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. 

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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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