Friday, 21 August 2020

The political psychology beneath the Brexit talks

Despite another round of negotiations having been held it has been a relatively quiet Brexit week. The main noise emerging from the talks has been about UK fury at the EU’s “intransigence” (£) over road haulage rights. It’s a story with long familiar components, including the attempt to ‘cherry pick’ desired parts of single market membership, and arrogant and probably unrealistic calculations by Brexiters – including the ‘they need us more than we need them’ motif - of where the EU ‘should see’ that its interests lie. As regards the latter, the present case is another version of the tired old argument that the UK’s goods trade deficit with the EU will be in Britain’s favour.

That relative quietness is not surprising because the real action will come in the autumn, with a deal, if there is to be deal, needed by mid-October for ratification to be viable by the end of the transition. It’s also not surprising because the news has been dominated by others important things, principally the fiasco over exam results.

There are some interconnections between the Brexit and non-Brexit news. First, in a general way, and as with the handling of coronavirus, it is increasingly obvious that a government defined solely by ‘getting Brexit done’ is singularly ill-equipped to govern. That arises from the combination of Johnson’s lazy boosterism, Cummings’ arrogant control freakery, and the application of a Brexit loyalty test – rather than competence – as the sole criterion for ministerial office and civil servants’ influence. Together, to labour a point repeatedly made on this blog, this means that we have a Vote Leave campaign in office rather than an administration in the normal sense of the word.

Beyond that, the latest example of incompetence and backtracking has led some commentators to wonder if it will make Johnson more cautious of risking the debacle of no deal and others to anticipate that on Brexit, too, he might perform a U-turn (I suppose that means in terms of softening its form, or perhaps by belatedly finding some way to extend transition).

I don’t think that either of these scenarios is at all plausible. Whilst it’s true that there is now a repeated pattern of this government underestimating or ignoring complexities and having to U-turn as a result, because Brexit is such a central and defining policy it is highly unlikely to carry over into that. Doing so would be certain to rip the Tory Party apart and end Johnson’s premiership. It is the one piece of incompetence (even though others would see it as pragmatism) that his increasingly fractious party will not tolerate. For the same reason, his continual failures in every other area are likely to make him, if anything, even more reckless as regards the EU, and even more likely to seek to curry favour with the Ultras in his party who don’t want a deal.

Deal or no deal?

So the question of whether or not there will be a deal with the EU still lies in the balance – and it shouldn’t be forgotten what an extraordinary state of affairs this is, given the promises made by Brexiters and the fact that the transition ends in just four months’ time. Early reports on this week’s talks suggest very limited progress.

Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform made out a strong case this week for why a deal would be preferable. In brief, he gives five reasons: avoiding tariffs and quotas; making non-trade agreements on regulation more likely; enhancing customs co-operation; facilitating the implementation (which anyway has to occur) of the Northern Ireland Protocol; providing a platform for further agreements in the future.

Other analyses this week make related arguments. Pernille Rudlin, an expert in Japanese business, pointed out that, notwithstanding the possible UK-Japan trade deal, a UK-EU deal remains crucial to the future of Japanese investments in the UK. And Sir Julian King, a former senior diplomat now affiliated to Oxford University and RUSI, discussed the need for a future security relationship (analysis of which has been often eclipsed by the focus on trade). At UK insistence security (like defence and foreign policy) has been treated separately from the current talks, and barely discussed at all*, but as King and Lowe both, in different ways, imply, the fate of the two is interlinked to a degree if only because the animosity that would attend no deal on trade would be likely to spill over into any talks about security.

Somewhat related was a fascinating article by Naomi Smith, Chief Executive of Best for Britain, about EU-China trade talks (actually published last week, but I missed it then). She makes the point that these talks are ambitious in scope, seeking a deep relationship, with the establishment of (yes!) rigorous Level Playing Field conditions the likely requirement and consequence. This, she suggests, offers an obvious template for a comprehensive UK-EU agreement which could be achieved immediately, built on existing alignment and links, rather than over the years that the EU-China deal will take. With Brexit delivered, why not take advantage of such possibilities, be similarly ambitious, and steal a march on a China?

In a way, this is a particular version of the argument I made in a recent post about the need for a whole new Brexit debate, one no longer viewed through the prism of the Referendum and British Euroscepticism, but starting afresh from the fact of Brexit and calculating where British interests lie without the dead weight of the ‘in or out’ question that has dogged relations with the EU for decades.

For we know the stumbling block to what Smith is proposing. It is the Brexit Ultras' refusal to consider the kind of comprehensive agreement she advocates. Even Lowe’s more downbeat suggestion that a trade deal is “better than nothing”, or King’s “dialled down [security] relationship” that is “still worth doing”, goes too far for some of them. Some believe that any such deal would end up being the basis for a gradual, re-integrationist project (£), overlapping with others who prefer the ‘sovereign purity’ of no deal. In other words, they still view the post-Brexit relationship entirely through the lens of the pre-Brexit question of membership.

Should remainers** hope for no deal?

But what of those of us who view Brexit as a terrible mistake? That is not an easy question. There is a strong temptation to welcome no deal at the end of transition so as more fully to expose that folly. Only if the damage done is blindingly obvious – with significant food and drug shortages, price rises, border queues and other disruptions – will the Brexiter chickens finally come home to roost. For as Lowe points out – contrary to the wholly fallacious claims of some Brexiters – there is a significant difference between even a ‘thin’ deal and no deal. But tempting as it may be, such a position has big problems.

First, most obvious, and most important is, precisely, the damage that would be done. This wouldn’t be some academic seminar in which an argument would be satisfyingly won. It would impose real hardship, and possibly worse than hardship, on the entire country, remain and leave voters alike. My own view is that it would be an unconscionable position in itself, and an impolitic one to boot: if ‘no deal 2.0’ comes about let it be because of the intransigence of the Ultras or governmental incompetence, and not accompanied by remainer cheers.

Second, it’s unrealistic anyway. Whatever damage is done by no deal the Brexit Ultras will never admit that they were wrong. They will claim it was not due to Brexit and/or that it was due to Brexit not being done ‘properly’. Some ordinary leave voters will not be convinced by that, of course, but the politicians and commentators who have brought us Brexit are never going to recant, whatever happens. Certainly not a single one of any standing has yet done so, and I can’t see that changing in any circumstances now. So, although the temptations are entirely understandable, wishing for no deal in order to discredit Brexit is all pain and no gain.

The Museum of Brexit

Such temptations are obviously related to the discussion in my recent post of the Brexit culture war, ‘remainer vengefulness’, and the perhaps now permanent divisions that have been created. The main reason why it is so tempting for remainers to imagine a ‘gotcha’ moment is the daily taunts and sneers directed to them by Brexiters. The latest goad came this week with the revival of plans for ‘Museum of Brexit’, reported in various newspapers. It’s clear that the intention is to be a celebration, rather than any kind of even-handed record, of Brexit. However, the reports might almost have been parodic, since it is hard to imagine even the most enthusiastic of Brexiters being much attracted by the – at once underwhelming and slightly distasteful - suggestion that exhibits will include “Wetherspoon beer mats, one of Nigel Farage’s old suits and even pro-Brexit condoms”.

In any case, despite having the support of several Tory MPs, and assorted other high profile Brexiters, it’s by no means clear that this particular chamber of horrors will ever see the light of day. But that’s not really the point. It’s (presumably) more intended to gee up leave voters who may now be wondering what the point of it all was. In that respect, it is interesting and important that the museum is intended “to remember all the little people in pub meetings up and down the country who kept the flame of sovereignty and independence alive during the dark years”.

The fantasy of the Brexiter resistance

It would be easy to sneer at this, but doing so misses the opportunity to gain insight into some aspects of the complex political psychology of Brexit. Because it’s actually quite a fascinating identity to offer, partly because of its strange elitist yet anti-elitist formulation of “the little people” which I think ties in with the ‘Passport to Pimlico’ strand in Brexit and also the way (as I’ve discussed before) this can be consonant with accepting as leaders those who are self-evidently of the elite (Johnson, Rees-Mogg etc.) and yet are seen as ‘authentic’ toffs, rather than the moralising, political correct killjoys of the ‘liberal elite’. So ‘little people’, here, isn’t seen as condescending as it would be if remainers used it. Rather, it codes an ordered world in which each has their proper, but respected, place.

More to the point, the museum’s purpose invokes an image of an underground resistance movement to an occupation. Of course this, with Brexit as liberation, is precisely how some Brexiters imagine the situation, comparing – quite ludicrously and, actually, insultingly – leaving the EU with escaping colonial rule. Similarly, ludicrous and insulting comparisons of the EU with the USSR or the Third Reich are all too common. The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole has written eloquently and persuasively about this mythology of invasion and resistance as being at the heart of the political psychology that lay behind Brexit. Depicting longstanding leave activists as resistance cells – along with the very idea of a museum – suggests that Brexiters are now beginning to develop a kind of historical narrative of themselves above and beyond the immediate one of Brexit being ‘the will of the people’.

That matters because – to the extent that it takes hold – it serves to cement leaver identity well beyond the enactment of Brexit, since one of the key ways that (sub-)cultures are produced is through a narration of their own past. It obviously has the potential to morph into the already familiar victim narrative of ‘a people betrayed’. But it contains something else that is important and possibly less obvious. For unlike, say, the French Resistance after the Liberation, these keepers of the flame have not emerged from the “dark years” to be feted, admired and even envied by their more cautious or compromised compatriots. Still less – again unlike the French Resistance – do we see non-resisters queueing up to pretend that they, too, were amongst the freedom fighters.

Brexiters’ need for validation

I think that this is significant for how events have unfolded since 2016. Committed Brexiters, to the extent they believed that they would win at all, expected that on that glorious day they would be recognized as national saviours. Equally, many of them expected that the EU itself would swiftly collapse, and other countries would follow the trail they had blazed to liberation.

That none of this has happened partly accounts for the way that Brexiters continue to be so embittered and angry, despite having won. That psychology is multi-stranded, and the strands are not necessarily consistent. So it’s partly, as I (and others) have written before, including in a piece this week in Byline Times, about a victimhood both wanted and denied. Associated with that it’s also – as again Fintan O’Toole has repeatedly argued – that liberation from an entirely imagined oppression is bound be unsatisfying. And it’s about the unerasable knowledge that victory was achieved only through lies.

But there’s another strand, which is about recognition denied. For even if the EU really was every bit as oppressive as they claim, what kind of ‘liberation’ can it be when about half of your compatriots didn’t want it in the first place and more than half now think it mistaken? This explains why, even now, day after day in arguments on social media and elsewhere, Brexiters keep trying to get remainers not just to accept the referendum result but to accept that leaving is a good and desirable thing. That’s more than a demand for “losers’ consent”, for what is being demanded is ‘losers’ validation’. That contradicts, of course, the desire for victimhood, creating one of the many paradoxes of this political psychology.

Similarly, this explains why – despite having left the EU – there are still constant attempts to depict it as being in crisis and on the point of implosion, whether over coronavirus, or budget negotiations, or events in Hungary and Poland. Why do they care, now that we have left? But, again, what is being sought is validation through the anticipated domino effect that ‘we were right’. And again, it contains a paradox since were the EU to disappear then so, too, would the entire basis of Brexiter political identity.

Why does it matter?

More hard-headed readers may feel impatient with all this psychological speculation. But it has a specific and immediately practical significance which reaches right inside the negotiating rooms where the future relationship was being discussed again this week, framed by UK insistence on being a ‘sovereign equal’ and EU insistence on ‘conformity to rules’. Because for Brexiters – who now control the government – this framing is precisely that of resistance and invasion, which explains why progress has been so limited. It is the hidden background to every row about EU ‘intransigence’, such as this week’s about road haulage.

More broadly, it is one driver of the constantly antagonistic approach to the exit and, now, future terms negotiations. Rather than striding confidently to national freedom and renewal, the tone from the outset has been one of resentment, hostility and suspicion, wanting and needing to depict the EU as unreasonable and punitive so as to ‘prove we were right to leave’, whilst acting as if Britain were the aggrieved party, almost as if we were being forced to leave. This in turn makes a ‘successful’ Brexit – one that at least minimizes economic damage and which does not trash national reputation – an impossibility. Which in turn makes those who did not vote leave even less likely to recant and validate the idea of Brexit being a good thing.

The even more hard-headed may want to know what the solution to all this is. The answer to that is that, for now at least, there is no answer. How can there be, when a nation is completely re-inventing its place in the world against the wishes of half its population, and with the other half gripped by a political psychology woven of paradoxical and contradictory impulses that have led them to vote for something undefined and that, however defined, is, because of that psychology, offensive to large numbers of those who did so?

*I’m grateful to Professor Simon Usherwood of Surrey University for confirming that this statement is correct. The question arises because there are some complexities as to how ‘security’ is defined and to what extent it can be separated from issues of law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, which have been discussed.

**It’s really not satisfactory to keep using the word ‘remainers’ now that remaining in the EU is no longer an option. I just mean people who did not want to leave and still wish we hadn’t. But to constantly use a term like, say, ‘erstwhile remainers’ would be very clumsy.

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