tiny minority of politicians and commentators. We can’t poison every domestic and international well with their needs, their priorities, their insatiable obsessions.

In his article, John Longworth writes that “the battle to leave the EU is coming to an end. The battle for Britain is just beginning”, and invites Johnson to be (of course) a Churchill not a Halifax. But Britain is being destroyed by this endless desire of the Brexit Ultras to engage in battles. If we really must use these constant war analogies, with Brexit having happened, what we need from Johnson is an Attlee-like rebuilding of a battered, broken, and nearly broke country. It’s unlikely it is in his range, but if he can’t find it, and won’t go, then I fear that Longworth and his ilk will drag us all yet again into a pointless, debilitating, destructive conflict.

If so, there will be no victors, just as there have been none from Brexit. For the most remarkable and the most tragic thing about Brexit is how rare it now is to hear anyone – and certainly the Brexit Ultras - speak of it as something that gives them any pleasure.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Brexit Britain's place in the world

As the talks between the UK and the EU limp on – this week, again, they finished early with little sign of progress - and coronavirus and its consequences continue to dominate the news, the Brexit process has fallen into one of its periodic quiet phases. There are reports of UK lack of preparedness for the end of transition, and an EU statement about the many things which, deal or no deal, will change at that point. However, the first isn’t at all surprising and the second isn’t, for the most part, news though it may shock those who haven't been paying attention. On a more amusing note, Michel Barnier’s reply to Mark Francois’ letter (discussed in last week’s post) drily pointed out that it had been complaining about things which Boris Johnson had agreed to and which he, Francois, had voted for.

Most likely the quiet phase will continue over the summer. But it was clear from the beginning that Brexit was never going to be simply about a redefinition of the UK-EU relationship and we are starting to see in greater detail just how profound and complex a geo-political shift is underway (£). Trade is only one issue to be navigated and trade itself cannot readily be separated from international relations more generally.

For example, as Philip Hammond, the former Chancellor, remarked in an interview this week, with the UK introducing new trade barriers with the EU it becomes increasingly important to improve trade relations with China. Yet these relations cannot be taken in isolation from political disputes over, currently, Hong Kong and Huawei. And the UK’s stance on the latter, in particular, impacts in turn upon relations with the US. Britain is caught in a world of economic and political power blocs, but without belonging to any, in which any course of action regarding one of them has adverse consequences with respect to another.

Britain found a role – and threw it away

The bigger picture, of course, relates to Britain’s place in the world. Having famously lost an empire but failed to find a role in the first two post-war decades, membership of what became the EU led to its finding a role of sorts. With Brexit, it has been observed that “Britain has lost a role and failed to find an empire”. That role, primarily of being a transatlantic bridge, was not always a comfortable one – the Iraq War being an obvious example – but, in any event, it is a bridge that was burned with Brexit.

It’s important to focus on both ends of that bridge. The impression given by some Brexit Ultras is that after the end of December the EU will simply disappear from view (perhaps one subtext of the current misnomer of an ‘Australia-style deal’ is that they imagine being on the other side of the world from Europe). Global Britain will then focus on its relations with the wider world and cement that with the US in particular. But whether or not there is a UK-EU deal there will still be relationships between the two, and between the UK and individual member states.

Dr Helene von Bismarck, an historian specialising in British international relations, has written this week about how Anglo-German relations, despite the  genuine commitment from both countries to a good future partnership, will face the problem of how to put that commitment into practice. How, she pointedly asks, “can joint interests between a Britain that seeks to be ‘global’ but shies away from any form of institutionalised cooperation with the EU, and a Germany committed firmly to Europe be organized and managed in the future”?

Similar questions will arise for Anglo-French relations, and others. Repairing relations with Ireland, which have been horribly mangled by Brexit, will pose particularly profound challenges. Managing relations with Spain, especially as regards Gibraltar will be another complexity. At the core of all this is the strategic incoherence of Brexit in the context of a regionalised and multi-polar world.

A Biden Presidency?

Coming back to the other end of the bridge, the implications of that incoherence are coming into sharper focus as the possibility grows that Trump will lose the Presidential elections. His much-vaunted support for Brexit has never translated into anything concrete anyway, and if Joe Biden wins then UK-US relations will be transformed. Not so much in terms of any trade deal – it’s likely that any US administration would make similar demands and make use of similar leverage – but because, like Obama, Biden and his team are well-known to regard Brexit as a serious mistake. A mistake for Britain, no doubt, but more particularly a mistake in terms of American interests.

A very thorough discussion of this was provided by Henry Zeffman in The Times this week (£). Biden is significantly more pro-EU than Trump (not a high bar, admittedly), and has strong links with Ireland. On the other hand, hardly less than Trump, he is likely to regard China with suspicion. More generally, a Biden presidency would represent some return to the US’s ‘normal’ advocacy of the rules-based multilateral order and to that extent might regard Brexit as one of the things which has put that in peril.

But, more importantly, US-UK relations would be governed by unsentimental calculation of interests. And as a foreign policy expert quoted in Zeffman’s article summarises those, “London has become a less valuable geo-political partner as a result of Brexit, which has eroded Britain’s traditional role as a transatlantic bridge”. That isn’t to say that there would not be particular issues where the two countries may find common ground, but it is more likely to be ad hoc rather than amounting to a coherent – still less a ‘special’ - relationship.

Why seek a ‘global role’ anyway?

Of course, there will be many in the UK who think ‘so much the better’. The problem, though, is what should replace it to re-define Britain’s global role. But one might put that a different way. Why should Britain seek a ‘global role’ anyway? Why not accept being a medium-sized power whose global sway is largely in the past, and which has plenty of domestic problems to address rather than seeking to project itself on the world stage?

Here, the nationalism of the Brexit project, and its carry forward in Johnson’s endless rhetoric about Britain’s ‘world-leading’ or even ‘world-beating’ status in this that and the other is a major barrier to rational thinking. For of course any such national self-appraisal would probably have meant that Brexit would never have happened anyway – plenty of other former colonial powers of various vintages have found EU membership perfectly congenial. Plenty of them, too, don’t experience any conflict between such membership and being a ‘global trading nation’. And France manages to operate as a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council whilst being a central player in the EU. But the continuing appeal of British exceptionalism mitigated against that, which reflects the fact the present conundrum of post-Brexit Britain’s role has roots which long pre-date 2016.

The Suez Crisis, no matter how it may have appeared at the time, does not in retrospect seem to have occasioned a profound shift in public (as opposed to official) realization that world powerdom was over; the Falklands War gave fresh impetus to the idea that Britain could project global military power at will even though, arguably, it could no longer be repeated (£). In particular, whilst from the 1970s Britain seemed to have found its post-imperial role via Europe, that was never anchored in a wider public debate about its past, either in terms of Empire or in terms of the ever-present mythologization of the Second World War. If anything, acting as the ‘transatlantic bridge’ served to prolong a certain delusion of grandeur, and enabled the historical amnesia I have written about in a previous post.

Sham patriotism

Having failed to have such a reckoning with the past when it might, perhaps, have been possible, it’s very difficult to see how it can occur in the present, highly partisan, times when it is most needed. The clear power imbalance in the Brexit negotiations – underscored by Angela Merkel’s recent comments – which has played out since 2017 cannot, in such times, serve as an education. It is invariably dismissed as punishment or bullying. Nor can the obvious implications of the way that Ireland has been able to exert such influence because of its EU membership. Consider reactions such as that “the Irish should really know their place” and the hostility of the Brexit press to Leo Varadkar. Even Hammond’s straightforwardly factual statements about the realpolitik of Brexit and China brought a furious denunciation from Brexiters.

So what should be lessons in political, economic and diplomatic reality simply entrench the division between those who understood it all along and those who deny it. That is especially so when news is refracted through a media which is not just partisan but parochial. The way that Brexit Britain is regarded by the wider world – take India, for example - scarcely registers, even as fantasies about ‘Global Britain’ and the Commonwealth are indulged in, often with more than a sense of being “the last gasp of empire” as Sally Tomlinson and Danny Dorling argue.

Unable to learn such lessons, this week Brexiters hailed Britain’s new independent post-Brexit sanctions policy as a great “victory”. Yet if the aim of sanctions is to be effective, they will be far more so if undertaken in concert with others. As with Britain’s ‘independent trade policy’, which has little to commend itself economically, the emphasis is entirely on the ‘independence’ – on the symbolism rather than the substance.

Why independence matters, what it achieves, or what it even consists of remain stubbornly ignored. It’s just better to have a ‘British’ policy than a policy, or that policy becomes good policy by virtue of being British. That looks like patriotism but it’s a sham, not because it makes use of symbols but precisely because it lacks any accompanying substance. The failure of the British rival to the Galileo Project is one obvious example, indicating how hollow a slogan ‘taking back control’ is in a world where interdependence is vital.

Fiddling while home burns

The bitter irony is that just at the moment that Britain is least well-equipped but most in need of a serious re-appraisal of its place in the world, this sham patriotism neglects the ways in which, domestically, it is falling apart. A favourite Brexiter line is that Britain is “the fifth largest economy in the world”, yet it is bedevilled by a longstanding productivity growth problem, dramatic levels of inequality and crumbling public services. A report from the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) last year showed how, on a range of measures, Britain is actually ‘undeveloping’.

The current coronavirus has exposed many of these problems to a greater degree, and exacerbated some of them, but it has also, as Fintan O’Toole argued recently, shown the delusions of Johnson’s Brexity world-beating rhetoric. The issue, again, is symbolism over substance. There is no patriotism in endlessly declaring national superiority whilst daily delivering outcomes that are, as in this case, so much worse than most other countries.

The break-up of Britain?

The strangest irony of all in this is that Britain, largely as a result of Brexit, although again exacerbated by coronavirus, looks ever more likely to, literally, fall apart. I’m not going to express any opinion on the merits of the case for Scottish independence or Irish unification (any such opinion would be ill-informed and presumptuous on my part, and whatever opinion I might express would probably invite more of a backlash than, even having written about Brexit for years, I could cope with). But it’s been obvious since the Referendum that Brexit would make Scottish independence more likely, and the hard form and non-consensual way it has been undertaken since has made that even more true. It’s now quite widely seen as inevitable that there will be another vote, and the latest polls suggest that, if so, the outcome would be independence.

Equally, Northern Ireland, which also did not vote for Brexit, was always going to be dramatically affected by it. As hard Brexit developed, and given the measures agreed in the Northern Ireland Protocol to accommodate it, what is about to be created is a significant continuation of economic integration and unification within the island of Ireland along with a significant economic barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That clearly makes the prospect of political unification much greater and at the very least puts it on the agenda in a way which wasn’t true prior to Brexit. Even Wales – where a majority voted for Brexit – may be seeing increased support for independence.

Rethinking Britain?

So questions about Britain’s post-Brexit ‘place in the world’ (rather than ‘global role’ per se) need also to be thought about in terms of what Britain itself is. And with no apparent appetite from the Conservative and, cough, Unionist Party to give serious consideration to either issue, there’s a real possibility that they will still be chuntering on about Global Britain when Britain has simply ceased to exist.

I don’t think that all the blame for this lies with the Conservatives, or even simply with politicians. It’s also the case that the, specifically, English public don’t really want to have the kind of debate that is needed. How often do countries ever really do so? Context is crucial. I would suggest the answer is usually only after some sort of cataclysmic event – most obviously war, occupation or the fall of dictatorships. Often, that is only partial and takes a very long time, as in the very different cases of Austria’s post-war history or Spain’s post-Franco period. Invariably, it is painful.

Moreover, ‘debate’ is perhaps a misnomer if it implies a formal, organized conversation. That sometimes happens, as with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and similar initiatives in other countries. But I suppose – I don’t have any expertise in this area - the reality is that countries more usually re-orientate themselves via multiple, connected but not entirely formalised processes. Perhaps the gradual social liberalisation of Ireland is an instructive example of that.

At all events, there needs to be an impetus and a willingness to do it. Could Brexit provide these? That’s an especially difficult question because Brexit both potentially occasions such a debate but, also, represents an absolute refusal to engage in one: it has only been about what Britain did not want to be, not, in any practical sense, about what it could or should become, still less about what it has been. On the other hand, any such national debate would, if multi-stranded, be not just about Brexit but other aspects of Britain’s past and future. The current increased awareness of the role slavery played in that past could be the beginnings of one example. Discussions of how an ageing society will shape the future of Britain might be another.

So, yes, perhaps - but perhaps not yet. Awful as it is, Brexit isn’t on a par with war, occupation or dictatorship, and its effects will emerge gradually and be difficult to disentangle from other events. Unless or until those effects become very clear there’s insufficient impetus. And it will probably need the coming to power and the coming of age of a new generation to supply the willingness.

What the UK will look like by then, and whether it even still exists, remains to be seen.