Sunday, 26 September 2021

This crisis could be an opportunity

It’s impossible to escape the fact that Britain is now caught in an escalating crisis. It has multiple moving parts which interact in complex ways, but each of them is to a greater or lesser extent linked to Brexit. Daily, the dishonest promises made for Brexit and the reckless irresponsibility with which it was implemented are being exposed by this crisis. But it is made worse by a new layer of dishonesty and irresponsibility which seeks to deny that the crisis is anything to do with Brexit at all, or to pretend that those pointing out that Brexit is one factor are claiming it is the only factor. As always with Brexit, unpicking the claims and counter-claims of Brexiters is difficult because they conflate different issues and set endless false hares running. So it’s worth very briefly setting out what is happening and why.

The crisis in brief

Central to the crisis are the supply chain disruptions which have been going on for months (see numerous previous posts), and which, crucially, have now caused petrol shortages. Here Brexit is one important cause because it contributes to labour shortages, including of HGV drivers. We now also have an energy crisis. This has multiple and complex causes, although Brexit is not currently a significant one because the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) meant that large parts of existing arrangements were, in effect, unaffected. Even so, it is not entirely irrelevant because the UK did leave the Internal Energy Market. This has created more cumbersome trading processes, leading to increased costs for gas and electricity supplied via EU-UK interconnectors and, potentially, prioritisation of supplies to EU countries.

One knock-on effect of the energy crisis is the shortage of CO2 for food production and packaging, which threatened to cause even greater and very immediate supply disruptions when the two main UK plants ceased production until the government provided them with some financial support. Although it is little-remarked on, there is a Brexit factor here because the main alternative source, a Dutch plant, is prioritising EU clients. Moreover, although there is some lack of clarity about this, it seems as if Northern Ireland, by virtue of still effectively being in the EU goods single market, has escaped the CO2 shortage, and, certainly, it also has different arrangements to the rest of the UK as regards energy links with the EU because of the ‘all island’ system.

Whilst it is food, fuel and energy which are most in the headlines, there is a more diffuse sense of national crisis. Many goods other than food – for example construction materials - are in short supply, the NHS continues to struggle, with dental services, in particular, close to impossible to obtain in some areas, and social care is at or beyond breaking point. Shortage of staff caused by ending freedom of movement is again one central factor, and perhaps now the central factor, in this.

Certainly in all of these fields it is becoming more difficult to blame the pandemic and, as the former boss of Sainsbury’s said recently, in the long run Brexit will have a bigger effect on the food industry than Covid. In any case, to the extent that it is true that the pandemic meant that the Brexit damage arrived at the very worst of times, all that does is to underscore the government’s reckless refusal to extend the transition period when it had the chance. As Dr John Cotter has recently argued on the Encompass website, this was a result of “hard Brexit ideology” trumping pragmatism, with the consequences we are now suffering.

The need for realism and honesty about Brexit

All of this, along with the ongoing damage to UK-EU trade due to the new trade barriers, is very much in line with what Brexiters were warned would happen, and if anything rather worse. Their persistent dismissal of these warnings as Project Fear was successful in getting them their Brexit, but with that success comes responsibility: Brexiters own what is happening to our country. This is not about saying ‘we told you so’, in an attempt to refight the battles of 2016. It is about finally being honest and realistic about Brexit.

Ironically, the current dishonest attempts by Brexiters to claim that the crisis is nothing at all to do with Brexit may aid that. They themselves now admit that the way remainers kept scratching at the ‘£350 Million a week for the NHS claim’ in 2016 actually helped them keep the public debate focussed on that (spurious) claim. Now, their insistence on trying to discredit Brexit as a cause of the crisis helps to keep that (correct) claim in the headlines. Latest polling evidence suggests that a substantial majority of the public (68%) and, even, a small majority (52%) of leave voters think Brexit is partly to blame for the petrol shortages. So, perhaps, reality will win out.

At the very least, the words of Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng that “we’ve moved on” from Brexit ring very hollow indeed when Brexit is intertwined with almost every aspect of the crisis. They also make little sense considering the government’s own decisions. Almost lost amidst all the other news was the announcement that, as predicted in my previous post, the UK will again postpone the introduction of import controls on EU goods. Whilst expected, it is a shocking indictment of governmental unpreparedness for Brexit and, even accepting that the slogan referred primarily to immigration, makes a mockery of ‘taking back control of our borders’.

It leaves the UK with perhaps the most bizarrely skewed trading relationship with the EU imaginable and, incredibly, this was defended by Tory MP George Freeman as Britain “acting very fairly” by continuing with “free trade” unlike the “aggressive” EU. It seems that five years on UK politicians still don’t understand what (hard) Brexit actually means. The wider point, though, is that we can hardly have “moved on” from Brexit when it still hasn’t been fully implemented.

Government stuck between admitting and denying reality

The import control decision makes sense in terms of avoiding adding another dimension to the crisis, and is an implicit acknowledgment that the more Brexit is implemented the more damaging it becomes, even if offering only a very limited and temporary postponement. The same applies in relation to immigration where, again, the government response to the crisis is stuck between admitting and denying reality by reluctantly agreeing to 5000 temporary visas for HGV drivers and 5500 for poultry workers whilst at the same time lashing out at it for being a “manufactured crisis” got up by “diehard remainers”.

At one level, this half-accepts that, in ending freedom of movement, Brexit is a cause of the crisis. It also implicitly accepts that the Brexiter idea that domestic labour could substitute for EU labour was false. But as a response it is woefully inadequate. The numbers are too small compared with the shortages, and anyway the UK is no longer an attractive destination for EU workers in general and drivers in particular (though the visas could also be used by non-EU workers).

There are multiple reasons for that, including Brexit itself which was so bound up with a derogatory attitude to EU workers, and the chaotic end to the transition period which saw truck drivers stranded in the UK, causing widespread anger not helped by subsequent treatment of EU drivers seeking to work in the UK. Beyond that, three-month visas are very unattractive, and, from October, the end of recognition of EU ID cards by the UK means that even to use such visas will require obtaining a passport. In any case, even in its own terms any effect it does have isn’t going to be immediate.

The bigger point is that, as is widely understood in EU countries but was never really grasped by the UK, there are fundamental differences between migration and freedom of movement of people – differences both in the ease with which it can be done and in the cultural and psychological meaning and experience associated with it. Thus the benefits of freedom of movement can never be replicated by issuing work visas, as if turning an economic tap on and off, the more so after years of very publicly denouncing foreigners for ‘taking our jobs’.

This is one example of why what is at issue is not just the arguments of 2016 but what happens now and in the future. Rather, the two are linked. The Brexiters simply didn’t understand the consequences of what they advocated and, as a result, are incapable of responding adequately to the problems they have created. That has been made all the worse by Johnson’s approach to Brexit as something to be ‘got done’ and his having made membership of his government dependent, above all else, on not even questioning how it was and is being done. Equally, Johnson is determined to avoid any reference to the promises he made for Brexit.

Thus whilst it is true that gas price rises have relatively little to do with Brexit, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he promised that Brexit would lead to lower prices. Similarly, having for so long made a trade deal with the US a central plank of Brexit, he now, almost casually, accepts that it isn’t going to happen. At the same time, trivial ‘benefits’ of Brexit, such as crown marks on pint glasses, are trumpeted by the Brexiter press as some huge national victory, whilst new false claims for its benefits, such as that it allowed the UK to be part of the US-Australia nuclear submarine deal or that it will enable all sorts of regulatory reforms or the briefly floated absurdity that the UK might join USCMA (NAFTA as was), are advanced as sops to the gullible. And if that sounds like derogatory elitism it is: but it is the derogatory elitism of Johnson and his cronies smirking at the ghastly oiks they so despise.

The battle between remembering and forgetting  

As I’ve remarked before, at least since Johnson came to power we have entered a period in which there is a battle between remembering and forgetting, in which the endless gaslighting by Brexiters within and outside government makes remembering – that is, remembering what was promised but also how we got to where we are – almost impossible.

Coming back from what has only been a two week break from posting I’m struck by how difficult it is to keep track of all the Brexit-related things which have happened just in that short period, and of the underlying complexities of how and why they happened. Each issue to which I have devoted a couple of sentences here could easily be the subject of an entire post or more. That is irritating in itself (for me, and perhaps for readers), and it is the reason why I’ve changed my intention to keep to the normal pattern of posting on a Friday, because had I done so it would have been even harder to keep up to date. But I think it points to a wider and very important fact.

Most of the general public have, reasonably and understandably, not followed each twist and turn of Brexit. When it most dominated the news in 2019, many people probably got heartily sick of it, which was part of the appeal of Johnson’s dishonest ‘get Brexit done’ message. Since then, especially because of the pandemic, and because of the slow puncture nature of Brexit, even more will have tuned out.

Suddenly, that has the potential to change because of this complex crisis which, so to speak, is resulting in a much more rapid loss of air. The near political silence about Brexit that has obtained since, at least, the end of the transition period looks increasingly untenable. As Jonathan Freedland writes in the Guardian, Brexit needs to be ‘named’ in order for its role as the thread running through the crisis to be addressed.

The crisis may prompt a renewed Brexit debate

That is beginning to happen as media reports increasingly discuss Brexit in relation to the crisis – aided, as I’ve suggested, by Brexiters’ ever noisier attempts to deny that Brexit has any role in it at all – but as it does so those who haven’t been much engaged with Brexit will face my ‘catch up’ problem but on a far bigger scale. How can it be that Brexit, which promised so much for so long, has come to this? Wasn’t Brexit finished with months ago? These questions will intensify if the crisis deepens, which is likely given that colder weather will increase energy demands, and that demand for EU fresh produce will rise in winter, especially as the government response so far is so feeble.

The answers will determine who the public blame, and how they react, and this will matter hugely for the future. Because, to re-iterate, the issue isn’t primarily about who had the right of it in past arguments but about what happens now and in the future to UK-EU relations. For example, the already implicit recognition from the government that ending freedom of movement has contributed to the fuel supply crisis opens the door to an explicit recognition that it is a disaster across numerous other areas. That in turn could pave the way to, at least, reversing the government’s decision to refuse the EU offer of a mobility chapter in the TCA and, at most, to undermining one of the Brexiters’ central objections to single market membership. In a similar way, albeit with less immediate urgency, as the promises made for the benefits of leaving the customs union in terms of, especially, a US trade deal evaporate, whilst its costs to EU trade rack up, then the central case for that part of Brexit, too, erodes.

For it’s vital to recall that, despite claims to the contrary from some Brexiters since, Brexit was not sold to leave voters in terms of ‘sovereignty’ at any cost. They were promised that, at the very least, it had no costs and that, actually, it would mean lower prices, better public services, more trade, and more prosperity. There would be no crisis to be ‘survived’. And this is not some long-gone history – it was only a shade over the normal length of a government’s term in office. So although neither hard core Brexiters nor their hard core followers amongst leave voters will ever have a change of heart, whatever happens, it needs only a fairly small number of leave voters to recognize the grotesque fraud that was perpetrated upon them for post-Brexit politics to change quite dramatically.

That, of course, is why the Brexiters are so determined to deny the crisis is in any way caused by Brexit and, hence, why the government’s attempts to deal with the crisis are so limited and ineffective. It is also why, as I’ve argued so many times before – but it is now truer than ever – the Labour Party has a golden opportunity to hammer the government on Brexit.

For many of those potentially disenchanted leave voters will very likely have been traditional Labour voters, to whom Labour can now say without disrespecting them that Johnson has not delivered what he promised. In the process, the majority of habitual Labour voters who backed remain – and indeed remain voters in general, who have been treated with such contempt for the last five years - would, finally, have their concerns acknowledged. Beyond these electoral considerations, such an approach is the only way of being realistic about the reasons for and solutions to the growing crisis. The only way, in fact, of facing up to the realities of Britain’s entire economic and political situation, both in terms of the specific effects of Brexit itself and some of the chronic pre-Brexit problems which Brexit has rendered acute.

Rarely have political opportunism and principle been so closely aligned, if only Starmer would grab the moment, and in fact there are signs that he is finally starting to do so.

And then there’s Northern Ireland

Buzzing away in the background (and of which, no doubt, more next time) to all this is the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), and since my previous post David Frost has continued to make aggressive noises about this. His doing so again gives the lie to Kwarteng and others’ claim that “we’ve moved on” from Brexit: for how can that be if Frost is still trying to renegotiate it? But what I argued in that previous post is now even more true given the intensified crisis of the last couple of weeks: the public may be very unforgiving indeed of continued aggravation over the NIP on top of everything else and, indeed, will be reminded anew of Johnson’s false promise to have got Brexit done.

Indeed some may reflect that it is strange for the government to be so agitated about Northern Ireland when its version of Brexit avoids some of the problems experienced by the mainland. They might even wonder why, instead, the benefits of the NIP should not be extended to include Great Britain. After all, even if it doesn’t quite have the ‘best of both worlds’ as Michael Gove put it, it seems to have some distinct advantages over complete exit. From that it is just a very short step to asking why on earth we undertook Brexit in the first place, a question which is becoming even harder to answer with each passing day.

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