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.


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