Friday 28 May 2021

Email alerts: update

Readers who subscribe by email may have noticed that in recent weeks I have been flagging up that the existing Feedburner email alert service is coming to an end in July.

I’m pleased to say that I have now found a viable solution, and email alerts will from now on be sent by

You do not need to re-subscribe to continue to get alerts but, if you want, you can make use of the much greater functionality that has compared with Feedburner, for example in terms of tailoring your delivery channels or applying filters. I think that the ways to do this will be clear in the email alerts you receive from now on, and there is also a link here. You will not receive any spam emails from and of course you can unsubscribe from receiving alerts at any time.

It’s just possible that during the handover you may receive alerts from both systems for this post and possibly also for the main post made this morning. If so, apologies, but it should be only a temporary hitch, which will be resolved by the time of next Friday’s post.

If there are further updates about this, I will include them as footnotes to future posts.

Apologies for any inconvenience, and many thanks to those of you who are signed up. I must admit that until the issue of Feedburner’s demise came up I had no idea that thousands of people were accessing the blog that way!

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A normal week in crazy Brexit Britain

It has been a pretty standard week for directly Brexit-related news – I put it that way because in many ways almost everything the government does, from demanding that the BBC project ‘British values', to badging the new rail system as ‘Great British Railways’, to giving British people the borders they ‘deserve' can be seen as framed by Brexiter sensibilities. And, of course, this week’s Dominic Cummings show grows organically out of the politics of Brexit, not least because but for Brexit neither he nor, possibly, Boris Johnson would ever have been in power. It can also be seen as the (final?) implosion of the elevation of the Vote Leave cabal to the centre of government in 2019.

More of Cummings below, but, these wider issues aside, what has been going on with Brexit this week is mainly a continuation of the issues discussed in my previous post, namely the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) and the nature of Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationships.

The NIP: the calm before the next storm?

As regards the NIP, RTE’s Tony Connelly provided his usual excellent commentary of the current situation in his blog post last Saturday. It gives a wealth of detail on the issues at stake, which I won’t repeat. Nor will I repeat the points I made last week about the deeper roots of this current situation in Northern Ireland.

However, there is one aspect of those roots which I didn’t mention but which is an important part of what is happening now. From the beginning, it was an article of faith amongst Brexiters that a trade deal with the EU would be easy because the UK was already aligned with EU rules. This was stated by numerous leading Brexiters before the referendum, was the substantive rationale for Liam Fox’s much-mocked ‘easiest deal in history’ claim, and was re-stated in David Davis’s preface to the first Brexit White Paper in 2017:

“We approach these negotiations from a unique position. As things stand, we have the exact same rules, regulations and standards as the rest of the EU. Unlike most negotiations, these talks will not be about bringing together two divergent systems but about managing the continued cooperation of the UK and the EU.”

As I and many others pointed out whenever such claims were made, they were nonsense, precisely because this was a unique situation in which the aim was not to move towards alignment (in which case, of course, existing alignment would make that process effortless) but to move away from it; not to bring two divergent systems together, but to make two aligned systems diverge. This became all the more true under Boris Johnson and David Frost’s approach to Brexit, which made freedom to diverge from EU regulations the acid test of ‘sovereignty’.

The same basic confusion is now being played out in the NIP rows, especially with respect to sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) rules and checks. Frost repeatedly, for example at last week’s Select Committee, makes the point that the EU should operate a lighter, ‘risk-based’ approach for the UK because of “the fact that we both operate the high food standards which are, in most areas, extremely similar”. Yet at the same time he is adamant that dynamic alignment with EU rules is unacceptable.  So he wants the benefit of being aligned … without making any commitment to being aligned. It is a specific version of the more general Brexiter proposition, discussed in last week’s post, that the UK has left but shouldn’t be treated as if it has left.

It is this which creates what Connelly describes as the current “dangerous stand-off” between the UK and the EU, and although there is seemingly a lull in hostilities at the moment it seems highly likely that there will be a further outbreak in the next few weeks. The European Commission President, at the EU leaders’ meeting this week, made it clear that the NIP must be fully implemented, whereas the UK continues to seek “common sense” solutions (translation: don’t hold us to what we agreed), and wants these in place in time for the mid-June ‘marching season’ in Northern Ireland.

Some believe that Frost will quietly cave in, via some face-saving formula, and that is quite possible. But my sense remains (for reasons discussed in detail in my post a couple of months ago) that he and the government are convinced that the ‘hardball’ tactics of flouting the NIP pay dividends. If so, then after this period of resumed negotiations there will be another explosion. That diagnosis is given extra weight by calls this week from International Trade Secretary Liz Truss to scrap Irish Sea border controls altogether.

Strange days indeed

In this, Truss is presumably burnishing her credentials with the party membership as a possible successor to Johnson (as, no doubt, with her hardline anti-immigration stance, is Priti Patel), in which she is aided by the Brexit tabloids’ adoration of her for delivering the UK’s new trade deals – or deal, really, since the only substantively new trade deal she has (almost) done is that with Australia. Yet the Brexiters’ reactions to that deal have been mixed. Some are breathlessly enthusiastic, such as Dominic Lawson (in a Sunday Times article demolished almost line-by-line by the NFU’s Director of Trade and Business Strategy). Others, notably the ‘journalist’ Isabel Oakeshott, are appalled that it marks “the death knell of the traditional British farm” (an outburst for which she was roundly mocked).

Certainly there is something strange in the Tory Party choosing to alienate what has always been a central part of its political constituency but, then, as its treatment of the City shows, the Brexit Tory Party is a very different beast to that of bygone years. That said, trade expert Sam Lowe argues that, in practice, the deal with Australia is unlikely to have a huge impact, whether that be on farmers or consumers, to the extent of it being “almost unobservable”. That is because, in brief, tariff abolition is no longer the central issue in terms of trade liberalization, and because nothing will change the fact that the UK and Australia are geographically remote – and, as the Brexiters never seem to understand, distance is a key determinant of trade volumes.

Nevertheless, the strangeness of the situation can be seen by imagining what would have happened if, whilst a member of the EU, the EU had struck a deal with Australia on similar terms (something highly unlikely precisely because of the possible effects on farmers). Almost certainly the Brexit press would be denouncing it as a ‘Brussels Betrayal of British Beef’ and, again almost certainly, the UK government would have vetoed any such deal. Yet when made by Britain, it is hailed as a triumph. (It’s worth noting that this point was raised by Emily Thornberry, Labour’s Shadow Trade Secretary this week, a further welcome sign that Labour are now becoming bolder in challenging the government’s post-Brexit policy).

Nor does the strangeness end there. Within the Brexiters’ central argument that what was crucial was the restoration of the sovereignty of the British parliament, a specific sub-theme was that with Britain making its own trade deals, these would be subject to debate and scrutiny by the British people’s elected representatives. Yet, in fact, as the Department for International Trade oxymoronically stated this week “we have always been clear parliament will be able to scrutinise Free Trade Agreements following signature rather than at the stage where agreement in principle is reached”. It need hardly be said that this renders scrutiny totally meaningless and represents, in microcosm, the ‘war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength’ doublethink of Brexit as a whole.

An incoherent strategy …

What lies behind all this is, as James Kane of the Institute for Government explains, the lack of a coherent post-Brexit trade strategy. To the extent that there is any strategy at all it seems to simply be that ‘signing trade deals’ is a good thing because, as a member of the EU, Britain was not able to do so. Supposedly, the ‘big prize’ now in sight is accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Barely mentioned, if at all, prior to the Referendum, this emerged under Liam Fox as being a key post-Brexit aspiration. It has become all the more so since the prospects of a UK-US trade deal have receded, and to some extent it is seen as a substitute for such a deal (if the US were to revert to the pre-Trump aspiration of also joining what is now CPTPP, which is not clear).

Thus Truss, and the government, are explicitly claiming that the US-Australia deal paves the way for CPTPP membership. This is not, as they sometimes imply, because it is a pre-requisite of membership but because it arguably smooths the way to it since what would have been Australia’s key ask during CPTPP negotiations (tariff-free access for, especially, agricultural products) will already have been satisfied. The interplay between the UK’s CPTPP accession negotiations and those with Australia (and the same, presumably, applies to New Zealand other CPTPP members) is a fascinating issue, as a discussion last week between trade experts Dmitry Grozoubinski, Sam Lowe and Anna Isaacs showed.

The general takeaway from that discussion might be that international trade negotiations comprise a series of complex interrelated trade-offs between multiple parties. For example, the most important practical consequence of what the UK has agreed with Australia about beef tariffs may be what that leads to in terms of what is demanded of it by the US or Brazil. These complexities require a strategy which goes beyond simply assuming that any deal is a good deal and the more deals the better. Or, at least, it does if the aim is maximizing the UK’s economic interest rather than the performative one of generating good headlines for domestic political reasons.

… derived from an incoherent project …

However, that brings us back to the basic incoherence of Brexit as an economic project. Since distance does matter so much, fiddling around making trade deals with remote countries is fairly pointless. Given that Brexit has happened, it’s worth doing, so far as it goes, but it isn’t a benefit, still less a triumph, for Brexit; it’s just some fairly minor damage limitation.

A new ONS trade report is a sharp reminder of this. To try (although it’s not completely possible) to disentangle Brexit and Covid effects they compare the first quarter of 2021 with the first quarter of 2018, and report that trade with the EU decreased by 23.1% (whereas trade with non-EU countries decreased by just 0.8%, suggesting that the Brexit negotiating process and its outcome, rather than the pandemic, was a key driver). The report also shows that, since the end of the transition, post-Brexit trade arrangements have become a far bigger challenge for businesses than the pandemic. The nature of those challenges, especially for small businesses, was spelt out in minute detail in testimony given to the UK Trade and Business Commission yesterday. It is also clear from a new survey showing that 56% of UK businesses think Brexit has had a negative effect on them and just 5% that it has been positive.

Given that, prior to Brexit, the EU-27 accounted for about 50% of UK trade, it’s obvious that to compensate for such massive decreases in trade with the EU, that with non-EU countries would have to be revolutionised and the constraints of distance make that virtually impossible, no matter how many, or even how good, the trade deals the UK strikes. In short, far from the promise that “Brexit will cement our status as a great trading nation” (£), it is causing Britain to become a less great trading nation. No doubt Brexiters and the government will try to spin these latest figures as showing that the UK is ‘re-balancing’ away from its dependence on the EU for trade to being a ‘truly Global Britain’, because of course it (already) means that trade with the EU is less than 50% of UK trade. But it will be nonsense – it just means that the trade pie as a whole has shrunk.

In a related development, and following from the recent failure of the UK and Norway to reach a deal on fishing, it now seems likely that the UK-Norway trade deal will collapse. This was a temporary rollover deal, agreed last December, to be superseded by a permanent and possibly more extensive agreement. But Norwegian politicians are concerned about the impact on their farmers of tariff-free British beef and cheese imports. Note that although Australia’s economy (USD 1.4 trillion, 2019) is much larger than Norway’s (USD 403 billion, 2019), Norway is a more significant trading partner for the UK (£27,436 million, 2019) than is Australia (£16,041 million, 2019).

It’s instructive to see the reactions of leave voters to the news that the Norway deal may fall through. These included rage that this is punishment for leaving the EU (apparently oblivious to the fact that Norway isn’t in the EU) and suggestions that Norway should realise that, being the smaller economy, it needs a deal more than the UK (a strange inversion of what they used to say about the UK-EU negotiations). As always, bellicose victimhood is the guiding theme.

… rooted in an inherent contradiction

The issue of protecting farmers, whether Norwegian or British, goes to the heart of the trade dilemmas Brexit poses for the UK. Whilst Brexiters deride the EU as a ‘protectionist racket’ (an accusation based more on a bad pun than a serious analysis), the protection of agriculture is, globally, almost invariably the most contentious of trade policy issues. In part, as Brexiters should appreciate, that is because of the complex interactions of national identity, soil, and foodstuffs. As regards Brexit, it is also because of the peculiar contradiction of nationalism and globalism. Many who voted leave believed that it would mean not just good news for farmers but the restoration of the heavy industries which have declined in the years since Britain joined the EEC (though of course that wasn’t the cause).

Those votes were immediately taken by the Brexit global free traders as permission to pursue their own agenda – most notably in Fox’s ‘Manchester speech’, made in September 2016 before the hard Brexit of leaving the single market and customs union had even been announced. And, as the deal with Australia suggests, the UK is going to concede tariff-free access to British markets whilst getting almost nothing in return. The gamble Johnson’s government is making is that leave voters will swallow this on politically nationalistic grounds (‘Britain is a global trading nation once more’) and ignore, or be unaware of, its consequences for economic nationalism.

In this gamble, the government may be assisted by one of the strangest features of the way that Brexiters are framing post-Brexit trade deals, and trade more generally. Rather than thinking of these issues in terms of economic rationality or the economics of competitive advantage, they seem to imagine them in terms of ‘cultural affinity’. That imagination (which is what it is, since it involves a hopelessly outdated and sentimental apprehension) is most obvious in the still thriving CANZUK fantasy, but also applies to an Australia-only deal.

The politics of “gormlessness”

It is a gamble that is quite likely to succeed. And everyone knows why, even though it is deemed unsayable in what in 2017 I called the new political correctness of Brexit: the coalition of voters which chose Brexit and which now supports Johnson’s government is largely ignorant of the realities of contemporary trade, business, and international relations. It’s this which unites the Home Counties golf club bore, pontificating about how he ran his import-export business just fine before the EEC, with the coastal town pensioner lamenting that ‘I just want my country back’. Despite the overlap between leading Brexiters and free speech union libertarians that obvious fact – far more than anything proscribed by ‘woke’ activists – is something that cannot be said because to do so is, supposedly, ‘elitist’.

It is this electoral base which chose to endorse what, as Cummings has so eloquently told us, is the “completely crazy” situation of him and Boris Johnson being in positions of power. Almost all attention has focussed, understandably, on what Cummings’ testimony revealed about the dysfunctional government and woefully inadequate leadership during the coronavirus crisis. But it is crucial to remember that at the same time this same government and this same leadership were engaged in the highly complex trade and cooperation negotiations with the EU.

More specifically, it was in this period that Johnson refused to extend the transition, despite the chaos that was going on. It was in this period that he – apparently with the support of both Cummings and Frost – threatened to break international law with the Internal Market Bill. It was throughout this period that he was constantly threatening to end the transition with no trade deal in place and claiming that the UK was fully prepared to cope with the disruption that would have ensued. And it was from the decisions taken in this period that many of the present consequences of Brexit arise.

Not only that but, whilst Cummings may have gone, Johnson and his Brexit government remain in place. And just as, vaccines notwithstanding, the government continues to bodge the management of the pandemic so too does it continue, as Fintan O’Toole put it this week (£), to “strategise gormlessness” in its approach to Brexit, especially in continuing to ascribe its malign effects to others. It remains to be seen whether the Cummings revelations about coronavirus policy dent Johnson’s support within his electoral base, but it’s unlikely that his ‘gormless’ Brexit strategy will do so. After all, it is a strategy designed precisely to appeal to that base.

Friday 21 May 2021

England's dreaming

With apologies to those who have a fastidious objection to cliché, the sound of Brexit chickens coming home to roost and Brexit pennies dropping is now all but deafening. Thus the Daily Telegraph has belatedly worked out (£) that ending the right of freedom of movement of people does not just make it much harder for ‘them’ to come ‘here’ but also for would-be British ‘expats’ hoping to retire in the EU. Indeed the Express positively fulminates at the “new” laws “targeting” the British in Spain and “criminalizing” them for having the incorrect papers  (silence, though, from the Brexiters on the disgusting treatment being meted out to EU nationals seeking to enter the UK). The Express has also just discovered that Brexit is having a serious adverse effect on UK financial services.

Yet with wearying inevitability, these and other realizations are unaccompanied by any understanding at all that they arise from the UK’s own choices. Instead, they are invariably ascribed to the hostility of the EU, or of its member states, and to some version of the ‘we’re being punished for Brexit’ narrative which has been in place almost since the day of the referendum result. There’s an invincible, obstinate wall which simply can’t be broken through and that is not surprising, for its bricks are the combination of bellicosity and victimhood that were so central to the vote to leave in the first place.

Brexit’s fatal flaw

The horrible flaw that runs – to use another cliché – like words through the Brexit stick of rock is: we’ve left, but it’s outrageous that we’re treated as if we’ve left. There’s little point in berating leave voters for such sentiments, as they come directly from the Brexiters who campaigned for and implemented leaving. The cosy-sounding word ‘cakeism’ was the embodiment of their squalid dishonesty, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Boris Johnson claimed that his Brexit trade deal proved that cakeism was achievable.

It is a sentiment which is alive and kicking now, and is at the centre of the growing conflict over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), with David Frost complaining that the EU is treating goods flows from Great Britain to Northern Ireland as they do “a Chinese container ship arriving in Rotterdam”. This, he whines, is a “purist view” which the UK “didn’t anticipate” when signing the NIP. So Frost – and one must assume the government as a whole – continues to refuse to understand that, with Brexit, Britain became a third country not as some mere technicality for ‘purists’, but as a matter of legal and political fact. And it is not just stupid but dishonest to pretend that what is happening at the Irish Sea border is a surprise: a Cabinet Office briefing spelled it out when the NIP was agreed in 2019.

The reality is that, from the beginning, Johnson’s government either did not understand or lied about what it had agreed, and did so in the most fundamental way of denying that an Irish Sea border would even exist. This, rather than any technicalities of implementing it, is the rotten core of this week’s developments in the NIP row, and most certainly not, as Frost and others are claiming, something that has arisen because of the EU’s foolish, but rapidly dropped, plan to suspend the NIP over vaccine supplies.

The complex strands of the NIP row

The latest developments are complex and have multiple strands. First, there are things that Frost has been writing and saying in the media, and during an appearance before a remarkably supine and unchallenging Select Committee, chaired by, and stuffed with, Brexit fanatics. To call its scrutiny toothless would be to grossly insult the denture-wearing community.  In essence, Frost’s position amounts to saying that the NIP he negotiated is “not sustainable”, and that if the EU doesn’t allow the UK to avoid its obligations then the government will invoke Article 16 to suspend the Protocol. This has been the threat since the very first days of it coming into operation (and well before the EU’s Article 16 demarche) and reflects not so much concerns about the implementation of the NIP as an objection to its very existence. That has added political impetus now with the election of Edwin Poots as DUP leader, as his avowed aim is to scrap the NIP altogether.

In parallel to, and consistent with, Frost’s statements are the government’s proposals for a ‘roadmap’ for a phased NIP implementation, and its initial response to the EU’s proposed legal action over the UK’s breach of the NIP by unilaterally extending the grace periods for some border checks. This response apparently includes the suggestion that the UK might argue to suspend the NIP on grounds of force majeure (meaning, in brief, that unforeseen circumstances beyond the UK’s control mean it should be released from its obligations). If so, this seems unlikely to succeed not least because, as noted above, it is on record that the government knew what the effects of the Protocol would be.

A final strand is the hearing of evidence in a case at the Belfast High Court, brought by unionists and some other Brexiters, which aims to have the NIP declared illegal. The opening submission, that the Protocol is comparable to the Vichy regime, gives a taste of how ludicrous bellicose victimhood is not confined to the pages of the Express and Telegraph. (The hearing has now finished and there will be a reserved judgment in the next few weeks). There are also now more-or-less open threats of Loyalist violence over the NIP.

The deeper roots of the NIP row

There’s a lot of chewy detail in the various reports I’ve linked to but, as always, it’s worth standing back a little bit. The root cause of what is going on is the failure of Brexiters to understand or to accept that (hard) Brexit had any implications for Northern Ireland or an Irish border at all. That is one specific part of the wider refusal to accept the realities of being a third country, and it has never gone away.

It was compounded by Johnson’s rush to agree to anything that ‘ditched the backstop’ and to create what – and in all the current noise this mustn’t be forgotten – he described as a great deal, upon which he and all Tory MPs campaigned for in the 2019 election and voted for in the subsequent parliament, and which he signed as an international treaty. The now-established Brexiter myth, repeated by Frost this week, that it was a deal forced on Johnson by MPs refusing to countenance ‘no deal’ is simply false.

These things aren’t just some sort of game, or a newspaper column that can be written one week and disowned the next. The NIP mess – nothing remotely like which was suggested when electors were encouraged to vote leave in 2016 – is entirely of the Brexiters’ making, and of Johnson in particular. What makes it all the more shameful is that fact that, as former leader of Labour MEPs Richard Corbett points out, the NIP was a major concession by the EU, allowing and trusting a third country to manage the external border of the single market.

That trust was utterly misplaced, which won’t shame the British government but does shame many British people. Perhaps more importantly in terms of realpolitik, as was underscored by a resolution of the US Senate this week and the EU reaction to it, the UK will pay a heavy geo-political price if it persists with this behaviour. It also makes it much more difficult for the EU to show the flexibility that some are advocating by softening its ‘zero-risk’ approach to NI border checks, since that would require it placing even more trust in the UK.

The flip-side of all this is the total inadequacy of Johnson’s and Frost’s conception of ‘sovereignty’. For Frost, whose mediocrity is being ever-more clearly exposed now that he is in the government and effectively in charge of Brexit, this is the magic word that answers every question. Thus the problems of the NIP, and more generally, all arise from the EU not having ‘adjusted to the fact’ that the UK is ‘now’ a sovereign power. In fact, the main problem is Frost’s inability to understand the realities and limitations of sovereignty, which include having to abide by agreements you have made, and recognizing the sovereignty of other states as well as the ways in which it is pooled amongst EU member states.

But the even deeper concern is that Frost’s delusions about sovereignty now lead him to the proposition (£) that not only is the UK able to be completely free of the EU “regulatory orbit” (which, I suppose, is feasible if you’re willing to accept the extraordinarily high economic cost) but that the UK can become “a global leader in setting standards and rules, alongside the US, China and the EU”. This simply isn’t going to happen, and can’t happen, because the UK is too small for it to be able to happen. Frankly, it is an insane idea, grounded perhaps in nationalistic arrogance but more (or is it a version of the same thing?) in its failure to grasp the sovereignty of others.

The desperate search for Brexit benefits

Perhaps the most tragi-comic moment in Frost’s Select Committee appearance came when he stated that he is going to employ someone from outside the government and civil service to head a unit to identify post-Brexit benefits. Just as it’s a bit late in the day to be complaining about the NIP he negotiated, so too might one think that these post-Brexit benefits should have been assessed before rather than after the event. And his mention that he’s looking for someone with access to the knowledge of ‘thinks tanks’ (doesn’t everyone have access to this?) suggests that what is in prospect is a job creation scheme for some Tufton Street loon. Amusingly, though, this latest plan seems to imply that even the Brexiters have worked out that charging Iain Duncan Smith with the search for Brexit benefits wasn’t the wisest of moves.

Meanwhile, it’s also emerging that the much-touted post-Brexit benefit of ‘making our own trade deals’ is a distinctly two-edged one. In fact, it’s one of the reasons given by Frost for why the most obvious way to improve the NI situation – SPS alignment – is being ruled out by the UK. This isn’t, heaven forbid, for ‘ideological reasons’, Frost pontificates, but because it would hamper making these trade deals. Translated, that is an ideological reason: it’s certainly not a pragmatic one, since the gains of new trade deals will undoubtedly be less than the costs, both economic and non-economic, of non-alignment. For example, the UK-Australia trade deal that is apparently about to be struck is estimated to be worth, at best, 0.02% more GDP than would be the case without it.

In any case, it turns out, to the surprise of no-one, that making such deals is a politically fraught matter, as this week’s cabinet row over the deal with Australia shows (£). For domestically contentious issues such as farmers’ livelihoods, and possibly food and animal welfare standards and carbon emissions, are at stake. It can be be debated whether these concerns are well-founded, or whether there are benefits which compensate for them. The point, though, is that such debates can’t be avoided. In this sphere, too, cakeism is not an option and choices and trade-offs can’t be ignored.

In principle, these choices would be about the economic and perhaps strategic case for and against a particular deal. But such considerations are swamped by the government’s desire to demonstrate ‘Brexit benefits’ by completing a trade agreement – any trade agreement – with a country with which the EU does not currently have one. As I’ve remarked before, the Brexiters’ case for an ‘independent trade policy’ has always been based on the symbolism of ‘independence’ rather than the economics of ‘trade’ or the strategy of ‘policy’.

Moreover, in its desperation to announce a UK-Australia deal at June’s G7 meeting (which the Australian Prime Minister will attend) ‘sovereign’ Britain has put itself in a weak negotiating position with what the ever-ludicrous Daniel Hannan, forever stuck in an imagination of the 1950s, calls “our kinsmen Down Under” (£). Nothing matters except ‘proving’ it was right to leave. Indeed, if reports are to be believed, desperation to do a trade deal with India was a factor in delaying travel restrictions, thus leaving open the door to the ‘Indian variant’ of coronavirus.

In short, Brexit is turning out to be exactly the mess that was predicted, and for exactly the reasons predicted. If anything, it is proving worse, in that the dishonesty and incompetence of the Brexiters in government turns out to be even greater than the most pessimistic expectations. Given all that has happened in the last five years it may seem strange to say this, in what has been a relatively quiet week, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt as depressed about Brexit as I do at the moment. It’s not exactly a new realization, but it somehow seems clearer than ever that nothing is ever going to dislodge the fantasies and lies of Brexit and the Brexiters, and that there is no false narrative or bogus logic they will forego to justify what they have done.

In parenthesis (skipping this section doesn’t stop the one after it making sense)

It’s a very minor example, but this long-obvious truth was illustrated by some remarks this week by Professor Alan Sked, the founder and first leader of UKIP, and a distinguished historian. Noting that some German exporters “are giving up on the UK market due to delays and red tape since Brexit”, Sked argues that their problems are an ironic consequence of Michel Barnier’s (meaning the EU’s) insistence that the UK could not ‘cherrypick’. This led to a deal amounting to what Barnier “deigned to concede” rather than on the terms “desired by us”. But, he suggests, British exports to the EU have “bounced back” so “EU red tape at borders” has damaged EU companies, whereas “British regulations have still to come in”. Unfortunately, though, “idiot remainers” are apparently incapable of understanding his impeccable logic.

There are many layers within this farrago of nonsense. First, whilst there has been some recovery of UK exports to the EU since the initial drop in January it is far from complete (the picture looks even worse using Eurostat, rather than ONS, data, because the latter doesn’t include intra-company good transfers, i.e. when goods cross borders within company supply chains). Sked perhaps has in mind Frost’s claim about exports having returned to average 2020 levels, but that is deeply misleading because last year was massively affected by the huge mid-year drop due to Covid lockdowns. (It also leads Frost to the bizarre contortion that EU-administered checks on GB-EU trade have little effect, but UK-administered checks on GB-NI trade are causing major disruption.)

Second, it is indeed the case that the UK has postponed the introduction the necessary EU-GB import controls until January 2022, and in some cases March 2022. This isn’t due to some flexibility or charity on the part of the government – it is simply that, unlike the EU, it hadn’t prepared adequately for the end of the transition period. But that being so it is British exporters to the EU who face more in the way of increased Brexit red tape than EU exporters to the UK, exactly the other way round to what Sked claims. And, indeed, many UK exporters have given up as a result, especially small firms, of which one in four have done so. That is damaging to the UK but so, for that matter, is it damaging to British consumers when EU companies cease to service the UK market.

More fundamentally, it is of course the case that trading businesses in both the UK and the EU face barriers that did not exist when the UK was in the single market and customs union, and so all are worse off. The Brexit trade deal was the first in history to make the terms of trade worse than those which had existed before, a lose-lose for both parties. But that is not because it was all that the EU ‘deigned to concede’, it is because that was the path that the UK chose both with hard Brexit in general, and with the particularly hard form of complete regulatory dis-alignment that Johnson and Frost pursued on the grounds of ‘sovereignty’. These were, precisely, the terms “desired by us”.  

It’s difficult to know for sure, but the implication is that Sked thinks there would have been a way of leaving the single market and customs union without the re-introduction of the ‘red tape’ that these institutions abolish, and that this was an unnecessary dogma on the part of the EU. Or, in others words, that leaving somehow didn’t need to mean leaving, with the implication that the actual consequences of doing so were punitive (albeit that, on Sked’s account, the punishment has ‘backfired’ on the EU).

What is so depressing about all this is that it would be ludicrous to say that Sked is in any functional sense stupid, and, surely, incredible to imagine that someone who has devoted so much of his life to leaving the EU hasn’t developed any understanding of its practicalities. So the only reasonable interpretation is that he (and, no doubt, many others) is so heavily invested in the idea of Brexit as to be both able and obliged to perform these extraordinary and perverse twistings of evidence and logic in order to justify it.

The sleep of reason

Writing on the LSE Brexit Blog this week, Dr Nick Westcott of SOAS compares Brexit with a Ponzi scheme in which “the money and the sovereignty have gone, for good” but the scheme still persists because people have not yet admitted that to themselves. Of course, many of us already knew and some others have come to realize it. But Westcott is right that this is not in general so, and thus, for now, the Ponzi scheme continues. I don’t think it is going to end anytime soon. There is nothing which will dent the faith of true believers.

This isn’t (simply) because that faith is impervious to reason, for example by simply denying any adverse effect of Brexit, although that is part of it. It is because Brexiters have developed a form of reasoning which is impervious to reason. So when adverse effects are not, or cannot be, denied, they are re-cast so as to prove Brexit was right. Crucial to that is the idea that Brexit shouldn’t mean being treated like a non-member and that, when it is, this just demonstrates that leaving was vital because the EU is being ‘nasty’.

Thus any benefits - real or fabricated – prove that Brexit was right, but so too do any costs. There’s every sign now that our country is going to disappear down this rabbit hole of illogic, compounded by delusional ideas about the power of our sovereignty, and the irrelevance of that of others, doing permanent damage as a result.

A joint Resolution Foundation and LSE project launch this week (£) spelt out how Brexit adds to the challenges of what will be a ‘decisive decade’ for the UK, including dealing with the realities of a US-EU-China dominated global economy. But such future-oriented thinking is light years away from Frost’s bullish assertions about the UK’s future as a regulatory superpower, and still more from the government’s obsession (£) with protecting Britain’s glorious history from ‘woke’ revisionism. In fact, to use a final cliché, it is time we all woke up and smelt the coffee. Until we do, however noisy the returning chickens and dropping pennies, they won’t be heard.


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My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) will be published by Biteback in June 2021. It can be pre-ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book.


Friday 14 May 2021

Parallel universes

To anyone who has followed, even cursorily, reports about the effects of Brexit since the vote to leave, and especially since the end of the transition period, or even just in the last week or so, this week’s Queen’s Speech, with its disconnected rag-bag of policies, will suggest that the government inhabits a strangely parallel universe.

Nothing in it began to address the realities of the damage that Brexit has already caused, such as that shown, misleading claims by David Frost to the contrary, by the latest UK-EU goods trade figures which suggest that by March 2021 trade was 11% lower than it would have been without Brexit, on top of a 10% fall between the referendum and the end of the transition period. Moreover, despite Panglossian claims from the usual suspects (£) about how companies are now adapting to the new trade arrangements, what that ignores is that where adaptation does not mean stopping trading altogether it means incorporating new costs, with impacts on prices and competitiveness. As ever it is amusing to see erstwhile cheerleaders for free trade tying themselves in knots to explain that introducing barriers to trade doesn’t suppress it. And of course all this is before the UK has started introducing import controls on goods coming from the EU.

Nothing, either, on the emergent damage to the services sector (£), the looming threat of supply disruptions due to shortages of truck drivers(£), the scandal in the making in the settled status scheme for EU citizens or the actual scandal about detention of EU nationals at the UK border. There are also now warning noises that the UK could run out of construction materials. This arises from the shift from CE to UKCA conformity assessment which has to be completed by the end of this year and, as I have been warning for a while, is a ticking time bomb in terms of business preparedness.

However, there are at least now signs that Labour is willing to start challenging the government on the effects of Brexit. Rachel Reeves, when shadowing Michael Gove, had already done so and her elevation this week to Shadow Chancellor is therefore significant. Immediately, in the Queen’s Speech debate, she has raised the problems being caused by Brexit to businesses and the damage to exports.

This matters not as a way of continuing the debate on the merits of Brexit but because it’s not possible to discuss the realities of the British economy without mentioning the effects of Brexit. To put it another way, just because there is a Brexit culture war, it doesn’t mean that the economics of Brexit should be a no-go area. Indeed were it to be so it would be one sign that the Brexiters had won the culture war.

Benefitting from Brexit (sic)

Equally, anyone still expecting Brexit to herald some exciting new world of opportunity will have been disappointed by the Queen’s Speech. It scarcely lived up to the Brexiters’ billing of this as a moment of national liberation (£) from the supposed colonial yoke of the EUSSR (also known as the Nazi EU and the neo-liberal EU, which might suggest that Brexiters’ grasp of political philosophy is a little shaky). Rather, ‘taking back control’ turns out to be something of a damp squib. For which there is a simple explanation: it was an illusion.

Thus, tucked away in a few pages (starting p.48) within the briefing notes that accompanied the speech, under the heading ‘Benefitting from Brexit’ were various all but meaningless, or simply dishonest proposals. These included: promises about unspecified better regulation for business, a reprise of the old ‘Brexit will slash red tape’ line, which will provoke a hollow laugh amongst businesses mired in the red tape Brexit has (re)created; new policies on state subsidies, procurement, and planning which to some extent consolidate what existed under the EU, and make no reference to the level playing field constraints of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement or for that matter the WTO’s procurement constraints; freeports (of course), which didn’t require Brexit and are anyway pretty pointless; a bill to recognize international professional qualifications which didn't require Brexit; an animal welfare bill which may include provisions to end live animal exports, which wouldn't have been possible without Brexit*; and the introduction of the Turing Scheme, which will be less good than the Erasmus scheme it replaces.

Pursuing the Brexit culture war

But if there was little here that required, or was a benefit of, Brexit, there was plenty more which was distinctly ‘Brexity’, in the sense of pursuing the culture war of which Brexit was the biggest battle and which Boris Johnson’s ‘Conservatives’ continue to prosecute through endless skimble-skamble raids. Thus there were long-trailed provisions to hobble judicial review, to clamp down on public protest, to bring ‘woke’ universities to heel, and to discourage voting amongst the unwashed. No doubt it was designed to appeal to the kind of ‘red wall’ Tory voters that Labour sentimentalists still persist in regarding as their ‘heartlands’. It was also (or therefore), as David Allen Green observes, “a multi-pronged attack on our liberties” growing from the ‘authoritarian populism’ expressed in Brexiter notions of the ‘will of the people’.

The first two of these measures can be seen to grow at least in part from Brexit. Resentment of the role of the judiciary via the Article 50 case and the prorogation case still smoulders. Rather more ludicrously, at least one part of the planned legislation on protests seems to derive from the way that Steve Bray’s one-man ‘stop Brexit’ demonstration so infuriated Brexiter MPs. But the wider and more sinister purpose is to remove both checks on and challenges to government power, again a hallmark of the Brexit process but now to be made a general principle.

Whilst more obviously an elite power grab than anything to do with the popular will, it is the hallmark of authoritarian populism to present the powerful as the incarnation of ‘the people’ and, thus, any checks upon the powerful as thwarting the people. This is the “grotesque political spoonerism” of populism that emerged with such force with Brexit.  

The third item, on ‘free speech’ in universities, relates to the pervasive hostility to ‘liberal intellectuals’, and perhaps to (university) education itself, that characterizes Brexit and post-Brexit politics. In part, as with the proposed judicial review and protest bills, it is about trying to close down those parts of civil society that might challenge government. It also reflects the sense amongst Brexiters that universities in general are wellsprings of the social liberalism which they abjure, and in particular that the graduates produced tend to reject the politics of authoritarian populism.

This proposal is already revealing a mass of contradictions, including the possibility that the new law will protect the rights of holocaust deniers to speak on campus and yet also require universities to prevent anti-Semitism on campus. This is only one of the many problems which ensue when in the name of ‘free speech’ it is proposed to create a state directorate to oversee it. As with the free traders now justifying trade barriers, the free speech libertarians are in the contradictory position of advocating state policing of this freedom.

This contradiction flows less from intellectual confusion than from dishonesty. For the fundamental problem is that the ‘free speech warriors’ want to prevent political correctness ‘stopping us saying what we think’ whilst also putting a brake on ‘woke intellectuals’ banging on about slavery. Free speech ‘for us but not them’ isn’t quite the principled position they seem to think, and despite the preferred self-description of many such warriors being that of ‘Classical Liberal’, one can only imagine that they haven’t read much John Stuart Mill. (For more on this proposed legislation, which seems in equal measure both pernicious and silly, see Professor Steve Peers’ twitter thread).

The fourth of the authoritarian populist provisions is the plan to require photo-ID of voters. It’s ostensible purpose, to combat electoral fraud, is so paper thin that even the naked rambler could wear it on his walks without compromising his principles. There are virtually no cases of in-person electoral fraud in the UK. Its purpose is, almost flagrantly, to prevent voters from ethnic minorities and marginalised groups, who are less likely to have such ID, from voting because they don’t tend to vote Tory. Yet it is possible that this will backfire given Johnson’s new-found reliance on older voters in ‘red wall’ seats who may also be relatively less likely to have photo-ID. Either way, it is a shabby little trick.

The rot beneath the pomp

There was another way in which the Queen’s Speech bespoke of a parallel universe. On the surface, here was the pomp and ceremony of centuries of tradition in the ‘mother of all parliaments’. And media coverage was awash with the breathless commentary which, apparently, is now required of broadcasters, especially the BBC, to show that they are of the people and not the liberal metropolitan elite when covering any vaguely royal ritual (we might, perhaps, call this doctrine ‘Witchellism’).

But ‘surface’ is all it was. Like a rotten piece of fruit with its skin intact, underneath was a slimy, suppurating flesh. Not just because it announced measures that were so transparently anti-democratic but because it concealed how the Union itself is falling apart because of Brexit, most obviously as regards Scotland for reasons spelt out sharply by the eminent psephologist Professor Sir John Curtice this week.

So even as it proposed measures to ‘strengthen the union’ the Queen’s Speech left resolutely unaddressed how profoundly Brexit has weakened it. Whilst hardly a new observation, it bears saying that not only was Brexit primarily a project of the English regions, but it was pursued in a form to cause maximum distress to those parts of the UK that had not voted for it. The Brexiters were able to do it, and they called it the will of the people, but there will be a huge reckoning.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in relation to Northern Ireland where, in his hurry to ‘ditch the hated backstop’ that Theresa May had agreed, Johnson, apparently without understanding or caring, effectively segmented the UK single market. Although the British media has recently gone rather quiet about this, intensive discussions continue between the UK and the EU over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

It is hard to be sure, but there is little obvious sign of progress. The EU has rejected UK proposals for a light-touch ‘risk-based’ approach to border checks, and David Frost is now speaking of the NIP being “unsustainable” and hinting at further unilateral breaches by the UK. It hardly needs saying that it was Frost, himself, who negotiated it and Johnson who signed it, nor that any additional breaches will be profoundly damaging to both UK-EU and UK-US relations. Meanwhile, unionist opposition to the NIP is hardening ominously and the marching season is not far off.

Johnson will meet the Irish Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, today to discuss a variety of UK-Ireland matters, and reports suggest that he will use it to try to enlist Martin’s support for the UK’s preferred ‘equivalence regime’ (see last week's post for explanation). That seems to be implied by the fact that David Frost will also attend. If so, Martin is unlikely to engage in such a discussion, since it is a UK-EU matter, and it would suggest that even after all these years the UK government still hasn’t grasped that the EU negotiates as a bloc, and in this case through the structures established by the NIP.

The culture war of attrition

This is just the most high-profile way in which Brexit continues to develop and be negotiated – other examples include the now-linked issues of fishing and financial services, with the prospects for a financial services equivalence agreement now looking remote. It is this, along with the still emerging economic realities of Brexit, which makes calls, such as those of Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, to “draw a line under Brexit” and to “embrace it” so fatuous. For whilst it’s right to say that rejoining the EU is simply not in prospect, you can’t draw a line under, or embrace, something which is a still unfolding process. Nor, as Burnham wants, can the focus now be on the Union without recognizing what Brexit is doing to it.

As Anthony Robinson discusses in his wide-ranging Yorkshire Bylines piece this week, Brexit is neither stable, nor sustainable, nor settled. At least one reason for that, long-evident but underscored by this week’s Queen’s Speech, is that Brexit has now morphed into a much wider domestic political and cultural battle. Brexiters seemed to think that winning the referendum was enough, a view falsified by the protracted Brexit process it engendered, and that it would take us to the ‘sunny uplands’, which the Brexit process has failed to reveal.

That process is still continuing so that, rather as happened with the confident predictions that the First World War would be over by Christmas, we are now stuck in a long, gloomy and vicious culture war of attrition. In those trenches, even the dimmest, most chinless, subaltern no longer talks blithely of sunny uplands to come. Only in a parallel universe, far from the mud and rot, are those old lies still told with such high zest.

*Updated 16/05/21 to correct my original, incorrect, claim that nothing in this Bill would require Brexit. Thanks to Professor Anthony Glees for the correction. 

Do you receive an email alert for this blog? If so, please note that this facility is being switched off across all Blogspot blogs from July 2021. There is no obvious way that I can replace this free service, although I am looking into it, so please assume that from then on you will need to access the blog directly via Or you may be able to add it to your RSS feed.

My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) will be published by Biteback in June 2021. It can be pre-ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book.

Sunday 9 May 2021

Labour and post-Brexit politics

There’s a huge amount of comment about the election results, much of it relating in one way or another to Brexit, especially as regards Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election. There’s a need for caution since It’s possible to cut the voting data to fit just about any analysis. So there’s probably no need for my analysis, and the same caveat applies to it, but, for what it’s worth, here it is anyway.

The wider context

The Hartlepool result could be seen just as bringing it in line with the other ‘red wall’ losses of 2019, because it happened to have a freakishly high Brexit Party vote which, this time, the Tories mopped up. But that also suggests that the 2019 results weren’t a one-off but part of a wider set of shifts which have many causes and which pre-date Brexit and the Referendum vote, in some cases by years or even decades.

There are reams that could be written on this, but the most basic issue is well-known: a party founded primarily as the political arm of a trades union movement rooted in the industrial working class is bound to struggle given the demise of traditional manufacturing, often male and unionised, industry. That is not to say that trade unionism, per se, has become irrelevant, and recently membership numbers have increased, in both private and public sectors, after a long period of decline, but its composition, especially as regards gender is changing, as are the kind of occupations it represents. So the voting base from which Labour originally grew, and upon which it used to rely, has been changing for a long time.

It is also the case that those traditional Labour voters were not necessarily – depending what is meant by the term – left-wing. Many were always ‘cultural conservatives’ even when Labour voters. For example, there was plenty of sexism and racism within that traditional group. Those of them (or their descendants) who are now voting for a right-wing party are doing so for a fairly simple reason: they are right-wing. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. Working class conservatism is nothing new. Yet this clearly isn’t all that is going on as shown, especially, by the evisceration of Labour in Scotland since 2015, but in favour of the SNP not the Conservatives.

Labour and the Brexit vote

Brexit may have hastened the decomposition of the traditional Labour vote, but that shouldn’t be overstated. Even if Labour is seen as a ‘remain’ party – which isn’t really true given that its MPs almost all voted to trigger Article 50, its stance throughout 2017-2019 was convoluted but effectively argued it could negotiate a ‘better’ Brexit, and in 2020 it voted for the Brexit trade deal – it doesn’t follow that this is the cause of its problems.

It’s simply not the case that the Brexit vote consisted of left-behind working class Northern Englanders. They were one part of a much broader coalition, and they were not necessarily habitual Labour voters. Ironically, in accepting this diagnosis Labour have fallen for the populist claims of Brexiters. And, of course, it’s certainly not the case that, nationally, most Labour voters supported Brexit. Of Labour voters in the 2015 general election, 35% voted leave in the Referendum (as, perhaps more surprisingly, did 32% of LibDem voters).

The best predictors of who voted remain are youth and educational level, especially higher education (these are clearly linked to some extent, because of the expansion of higher education). Brexit aside, Ben Page of pollsters IPSOS Mori, in his discussion of the Hartlepool result, says that age and home ownership, rather than social class, are now the key determinants of voting.

Labour’s new base

The biggest trap for Labour is the one that many of its enemies (and some of its friends) are trying to goad it into, namely to focus mainly on trying to appeal to what was its base, which is no longer there in sufficient numbers to win an election, especially as this can only be done by alienating its new base, which – in broad terms - is younger, urban (not just London), educated, renting, socially liberal, more southern than before, perhaps more rooted in the public and service sectors, possibly but not necessarily unionised, and some but not most of which is Corbynite. Labour’s successes in the Mayoral elections, especially, and its gains in some of the council elections in the south, such as Chipping Norton, underscore this emergent reality.

The good news for Labour is that this new base has a potential to expand in the future whereas its old, declining, base by definition doesn’t. So Johnson’s pitch for that vote isn’t very sustainable. A spectacularly spiteful piece about the Hartlepool result by Tony Parsons in The Sun weeps crocodile tears about how Labour has betrayed his dear old East End mum in favour of “sourdough-eating, university-educated, Guardian-reading globalists who are embarrassed by the Union Jack”. The more relevant point may be his mention that his mother died in 1999. 

Even so, this new base (which of course isn’t that described in Parsons’ ludicrous terms) isn’t big enough to win an election – and the Corbynite segment even less so - but it is the starting point from which to build a big enough coalition to do so. Given this starting point, bread and butter policies for this new base might relate to education, training and, perhaps key, housing. But a base is all it is and that means reaching out, with concrete policies as well as a rhetorical narrative, to the new manual working class, not in heavy industries and often not unionised, working for example in distribution centres and often in precarious employment conditions, and by no means confined to Northern England.

It also means reaching out to disaffected liberal Tory voters and to the small business owners and employees who the current Conservative party has abandoned. There is a huge opportunity for Labour to become the party of small business. If possible, it means formal pacts with LibDems, Greens and others, to try to overcome the age-old splintering of the liberal-left vote that gets so punished by the first-past-the-post system. Ideally, though unlikely, it means advocating electoral reform. 

Certainly it means making a new, bold federalist offer to Scotland (and England and Wales; Northern Ireland is more complicated) and in this way to stake out the ground as the party of the union which, again, Johnson’s Conservatives have ceded. This assumes, of course, that the union with Scotland survives, whereas it seems increasingly likely that its demise will be the casualty – or, for Scottish nationalists, the gain – of Brexit.

The new political landscape

This isn’t to propose a rag-bag coalition with no guiding themes or principles. Rather, it is to recognize the new political landscape which the Brexit vote did not create but made visible, and the development of which it accelerated. That can be described in various terms, none of them wholly satisfactory, but as countless commentators have observed it’s something along the lines of global/ cosmopolitan/ open versus local/ nativist/ closed.

Does this mean Labour becoming a party unworthy of its name? No, because its new base are themselves workers, of which more below. In fact, one way of casting the new divide, as shown by the Brexit vote, is in these terms, because the majority of those in full or part-time work voted remain whilst the majority of those not working voted leave.

Writing in the Sunday Times (£), Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist specialising in populism, dismisses the kind of approach I’m advocating here on the basis that the ‘cosmopolitans’ (his preferred term) are not yet a large enough group of voters, and are distributed in the wrong places. But that is because he, himself, is too deeply invested in the claims and mythologies of the populists he studies.

Thus, although using far more urbane and considered language than Parsons, he envisages these cosmopolitans as “passionate advocates for Black Lives Matter and other worthy causes and lean[ing] toward feeling ashamed, rather than proud, of Britain’s history”. In doing so he takes a stereotype of a sub-set of the new base and treats it as the whole, and ignores the wider coalition that could be built around that base. All parties consist of disparate elements, and can’t usefully be described in one-dimensional terms.

The Conservatives have already re-aligned

The crucial fact is that the Conservative Party has already made the shift to this politics. This point is made as by David Gauke, who when a Tory MP lost the whip as ‘remainer’ rebel – so no cheerleader for Johnson - in his incisive analysis of the results. The referendum and Brexit have now achieved what, at the level of electoral tactics, they were designed to achieve. That is, they have enabled the Conservatives to see off the UKIP (and later Brexit Party) threat they faced in the 2010s. In the process, by virtue of the Brexit culture war, they also hastened the demise of the old Labour base vote.

So, now, Labour has to re-orient itself to this shift. It’s true that there are questions about how quickly this re-alignment can happen, but it can only be hastened by Labour embracing it rather than hoping that the old political dividing lines re-appear, or trying to straddle the new ones. Some of the shift is happening spontaneously, but Labour can speed it up by actively pitching to the emergent reality.

To pose all this in a different way, which starts from voters rather than parties: who is to harness the votes of, and give representation to, the ‘cosmopolitans’? If the Brexit vote is taken as a proxy they are almost half the population. Are they simply to be expected to accept that, despite their huge numbers, they are not of ‘the people’ and are to be shunned in the battle for the red wall? Is it, in fact, politically sustainable to have a government which is openly hostile to the majority of its educated and economically-active population? Why, for that matter, in an advanced industrial economy in which being ‘world-leading’ is constantly lauded, should education and achievement be regarded so pejoratively?

Labour can’t be the ‘remain party’

This emphatically isn’t a proposal for Labour to become a remain party (it’s too late for that: we’ve left the EU), still less a rejoin party (it’s too early for that, if ever). But it does mean not treating erstwhile remainers as political lepers, which is to accept the false populist narrative that ‘the people’ equals leave voters, and it means not treating the effects of Brexit as taboo. In policy terms that means advocating and offering a better and certainly more harmonious relationship with the EU, not as Labour’s main or headline proposal but as part of a wider narrative of competent governance. And competence does still matter to voters: Johnson’s successes in these elections (and those of Labour in the Wales and the SNP in Scotland) are in part down to the successful delivery of the vaccines programme.

But whilst being the ‘remain party’ is a non-starter, the political scientist Rob Ford points out that a recognition of the wider politics coded by ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ can’t be avoided. Arguably (although the Biden example may contradict this) that means engaging more openly in the culture war territory, even if trying to recast its terms, rather than trying to avoid it for fear of offending those voters who, most likely, are still offended anyway. At the moment Labour, and Starmer, seem scared of saying what they think, and yet still pay the price of what such voters infer from their silence without reaping the full benefit of support from those who would agree with what they dare not say, were they to say it.

For example, a more pro-immigration stance – which in policy terms might mean advocating adding a mobility chapter to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement - would not just appeal to Labour’s new core vote but would also be economically sensible given the pressing problem of the demographics of Britain’s ageing society. Barely discussed, this is perhaps the biggest strategic challenge the UK faces, with ramifications for almost every area of economic and social policy, and both Brexit and the pandemic (£) have made it more urgent. In this context, immigration can be related to the ‘national interest’ and so an expression rather than a denial of patriotism. It works in Scotland.

I think that Labour mishandled, and have ever since been terrified by, the 2010 ‘Mrs Duffy moment’. At the very least, subsequent attempts to ‘talk tough’ on immigration were not just wrong in principle but misguided in thinking that it would appeal to right-wing voters, as eloquently argued by Maya Goodfellow in relation to Labour’s 2015 ‘immigration control’ mug. It also made Labour defensive about freedom of movement in the Brexit debates. But those for whom immigration is key will always prefer the genuinely anti-immigration parties. Conceivably, some such voters are actually more alienated by Labour’s pandering to them than they would be by Labour challenging them since the latter at least shows respect.

None of this is this an advocacy for Blairism. Many of Labour’s current problems root back to the New Labour years. The one insight from that time that remains valid, as it does for all political parties at all times, is that Labour has to adapt to changing realities. I happen to think that New Labour misdiagnosed what that meant – especially as regards the primacy of markets and how that fed through to financial regulation, public sector sub-contracting and PFI – and it certainly isn’t the right diagnosis for the 2020s, but the basic idea that undertaking such a diagnosis is necessary is correct.

The challenge for Labour’s political psychology

So, now, that means not harking back to ‘the red wall’ as some kind of immutable Labour territory and, in particular, recognizing the new shape of politics to which Brexit was the gateway. That doesn’t mean abandoning efforts or hope to retain or regain such seats, or regarding lapsed Labour voters there as hostile or beyond redemption. Nor does it mean neglecting them in policy terms, indeed a robust regional policy should be a key part of Labour’s offer. But it means ceasing to regard those seats as the central bedrock of Labour support, the ones to be counted on with others a bonus.

And I think that also means something which is difficult in terms of political psychology – perhaps captured by the very word ‘heartlands’ - which is to cease seeing these areas and the old traditional voter base as being, somehow, more authentically working class than the new base. That’s a real challenge, given the long and proud history of Labour in what was the industrial North and Midlands. But in the 2020s there is a certain sentimentality, even an absurdity, in treating the memory of, say, Yorkshire coal miners and steelworkers as being the core, ‘real working class’ and, say, an East London council worker or a Bournemouth care home worker as somehow peripheral and not quite who the Labour Party was founded for.

To put it another way, the elections could better be seen as Labour having retained, in the Mayoralties, its new urban heartlands in London and Manchester and starting to extend them to areas in the East and West of England, than in terms of Hartlepool showing it is losing in its heartlands.

For that matter, the assumptions about Labour being a working-class party, and the persistent agonizing about the relationship between that and its often middle-class leadership, become much less relevant in the new landscape. Those labels are increasingly confused anyway, because many middle-class people think of themselves as working class and sometimes vice versa. One part of that is that despite the sneering references to university education by the likes of Parsons, the expansion of such education in recent years means that it no longer exclusively references 'middle-classness', still less privilege.

The politics of ‘authenticity’

Moreover, a large part of the populism that informed Brexit and which Johnson is now mobilising is based on the idea that it is the voice of ‘ordinary people’. What matters in this politics is not social class but ‘authenticity’, so that voters who rail against ‘the elite’ think that Johnson, or Farage, is ‘one of them’ because ‘you could have a drink with him’. By contrast the elite are prissy, moralising do-gooders who ‘won’t let ordinary people say what we think’ (more on this idea here). Johnson understands this, which is why he jabs away at Keir Starmer for being ‘an Islington lawyer’ as if he, Johnson, was just ‘a regular guy’.

In some ways, Johnson’s populism in general, and Brexit in particular, can be thought of as an assault on educated people of whatever social class, and a deeply reactionary one in, effectively, decrying working-class aspiration and social mobility in favour of a society in which everyone knows their place. That is a proposition that Labour have always rejected. So a bold Labour Party would say something along the lines of: ‘like you, we think everyone’s as good as everyone else, we are about making your life better whoever you are and whatever you want to be.’

Some of my analysis here may be wrongly stressed, some of it is based on hunch, and all of it would need substantial fleshing out to become a workable strategy. But the core of it, I think, is correct: Tories have always been ruthless in reinventing themselves, and, as Gauke says, Johnson has done that for them again, primarily through Brexit and his exploitation of it. But he was able to do so because, like it or not, the political landscape has changed. If Labour are going to win again, they need to recognize that, and be equally ruthless in drawing conclusions from it.

Friday 7 May 2021

The realities of sovereignty

One way of telling the story of Brexit is that it was sold to the British public as, and perhaps believed by its advocates to be, a project to regain sovereignty but without any economic costs and, even, with economic benefits. Since that was impossible, when it came to be delivered, sovereignty was prioritised despite the economic costs. Of course, there is a huge flaw in that story, which is that the idea that EU membership meant a loss of sovereignty and Brexit meant regaining it was simply false or, at best, as demonstrated in Anthony Barnett’s superb essay from 2018, based on a concept of sovereignty so dated and naive as to be worthless.

Nevertheless, for Brexiters, and perhaps many leave voters, it had a meaning, which had two, related but different, aspects. One was that a country should and could decide ‘for itself’ what rules to follow. The other, more blatantly nationalistic, was that this country, in particular could and would get ‘more for itself’ on its own than it could within the EU because, as Vote Leave insisted (see slide 10 of link), “Great Britain is a great country” with the fifth largest economy, G7 membership, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and significant intelligence and military capability.

Sovereignty in practice: latest news

What we are now seeing in abundance are the realities and limitations of those ideas of sovereignty, even within their own terms. It was already plain in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) which reflects the way that the UK prioritised sovereignty over anything else. Thus what resulted was, in effect, a tariff-free deal for domestically produced goods and very little more. All of the currently emerging costs to industries and consumers flow from that, including the extensiveness of the checks needed to comply with the Northern Ireland Protocol (i.e. because a ‘deeper’ TCA would have meant a correspondingly ‘thinner’ Irish Sea border).

Norway non-agreement

The most obvious new example is the failure to reach a fishing deal with Norway, with potentially devastating effects on British cod fishing. Before, the UK benefitted from the agreements made between the EU and Norway, which is not part of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Now, it must strike its own deal with Norway but has not been able to. This is an interesting development because, unlike negotiations with the EU, it is not presented in terms of Britain being ‘punished’ for Brexit or as a failure by Norway to recognize Britain as a ‘sovereign equal’. So a lot of the standard Brexiters’ rhetorical smokescreen is stripped away and the reality emerges: UK sovereignty is circumscribed by that of other countries, even quite small countries can and will resist the UK’s demands, and they are more able to do so now that it is not an EU member.

Jersey row

Fishing is also central to this week’s drama over the permits that, because of Brexit and in line with the fishing chapter of the TCA, French fishermen now need to fish in Jersey’s waters (it has arisen now because, until the end of April, there was an ‘amnesty’ under which the pre-Brexit arrangements continued). It’s a highly complicated story as all fishing stories are, but particularly so because of the distinctive constitutional status of the Channel Islands. Thus it is not actually about CFP, but it is about Brexit because the TCA superseded the Granville Bay Agreement, dating back to the nineteenth century but last amended in 2000, which had governed fishing rights in these waters. Scrapping it as part of Brexit was strongly lobbied for by the Jersey Fishermen’s Association during the TCA negotiations. Separately, the UK also chose to leave the 1964 London Fisheries Convention (causing problems for fishing around Guernsey, Alderney and Sark which have been more quietly dealt with by agreeing an extension of the interim arrangements with the EU).

Brexiters see ‘taking back control of our waters’ and being ‘an independent coastal nation’ as emblematic of regaining sovereignty. But the inevitable consequence is to encounter the sovereignty of other countries. For this was not, as some Brexiters are inevitably spinning it, a row with the EU but with France, although the EU is ‘siding’ with France in saying the permits are not being issued as the TCA says they should be (£) (the UK government disputes this – I do not know who is correct, but there are now talks underway).

This carries two lessons. First, that the EU will tend to stand up for its members against third countries, which is one of the ways sovereignty is magnified by membership. Second, it underscores that EU membership does not end national sovereignty. Nor is it necessary to leave the EU to engage in nationalistic posturing to appeal to nativist voters. Hence, with elections in both countries in prospect, foolish and ridiculous words from French politicians threatening to cut off electricity supplies to Jersey were matched by foolish and ridiculous actions from the UK in deploying Royal Navy vessels to observe what turned to be a rather limited ‘blockade’ of St Helier by French (and some Jersey) trawlers. For all the furore, the drama is already fading but it or similar rows have plenty of potential to flare up again.

At one level, all this is (just) yet another Brexit mess, and a reminder of how Brexit has thrown a rock which produces waves and ripples which are now showing up in small and large ways. Interestingly, despite the political rhetoric, as the participation of some of them in the blockade shows, Jersey fishermen are highly sympathetic to their French colleagues, recognizing that they’ve all been caught up in this mess. It also bears saying that as long ago as March 2017 the House of Lords EU Committee warned the government of the dangers Brexit posed for the Channel Islands. But my point here is that this episode illustrates the consequences of a free-for-all between ‘sovereign equals’.

Lugano Convention

This week’s third lesson in the realities of sovereignty, just announced though long-trailed, comes with European Commission’s recommendation that the EU should not accept Britain’s application to re-join the Lugano Convention on cross-border enforcement of legal judgments. Technically, membership is not confined to EU or even single market members, but the Commission’s view is that the UK’s relationship with the single market is now so distant that it should not be re-admitted to the convention. Inevitably this is described by Brexiters as ‘punishment’ but it’s actually no different in kind to the Norwegian fishing non-agreement: other powers have the right to decide not to agree to what the UK wants, and they will sometimes, even often, exercise that right. The eventual outcome will depend on whether the - yes - sovereign member states of the EU decide to follow the Commission’s recommendation.

It doesn’t even matter if, as some may think, the European Commission or Norway or France are miscalculating their interests: that is their prerogative. In fact, much of the Brexiters’ case was based on claims about what was and was not in the EU’s interests. Hence all the stuff about the UK trade deficit, German carmakers and so on. As a matter of fact, these claims were proved wrong – as many of us knew they would be – and the EU prioritised the integrity of the single market. Again, it’s irrelevant to argue that the EU ‘should have’ made a different calculation of its interests. Brexiters have to face the world as it is, not as they imagine it ought to be.

A permanent negotiation

This basic fact is not going to go away. What Britain now faces – not temporarily, but for the foreseeable future – is an ongoing process of negotiating with the EU and others, constantly facing choices about what it will sacrifice in the name of sovereignty, and constantly facing the reality that others have powers, rights and choices which they will exercise as they see fit. That is true both in general but also in relation to specific aspects of the TCA (Jersey fishing permits being a minor example) where there are phased implementations.

Currently, that means primarily the negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). Several reports this week suggested that the EU is offering some flexibility in its implementation but within the basic parameters of the agreement, and proposing UK alignment with EU Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) rules. This, at a stroke, would remove many of the Irish Sea border checks. So far, the UK government still regards this as incompatible with sovereignty even though, at least for the time being, it doesn’t actually propose to diverge significantly from EU SPS standards.

The issue is, rather, that alignment means ‘dynamic alignment’ (i.e. when the EU rules change, the UK’s are bound to do so) and it’s this which would supposedly violate sovereignty. It therefore becomes a theological argument about whether the UK’s SPS standards are the same as the EU’s because they are agreed to be aligned or because they just happen to be the same at the moment. It’s true that the UK might want (or have) to change SPS as part of a future trade deal, especially with the US. But since, as has been emphasised this week by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, that is at best some way off, it is very hard to see why a temporary alignment with the EU could not be agreed.

After all, the UK government would be happy with, and is currently seeking, an ‘equivalence’ agreement (in other words, an agreement in which, whilst standards might not be the same in each market, they are deemed good enough for both). But that doesn’t work from an EU point of view, primarily because it involves a high-trust relationship with a third country that has not shown itself to be very trustworthy during the Brexit process, and about which there are lingering memories of the BSE epidemic as well as one with a shortage of Official Veterinarians (which also a problem for the current arrangements). Additionally, the volume of trade with the UK is much greater (and differently configured) than that of those third countries (such as New Zealand, which is the model usually touted) with which the EU does have SPS equivalence agreements.

And, again, if the UK were to decide, perhaps because of a trade agreement with the US, to substantially change its SPS rules then an equivalence agreement with the EU would presumably go out of the window anyway. Plus I think (I’m not sure – this is a horribly complex topic) that if EU SPS rules changed significantly then any equivalence agreement would have to be renegotiated anyway, so the practical distinction, on sovereignty grounds, between ‘dynamic alignment’ and ‘equivalence’ seems a fuzzy one. (For an excellent explainer of the concepts of dynamic alignment, equivalence and trade agreements in the context of Brexit, see trade expert Dmitry Grozoubinski’s ExplainTrade briefing).

In practical terms, then, dynamic alignment would mean the UK automatically changing the rules (or exiting the agreement) when EU rules changed whilst equivalence would mean re-negotiating (or exiting) the agreement. To any normal person this surely seems like some mediaeval debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It’s perfectly possible, and there’s just the tiniest sign of it, that what will be created is something which in substance is dynamic alignment but which the UK will call equivalence.

No coherent strategy

To re-iterate, whilst negotiating the operation of the NIP is the biggest immediate issue, the underlying one is that the UK-EU relationship is going to be the subject of a never-ending negotiation, and all the time the UK is going to have to make decisions about what to prioritise: the Brexiters’ peculiar version of sovereignty, or economic and political reality. That is inevitable simply because, like every other country in the world, but more so because of economic and geographic connection, the UK faces the reality of EU regulatory superpower deriving from market size.

It doesn’t seem that there is any coherent strategy for, or even understanding of, this from the UK government. For example, having made an issue of not recognizing the diplomatic status of the EU Ambassador to the UK, the government has this week agreed to do so. That’s the right decision, but by not making it from the beginning the UK squandered good will by posturing – for nothing. This is, precisely, a sign of an absent or incoherent strategy. The same will be true if, after marching up the hill of unilaterally breaking the NIP, the government quietly marches back down and accepts SPS alignment. If so, again it would be the right decision but reached via a foolish route.

Moreover, our relations with the EU cannot be separated from those with other countries for at least two reasons. On the one hand, the UK needs the EU’s support – political, diplomatic, and economic - in its antagonistic relationships with, especially, Russia, Iran and China. In this respect the recent ‘Global Britain’ Integrated Review was inadequate (see section five of link), since it barely touches on the UK-EU relationship despite it being a pivotal one. Though here, too, there are tiny signs of a more realistic approach quietly emerging.

On the other hand, the UK’s primary ally, the US, is deeply concerned with UK-EU relations in general, and the security and political situation of Northern Ireland in particular. This week saw the first face-to-face meeting between Dominic Raab and Anthony Blinken and though couched in diplomatic terms the message was clear: not only will the US not countenance anything that violates the Good Friday Agreement (translation: ‘Brexiters wanting to rip up the NIP, beware’) but it wants “political and economic stability in Northern Ireland” (translation: ‘make the NIP work’).

Irresponsibility or cynicism?

In the face of these realities, the question is how far the UK government is willing to push the Brexiters’ idea of sovereignty. The answer hinges on whether the government is irresponsible or cynical (most likely it will be ‘both’, but it needs to be ‘neither’).

If it is irresponsible then it will push on with the naive sovereignty agenda, making absurd provocations such as that of the EU Ambassador and silly gestures with Royal Navy ships, trashing its relations with the EU and the US by flouting international law, indifferent to the economic and political damage, and indifferent to the security situation in Northern Ireland. It may well do that if there’s no domestic political price to be paid or, indeed, a political benefit as a result.

If it is cynical, it will quietly yield on what to most people are arcane technicalities about, say, SPS whilst bigging up false claims about what Brexit has achieved. This would rely upon Brexiter MPs and commentators being gullible and ignorant, but that’s not a completely outlandish expectation. We’ve already seen this approach deployed with misleading or simply untrue claims about Brexit and vaccines, about freeports, and, most recently and perhaps most ludicrously, about Brexit enabling Britain to resist the aborted football super-league plans.

The UK-India ‘trade deal’

It is also evident in overblown claims about the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals. This was on display again this week when Liz Truss asserted that Brexit had allowed the UK to do a ‘trade deal’ with India. In fact, for the most part, it was a commercial deal of the sort that UK could, and did, make whilst an EU member, just as EU members like Germany have. It’s true that it also contained a Memorandum of Understanding (which may, though it’s by no means certain, eventually lead to a Free Trade Agreement with India), and that couldn’t have been done as an EU member. But the overall claim was misleading although, inevitably, jumped on by those Brexiters who don’t understand that the term ‘trade deal’ is an imprecise one, and not necessarily the same as a Free Trade Agreement, as a vindication of Brexit. In any case, the actual economic benefits of any eventual trade agreement probably won’t be very large, certainly compared with the loss of trade caused by exiting the single market.

These points about trade policy are boringly unoriginal, having been made endlessly in one form or another by many people, including me, for years. But they still matter, because the ongoing false claims about trade deals root back to the basic issues with which I began this post. That is, they pretend that ‘regaining’ sovereignty was not just cost-free but economically beneficial. So it is important to say that some of the claimed benefits did not require this ‘sovereignty’ whilst, overall, the costs are much higher than any benefits which may derive from it.

Moreover, it is important to confront the persistent slipperiness of Brexiters in the way that when challenged about the economic costs they very often resort to saying ‘you don’t understand, it wasn’t about the money it was about regaining our freedom, which is priceless’. But not only was that not how Brexit was sold in 2016, it is also not what is being said about the benefits of an independent trade policy. If Brexiters want to justify themselves in economic terms, then they can’t use ‘priceless’ sovereignty to escape a proper accounting.

But ‘we are where we are’?

I understand the view that ‘we are where we are’ and so there’s no point harking back to the false promises that were made. But I don’t accept it. For one thing, it is galling to hear so many Brexiters now wheeling out as arguments against Scottish independence precisely those they dismissed when made by remainers against leaving the EU. More importantly, the promises made in 2016 are not part of some remote past. Rather, they are only now, since the end of the transition period, actually playing out in terms of practical consequences. That is less than five months ago. So these are not dead issues and one way we know that is, indeed, because the Brexiters are still at such pains to churn out false claims to justify what they have done.

So if there is to be a ‘moving on’ and an acceptance that ‘we are where we are’ that has to start with an honest acknowledgment from the Brexiters – meaning, principally, the government – of where exactly it is that we are. And that means, even assuming that they may have done it in good faith (which requires considerable charity), acknowledging that this particular form of sovereignty they have created presents very serious problems.

If they are to be addressed, or at least ameliorated, it will require a patient diplomacy and a realistic recognition of the powers that other countries, and the EU, have and of Britain’s relatively (not, of course, entirely) limited power. In short, it requires the opposite of both the ‘cynical’ and the ‘irresponsible’ responses we currently see. I’ve mentioned in this post a couple of tiny signs this might happen, but I’m not holding my breath.


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My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) will be published by Biteback in June 2021. It can be pre-ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book.