Friday 8 October 2021

The Brexit three-card Monte

For years many Brexiters – and some remainers for that matter – have been saying that the vote to leave was little or nothing to do with economics, but all to do with a desire for sovereignty and ‘liberation’. I’ve consistently argued that this was a myth, and that the Vote Leave campaign was to a large extent fought on ‘bread and butter’ issues such as wages, public services and housing, usually falsely linking them to reducing immigration and to the supposed EU budget contribution.

So it’s both surprising and unsurprising that as the interlinked fuel, supply and labour crisis drags on, ‘economic Brexit’ is now back in fashion, with Boris Johnson saying that “when people voted for change in 2016 and when people voted for change in 2019, they voted for the end of a broken model of the UK economy that relied on low wages and low skills and chronic low productivity. We're moving away from that”. On this account, the crisis is just a necessary part of this transition, with wage growth as the key metric of its success.

If that is indeed so, then it wasn’t necessary to leave the EU to achieve it and there isn’t, at least for now, and despite Johnson’s false claims about rising real wages, any sign that leaving the EU will produce it. Nor is it consistent with the government’s position on public sector pay. But as Professor Gerhard Schnyder writes on his invaluable Brexit Impact Tracker blog, whatever its economic incoherence it shows “a remarkable … shift in Brexiteer discourse away from sovereignty to wages”. In particular, it acknowledges supply and labour shortages as being a consequence of Brexit rather than, as before, nothing to do with it.

In this sense it shows the government realizing that the public narrative about the crisis – which, as charted in my last few posts, has been under contestation in recent weeks - has now pretty much settled on viewing it as in part a consequence of Brexit, and responding by trying to re-appropriate it as Brexit working as it was meant to.

This isn’t just doublethink ….

However it’s more complicated than a shift in messaging. Listening to government ministers you can still hear that the supply and labour crisis is a global event that is beyond government control as well as that it is part of a considered national plan and, even, good news. So it’s not that one message is being replaced by another but that they are being run simultaneously.

Johnson, inevitably, is the master of this illogic, managing to suggest within the course of one interview that the crisis doesn’t exist, and that it exists but is nothing to do with Brexit, and that it exists but is part of what delivering Brexit means. It’s like the three-card Monte scam in reverse: rather than the gullible punter never turning up the winning card, Johnson’s trick is to present whatever card he picks as being the winner.

Many commentators, such as John Crace of the Guardian, have been struck by the inconsistency or, as LBC’s James O’Brien put it, the ‘doublethink’ entailed in simultaneously deploying these contradictory rationales. Actually, it is no surprise at all, and it hasn’t just emerged this week, although Johnson’s statements have given it much higher profile. For example, earlier on in the crisis, at the end of August, I discussed how the statement of a government spokesperson explicitly tied it to the successful delivery of Brexit employment policy: “The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system and employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad”. So throughout the crisis this and the contradictory claim that it’s nothing to do with Brexit have been in play.

… it’s Brexit doublethink

However, the more important point is that this is just the latest example of something inherent to the entire Brexit project. Always it has relied upon, and been permeated with, inconsistent claims produced at the same time and often by the same person. This also wrongfoots (and exhausts) opponents, who carefully chase down the flaws in one claim only to be confronted with a different, and diametrically opposite, one.

The ‘sovereignty at any cost’ and ‘all costs are Project Fear’ dyad is perhaps the most obvious example, and the constant slippage between and conflation of ‘Norway’ and ‘Canada’ models of Brexit during and after the campaign is another. Further examples include:

· The UK is a big economy, so is bound to get a good Brexit trade deal AND the EU is useless at making trade deals with big economies

· The EU needs us more than we need them AND the EU is bound to punish us for leaving

· Because the EU will give us a great deal, that proves it’s right to leave AND because the EU didn’t give us a great deal that proves it’s right to leave

· The UK-EU negotiations will be quick and easy AND the EU is slow and lumbering

· Germany always tells the EU what to do AND the EU can never decide what to do because it has to get the agreement of all its members

· We will threaten the EU with ‘no deal’ to get what we want AND a ‘no-deal Brexit’ would have no adverse consequences

· We don’t need a trade agreement with the EU, WTO terms are fine AND we must make trade deals with other countries rather than trade on WTO terms

· The EU is a bully AND the EU is weak and on the point of collapse

· Brexit will make us more global AND Brexit will protect local traditions and businesses

· Brexit will lead to a glorious future AND Brexit will reclaim the past

· Brexit will change everything AND most things will go on as usual

There are undoubtedly many other examples of the same thing, and at one level they could just be seen as normal political opportunism and, certainly, as one of the reasons Brexit was supported, since the very contradictions in the case meant it could mean all things to all people. But I think that the opportunism wasn’t just a tactic to win Brexit but was inherent to the intellectual and strategic incoherence of Brexit itself: it wasn’t a coherent project which was sold in contradictory ways, but its very incoherence lent itself to being expressed in such ways.

This matters hugely, now, because it explains why delivering Brexit is proving to be such a mess. The government oscillates between totally contradictory economic and geo-political strategies because the only guiding thread of its formation was to ‘get Brexit done’ (the ‘levelling up’ agenda is a sub-theme of this, in that it is presented as being what getting Brexit done enables), and that thread pulls in contradictory directions, for example as between free trade and protectionism. Moreover, whilst Brexit could mean all things to all people as a proposal, by definition it cannot do so in delivery, since its various aims and claims were incompatible.

The object of power is power

But that is only part of the picture, in that whilst it would have made delivering Brexit an incoherent mess under any Prime Minister and government it also interacts with the particular and peculiar nature of Johnson and his government. In C.P. Snow’s classic 1964 political novel Corridors of Power, the government minister at the centre of the story remarks that “the first thing is to get the power. The next – is to do something with it”. It’s almost a truism, and it’s easy to imagine almost any leading politician saying something similar.

But it very obvious that only the first part, and not the second, applies to Johnson. He may, perhaps, be interested in his ‘historical legacy’, but seems almost completely uninterested in what has to be done to secure a legacy worthy of the name. He is certainly totally bored with Brexit (“we’ve sucked that lemon dry”, as he put it recently).

Instead, and whilst there may be individual exceptions amongst his ministers it seems to set the tone for his government as a whole, his interest is solely in having power. As one anonymous former minister reportedly put it, “the trouble with Boris is that he’s not very interested in governing. He’s only interested in two things. Being world king and shagging”.

Such a political rationality – if such it can be called – does drive a certain kind of political agenda, albeit a deeply pernicious one. First, to retain power by rigging the system in his favour and by providing his voter base with the culture war forays that energise it. And second, as ‘world king’, to dole out courtly favours in the form of jobs and contracts for cronies and vengeful banishments for the disloyal.

But when it comes to serious questions of government, his only response is to try to get through the next few minutes, or hours or days by presenting whatever bogus argument suits the moment. Thus the response to the present Brexit-related crisis, as to the delivery of Brexit in general, is of this sort. He probably knows, and many of his MPs certainly know, that his response is economic nonsense but, for now, it is an answer to why the country has to endure this crisis. Next week or month, it’s easy to imagine a completely different line being taken. For example, the already growing fears of inflation could lead him to say that wage control is the new imperative and, no doubt, that Brexit provides us with the opportunity to achieve it.

Northern Ireland: more of the same

Nowhere is the meeting of the inherent incoherence of Brexit and the depravity of Johnson’s approach to politics clearer than Northern Ireland. At the most general level, it’s here that the contradiction between leaving the institutions that removed borders and insisting that doing so won’t recreate borders has the most dangerous and destabilising effects.

More narrowly, it’s never been clear whether Johnson agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) without understanding what it meant, or whether he understood what it meant and never intended to honour it. Either way, it was another example of his lazily or dishonestly grabbing at a supposed solution to an immediate problem. This week David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit subbie, continued to make aggressive sounds about making major changes to the NIP under threat of invoking Article 16.

I’ve reviewed the bogus arguments about this for months now, as well as explaining why ‘invoking Article 16’ doesn’t provide a solution, and won’t repeat all that yet again. For now, I don’t see much point in further speculation – if Frost is to be believed we are only a few weeks away from substantive developments in the NIP row (as trailed in my post of a month ago, we are also about to see a significant escalation of the Jersey fishing rights dispute).

However, it is worth noting that on this issue there is also contradiction, with Johnson saying this week the problems were those of implementation and that it could work “in principle”, whilst Frost has said that not only the implementation but the actual construction of the NIP is flawed.

So again incoherent justifications are advanced simultaneously. If criticised for having agreed it, the response is that it is implementation that is the problem. If criticised for not having implemented it, the response is that the agreement is flawed. So back to why agree it? Because the remainer parliament constrained our options. So why sign it after you’d won the election? Because we didn’t expect it to be implemented so inflexibly. Pick a card, any card. Thus whilst the UK’s approach to the NIP row has been described this week as playing poker (£), its intellectual basis is the same old Brexit three-card trick.

There is also the contradiction, discussed in my last post, between the fact that it is in Northern Ireland that the supply and labour crisis is least acute, yet only here where the government insists the Brexit arrangements aren’t working and must be changed. Perhaps under the new messaging, in which the crisis is depicted as showing Brexit doing its necessary work of restructuring, we will now be told that the NIP must be changed in order to allow Northern Ireland to have its fair share of this beneficial crisis. For it now seems that success is defined as failure and failure as success.

The public verdict: Brexit has failed

As regards the wider Brexit situation, the public have a more straightforward grasp on all this, with a new poll showing that, overall, 36% think it has been a success and 52% think it has been a failure. Within that, there are significant variations between the four nations – in Northern Ireland just 18% think it has been a success and a stonking 74% think it a failure – but even in England the figures are 37% (success) to 50% (failure).

The variation in results amongst remain and leave voters is much as would be expected but intriguingly, given that the referendum vote showed no significant gender difference, they vary sharply between men (44% success, 49% failure) and women (29% success, 55% failure). I think this is the first time any opinion poll has shown anything much in the way of a gender divide over Brexit (for example, the latest poll on opinions about the main cause of the HGV driver shortage shows the single commonest explanation to be Brexit, at 35% amongst all respondents, but with no gender difference at all).

It is worth dwelling on these results. We already knew that the referendum was almost the only moment when there was a majority for Brexit, and then only in England and Wales, and that for almost the entire time since then there has been a small majority for remain. This latest poll (which of course may not be sustained) shows the majority in each constituent nation and in the nation as a whole, as well as the majority of women, think it is a failure. That is hardly surprising, considering the scale the Brexit damage catalogued in the remarkable Kelemen archive, now closed at an astonishing 1000 reputably-sourced examples. So for all the ‘will of the people’ rhetoric, Brexit is a huge national project which is being done without sustained national support or acclaim.

In the face of that it is really quite grotesque for David Frost to talk, as he did at this week, of “the long bad dream of EU membership” being over. Of course, that was in the context of the Tory Party conference, though it’s of note that 32% of 2019 Conservative voters, a not inconsiderable minority, also think that Brexit is a failure. That, too, is not surprising considering that Brexit damage now reaches deep into some of the traditional heartlands of the Tory Party in farming and business in a way that would have been unthinkable in the past.

Indeed the party now seems decidedly anti-business in its latest stance on the labour and supply crisis (and interestingly is now even at odds with pro-Brexit business leaders). One Conservative MP, Chris Loder, who is apparently a member of the ‘Common Sense Group’, even suggested that the collapse of supermarket supply chains would be a good thing as it would mean “the farmer down the street will be able to sell their milk in the village shop like they did decades ago”. If the Tories are the party of business, then it’s business circa 1890.

Brexiters should be wary of hubris

Whatever the context of Frost’s words, there’s a serious problem in gloating over something which is so widely seen as having failed. Although this has not much dented the Tories in the polls (though that may be in flux), I continue to think that the disconnect between public opinion and what is a major and ongoing shift in national direction is going to play out in complex, unpredictable and far-reaching ways.

Frost also showed remarkable stupidity in suggesting that the New York Times report that the referendum result had “stunned the world” was some kind of endorsement for Brexit or for Britain. The reality, of course, is that Brexit has shredded Britain’s reputation and made us a laughing stock. That is obvious from a resumé of this week’s foreign press coverage of Brexit, and in cartoons as diverse as that in Germany, suggesting people visit British supermarkets to experience what life in Communist East Germany was like, to one in the Bangkok Post depicting the British lion leaping through a door marked Brexit and emerging as a dopey-looking pussycat. Indeed if Labour was really canny in attempting to tap into the fabled patriotism of ‘red wall’ voters, it could do worse than to circulate these images of what Brexit’s plastic patriots have done to us.

Frost’s remarks reveal a hubris amongst Brexiters which they’d be wise to be wary of. That was one of the thoughts prompted by watching the fascinating new BBC documentary series Blair & Brown: the New Labour Revolution, in that in its heyday New Labour, like Thatcher’s New Right before it, thought, as the Brexiters do, that they had redefined politics forever. In fact, not only does the ‘wheel always turn’ but, more importantly, each supposed triumph provokes and incubates surprising counter-reactions.

The other thought was a more melancholic one. Whatever one thinks of them and what they did, Brown, Blair and those around them were serious, committed, competent politicians who knew what they wanted to do and why, and, to an extent, how. For that matter, the same could be said of Thatcher and many of her ministers. It is a dispiriting contrast with the squalid and mediocre three-card tricksters, the architects and progeny of Brexit, who now govern us.

1 comment:

  1. It was obvious that BREXIT would be a failure - so many experts said so. As a consequence, the real powers behind politicians told them to belittle 'experts' and ,lo that was done by the leading politicians, starting with the proven liar Johnson and members of the general public class, thereafter, believing so-called 'experts' were, sadly, gullible, that the world after BREXIT would be wonderful.