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.

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