Friday, 27 March 2020

Brexit in lockdown

Unsurprisingly, there is little Brexit news since – rightly – most attention is elsewhere. Yet, as argued in my previous post, for as long as it remains ongoing it remains legitimate and important to discuss it notwithstanding the coronavirus crisis. That is the more so when that crisis is being used to justify Brexit – as with the gleeful repetition of the essentially inaccurate story that EU State Aid rules would preclude the UK’s coronavirus business support package – or to claim that it will somehow bestow a negotiating advantage on Britain (£). And when Brexit is still being falsely used as reason for not taking advantage of EU procurement systems for desperately needed ventilators – although subsequently the line changed, with the government risibly claiming it was because the emails about it hadn’t been received.

That said, there is not much to add to my previous post in that nothing much is actually happening with Brexit which, in itself, underscores that the only substantive question now is whether, and more likely when, the transition period will be extended. The government remains silent on this beyond previously issued denials, but that’s unlikely to last.

Since that previous post David Frost has gone into self-isolation with suspected coronavirus, and with Michel Barnier already having tested positive that in itself is indicative of the difficulty of continuing with business as usual with both chief negotiators quarantined. It’s reliably reported that the Brexit Cabinet sub-committee has been suspended and won’t meet again ‘until further notice’. The Freight Trade Association have become perhaps the first major trade association to publicly call for an extension. The only real obstacle from the UK side to an extension is the obduracy of what Tony Barber in the Financial Times calls the ‘Brexit millenarians’ (£).

So for now Brexit is in limbo, although several thinktanks continue to produce informative reports. These include, this week, Georgina Wright and Joe Owen’s Institute for Government analysis of the role of the Joint Committee, and the UK in a Changing Europe’s multi-authored study of Parliament and Brexit. It’s worth mentioning just how well-served the public have been by these two organizations – and others, such as the Centre for European Reform – in providing freely available expert analysis throughout the Brexit saga.

Excellent as that ongoing work is, most of us, including the most Brexit-obsessed, are inevitably more preoccupied with the current crisis, which in some ways is erasing the remainer-Brexiter distinctions and conflicts of the last three years. Yet it would be intellectually dishonest not to record that there are some carry overs. For one, important, thing we have a Prime Minister who is, more than anything, a Brexit Prime Minister but who has been forced by events to become the coronavirus crisis Prime Minister, something calling for very different qualities than those that come naturally to him.

Connections between Brexit and coronavirus

More broadly, there is a set of intellectual and cultural connections between some of the most hardcore Brexiters and those who are dismissive of the dangers of and/or responses to coronavirus. I don’t want this to be misunderstood: this is not an ‘all Brexiters are thick’ comment (and I have never made such comments). Nor is it denying that plenty of Brexit supporters are making huge contributions to dealing effectively with coronavirus whilst, no doubt, plenty of remainers are responding foolishly to the crisis.

One connection is the resonance between what is reported to have been Dominic Cummings’ initial response to coronavirus and his (and others’) ‘disruptor’ view of Brexit. They both seem to grow out of an idea that any shock to ‘the system’ is to be regarded as desirable simply for being a shock. Adverse consequences are just so much collateral damage to be ignored if not, indeed, welcomed. That’s not quite the same as the ‘disaster capitalism’ idea, in which massive shocks such as this pandemic represent an opportunity for economic and political exploitation. It’s more a kind of adolescent infatuation with instability as ‘exciting’ and it links to the wearisomely predictable ‘contrarianism’ of the peculiar, yet peculiarly influential, leftist-libertarian Spiked Online sect who have lashed out against the coronavirus restrictions and who, of course, tend to be ardent Brexiters. One might speculate on the affinities between such an infatuation and the psychology of the “misfits and weirdos” who are Cummings’ preferred hires.

Another connection is the overlap with the bluff ‘commonsense’ of a certain strand of Brexiter thinking. There’s more to it than the infamous ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ line, although it links with that. Rather, it’s to do with the way that, starting with the campaign ‘take back control’ strapline, through the claims about ‘German car makers’, the naïve beliefs about ‘alternative arrangements’ and the imaginary possibilities of ‘GATT Article XXIV’, Brexit has been presented as a simple choice with a simple process. Arguably, the Leave campaign’s Referendum success was largely attributable to this ‘simplism’, whereas remainers’ arguments have relied on often impenetrable complexities.

It’s surely no coincidence, therefore, that Tim Martin, the Wetherspoons boss and one of the relatively small number of leading business people to vocally support Brexit, who for years propounded the simplicities of Brexit has made similar pronouncements about the coronavirus crisis. It links no doubt with the deep-rooted English aversion to intellectuals, who make things complex when they need not be, and also to a perhaps related machismo so that Martin is “happy to take his chances” with catching the virus.

The same attitude is evident in the comments of Paul Bullen, former UKIP leader on Cambridgeshire County Council and Brexit Party candidate. He thinks “the majority don’t care” about coronavirus and wants to just “get back to normal”. It might be called a ‘hand washing is for sissies’ mentality (which could have important consequences for coronavirus spread (£) given the higher infection and mortality rates amongst men). Another variant on the same theme is, like Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, to condemn alarm about the virus as “scaremongering” just as she (and countless others) dismissed warnings about Brexit as ‘Project Fear’ (£).

The lure of nostalgia

But simplism isn’t just about anti-intellectualism and macho bravado. It’s also a big impetus behind nostalgia and the imagination that ‘life was simpler back then’. Nostalgia has been an incredibly important feature of recent British politics – even before the Referendum it was evident in what at the time I called the “grotesque historical spoonerism” of Austerity nostalgia – and the role that World War Two nostalgia has played in Brexit is well-known.

We see, again, the overlaps with responses to coronavirus. The most bathetic, perhaps, is Godfrey Bloom’s crotchety puzzlement at pubs being closed now, when they weren’t during the Blitz (hint: bombs dropping from planes and viruses being transmitted between people aren’t the same thing). Bloom, a former UKIP MEP who lost his party’s whip, is, admittedly, an outlier even to the wilder fringes of Brexiteer thinking. The fruitcakes’ fruitcake, so to speak. But that idea that the coronavirus crisis is, somehow, like the Blitz has a much wider and more mainstream currency. It very much resonates with the sentiment, commonly expressed but summed up perfectly by former England cricketer Geoff Boycott, that (no-deal) Brexit will be fine “because we fought two world wars and came out on top”.

I suppose, to be charitable, that given the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus it’s understandable that people reach for analogies and to the extent that the war is the only comparable moblization of State economic and social control in (just about) living memory it makes a sort of sense. And, in passing, it bears saying that wartime administration, especially in the early months, was marked by multiple inefficiencies and – as Mass Observation diaries show – plenty of civilian scepticism about the wisdom of the authorities. So there may be analogies to be found beyond the mythologization of the Blitz (or Dunkirk).

Why it matters

But the key point is that, as in relation to Brexit I’ve tried to chronicle throughout the posts on this blog, simplism in all its forms is inadequate. Like Brexit, coronavirus presents multiple and complex challenges for public policy and for individuals. Defiantly invoking the Blitz to say that we should not ‘give in’ to the virus by abandoning our normal ways of living is useless because dealing with the virus is best done precisely by abandoning those normal ways of living. The cultural and intellectual attitudes that delivered the Brexit vote have proved totally unsuited to delivering Brexit itself, and are totally unsuited to responding to coronavirus.

Understanding those attitudes is not about point-scoring or finger-pointing at the expense of Brexiters. These attitudes exist, and understanding them matters. It matters, in the present crisis, because they impact on how some sections of the public view and respond to the restrictions needed to deal with it. It matters, in relation to Brexit, because at every step of the way over the last four year those attitudes have both been proved wrong and yet remained dominant. And it matters in relation to the only currently important Brexit issue. For it is precisely the prevalence of those attitudes amongst the ‘Brexit Millenarians’ which constitutes the sole block to the transparently obvious fact that the transition period has to be extended.

It perhaps also matters in the longer-term. The linked themes of irresponsible disruption, contrarian drivel, common sense simplism, and nostalgia have proved remarkably resilient even in the face of the last few years of Brexit turmoil. The coronavirus crisis may well serve to discredit them, if the population wearies of turmoil, sees contrarianism as tedious frivolity, recognizes the importance of expertise in dealing with complexity and, perhaps, comes to see the crisis as its own rather than a re-run of those of decades ago. The world – Brexit included – already looks rather different to how it did just a couple of weeks ago. By the time this crisis is over, it may be unrecognizable.



Note: I am not sure that I will continue to post every week on this blog given the lack of substantial Brexit news, but will certainly do so as and when there is such news.

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