Friday, 2 April 2021

A Brexit reset?

The ‘big picture’ of the economic consequences of Brexit continues to get filled out, as discussed in an excellent panel event hosted by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank this week. But behind that unfolding disaster lie a whole host of ‘micro-damages’ (although for those involved they may be anything but trivial). In some cases they are linked directly to the new trade barriers, as in the collection of individual stories in Daniel Thomas and Peter Foster’s recent Financial Times article (£) telling of presents undelivered and swingeing payments for handling charges and duties. But the authors make the important point that these are not just ‘economic’ stories – indeed the financial aspects are in some cases trivial – but about familial and cultural ties which have been strained or broken by Brexit.

So even when reported as ‘business stories’ it is important to recognize that there is a human dimension to them. Small firms have been especially hard hit, with a survey for the Federation of Small Businesses this week showing that over a quarter of small exporters to the EU have temporarily or permanently ceased selling their goods there. Others have relocated. Such firms, whilst certainly being commercial enterprises, are very often the labour of love of individuals or families, so it is not surprising that, in the words of one such business owner, “it’s really emotional seeing your business crumble around you”.

It’s a reminder that whilst Brexit is in some ways old and stale news, it is actually only in the last three months that many of the concrete effects have been felt, and these are throwing up all sorts of consequences of varying degrees of predictability in part according to how well-informed people were. These range from a spate of recent stories about unregistered British ‘expats’ in Spain having to return to the UK to the problems obtaining driving licences faced by those living in France. Meanwhile British gardeners are suffering an acute shortage of plants and equipment, in large part because of Brexit. Charities are warning that thousands of, by definition vulnerable, EU children in the British care system risk becoming undocumented adults. A House of Lords Committee has identified the problems of lack of access to EU policing data. And so the list goes on … and on … and on (an excellent new source of information is Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s weekly Brexit Impact Tracker).

These effects vary from the mildly inconvenient to the potentially life-shattering, and from the immediate and possibly temporary through to those which are permanent or are lurking dormant for now. Of course it is highly unlikely that many people will link such disparate things together as being about Brexit, or even to necessarily recognize them as being to do with Brexit at all. Most will only be affected by a minority of the consequences, and those that affect them will not all happen at the same time. Nevertheless, taken in the round, they represent a downgrade, not necessarily dramatic but real, in quality of life as a sole result of the political choices that the UK has made.

The political psychology of remainers

As all this happens, it’s unsurprising to hear remainers say ‘we told you so’ and, for example in the case of reports of leave voters having to give up their Spanish retirements, to jeer or sneer. That may be unedifying or even graceless, but it is psychologically understandable.

I’ve written quite often about Brexiter political psychology but less about that of remainers. Losing the referendum was obviously a fundamentally different experience for remainers than it would have been for leavers, for at least two reasons. One was that a decision to remain would not have required any process of enactment, it would simply have meant the continuation of the status quo. So whilst leavers, and certainly committed Brexiters, would have been hugely disappointed they would not have had to adapt to a new reality, nor would they have had to endure the tortured making of that reality, including the way that, at times in the years that followed, remainers were still able to have the hope that the decision would be reversed.

Another big difference is that there would surely have been no equivalent amongst remainers of the strange phenomenon amongst some Brexiters of disappointment at having won because doing so denied them their victimhood and grievance. In other words, it is very hard to imagine remainers having felt aggrieved had remain won, and it is also difficult, though not impossible, to imagine them having spent the next five years telling leavers to ‘suck it up’ and ‘dry their cry-baby tears’ whereas that is what they – remainers – have been expected to do. It’s also difficult to envisage leavers, had leave lost, facing the prospect of the equivalent of the ‘Festival of Brexit’ that remainers are supposed to get behind.

In the years that have followed the referendum the reactions of remainers have shifted, at least somewhat, as some of the anger and disbelief has perhaps evaporated. If nothing else, they have been forced to shift by the brute fact of Brexit having happened. Strictly speaking, neither leaver nor remainer is a meaningful term any more: we can no longer leave or remain because we have left. But that is the more so for remainers, in that leavers can think that they are now ‘living’ their identity whereas that of remainers is now definitively obsolete.

Yet it is remarkable the extent to which some Brexiters continue to be dissatisfied and to nurture a sense of grievance. That, in combination with the absolute refusal of a single high-profile Brexiter to take any responsibility whatsoever for the damage they have caused – even where they accept that there has been damage – perhaps explains why some remainers are not especially magnanimous when hearing of the travails of leave voters, such as those for whom it has turned out to mean leaving Spain. That might be especially so when, even now, the pro-Brexit press talks of them being “booted out”, as if it were a punishment for, rather than a consequence of, Brexit. Or when it emerges that those now complaining of such consequences had hitherto been crowing about ‘independence’. For all that leavers denounce remainers as ‘bad losers’, the bigger problem is that Brexiters have been such ‘bad winners’.

Reactions to vaccines

It’s against that backdrop that we can also understand the various reactions to the vaccines rows of the last few weeks, which break in numerous directions. For Brexiters, the paradoxical way that, as Fintan O’Toole so eloquently analysed in Heroic Failure, their self-pity combines “a high sense of grievance and a high sense of superiority” (p.3) continues to be on display.

The superiority motif is abundantly evident in, for example, the doltish triumphalism of Iain Duncan Smith’s account (£) of “the EU’s failure” which he contrasts with the re-discovered “national self-confidence” of “a nimble nation, finally at ease with itself”. Of course, a truly ‘self-confident’ nation ‘at ease with itself’ would not have to brag in this way anyway, especially if the EU was really, as Smith believes, “an incompetent organisation full of self-doubt”.  

Yet even within Smith’s windy chauvinism there is still the recurrent grievance trope of the EU “lashing out” and trying to “scapegoat” the UK. Similarly, Nick Timothy – the master strategist behind both Theresa May’s approach to Brexit and the 2017 election – opines that the EU is “dangerous”, “fixated by its own accumulation of power” and “determined to stop Britain making a success of Brexit”. As the eighth characteristic of Umberto Eco’s study of Ur-Fascism has it, “the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak”.

In fact, more objective accounts of the vaccine rows, such as that of RTE’s Tony Connelly, suggest that once there has been a “long and painful inquest” into how the EU handled things “it may well be that member states will need to grant more powers to Brussels as a result”. In other words, the real problem may well be not be that the EU is, as Smith has it, a “Leviathan” or, as Brexiters in general claim, a ‘super-state’, but that it is insufficiently centralized or, to put it another way, that the problems have resided more with individual member states than with the EU. That certainly seems more plausible than the hyperbolic talk of an EU “meltdown” provided by Matthew Lynn in The Spectator.

The reactions of remainers are varied. One, undoubtedly, is a kneejerk reaction to defend the EU at all costs and deny that any errors of leadership or organization have been made. Another, more sensible I would say, is to recognize that there have been such errors (as Connelly’s analysis makes abundantly clear) but also to recognize that they hardly constitute a damning indictment of the very existence of the EU. No political institution is perfect, and just because Brexiters insist that the EU is flawed in every respect it does not mean that remainers have to defend it in every respect. That is a difficult stance to take, though, precisely because of the provocative gloating of the likes of Iain Duncan Smith.

But there is a third remainer reaction, which is from those saying that the vaccines issues have led them to change their minds and to support Brexit (or, at least, that Brexit has enabled the UK to deal better with the pandemic). Of course it may be that we should just take that at face value, but I think that in at least some cases there is another explanation.

There is something emotionally exhausting about maintaining, year after year, an anger and sadness about Brexit and living with a sense of being stuck in a country that has taken a fundamentally wrong direction, when there is now absolutely nothing you can do about it. In those circumstances it can be a relief to find some way to feel reconciled, and that is what the vaccines issues have provided, even if only to the extent of being able to think there was some upside to Brexit. That is entirely understandable, even though my own view (as per previous posts) would be that it tells us little or nothing about Brexit either way, simply that it shouldn’t be viewed through that lens and, outside the UK, tends not to be.

Dialing-down the antagonism?

What is interesting, and somewhat surprising, is that despite the IDS-type reaction there are at least some signs that the government is not milking the vaccines row in the same way. There was a conciliatory joint statement on 24 March about these talks, although, unless I have missed them, there have been no further announcements since then. It also seems significant that it chose not to use David Frost to negotiate an agreement over vaccines with the EU, but rather former Ambassador to the EU Tim Barrow, and certainly was seen as such by EU officials (£).

The big question is whether this betokens a more general dialing-down of antagonism from the UK, and there are also glimmerings of the latter. The tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol do seem to be easing a little. The Ireland/ Northern Ireland Specialised Committee met in what both the UK and EU described as a “constructive atmosphere”, following which a new ‘road map’ for operationalizing the Protocol was delivered by the UK to the EU. The EU is likely to respond next week, but it seems as if it has forestalled the threat of initiating arbitration procedures under the Withdrawal Agreement for breach of good faith which was to have occurred (although the separate legal process about infringement of the Protocol by the unilateral extension of grace periods continues).  

Equally notable is what is not being said – there has been a marked absence of the bellicose language of the last few weeks and both the UK government and media have suddenly gone quite silent about the Protocol. To this can be added very tentative signs of progress on financial services regulation (£) and data protection adequacy.

Thus it’s possible that there is some thawing of relations and this is the impression of some who watch Brexit closely, including the respected political analyst Peter Kellner. That is plausible, in that basic rationality, both economic and diplomatic, would suggest a need to improve the tone and content of UK-EU relations. Such rationality has hardly been evident in Johnson and Frost’s approach to date, but perhaps some limited common sense has belatedly broken out.

Yet, if so, the question in the heading of Kellner’s piece – ‘will Boris Johnson betray hardline Tory MPs?’ - is a telling one. For such a change of approach would represent a decisive break with what Iain Duncan Smith and the other ERG Ultras advocate. Goodness knows that’s long overdue, but I’m not sure that it is likely, if only because it goes against the grain of the dynamics of recent Tory Party history. It would also mean Johnson giving up on the tactical advantages of whipping up his voter base – and the Brexit press – that confrontation with the EU confers.

The spread of Brexit Jacobinism

In fact, I think that many commentators in the media and think tanks miss or underestimate the extent to which the current government is radically different from any that we have seen before, not so much in its policies as in its repudiation of the norms and conventions of politics, including previous expectations of economic competence. Such an approach is not lacking in political rationality, for what Johnson has discovered is that, so far anyway, there is little or no political price to be paid for it.

So analysts keep over-pricing a return to normality, in which established rules of conduct apply, and under-estimating the extent to which Brexit Jacobinism has become dominant, spreading from Brexit to infect the government’s entire approach to politics. That is the thread that runs through everything from the illegal prorogation of parliament to the illegal clauses of the Internal Market Bill to its draconian approach to policing protests, hostility to the legal system (‘activist’ lawyers, judicial review) the civil service and 'woke' universities, excessive use of Executive powers (Henry VIII powers, Statutory Instruments), disdain for the ministerial code, illegal lack of transparency in public procurement with associated accusations of cronyism, resistance to scrutiny and accountability by both the media and parliament, and much more besides. Many of these issues have been problematic in the past, but as Tom de la Mare QC puts it - in relation to the “epidemic” of Statutory Instruments, but it applies more widely - “Brexit is that coca leaf refined into cocaine”.

As regards, specifically, post-Brexit relations with the EU, this means a rejection of the norms of diplomatic conduct with friendly nations. I wrote a few weeks ago about the delusionary approach to these relations that David Frost (and presumably Boris Johnson) appears to believe in, and the Brexit Ultras certainly do. Within this approach, the unilateral extension to the grace periods in the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), for all that it provoked legal action from the EU, will probably have been seen as a success because it also led the EU to push for further talks and to express a willingness to ‘show flexibility’ in the application of the Protocol, which has already had some concrete results.

A feral State

So I think that what is happening in the present, apparently calm, moment is more likely to be that Johnson and Frost are ‘banking’ what they see as the gains of violating the NIP and that in a few weeks’ time they will launch another ‘strike’. Sober voices will warn that this is doing terrible damage to the UK’s international reputation, but that will cut no ice with this Brexit government because it believes, on the contrary, that what the ‘declinist Establishment’ calls ‘damage’ is actually Britain gaining respect by showing its strength.

From that perspective, things like yesterday’s call from the Irish Taoiseach for a “reset” of relations over the NIP to make them more trusting and constructive are likely to be interpreted as a victory for Frost’s negotiating strategy and encourage its repetition rather than, as hoped, its abandonment (as regards the NIP – the fact that he’s not involved in the vaccines talks does suggest that these are being treated differently).

In short, on this analysis, Brexit Britain has become a feral State and there’s no obvious way that that the EU can deal with this. It’s like being confronted by thugs or blackmailers, but with the peculiar twist that they believe themselves to be the aggrieved party. So you can stand up to them and provoke further aggression; or you can try to conciliate them, but they will still keep coming for more.

It would be no surprise if this should continue to be the dynamic, because it is exactly the same as that between the Brexit Ultras and the Tory leadership for the last thirty years. Now they have captured the Tory Party, and hence the government, and are attempting the same thing in relation to the EU. And it is crucial to understand that the most hard core of them do not simply want some easements of the NIP, but are adamantly opposed to it in its entirety, and to the Withdrawal Agreement itself, all of which they see as not being ‘sovereignty compliant’.  

Perhaps I am wrong, and Johnson is about to embark on a more pragmatic and consensual path. It’s not - to put it more charitably than is warranted - as if inconsistency is entirely alien to his nature, either political or personal, if he can see some advantage in it. But as he glances over his shoulder and sees the Smiths and Redwoods and Jenkynses and Patersons and all the rest of the gurning fanatics, well, even someone possessed of an altogether more Cromwellian resolve might be forgiven for having second thoughts.

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