Friday 28 February 2020

Brexit is going feral

In the very first post on this blog, in September 2016, I noted that the complexity of delivering Brexit and the lack of realism of Brexiters meant that in the coming months and years we would hear much more about civil service ‘obstructionism’. It had already begun, only a few weeks after the Referendum, and in the years that have followed it has intensified, sometimes aimed at the civil service in general, other times at particular individuals.

Of these, the most high-profile targets have been Sir Ivan Rogers and Sir Kim Darroch, both of whom were effectively forced to resign. There has also been a swathe of resignations other senior civil servants including Sir Jon Thompson, the head of HMRC, who received death threats after giving evidence about the costs of Brexit to a Select Committee.

Whilst Brexit has increased the overall size of the civil service, there is some evidence of unusually high turnover amongst staff. It is a reasonable speculation, given comments such as those of Sir Martin Donnelly, former Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Trade, that in at least some cases fundamental differences over Brexit have played a part in this.

At the time of Rogers’ resignation, in January 2017, I wrote that a string of resignations and early retirements from the civil service was very likely, and that the wholesale politicization of the civil service in favour of true believers in Brexit was a danger. The first has proved true and the second seems more of a risk than ever. I mention these earlier blog posts not to ‘boast’ about my prescience – and, anyway, many others said similar things - but to show that what has happened, and is happening, is not accidental, unexpected or just to do with Johnson’s premiership, but is embedded in the entire process of Brexit itself.

The latest attack on the civil service

This week  has seen the intensification of this, with reports of a ‘hit list’ of senior civil servants (£) who the government want to replace because they are not on board with Brexit and related policies. There are numerous reports of more or less open warfare between Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and her senior civil servants. Meanwhile, former Chancellor Sajid Javid’s resignation speech implicitly criticised the way that political advisors, most obviously Dominic Cummings, are sidelining the civil service as well as undermining ministers.

At one level, there’s nothing new about this. The Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s were highly suspicious of the perceived ideological conservatism of the civil service. The Thatcher governments saw corporatism, and capture by special interests, amongst civil servants as a block to their reforms. And New Labour often regarded civil servants as resistant to the managerialization of public services that were Blair’s hallmark.

It may have been less visible, but undoubtedly some senior civil servants were sidelined and eased out, and more congenial ones promoted, within all of these administrations. Moreover, as Geoff Mulgan, who was involved in some of them, them has recently written there are many past parallels for some of the civil service reforms that are currently being discussed. And bust-ups between Chancellors and Number Ten advisers aren’t new, either – recall the resignations of Nigel Lawson and Alan Walters in 1989.

However, there are very important differences between all that and what is happening now. In the past, it was about the perceived ideological and policy preferences of civil servants, either en masse or as individuals. And despite the much-vaunted neutrality of the British Civil Service it would be naïve to deny that such preferences did not exist, that there was an ‘official view’, or, even, that the social background of the traditional civil service predisposed it towards a certain conservatism. Even so, civil servants did and still do pride themselves on carrying out policies that they do not personally believe in. And strong ministers have usually been able to over-ride reluctant officials if they have coherent ideas.

What is happening with Brexit is something different. As I, along with many others with much greater authority and larger audiences, have recorded on this blog, most of the things that Brexiters want are simply impossible to deliver – possibly all of them, when taken in combination - and are often based upon deliberate or accidental falsehoods. This generates a faith-based politics in which what matters is loyalty to the cause and purity of belief. Possessed of such belief, the impossible becomes possible and inconvenient facts disappear.

A government purged of dissent

We’ve now reached the stage where the government has purged from office all those who do not display this loyalty and do not have (or are not willing to simulate) this purity of belief. At the same time, it is a government which must finally deliver on Brexit, not as a matter of promises, slogans and theory but in the cold, hard world of political, legal and economic reality. This is the task with which they have charged the civil service.

This puts civil servants in an impossible position. An individual civil servant might disagree with privatization or nationalization, say, but these are deliverable policies and such an individual can, and should be able to, swallow personal views and deliver them. But no individual can, say, deliver a policy of frictionless trade (£) with the EU once the UK leaves the institutions – the single market and the customs union – that make such trade possible. Nor can a civil servant advise, or undertake, a policy which is illegal.

In the face of this, the government – along with its many Brexit-supporting allies in the media – is rapidly moving to a position where it wants the civil service, like itself, to be purged of non-believers and, in this way, supposedly to ensure the delivery of Brexit. On the basis of recent reports, the particular fault line at the moment is an attempt to find ways around the checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as entailed by the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement (for more on this issue, see my previous post).

This agreement, don’t forget, is a legally binding international treaty. Hence it is also reported that the new Attorney-General, Suella Braverman (a former Chair of the ERG) was appointed partly as being more likely to advise that this would be legal than would her predecessor Geoffrey Cox (who voted leave in the Referendum but is unpopular with Brexiters, going back to his refusal to advise that the UK could legally unilaterally exit the Irish backstop provisions in May’s deal). The legal issues entailed were the agreement to be broken are discussed in detail by Professor Steve Peers on his EU Law blog.

The role of the Attorney-General is a complex one, with a long and convoluted history, being both a government ministerial office and also the government’s chief legal adviser. It is not, of course, a civil service role. But, as reported, the situation parallels what seems to be being asked of civil servants in that the hope is that the new Attorney-General will give advice more conducive to Brexiters’ ears. Yet, even if so, the provision of such advice will not mean that the UK evades any legal consequences of following it (it is legal advice, not a legal judgment) and, perhaps more importantly, the political consequences in terms of the reputation of, and trust, in the UK. That could have important practical implications not just for relations with the EU (£) but also with other countries, including the US.

Closed ears and closed minds

Such consequences point to the crucial issue. There is little merit – in politics, as in private life – of seeking only the advice which you want to hear. And whilst legal advice may often be subject to a legitimate range of interpretations, in many Brexit matters what is at stake are facts or at least best-estimate predictions.

Thus Brexiters may, and do, dismiss almost all economic forecasts of Brexit, including those of the civil service, preferring to rely on those of the small group that used to be called Economists for Brexit. Yet doing so does not make those forecasts reliable, and does not negate the fact that, thus far, they have proven inaccurate nor the repeated, detailed and devastating critiques of that group.  Other things – such as the impact of Brexit on business supply chains, or the tariffs associated with ‘trading on WTO terms’, are even less amenable to alternative interpretations.

All of this has been in play since the beginning. But it is now taking a far more dangerous form because of the nature of Johnson’s government since winning its majority. That could have been an opportunity to ‘stop campaigning and start governing’. Instead, there is a very strong sense that he and his government now want to blank out any advice or viewpoints that contradict those not just of Brexiters but of the most hardcore Brexiters.

This explains why, preposterously, the government is going to consult on the economic and business implications of its Brexit plans – but only after having made them. It also partly explains the current prominence that special advisers have, which is most unusual. Even leaving aside the well-known example of Cummings, consider the fact that David Frost’s lecture last week, treated almost as an official policy statement, was given by someone who is neither a politician nor even a civil servant, but a special advisor.

The report that Johnson wants civil service briefings to be short and simple is not so remarkable – many politicians share that desire – but the suspicion must be that he also wants them to pander to, rather than to challenge, his pre-existing beliefs. It is consistent with the story that, when Foreign Secretary, he reacted to unwelcome advice from civil servants by sticking his fingers in his ears and humming Rule Britannia*. Most significantly, it is consistent with the fact that, both as Foreign Secretary and as Prime Minister he has agreed to things which he later disowned, suggesting that he either did not read or did not understand them.

That goes to the heart of why not taking, or not even receiving, advice you do not like is an untenable basis for political decision making. For reality does not change just by ignoring it. The government could replace the entire civil service with Brexit flag wavers but, still, the economic, political and legal realities of Brexit will remain unchanged. It won’t change the negotiations with the EU (except to make them more difficult), it won’t change the consequences of not reaching a deal with the EU, it won’t change what businesses will do in response, and it won’t change the consequences of that for investment, employment, the tax base, or the value of sterling.

Closing down ‘dissident’ voices

All of this is a recipe for poor political decision making and substantial economic damage (and do read this link to a blog by Matt Bishop of Sheffield University – it’s one of the best things on Brexit I’ve seen). But what is currently happening carries dangers which go even beyond that. For there is now every sign that the government is not just determined to shut out what it perceives as dissident voices, but to close them down. Not just to ignore reality but to seek to redefine it.

This is evident in the latest attacks on the BBC, including the refusal of government ministers even to appear on some of its programmes, and wider attempts to boycott or marginalize journalists perceived to be unsympathetic. Again, this hasn’t come from nowhere. Apart from the longstanding Tory hostility to the BBC, as early as October 2016 Boris Johnson and other Brexiters were calling for an investigation into its alleged ‘anti-Brexit bias’.

It is most worryingly evident in the government’s attitude to the law. That overlaps in part with the issue of civil service advice – as with Home Secretary Priti Patel’s alleged attempts to encourage “behavior outside the rule of law” (£) – as well as with the suggestion, discussed above, that, under cover of legal advice from a fanatical Brexiter, the government might renege on an international treaty. But beyond that it is apparent in the forthcoming constitutional review, to examine amongst other things the role of the judiciary in politically contentious decisions.

With political oversight from the prominent Vote Leave campaigner Michael Gove, the obvious impetus behind this is the Supreme Court judgments that Parliament should have a vote on whether to trigger Article 50, and that Johnson’s attempted prorogation of Parliament was illegal. In that sense, it is the lineal descendent of the infamous ‘Enemies of the People’ headline, although it is important to remember that, in both cases, the judgment was about the rights of the Legislative versus the Executive rather than the rights of ‘the people’ versus the politicians.

Brexit as a gateway to ‘disruption’

As such, it’s partly pure spite – Johnson is notoriously vindictive towards those he perceived to have opposed him, one of the many ways in which his ‘jocular’ persona is a fraud – but it goes much deeper than that. On the one hand, it’s about a fairly traditional political idea, that there are votes to be had by mobilizing resentment against elite institutions. People sometimes talk as if populism is a new thing in British politics, but it has a long lineage and, in recent history, both Thatcher and Blair showed versions of it. It’s no coincidence that both got into major fights with the BBC and the judiciary. It’s also no coincidence that then, as now, such fights occur when the official opposition party is utterly feeble and demoralized.

On the other hand, it’s about something new, or at least distinctive in form. It grows out of the ideology of ‘disruption’ that has swept through business and politics over the last few decades. That was incipient in both Thatcherite and Blairite politics but is now far more potent, partly because of social media. Nor is the connection to business accidental. There’s a reason why this government seems like every bad boss you’ve ever had and it’s that it has taken on, wholesale, the mix of bullying and hubris that has infected much of the corporate world. Dominic Cummings may seem like a novelty in the political realm, but he’s a version of just about every big-league MBA School graduate who has mistaken reading airport lounge books about Silicon Valley and quantum physics for wisdom.

All this should be as alarming to leave voters as to remainers. Brexit is being used as a cover for things that no one ever voted for. That is obvious in relation to the way that Brexit is being done, with all the promises about being part of a “Free Trade Zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey” having been ripped up. It is obvious in the way that Johnson is now seeking to shrug off the ‘oven ready deal’ upon which he was only recently elected (more on this in next week’s blog, once the noise around the publication of the UK and EU negotiating documents has died down).

But, now, it is going even beyond that. Joining in the government’s attack on civil servants, Brexiter journalist Allister Heath announces that “Brexit is not enough” and that “our arrogant overrated civil service must now face a political reckoning”. Joining in the wider attack on the judiciary he, like other Conservative Brexiters, bemoans (and totally misunderstands) the role of the courts in ruling on Heathrow expansion. Presumably he wants, like “Dom … to get the judges sorted” (£), a phrase which shows both dismaying contempt and misplaced arrogance. Meanwhile, the government’s latest statement of its Brexit approach pointedly shifts away from the previous commitment to the European Convention/Court of Human Rights. In these and other ways a powerful alliance is using Brexit as a springboard for a multi-pronged assault on the central institutions of democratic society.

The dangers of hubris

There are deep and genuine grounds for alarm in all of this, ably articulated by Sean Danaher in a recent post on his excellent Progressive Pulse blog. At the same time, it would be wrong to think – and the government should be wary of assuming – that we are set on an inevitable course.

For example, there are already signs of the civil service fighting back against the latest criticisms that are being made of it and against the power that Dominic Cummings and other special advisers are wielding. Journalists have shown that they will walk out of Number Ten briefings that exclude their colleagues from unfavoured news organizations. Businesses and other interest groups are going to get more vocal, as, for example, the opening session of this week’s NFU Conference showed. Hobbling the judiciary will not be easy. And it may well be that the Labour opposition regroups once it has a new leader.

In particular, the government should be wary of hubris. It has a large parliamentary majority, but it is pursuing in Brexit a policy that the majority of the population do not now support – and which is especially unpopular in Scotland and Northern Ireland - and of which those that do support it have very varied expectations. Nor should it assume that its disdain for the BBC, judiciary, civil servants and business is shared beyond a vocal minority. Picking fights with so many groups simultaneously could quickly see the government become very beleaguered.

In riding the tiger of populist sentiment Johnson has set himself up to be bitten back, badly, if things go wrong. For whilst the government’s expectation is undoubtedly that blame will attach to the EU, or remainers, or judges, or civil servants, or immigrants – or all of these - that can’t be guaranteed. Indeed, the existence of a government with a strong majority, full control of the Brexit process and closing down all advice and warnings about that process runs the considerable risk that – if those warnings prove true – it and it alone will be left to take the blame.

*I am sure that there is a reliable source for this story – in my mind, an article in the FT - but all I have been able to find is a passing reference in a Facebook post by Billy Bragg. I’ll make a (modest) donation to the Journalists’ Charity if anyone gives me the source.

Friday 21 February 2020

Zersetzung Brexit

During the Cold War, the Stasi perfected techniques of psychological warfare known as Zersetzung, sometimes translated as ‘disintegration’. Targeted at individuals and dissident groups, it involved “a systematic degradation of reputation, image, and prestige on the basis of true, verifiable and discrediting information together with untrue, credible, irrefutable, and thus also discrediting information; a systematic engineering of social and professional failures to undermine the self-confidence of individuals; ... engendering of doubts regarding future prospects; engendering of mistrust and mutual suspicion within groups …”.

I’m extremely wary of invoking comparisons between Brexit and totalitarianism, because they almost invariably exaggerate what is happening with Brexit, whilst insultingly and irresponsibly downplaying the horrors of totalitarianism. Even so, it’s not entirely fanciful to draw at least metaphorical parallels between Zersetzung and the gaslighting which characterises the government’s approach to Brexit. In particular, there is a comparison in the way that it is becoming almost impossible to separate out what is true from what is false, what is intended from what is accidental, what is incompetent from what is malevolent.

The Irish Sea border

Take the remarks made last Friday by the new Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, saying that there will be no Irish Sea border, despite the fact that this is precisely what the government signed up to in the Withdrawal Agreement.

There are multiple ways of interpreting what Lewis said. Perhaps he is simply ignorant of the facts. That isn’t altogether unbelievable. Yet he claimed to be saying what the government’s policy is, and, indeed, he is saying exactly what Boris Johnson has said. Perhaps he, and Johnson, are lying. That too, doesn’t exactly strain credulity. Yet, if so, to what end? If they are taken at their word, then how can preparations be made for the arrangements which need to be in place in just ten months’ time. As Jess Sergeant of the Institute for Government writes, “until the prime minister acknowledges the extent – or even the existence – of new checks, this work cannot begin in earnest”.

Or perhaps Lewis was engaging in the kind of linguistic sleight of hand referred to in my previous post, and was glossing over the truth that there will be a border for goods by reference to the fact that there will be no border for people, which is also true? Perhaps he was trying to assuage unionist sentiment in Northern Ireland? Perhaps he was trying to pander to Brexiters in his own party and the country? Perhaps he actually means that the government are going to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement?

No one really knows, and that matters not least because of its impact on negotiations with the EU. There, there is growing alarm not so much because of Brandon Lewis’s comments but because of Boris Johnson’s, for they betoken sharply divergent understandings of what the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement means. That in turn calls into question the possibility of achieving a deal on future trade and other terms, and at the very least erodes trust in those negotiations, making it more likely that the EU will want watertight guarantees on everything. It also, of course, has profound potential consequences for the people of Northern Ireland.

Again, there’s no way of knowing what Johnson is really up to. Perhaps he wants to collapse the talks and never had any intention of honouring the Northern Ireland Protocol. For what it is worth I think the truth is more prosaic. It seems more likely to me that Johnson, with his usual arrogance, ambition, and sloppiness simply had no real idea what he was agreeing to and didn’t care. His MPs, including the ERG, and indeed some Labour MPs, just voted it through (I am referring to the pre-election vote on Johnson’s revised Withdrawal Agreement) without paying much attention to what it meant and very possibly without even reading it, and, then, when it came to the election, he proclaimed that he had an ‘oven ready deal’.

The Level Playing Field

Exactly the same thing seems to have happened with the Level Playing Field (LPF) conditions. Having agreed to these at least as the intended direction of travel in the Political Declaration (PD, paragraph 77 on p.14-15 of the link), there is now a concerted attempt to disown them. This began earlier this year and was most recently and forcefully articulated by David Frost in a speech in Brussels last Monday.

Frost, the government’s lead negotiator for the talks with the EU, argued that the UK wants a Canada-style trade deal, and bemoaned the fact that the EU had supposedly previously offered this but was now “experiencing some doubts” (implying the requirement of substantial LPF conditions). These conditions, he argued, would mean that Britain was not an independent country and that to comply with them would negate the very purpose of Brexit and threaten a crisis of democracy.

Again, there are multiple possible interpretations of this. It could, despite his denials that this was so, be some kind of negotiating ploy (if so, it just makes the UK look untrustworthy). It could be a message to the Brexiters that Frost is ‘one of them’, and notably he spent much time burnishing his Eurosceptic credentials, thus hoping to avoid the fate of his predecessor Olly Robbins (good luck with that, as the Ultras will turn on him if he does any kind of deal).

It could have been an attempt to get the EU to understand the constraints of UK politics (in which case, think again – the days when the EU was willing to bend over backwards to accommodate those is long gone). It could mean that the government is now determined to leave without a trade deal, or one of the most minimal sort. It could be that the government didn’t understand what it had signed up to. Or it could mean that the government honestly believes that a good deal can be done without agreeing to LPF.

The substance of Frost’s argument was nugatory. It rests on a wholly naïve notion of what ‘independence’ means, namely freedom from any form of regulation that does not derive solely from UK law. But all sorts of international agreements, including trade agreements, involve some form of dilution of independence in this very crude sense. Many sorts of regulation, including ‘WTO rules’, involve adherence to decisions made on a transnational basis. Individual countries can influence them, but they can’t fully control them. For that matter, the EU itself often adopts rules set by other bodies, for example as regards automotive standards, and the UK is very likely to do the same.

With Brexit, Britain has chosen to lose all influence as regards EU rules. But it can certainly exert ‘independence’ in the sense Frost means simply by not agreeing substantially to the EU’s terms for a future deal – if it’s willing to accept the consequences, economically and politically. Independence, for countries as for individuals, is not just about the freedom to make your own choices, but also taking responsibility for what those choices mean. To be fair to Frost, he seemed to accept that, although only by dismissing (without evidence) almost all the economic forecasts, including those of the government itself, so as to conclude that these consequences will be largely benign.

The war of the slides

Frost’s position was echoed later in the week by the bizarre ‘war of the slides’ (£) which began when the Prime Minister’s press office released a rather whiny tweet showing the Barnier staircase with its indication that a Canada deal was an option for the UK, consistent with the latter’s red lines. Apart from being slightly embarrassing (as if, rather than roaring, the British Lion was grizzling because he’d been promised a trip to the circus), everything about this showed what Peter Foster, Europe Editor of the Daily Telegraph, called “brazen disingenuousness”.

Why? (This list overlaps with but isn’t the same as Foster’s reasons). Because from the outset the EU position has been that LPF provisions would be necessary by virtue of the size, proximity and interconnectedness of the UK and EU economies (a point underlined by its own contribution to the war of the slides). Because, again, this was what Johnson agreed to in the Political Declaration. Because what has changed is that the UK has now introduced a new red line, in addition to those which Theresa May had set and which were incorporated into the staircase. And because Brexiters have for years been saying that they wanted a Canada +++ or Super-Canada deal, and in that sense had always wanted more than to be treated ‘just like Canada’, but either did not understand or concealed the implications of that.

Once again, multiple interpretations are possible. Does the government think that this stance will make the EU suddenly drop LPF? If so, that is not just an absurd hope but also has had the opposite effect by making the EU even more suspicious of Johnson’s mendacity. Is it that the government genuinely still fails to understand what Brexit means, and what it has signed up to in the Political Declaration? Is it a domestic signal to Brexiters, in preparation for quietly accepting EU demands? Or Is it preparation for leaving without a deal and noisily setting the EU up to take the blame?

If it is the latter (what I have been calling no deal 2.0, because it is different to no Withdrawal Agreement and, also, refers to more than trade but, alas, it hasn’t caught on) then the real democratic crisis is this. It would not be remotely what was promised during the Referendum (nor, for that matter, would a bare-bones or even Canada-style deal). And it would certainly not be what was promised at the general election. For that was fought on the basis of what Johnson had agreed with the EU, including the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement and including LPF in the Political Declaration.

It’s true that the Political Declaration is not legally binding with respect to the EU, but it is part of the basis on which Johnson was elected in the UK. This was part of the ‘oven ready deal’ he offered. Going back on what was agreed may also face legal hurdles in the UK, although these probably aren’t insuperable given the size of Johnson’s majority. At all events doing so would do massive damage to Britain’s international credibility, just as it was seeking to make new deals with other countries. However, it certainly can’t be assumed that no deal 2.0 is now inevitable, and the respected trade expert Dmitry Grozoubinski has outlined the space in which a deal could, in principle, occur.

What’s going on?

The truth is that no one actually knows what Johnson’s government is planning, or even if it has a plan. At every new development, whichever direction it takes, there are always some who confidently say that ‘this was the plan all along’. Some are as certain that Brexit is a well worked out neo-liberal plot as others are that the EU and remainers are part of a nefarious neo-liberal conspiracy. Some rush breathlessly from their latest ‘insider’ (aka PR) briefing to announce with X% confidence what the latest central scenario is, whilst others ‘have a friend’ who is very high up and has revealed all but of course the ‘mainstream media’ won’t report it. Some are convinced that the hardest of Brexits is inevitable, others equally sure that Brexit in name only (BRINO) is the only possible outcome.

Having now alienated probably half of the readers of this blog, I’ll see if I can do the same for the other half. I certainly have no more idea than anyone else as to what will happen. But in terms of the underlying process, my thoughts for what they’re worth are these. On the one hand, what we are witnessing is to a degree intentional. It’s now a cliché to talk about ‘the alt-right playbook’ and its connections with the kind of psychological warfare techniques with which I began this post. But it doesn’t need any great conspiracy theory or felt-penned sociograms to see how these techniques have spread or indeed to see how they have developed from more familiar approaches to media management.

The generation of constant uncertainty, the endless revisions of even very recent history, the half-truths and lies, the divisiveness and the distractions are all plain to see and they are intended to have the effect of confusing and manipulating the public. It is disturbing, destabilising, and exhausting to be exposed to it. That is partly what I meant by the comparison with Zersetzung and why several serious analysts are describing these developments as Orwellian. It is also the reason why, as I’ve often written on this blog, it is important to keep attempting to hold on to recorded facts and rationality as the only antidote to these dangerous and shameless tactics.

But, on the other hand, if the implication is that these tactics are being used to disguise the government’s ‘true agenda’ for Brexit then I am not at all convinced. It’s important not to over-estimate the competence of our leaders and their advisers, or the coherence of what they do. In particular, over the last four years what has been astounding is that almost all Brexiters have virtually no idea what they really want or how to achieve it, make constant errors about quite basic facts, and have made endless unnecessary mistakes in their attempts to deliver it. Whilst the latter are now blamed upon ‘Theresa the remainer’, it shouldn’t be forgotten that originally she was their idol nor that she gave government roles to Brexiters like Johnson, Fox, Davis, Grayling, Patel and Truss.

Brexiters haven’t suddenly become competent

So with the Brexiters now totally in control of government, it is as to easy to believe that they think that, say, by playing hardball in threatening no trade deal they will achieve a deal scarcely any different to EU membership as to believe that they are completely uninterested in a deal and have always wanted to leave without one. Or that they are divided amongst themselves on this and everything else and the outcome will depend upon which view wins out. Or that the outcome will be entirely accidental, born of complete incompetence.

That could arise if, for example, having agreed to something he did not bother to understand, Johnson now mulishly doubles down on his mistakes. At all events, Brexiters do not suddenly become competent or well-informed just because they have red boxes to open, as David Davis’s career attests. They may be inflicting a swirl of confusions, lies, half-truths and disinformation upon the country, but they are also themselves lost within that same miasmic fog.

Of course, on either account the outlook for the country is not at all good. The government seems to have simply no idea what it is doing and, especially since last week’s reshuffle, to be populated by subservient nonentities in the grip of group think. If so, there is every chance that it will unintentionally lead us to disaster. Alternatively, it knows exactly what it is doing, the cluelessness is a smokescreen, and disaster is actually the plan. It’s difficult to know which is the more alarming prospect.

From this point of view, the metaphorical comparison with Zersetzung is not, as might be thought, so much to say that psychological warfare is being unleashed upon individuals and groups in order to effect their disintegration. Rather, with Brexit we have a country unleashing a kind of Zersetzung upon itself.

Friday 14 February 2020

The sound of silence

We’re in a strange kind of limbo period in which the UK has left the EU, and the Transition Period has started, and yet the crucial talks about future terms have not yet begun and won’t do so until March. That gives the impression that nothing much is happening with Brexit for, as Luke McGee of CNN observes, the government is “eerily quiet on the single most important issue facing the United Kingdom in 2020”.  And what little is being said has largely been drowned out by the cabinet reshuffle, HS2 and other stories.

An eloquent silence

Yet that silence, in its own way, gives and is intended to give a message. I wrote in my previous post about Boris Johnson’s childish refusal to use the word Brexit any more, a stance confirmed by the now former Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom in a visit to Sunderland this week. “That was something that happened”, she rather peculiarly said when asked, rather as if, to use a comparison I’ve made before, Brexit had been an embarrassing episode at last year’s office party. It must have been rather deflating for the Sunderland voters, many of whom may have wanted to celebrate that which they are no longer supposed to mention.

But, of course, there is a very serious side to this. Invoking Orwell, both Jonathan Lis and Ian Dunt have recently written articles about how a wholesale revision of language is underway which is expressly designed to prevent scrutiny and accountability. Whatever may or may not happen now is to be decoupled from Brexit. It is hardly a new political technique, but it is being deployed with a rapidity, ruthlessness and shamelessness that is chilling.

And yet this is developing into the latest of the many paradoxes that Brexit has created. For at the same time as attempting to relegate Brexit to distant memory, the government is also claiming all kinds of benefits from “having left the EU”. Thus Health Secretary Matt Hancock explained this week that it would allow Britain to train or re-train many new medical staff (the Daily Express, where his article was published, was rather off-message in its headline by invoking the B-word).

It was not explained how the EU had prevented this, nor whether it would compensate for the exodus of EU staff from the NHS. But the ‘now we’ve left the EU’ formulation doesn’t require any causal link to be claimed. If Brexit is something that ‘has happened’, well, this announcement is something which is ‘now happening’. If readers fill in the blanks and ascribe it to Brexit – or headline writers do it for them - that’s a matter for them.

“Traders’ wines and olive oils …”

More complex was this week’s announcement of a consultation exercise about the establishment of free ports (the policy itself is not new and was announced last August). These are areas, not necessarily on the coast, where normal tax, customs checks and trade tariff rules are suspended so goods can be imported, stored, processed or worked on, and then re-exported or sold in the domestic market (at which point any relevant tariffs would apply).

Free ports have long been claimed by Johnson and many Brexit ideologues on the free market right as one of the great prizes of Brexit. The government’s consultation document suggests as much. It begins with some airy guff about how “in the Ancient World, Greek and Roman ships - piled high with traders’ wines and olive oils – found safe harbour in the Free Port of Delos” (p.5). That language is cringe-making but it is not accidental, being all of a piece with the cod history of so much Brexiter rhetoric, as if cutters bearing spices rather than container ships bearing crankshafts were at stake, and Brexit was a remake of The Onedin Line.

There is more in this woeful vein, but then it gets to the point. Free ports (or freeports, as the document has it) are all about “the opportunities that leaving the EU brings” (p.8). The clear suggestion is that the EU prohibits free ports. That turns out not to be true. They exist in the EU and existed in the UK until 2012, at which point the UK allowed the relevant UK legislation to lapse.

This led to much adverse comment on social media that the government was lying but matters are more complex than that. The language being used is very slippery – including that of the incoming Chancellor Rishi Sunak - which makes it hard to hold on to what exactly is being claimed. But whilst free ports are allowed by the EU, they are circumscribed by EU Law as to how they can operate, including by state aid regulations (because, for example, certain sorts of tax incentives would amount to subsidies) and it was this, arguably, that led to the UK’s decision not to continue with them.

Beneath the rhetoric

So from that point of view the government is being half-truthful in suggesting that post-Brexit British free ports could be different from those within the EU (although they would not be a complete free-for-all in that WTO rules, so loved by Brexiters, create some restrictions). But nested within that are some other issues. The obvious one is that it reveals that what is really at issue here is not free ports per se but whether or not Britain agrees to the Level Playing Field (LPF, including state aid rules) which would prevent this divergence from EU free port regulations.

Since agreeing to LPF is one of the (this week hardening) EU red lines for doing a trade deal, it’s not unduly cynical to think that if the negotiations founder for that reason, one justification the government will give for not making a deal is that it will preclude these supposedly wonderful British free ports, especially as according to the consultation document free ports are to be a “cornerstone” of the government’s national ‘levelling up’ policy and, thus, the delivery of ‘the people’s priorities’.

That’s questionable because according to Sussex University’s highly respected UK Trade Policy Observatory the economic case for free ports is debatable anyway, and numerous criticisms of their role in lowering labour standards and promoting tax evasion and money laundering have been made. And where there are examples of successful free ports they do not really translate to the British context (£).  Moreover, the government proposals are actually a hybrid of various kinds of policy, including regional regeneration which is not seen as a rationale for free ports even by their advocates, and enterprise zones which exist anyway.

I’ve focused on the free ports example because it has been current this week, and because it may come to have an importance in its own right, but also because it is illustrative of the tangle of language which has the effect, and probably the intention, of bamboozling people. Hence the half-true implication that this is new freedom for Britain, and the disguised truth that what is new about it is not having to adhere to regulatory restrictions which, if explained, many might prefer to keep, and the tendentious claims for the benefits.

That itself is consonant with the way, as argued in my previous post, that the government remains within Brexit campaign mode. For it is very much like the linguistic chicanery of ‘Turkey is joining the EU’, defended on the grounds that it was true that, in principle, there was an ongoing process for Turkish accession whilst carrying the untrue implication that accession was an accomplished and imminent fact. Likewise, the “let’s spend” £350M a week on the NHS slogan was defended on the basis that this was merely a ‘suggestion’ for what could happen.

Fortunately, the English love a queue

However, in one respect at least the government did start talking about the practical realities of Brexit – though it was not generally reported as the headline story it should have been - and it turns out that these are not so liberating after all.

As with free ports, it was dressed up in bracing terms – the Border Delivery Group, no less – beneath which lay the stark truth that as of next January there will be border checks on goods coming into Great Britain* from the EU, whether or not there is a trade deal, as well as tariffs charged if there is no trade deal. There were promises of ‘smart border’ arrangements by 2025, but that’s a long way off, most experts think them unlikely to be ready that soon and, anyway, they do not mean an end to customs formalities.

At one level, such border controls have been the obvious implication of Brexit ever since it was decided that this meant the hard Brexit of a trade deal or the even harder one of no trade deal at all. Yet that reality had been obscured by all the gaslighting about lack of checks on the Swiss border, the endless promises of ‘frictionless trade’ continuing and fanciful claims of ‘alternative arrangements’ to deliver this (most often with reference to the erstwhile Irish land border but, by extension, to be used at all EU-UK borders).

Everyone who knew anything about it knew that this was nonsense but, extraordinarily, this week was the first time that any high-profile official announcement of the reality of border checks in the UK was made. In the preparation for a no-deal Brexit, the plan had been that, whilst it was accepted that there would be EU tariffs and checks on UK exports to the EU, there would be almost none on goods moving from the EU to the UK.

That was always a strange idea anyway (giving EU exporters a huge advantage over UK exporters), but was intended as a temporary measure, at least in the first instance**, born of a recognition that there was insufficient time to build the necessary customs infrastructure in the UK. For similar reasons, no-deal planning had waived or reduced many of the normal border formalities but with this week’s announcement these, too, will now be put in place by the end of December.

It remains an open question whether the ten months or so until then will be sufficient and, if not, there are likely to be serious queues at the main ports (‘unfree ports’, perhaps). But, more importantly in the long-run, it spells out the very clear fact that Brexit is going to put an end to businesses running EU-UK just-in-time supply chains, as well as adding substantially to the costs of other businesses which trade across the new border.

Conceivably, it is intended as a negotiating ploy designed to make ‘German car makers’ and the like realize the consequences of there being no trade deal (if so, Brexiters have learned nothing). But it looks more like an acceptance that the no trade deal scenario is increasingly likely and, in any case, that there is no trade deal which can re-create the frictionless trade of single market and customs union membership. Zero tariffs does not mean zero checks and zero customs formalities – all of which mean friction and also mean increased business costs.

On the other hand, if there is no trade deal and import tariffs apply, an obvious question to ask is what tariff rates Britain will be applying. Alas, there is no answer to that since it also emerged this week that it has not yet been decided (£). This is a peculiar situation for a nation seeking, and desperately needing, to make trade deals not just with the EU but around the world. After all, how can such negotiation proceed if the other party does not know the terms that would apply without a deal being struck?

That is part of a more general picture of lack of preparedness which is one reason why leading American officials to say that a trade deal with the UK is now a lower priority for the US than one with the EU. We’re no longer ‘first in the queue’ apparently. That may explain why Brexiter MPs like Iain Duncan Smith are spearheading opposition to the government’s use of Huawei – perhaps they have belatedly realised that the realities of international trade talks entail power plays that make a mockery of their windy rhetoric about ‘taking back control’.

Bait and switch

Businesses now have a greater sense of what the government intends to inflict on their trade with the EU and, to some extent, that at least has the benefit of increased clarity. But they have warned, again, what this will mean for product availability and prices. That will have no cut-through with either the government or much of the public, of course, having already been discounted as Project Fear. The calculation appears to be that there is no political price to be paid for having spent years promising sunny uplands and then delivering dank swamps. Such a bait and switch is the oldest technique in the conman’s repertoire, but it does risk the wrath of disgruntled punters.

Much will depend upon exactly what damage occurs and how quickly, and whether enough people make the connections. Will they, for example, remember cases such as the boss of Norton, the British motorbike firm that went into receivership this week citing Brexit as one reason, saying in 2018 that Britain “would thrive outside the EU” and urging the government to get Brexit done? Or, if they face shortages and price increases because of border delays and costs, will they recall the warnings that were dismissed as Project Fear?

More generally, will enough people remember that Michael Gove, who made the announcement of the new border controls this week, was the same person who in 2016 sold them the bogus Vote Leave campaign line that there “is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey … after we vote to leave we will remain in the zone”?

The depressing thing is that they probably won’t, the more so if the government is successful in persuading people that Brexit was something ‘that happened’, rather than something that is happening, and which both in principle and in form the Prime Minister and other leading ministers made happen.

This is why it is important – especially in the media - to keep challenging the linguistic contortions, and to keep comparing the promises with the outcomes. For although it may seem that both rationality and honesty have now disappeared from our politics that is not inevitable, and will only become so if we all drop the attempt to keep them present.

*The arrangements for Northern Ireland will, of course, be different. How these will work remains unclear and appears to have experts baffled.

**I say ‘in the first instance’ because, whilst the plans were indeed billed as ‘temporary’, on the wilder fringes of Brexit debate there are some influential figures who do propose the unilateral abolition of (all) import tariffs by the UK. Apart from the devastation this would cause British manufacturing and agriculture, such an approach would, of course, make negotiating trade deals with other countries rather difficult. For (whilst trade deals aren’t just about tariffs) why should they remove tariffs on UK goods if the UK has already removed tariffs on theirs?

Friday 7 February 2020

Brexiters need to stop campaigning and start governing

Brexit day has come and gone. But as has been widely remarked, though apparently not universally understood, nothing really changes in the Transition Period, so there is no radical rupture in daily life.

The big question is whether that also means that nothing really changes in the way that Britain approaches Brexit. For last Friday did mark a rupture in one, crucial, way. Brexit, in the formal sense of Britain leaving the EU has happened, and a new phase has begun.

The issue now is not so much whether remainers accept that (£) – they don’t have much choice anyway - it’s whether Brexiters do. In particular, the issue is whether Brexiters – who now, unequivocally, form the government – are able to shift from campaigning to, indeed, governing.

What would this mean?

Stopping the lies

The first and most important thing that would have to change is for Boris Johnson, his government, and all the Brexiter commentators and advisers to stop lying. If they are serious about Brexit they need to face up to the realities of what it entails and that means telling the truth to themselves and others.

To take an example from this week. Hardly had the celebrations ended than Johnson was reported to be “infuriated” that the EU had “reneged” on its commitments to strike a ‘Canada- style’ free trade deal by now insisting on ‘Level Playing Field’ (LPF) commitments in terms of state aid, workers’ rights, environmental standards and so on. But that this was the EU’s position has been clear for at least a year and, more importantly, was set out in the text of the Political Declaration (paragraph 77) that Johnson himself signed. It’s this kind of constant gaslighting that would need to stop.

There’s more to it than that, though. Suppose that it were true that the EU had hardened its position, or suppose that it does, indeed, harden position in the coming months. In that case: welcome to the real world – there’s no point in having a foot-stamping, ‘it’s not fair’ tantrum.  This is what Brexit means. This is what you wanted. The UK is now a third country with respect to the EU, which will pursue what it judges to be its own interests and those of its member states. Britain is no longer a member state, and the EU will, quite properly, have no regard for our interests.

It seems strange to have to remind Brexiters that the EU is not some cuddly, kind uncle, showering largesse upon the world. It is ruthless in pursuit and protection of its own interests. So too will be the US, or Japan, or China, or India, or any other country with which the UK seeks to made trade deals, including ‘cosy’ Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Nor is this confined to matters of trade, and trade itself is linked with other issues. That is evident in the row over Huawei 5G with the US (£) and the report that Spain will have a veto over the application of any UK-EU deal to Gibraltar. The latter caused much pearl-clutching from Brexiters but, again, there is nothing new here. It was the subject of one of the earliest rows in the Brexit process, back in April 2017. And as I wrote at the time, this row contained several lessons for how Brexit would proceed.

These lessons included, again, the need for realism. Just as the UK used Spain’s accession to the EU in 1986 to garner EU support for the UK’s rights over Gibraltar (in that case, to have an open border with Spain), so the converse applies now that the UK is leaving. Another lesson was that the UK needed to drop the idea that only France and Germany mattered in terms of negotiating with the EU. As the pivotal influence that Ireland has had over the last three years should have demonstrated, that simply isn’t true. The EU will negotiate as a bloc, on the basis of a mandate from the Council, and with regard to the (various) interests of all its members.

Getting real

If Brexiters are going to get serious about governing, what also has to end is responding to these and similar things through the victimhood narrative of being punished by the EU or the bullish assertion that it all proves that Britain is right to leave. These are campaigning stances – arguments, if you believe them, for leaving the EU. But Britain has left the EU. The campaign is over. It’s time to get real.

That ‘getting real’ also includes being honest about the economic and political effects of what is being done. A trade deal, of any sort, with the EU is going to do little for services. A minimal trade deal will do relatively little even for goods. If the approach is to be de-alignment then recognize, as Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform explains, that “flexibility does not come for free”.

All reputable economic forecasts show that, whatever the trade deal, we will be somewhat poorer and if there is no trade deal we will be much poorer. There’s no longer any need to try to rubbish those forecasts (or forecasts in general, although in fact, with one notable exception namely that of ‘Economists for Brexit’, these have been fairly accurate). If they turn out to be wrong then they will turn out to be wrong, but admit that, at the moment, that’s the most likely outcome. So plan on that basis.

Trade deals with those countries with which the EU has deals are not all going to roll over on identical terms, and even where they do this will only put the UK back to the position it would have been without Brexit. Trade deals with new countries, even the US, will not make a huge difference and will not off-set the loss of trade with the EU. Be honest and realistic about the priorities and possibilities for global trade policy as Sam Lowe (again, but in a different article) suggests.

There are going to be border checks and other formalities between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so stop pretending otherwise. Recognize that in due course that may lead to Irish reunification. Also recognize that Brexit has made the case for another independence referendum in Scotland all but unanswerable, or at all events ensured that calls for it will be increasingly vociferous. It will surely happen eventually. So accept that and, with it, the possibility that Scotland will leave the UK.

Almost all of these things are, in my view, damaging. But that argument is over. Now that they are going to happen what matters is, again, for Brexiters to stop trying to win a campaign argument and start being realistic. If they think they are a price worth paying then so be it, but admit the price and start working out how to go about paying it.

And getting real means dropping all the tired old lines – still being wheeled out by the likes of David Davis - about how Britain’s trade deficit with the EU, and the needs of German car makers, guarantee a great trade deal. They helped win the campaign, but the campaign is over. They were lies but they’re no longer needed. Or, for those who want to insist they are true, they are still redundant as we’ll soon get that great trade deal anyway.

Developing a serious strategy

The second big change that would be needed is also about truthfulness and realism, but on a bigger canvas. I’ve several times argued that Brexit is not just a strategic error but, actually, a strategic absence. Again, that’s linked to its having been a campaign and protest movement. The historian Professor Robert Saunders has provided a more developed version of that argument in a truly superb essay on his blog.

It’s well worth reading in full but, in brief, Saunders argues that Britain joining the EU was a belated strategic response to its changed economic and geo-political situation in the aftermath of the Second World War. It may, he says although he does not agree, have been the wrong response, as Brexiters believe. But that does not mean that the challenges it responded to have gone away.

Moreover, he argues that the British Euroscepticism that ultimately gave rise to Brexit has its roots in a 1990s analysis of the world order which, in 2020, is redundant. Therefore we need, in his words, to get “serious about the choices in front of us” which “will require more imagination, more humility and a more clear-eyed appreciation of the options than anyone has yet offered in Britain’s tortured Brexit debate”.

It is a proposal in line with Sam Lowe’s analysis of post-Brexit trade priorities, referred to earlier, in which he argues that a long-term trade strategy must have a coherent economic or geo-political purpose rather than being a search for “political trophies”, although of course trade strategy is only one aspect of the wider point.

All this I agree with. Developing such a strategy will be difficult and the more so because it needs to be done quickly. It needs a big public conversation which should have preceded the Referendum or, at least, been developed once the result was known. ‘Global Britain’ is not such a strategy but rather, as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee put it in 2018, a slogan in need of substance.

Showing competence

Given the current time pressure and all the operational things that will need to be done – for example in developing new customs procedures – there is probably not the political or administrative bandwidth to achieve it in the next eleven months. But it is important to at least begin, and not just because such a strategy is needed in itself. Rather, along with being truthful and realistic about what Brexit means, doing so would at least send a signal of competence. That would do something to repair the battering Brexit has given to the UK’s image abroad, but it would also be an important domestic signal.

There is much talk of the need to reach out to those who voted for Brexit because they had been ‘left behind’ (though that could and should have been done long ago, without Brexit). But there is also a need to reach out to remainers, and perhaps to a particular group amongst them. Call them ‘the Establishment’ if you must, but like it or not the many business people, professionals, administrators and so on who, as the demographics of the Referendum voting suggest, largely did not want Brexit are going to have to deal with its effects.

In my previous post I argued at length how dangerous it is that we are embarking on a complete change of direction whilst being so internally divided. That would be true even if Brexit was the most wonderful idea there had ever been. Any such policy needs some minimal level of buy-in from those who have to deliver it.

Having failed for three years to provide the consensus-building leadership that might have created that, the government now has a final chance to at least demonstrate that it will approach Brexit in a realistic way, being truthful about its actual effects and challenges. I don’t suggest that this would win over many remainers, but it might at least persuade some that Brexit has moved from unicorn fantasies to a deliverable, if still to them undesirable, project.

Getting out of the echo chamber

A final part of the shift from campaigning to governing would be for government ministers to look beyond the advisors who – I assume – they most closely rely on. Many of them, including Dominic Cummings but not limited to him, have their background in, precisely, the Leave campaign. Relatedly, the whole shady network sometimes known as the Tufton Street mafia is a big part of the problem, because it is from this that so much of the misinformation has flowed. Again, this would be the case even if Brexit were the most wonderful of ideas. It’s always a problem to confine advice to ‘true believers’ as it is a recipe for groupthink and poor decision making.

For Brexiters to recognize this involves dropping the idea – born both of being in campaign mode but also of a victim mentality – that they face a ‘remainer conspiracy’, whose lack of positivity will put a brake on Brexit. Yet if Brexit is supposed to be a realistic project, rather than an act of faith-healing, it requires that ministers get technically competent advice rather than just the soothing balm of being told what they want to hear.

Equally, if the government is really serious about ‘bringing the country back together’ then it would start engaging with people outside of the doctrinaire Brexiter camp. Instead, this week has seen journalists excluded from briefings and business groups not invited to Johnson’s speech on his Brexit ‘plans’. Echo chambers are bad enough on social media, and they’re certainly no basis for effective government.

Will any of this happen?

The short answer, of course, is ‘no’. The very nature of last weekend’s celebrations gives a clue as to why. It showed how, for many who were celebrating, the pleasure comes from triumphing over remainers rather than leaving the EU. That triumph can be endlessly relived, but doing so won’t deliver Brexit. Some, burning EU flags, are more concerned with hatred for the EU than with what Britain outside the EU would be. If Brexit leaders continue to pander to these two sentiments then, as for the last three years, Brexit will continue to be entirely focussed on the campaign, not on governing.

Still others were pro-Brexit but were protesting against Johnson’s Brexit for not being the real thing. That betrayalism, which no doubt Farage and some in the ERG will continue to articulate, means that Johnson is likely to continue to approach Brexit as a tactical party management device rather than as a matter of policy delivery. In any case he is an unlikely person to lead a shift from campaigning, given that it entails both being honest and also giving attention to practical detail and delivery. These things are hardly his most obvious strengths, and were he minded to try he would have started immediately after Brexit day, if not indeed when he became Prime Minister.

Instead, we’ve already seen in this first week we that nothing’s going to change. Apart from the bogus claims about the EU having suddenly invented its LPF requirements, we had the equally bogus idea that the UK could prosper with an ‘Australian-style deal’. In trade terms, since there is no EU-Australia free trade agreement, that just means no trade deal i.e. WTO terms (plus a few bits and pieces). Presumably Johnson’s advisors have suggested his formulation sounds more palatable.

So, still no honesty and, given the devastating effects it would have, still no realism and still no strategy. Johnson’s Brexit speech, according to politics Professor Tim Bale, was “of little substance” and did not have “a whole lot of realism”. Childishly, but in line with government policy (£), he refused to use the word ‘Brexit’. Unsurprisingly, the pound fell by about 1% against both the dollar and the euro as he spoke.

To the victor the spoils

That is one small example of the fact that Brexiters, led by Johnson, will now have to confront reality even if they refuse to be realistic. Slogans and rhetoric won the campaign, but neither they nor ‘true belief’ will make a difference to that reality. Strangely, those on the free-market Right, many of whom are such ardent Brexiters, used to know that ‘you can’t buck the market’.

So whatever kind of deal gets agreed with the EU it will have real consequences on business locations and investments, on growth, on the pound, on prices and on employment. They will happen even if Brexiters deny them, or discount them as ‘remainer negativity’, as if they were still campaigning rather than governing, still trying to win the argument rather than delivering their promises.

Brexiters are no longer, if they ever were, the victims they portray themselves to be. As Nigel Farage said at last week’s celebrations, “the war is over, we have won” (£). To the victor, go the spoils. They are now ‘the elite’ and ‘the Establishment’ but with that power comes responsibility and accountability. Like it or not, they can no longer run away from the consequences, but there’s no sign that they are going to stop trying.