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Friday, 25 March 2022
Within hours, Boris Johnson had made a mockery of my tentative suggestion, when he directly compared Ukraine’s defensive war against Russian military invasion with Britain’s decision to leave the EU. It was a crass and widely criticised remark which he reportedly now regrets, although no formal retraction or apology has been issued. But whilst it falsified my blog post in one way, in another it affirmed the analysis that the war ought to have discredited such a comparison.
Johnson confuses party leadership and national leadership
That’s shown by the way that Johnson’s comments were heavily criticised by senior political figures – including, most damningly, the former President of Ukraine - and media commentators across Europe, and no doubt equally resented by EU leaders. At all events, it seems to explain why Johnson wasn’t – as he had apparently wanted to be – invited to Thursday’s EU leaders’ summit, which Joe Biden also attended.
Thus whereas the leaders of the US, Germany, France and Italy were in all three back-to-back meetings in Brussels yesterday (NATO, G7, EU), Johnson was only in the first two. The war is shifting the international order in fundamental ways, including the radical change to Germany’s defence posture, and the rapidly closening relationship between NATO and the EU. This presents particular challenges for post-Brexit UK, requiring skilled diplomacy and leadership.
Instead, not for the first time, Johnson’s words have had adverse consequences, damaging to the important need for post-Brexit UK to get back ‘into the rooms’ where international decisions are discussed and made, and damaging to the vital need for an indivisible international front against Putin’s aggression. It was yet another failure of international statesmanship on his part. It was also yet another failure of domestic leadership. For if Brexiters are in any way serious about healing the divisions of Brexit, or wanting erstwhile remainers to ‘move on’, that is hardly compatible with yet again implicitly depicting those who did not want to leave the EU as in some way unpatriotic or, even, traitorous.
What he said was no slip of the tongue. It was scripted, and must surely have been approved not just by Johnson but by his advisers. His motivation would seem to simply have been shoring up his waning support amongst leave voters. For it shouldn’t be forgotten that the absurd and offensive notion that Brexit was some sort of national liberation from an invader or an occupier is a pervasive belief amongst hard core Brexiters.
Moreover, it was obviously no coincidence that this was a party conference speech. As with Theresa May’s 2016 conference speech – when she virtually declared hard Brexit and indubitably set the date for triggering Article 50 – and Johnson’s opportunistic promises about rising real wages (now no longer mentioned) at last year’s conference, this illustrates a central issue. To a very large extent, the preferences and prejudices of the rather small and ageing membership of the Tory Party, which has become to all intents and purposes ‘UKIP-ified’, drive national politics, and especially everything Brexit-related. Almost as important as the party membership are those who lurk outside as members or supporters of whatever the Brexit Party is called now, under Farage or whoever its notional leader is.
Taken together, that is the audience that matters to Johnson because, given the nature of the UK electoral system, he need not care about further damaging the UK’s international reputation or its internal cohesion. Or, at least, he need not care about these things given that he has no sense of morality or responsibility. Whether that completely invalidates my ‘cancelling Brexit’ thesis I’m not sure, though. It may well be that Johnson finds that, as perhaps was the case on this occasion, there is sufficient backlash even from Brexiters, and insufficient take-up for his attempt to re-ignite the Brexit battles, to make it worth his while. But it will be that calculation, rather than any regard for principle, that shapes events. Watch this space.
P&O: clarifying confusions
What had already begun to emerge as I wrote the previous post was the brutal mass sacking of 800 employees of P&O Ferries. I was quite careful in wording my comments, in order to convey two points about how the sackings related to Brexit. To recap, these are, first, that the decline of UK-EU trade is certainly one reason, along with the pandemic, why P&O believed there was a business case for the sackings. The second is that the sackings give the lie to the claim by some Brexiters that leaving the EU would prevent such corporate behaviour. The RMT union has been remarkably silent about the fact that its leadership recommended that its members vote leave in 2016 with one reason being “to end attacks on seafarers and the offshore workers” (note how unequivocal the wording is). Those who heeded the advice on that basis may now wonder what it has achieved. Meanwhile, Farage’s whine that “Brexit was about putting our people first” ought – if he had a shred of integrity – to cause him to admit that he had misled British workers.
However, despite a veritable torrent of claims on social media, mainly from anti-Brexiters, the sackings do not show that British workers have less rights than they did before Brexit and nor is it the case (a different way of making the same claim) that these sackings would not have been possible but for Brexit. The reason is simple: UK employment law has not changed since Brexit and workers’ rights have not been reduced. Of course it is well-known that many free-market Brexiters would like to do so, have expressed dissatisfaction that the government hasn’t done so, and may well get their way in the future. But, for now, nothing (relevant) has changed.
Why, then, is it only British workers who are affected? The answer is two-fold. Firstly, it’s probably not only British workers (and certainly isn’t only British residents). It is, more precisely, workers on contracts governed by British employment law (some reports say, specifically, Jersey law) most of whom may be, but not all of whom necessarily are, British nationals. Secondly, this law gives less protection than, for example, that in France, Ireland or Netherlands, but this isn’t because of Brexit – it was the case before Brexit and it is still the case after Brexit, as a result of decisions by British governments. In fact, ‘remainers’ who don’t take this point are ironically replicating the Brexiter narrative which denies this and all the many other ways in which EU member states are not governed by a single, uniform, EU-wide, legal system.
There is another connection, which is subtle and indirect, between Brexit and the fact that P&O did not give the government a 45-day advance warning of the mass sacking. It was reported this week that in February 2018 the then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling amended the rules so that such warnings needed only to be given to the country where a vessel was registered. This was before Brexit, and nothing to do with Brexit – indeed it was to comply with an amendment to an EU Directive. What this report doesn’t mention is that, in January 2019, P&O announced it would re-flag all its UK-registered boats to Cyprus in advance of Brexit, to make its operations and accounting simpler. This was overtly a consequence of Brexit, but it also had the consequence (whether it was a motivation at the time is impossible to know, but P&O said it wasn’t) that mass sackings of UK contracted workers on those vessels did not have to be notified in advance to the UK authorities.
Of course, even if Brexit had not happened, P&O could have re-registered its boats if what it wanted had been (or became) to take advantage of the change in regulations. Equally, once Brexit had happened the UK could have reversed that change or, both before and after, could have ‘gold-plated’ it by, for example, requiring notification to both UK authorities and those where the vessel was registered. And in any case, even if notification had had to be given to the government, it would not have prevented the sackings, though it would have changed the political dynamics around them. So this isn’t a ‘smoking gun’ in which Brexit (or, as Johnson seemed to claim this week, the EU) is responsible for the sackings or the manner in which they were administered. Rather, it reveals several layers of complexity which, as with so much else about Brexit, make this a confusing issue.
Nor does any of the above have any bearing on the different question of whether the sackings, or the way they were undertaken, is itself legal. That remains to be seen (£), although P&O have already admitted they broke the law on trade union consultation. But its legality or otherwise has nothing to do with the fact that it happened after, rather than before, Brexit.
What this episode really points up is the way that economic nationalists and nativists were looking in the wrong direction when they focussed on foreign labour coming to the UK rather than foreign capital buying up UK assets, often via complex webs of ownership. So they spent years talking about exactly what they kept insisting the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ didn’t allow them to speak of, yet said virtually nothing about what the ‘neo-liberal global elite’ didn’t want them to speak of. (That may be linked, in turn, to the causes of Brexit – in ways that are thoroughly discussed in Gerhard Schnyder’s ever-excellent Brexit Impact Tracker – though, as he makes clear, that’s a different issue to that of Brexit ‘causing’ the sackings.)
If I sound slightly irritated, it’s because it has been depressing to see so much disinformation about this coming from the ‘remain’ side, and the virulence with which some have responded to corrections to the false claim that Brexit is what made it possible for the P&O workers to be sacked in the manner that they were. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of good reasons to criticise Brexit – and good reasons, other than that one, to link the sackings to Brexit. Indeed there are also plenty of good reasons to criticise the Brexiter reaction to the sackings.
P&O: compounding confusions
Take, for example, Camilla Tominey of the Telegraph (£). First, she suggests that P&O’s financial situation is solely due to the pandemic, as if the post-Brexit decline in trade had no role at all. Second, she rightly says that foreign-owned companies wanting to replace British workers with cheaper labour isn’t a consequence of Brexit – and then asserts that it was such behaviours that motivated millions to vote for it. But if the implication is that they thought Brexit would prevent such behaviour then, like Farage, she fails to acknowledge that it manifestly hasn’t delivered that promise.
Finally, she claims that Brexit is helpful in this situation as it enables the UK to have Freeports and, since DP World (P&O’s owner) has a contract for two of these, the government now has a way of penalising the company. Her punch line is that “you won’t hear many Remainers admitting to that”. Which is true, because it’s nonsense. Freeports were possible whilst an EU member, and whilst it is the case that the government envisages UK Freeports as operating differently to the way the EU would allow, that is irrelevant to Tominey’s ‘penalty’ argument which would apply equally whatever form Freeports took. In any case, it seems unlikely that the government has any intention of withdrawing the contracts from DP, judging by Johnson’s dismissal of the suggestion at PMQs this week (11.39-12.25 contains the relevant section).
Then, rather more piquantly, there is the reaction of Dover MP and ardent Brexiter Natalie Elphicke. Last month, she caused much mirth by saying that the lorry queues in her constituency were nothing to do with Brexit, but caused by Brussels’ bureaucracy. This week, she turned up at a demonstration in Dover to protest against the sackings and, deliciously, joined in the chants of “shame on you” before realising that the ‘you’ referred to Elphicke herself for voting against a recent Labour proposal to outlaw the ‘fire and re-hire’ tactic that P&O had employed. She has since been complaining about the “nasty militants” (aka the workers) who heckled her, whilst also purporting to be on the side of the workers (aka the nasty militants) against P&O and then, like all Tory MPs, abstaining on a fresh Labour attempt to end fire and re-hire. All in all, she seems … confused.
Confusions - or contradictions?
Confusion, it seems, is the order of the day. Sometimes, it comes from Northern Irish unionist Brexiters like DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who, as the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole pithily observes, has still, after six years, not worked out that Brexit and the destabilisation of the union are inseparable. And, astonishingly, David Frost still doesn’t grasp one of the key reasons why this is so. More understandable is the confusion of those who did not, and probably still do not, support Brexit but are obliged by circumstance to claim to have seen the light. It’s a manoeuvre that plenty of Tory MPs have made, with more or less conviction and convincingness, and this week it was the turn of the new leader of the CBI, Tony Danker (£).
Danker, for entirely defensible reasons, is trying to repair the breach between the CBI and the government over Brexit. It is understandable and defensible because no lobbying group is going to get far with this government if it’s perceived to be hostile to Brexit. In doing so, though, he – deliberately or not, I don’t know – underlines some of the obvious problems with Brexit. For example, he suggests that business people had been opposed because they had seen it as reducing free trade, whereas he now realises that the Brexiters had thought sovereignty more important, and that they were right. But of course many Brexiters, and certainly Johnson, have never admitted there is any contradiction.
He also says that he is ‘signed up to’ the part of Brexit which is to do with a high-growth, flourishing economy, but this is exactly what Brexit can’t deliver for exactly the reasons why so many businesses didn’t support it. He calls for the government to think of international trade in terms of services, but it is precisely services trade that is most undermined by Brexit, and least assisted by the ability to make independent trade deals. In a way, and again quite justifiably, the whole approach is one of challenging the Brexit government to do what has so far proved entirely impossible – to make good on the promises of Brexit. I doubt such a challenge will appeal to the Brexiters, though, especially as so many of them are now also hostile to the Net Zero goal, which Danker supports.
In all, Danker’s comments implied that there remains a considerable gap between Johnson’s populism and the pragmatic needs of businesses (and not just businesses, it could be added), even as he sought to articulate some overlap between the two. I imagine that some version of such intellectual contortions is performed daily by civil servants seeking to demonstrate fealty to Brexit whilst retaining membership of the reality-based community. Perhaps it is not fair to call this a confusion, though, so much as the irreducible contradiction of trying to make something work when, by its nature, it cannot work.
Not to be confused: different kinds of Brexit failure
From that perspective, it’s worth drawing a distinction between the ‘necessary’ and the ‘contingent’ (or 'unavoidable' and 'avoidable') failures of Brexit, which shouldn’t be confused. The most obvious ‘necessary’ failure of Brexit (or, at least, of hard Brexit) is economic. Creating barriers to trade and supply chains with Britain’s nearest and biggest economy is inevitably economically damaging. There’s really no point in arguing about this in terms of either theory or practice. If Brexiters want to say it’s a price worth paying, well, that’s a different matter and, notably, not how they presented things to voters. Another example of the necessary damage of hard Brexit is the political consequences for Northern Ireland, which, in one way or another, would exist however it was done although, again, Brexiters never presented this fact to voters.
The most obvious ‘contingent’ failure of Brexit is the relentlessly hostile, dishonest and derogatory way that the UK government has undertaken it, and the associated reputational damage. It’s true that to some extent that was inherent in a project supported by those who loathed the EU, but it was contingent in that skilled political leadership could have over-ridden or at least substantially dampened it. Instead, right from the outset, a hostile and antagonistic approach was adopted in which the EU was treated as a punitive aggressor and, sometimes, even as if it had somehow forced Brexit, or at least its consequences, on the UK.
Where does the P&O scandal fit in to this distinction? After Brexit, the UK could have reduced workers’ rights. Or, as it could have done without leaving the EU, it could have increased workers’ rights. In fact it has done nothing in either direction, primarily because Brexit promised both of these things, so doing either will split those who support it and who voted Tory in 2019. That flows from the necessity of making contradictory appeals to secure enough support for Brexit, which then hamstrung the contingent possibilities of what was done with it. So, as with a huge swathe of other regulatory issues, the result is the stasis of retained EU law.
Whilst he certainly isn’t the only person to blame, Johnson bears more responsibility than any other single individual for all of these failures. The economic damage, even of hard Brexit, could have been less but for his doctrinaire approach to ‘sovereignty’. He negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol and pronounced it a triumph whilst lying about what it meant. He was the chief salesman of the contradictory prospectus of Brexit. And the reputational and relational damage has been positively stoked by Johnson, with his Ukraine war comparison just the latest example.
I had thought, and to an extent still think, that the war might at least dilute the contingent failures of Brexit. Perhaps my mistake – though, if so, not one I am normally guilty of - was to confuse Boris Johnson with a half-way competent leader. It’s a confusion exhibited by many people, not least Johnson himself.
Finally, whilst Johnson may have undermined the validity of my ‘cancelling Brexit’ thesis, it was well-illustrated by this week’s Spring Statement* from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and the political discussion that has followed. For whilst the headline news reported that living standards are set to fall more sharply than at any time since the 1950s, almost no attention has been given to the role Brexit plays in this. It’s not the major role, but it is an important contributor to the economic woe – as the Office for Budget Responsibility report (pp. 62-65) made clear – and, unlike the various global factors, is both unique to, and self-inflicted upon, Britain. Yet whilst we are supposedly basking in our new-found liberation, confusingly, public mention of its consequences has, indeed, been cancelled.
*This statement included one mention of a supposed Brexit benefit – cutting VAT to zero on solar panels – but, as usual, it turned out to be a lie.
Friday, 18 March 2022
Is Brexit being 'cancelled'?
It’s hardly surprising that the Ukraine war continues to command media and public attention, displacing most other news, including Brexit news. But perhaps there is more to it than that. In a recent post I speculated that there was an emerging sense that the war had made Brexit seem strangely pointless and outdated, linking to a couple of other people (Rafael Behr and Robert Shrimsley (£)) who were already making a similar point. It’s still too early to know, but three weeks on it looks more rather than less plausible.
On the one hand, the need for friendly cooperation between the UK and the EU is so overwhelmingly obvious that the creation of the barrier of Brexit seems more foolish than ever. Not only does it get in the way of shared practical measures, such as sanctions, it also dilutes the institutional expression of a shared ideological commitment to liberal democracy. On the other hand, the sight of what a real violation of sovereignty, and resistance to it, looks like throws a sharp light on the asinine idea that EU membership entailed a loss of sovereignty in any serious sense or that Brexit regained it. To that one could add that, despite the government’s woefully inadequate initial approach to taking refugees, the generosity of the public response seems to nullify, or at least contradict, the nativist spasm of 2016. Perhaps we are not really the people we seemed to be then, and which the government still believes us to be. Perhaps we never were.
The analysis that the war fundamentally recasts Brexit is being increasingly widely made. The London correspondent of Le Monde, Cecile Decourtieux, suggests that “in a context of dramatic rise in geo-political risks, Brexit appears to be a handicap, even a historical error”. In a similar vein, writing in the New Statesman Paul Mason argues that “Brexit, in its original form, is dead: killed by the new geo-political realities created by the war in Ukraine”. And the issue isn’t ‘just’ geo-politics: on any account the war is going to compound pre-existing economic pressures deriving from energy prices rises and the long-run impacts of Covid, not to mention the challenges of climate change. These, as the Brexiters always say, are global issues. What they omit to say is that only Britain has to face them at the same time as the economic drag-weight of Brexit, as its ‘clear contribution’ to this week’s sackings of P & O employees brutally illustrates.
That Brexit has been exposed as a failure by the war is obvious not least from the desperate tone of those few who are still noisily defending it in those terms. The angry hyperbole of Telegraph Associate Editor Camilla Tominey’s recent article, declaiming that “the Ukraine crisis has humiliated the EU”, is so far from anything resembling a rational account of what is happening that it can’t be taken seriously by anyone except the most spittle-flecked of Brexiter ideologues. Crucially, as with the similar piece by Daniel Hannan that I discussed last week, it does not provide a single example of anything the UK has done in the crisis that it could not have done, or that it has done better than it could have done, as an EU member.
That always has to be the test for Brexit, as it was sold as a project which would have advantages; simply lambasting the EU, even if it were justified, does not pass that test. Indeed Tominey herself self-defeatingly argues that what the crisis shows is the “extraordinary power and value of nation states”, giving the examples of Britain, which has indeed left the EU, Ukraine, which wants to join, and Poland, which of course is a member.
A much more minor example of Brexiter desperation is that of a widely-mocked tweet by Paul Embery, the Lexiter trade unionist and writer. In it, he derided the EU’s sanctioning of 160 individuals in one day (compared with seven by the UK the same day), by saying that the EU’s total only “works out to six individuals per EU member state”. I disagree with most of what Embery writes, but it would be absurd and insulting to suggest he isn’t intelligent enough to realise that when the EU sanctions individuals they are sanctioned by every member state, so dividing them up in this way makes no sense at all. Doing so can only mean that no rational arguments are available.
For the most part, though, the Brexiters have simply fallen silent. For example, another Lexiter, the Guardian’s Economics Editor Larry Elliott, wrote an insightful article about the UK’s reliance on Russian money being inseparable from its wider need for “the kindness of strangers” to fund its perennial trade deficit. Yet what he did not even mention was the now clear evidence that Brexit is making this trade deficit worse, and is likely to continue to do so as the structural adjustment to having worse terms of trade with the EU continues, including the consequences of the UK running a laxer imports control regime than the EU, even if/ when full import controls are introduced, making it harder to export than to import.
That laxity was extolled as the pragmatic flexibility of Britain’s “risk-based” post-Brexit approach by Jacob Rees-Mogg (£) during the media blitz of his first days as Brexit Opportunities Minister. Since then, he, too, has gone much quieter. However, given that in an interview on Andrew Marr’s LBC show this week he was still peddling the lie that the vaccines roll-out was a triumph for Brexit, it seems fair to say that he has found the ‘opportunities’ are more elusive than promised.
The other new silence concerns the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). It’s true that, because the legal system proceeds regardless of political events, this week the Court of Appeal in Belfast has rejected the challenge to an earlier High Court ruling in a case where some unionists and Brexiters tried to have the NIP ruled illegal. They will be taking it to the Supreme Court but, on my non-lawyer’s reckoning, to keep flogging that dead horse is more a case for the RSPCA than for a court of law. But, politically, it seems clear that precisely because of the need to cooperate with the EU over Ukraine, much of the heat for a confrontation over the NIP, including the use of Article 16, has dissipated.
Certainly there are reports that Liz Truss favours dropping the Article 16 threat and, generally, seeking an accommodation with the EU, and although there are also some reports to the contrary it seems likely that the present state of quiet semi-implementation will be allowed to persist by both sides for some time yet. Considering how noisy and acrimonious UK-EU relations have been over the NIP for at least a year now, this is a remarkable development.
It’s possible that this de-escalation would have happened anyway, with David Frost’s departure at least removing his unskilled pugnacity from the equation, but the war has given both cover and impetus for it. There was even a sliver of recognition of this in a speech given by Frost himself in Zurich this week, although it was smothered by his usual self-serving – yet entirely unself-reflective - and delusional account of the Brexit process and deeply irresponsible comments about Northern Ireland.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Brexit Ultras will let it pass, and indeed despite his call to “move on” from past bitterness Frost continues to twist the knife of the Article 16 threat as well as to disown the NIP he negotiated. Truss’s approach is already being described as a “Brexit U-turn” by the Express, even though nothing formally has changed, and this week also saw an obscure but telling moment. It concerned the “Customs (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2022” (be still my beating heart) wherein the government attempted to amend the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 by, amongst other things, replacing references to “the United Kingdom” with “Great Britain”. This doesn’t necessarily imply the government giving up on re-negotiating the NIP but, at least symbolically, it suggests an acceptance of the Irish Sea border.
At all events, it was reported by Sky News’ Deputy Political Editor Sam Coates to be causing a “big row” between the government and some Tory MPs, leading to it being at least temporarily paused. One of those objecting most strongly was former ERG chair Steve Baker, calling yet again for the immediate invocation of Article 16 as he also did last week (a sign, I suggested in my previous post, of the Brexiters’ frustration with the apparent rapprochement post-Ukraine). But his comments this week reveal two other things, which go to the heart of what has happened with Brexit and have fundamental implications going way beyond this little episode.
Firstly, Baker claims that he and other ‘Eurosceptics’ (he presumably means the Brexit Ultras) only supported Boris Johnson to become Prime Minister because he promised that “the Withdrawal Agreement is dead”, and that this explicitly meant not merely replacing the backstop with something else. But, says Baker, Johnson “then went on and did just what he told us he would not do”. Now it has long been known, not least because he said it in May 2020, that Baker and others voted for Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA) because Dominic Cummings and Michal Gove assured them it could be changed later. That in itself is a totally ludicrous notion, given that it was the basis of both the General Election campaign and the signing of the treaty with the EU. However, what Baker is now saying is that, even before Johnson became PM, there was a promise that Johnson broke after he came to office – and yet Baker actually voted for what he came up with.
In other words, it isn’t, as before, that Baker is saying Johnson broke a promise to re-negotiate the NIP once it was done, and that this promise was why Baker voted for the WA; it is that Johnson had already broken the promise not to only minimally re-negotiate the WA by removing the backstop, but Baker voted for it anyway. That obviously reflects even more badly on Johnson’s honesty – though that is hardly a bombshell – but it makes the conduct of Baker (and like-minded MPs) even more indefensible. It is that conduct which has led directly to the continuing turmoil over the NIP, and if that is indeed defused by the Ukraine war and Baker doesn’t like it then, frankly, he should reflect on his own deplorable behaviour quite as much as he does on Johnson’s.
The second revealing aspect of Baker’s objections is perhaps less personally damning, but still an ironic comeuppance for the Brexiters. For throughout the Brexit process, under both Theresa May and Johnson, there has been a concerted side-lining of Parliament by the Executive, almost invariably cheered on by the Brexiters because it seemed to be a way of getting Brexit done during the 2017-19 Parliament. A particular feature of that Executive power grab has been the substantially extended use of Statutory Instruments – such as the Customs regulation amendments in this case – rather than primary legislation. As such, there is far less scope for MPs to scrutinise Executive decisions, and it has continued to be the case with pandemic regulations. On this occasion, the government seems to have been at least temporarily thwarted, but the general point is that the legacy of Brexit has been to make a mockery of the Brexiter promise that ‘British laws should be made by the British Parliament'. Baker should reflect on that, too.
All of this – the way that Johnson’s Brexit got through Parliament, and the constitutional legacy of Brexit – remains as important as it ever was in terms of understanding the web of lies that have created this mess. However, it would obviously be ridiculous to suggest that committee room rows over customs regulations negate the wider political silence over Brexit. At most, they are a reminder to the government that the Brexit Ultras are watching like hawks to pounce on anything they perceive as backsliding on Brexit. Whereas what the government seems to want is to ‘cancel’ Brexit – not in the sense of annulling it, but of simply not talking about it; of ‘no-platforming’ it.
That has been the case for quite some time, of course, and Johnson, in particular, has long ceased to show any interest in Brexit at all, like a spoilt child who clamours for months for an expensive Christmas present then discards it as boring on Boxing Day. The more fundamental reason for cancelling Brexit continues to grow all the time, with the Ukraine war just the latest, if heftiest, example: it is obvious, even I suspect to most Brexiters, that it has utterly failed to deliver any of its promises. The P & O sackings this week provide a further example, showing that Brexit hasn’t delivered its promise to protect British workers’ employment security and rights (promises which ironically were made to seafarers, specifically, by their own union, the RMT, one of the few to support Brexit in the referendum).
So whilst, now and then, Johnson and other government ministers may make some general claim about it being a success, or float the vaccines roll-out lie, they really don’t want to go into any detail in the way that it is an absolute certainty they would be doing if there were any real, tangible benefits for them to boast of.
The Covid pandemic helped with that quietude but, interestingly, Covid itself is now being treated in the same way, as something the government wants to ignore and seems to think that, if ignored, will go away. So, just as it is being reported that ministers want “to get rid of data and move on” despite the new spike in Covid cases, we also learned this week that the government no longer keeps track of delays and queues at Dover (and, I assume, all ports) caused by post-Brexit regulations. Like babies playing peek-a-boo, ministers appear to imagine that if they can’t see something then it doesn’t exist.
More seriously, it would seem to be the flip-side of the post-truth politics discussed in last week’s post, in which reality can be denied with impunity. But, of course, neither viruses nor lorry queues disappear just because you ignore them – they exist regardless of any “wish psychosis”, to use the term in Gerhard Schnyder’s most recent excellent analysis on his Brexit Impact Tracker. Perhaps to that concept we could add that attempts to “cancel” both Brexit and Covid show not just the nature and limitations of post-truth politics but also those of the 'politics of the spectacle': we may be endlessly exhorted to ‘move on’, but that neither cures us of Covid nor clears us through customs.
Cancelling as a step to cancellation?
At all events, there are powerful reasons why Brexit, at least, is not just going to go away. For one thing, as a matter of institutional fact there will be ongoing discussions about the NIP (and a vote on it in the Northern Ireland Assembly scheduled) and also about the operation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), especially as its five-year review gets closer. So much of Brexit still remains undone, or in the process of being done, from farming support to criminal justice cooperation. Not only will the Brexit Ultras be watching what happens but so too will be plenty of remainers and just about anyone who recalls the promises that were made. For example, this week the still unresolved issue of replacing EU structural funding for, for example, Cornwall and Wales was in the news again (£) with reports of “a furious backlash” at the failure to honour the “promise of a post-Brexit bonanza”.
So the question is whether all this proceeds quietly, at the margins of political discourse, and is treated by the media and the public as a series of discrete events for the inside pages rather than as headline news. Or will the entirety of Brexit re-emerge as a central issue? The answer partly depends on whether the Conservative Party has another internal spasm over Europe. It also depends on whether the Labour Party will continue to give tacit support to the silence around Brexit, at least to the extent of being content for it to be a peripheral issue.
Of course Labour have been in an unenviable position (above and beyond issues about the extent to which some of its core vote supported Brexit), because Covid and Ukraine have both made it harder, even if they were minded, to seem to be ‘banging on about Brexit’. There were some signs of a more robust approach, from Rachel Reeves in particular, when Covid started to wane and before Ukraine had flared up again. The LibDems, more certainly, look set to go into the next election with a strong programme of integration with the EU including a “roadmap to join the single market” revealed this week. With the increasing possibility of at least an informal LibDem-Labour electoral pact (£) there’s at least a chance (the only chance) of at least some of it seeing the light of day.
Paradoxically, if there is a kind of ‘cancelling’ of Brexit underway – whether by virtue of the impact of the Ukraine war or government disinclination to discuss it – then that, along with the simple passage of time, could make a single market membership policy relatively (only relatively) uncontroversial. It is not as if there was ever deep public opposition to it – hard Brexit was entirely the confection of the hard Brexiters, not the electorate.
So I think that a hypothetical Lab-SNP-LibDem coalition, facing a Tory Party which in those circumstances would be in bitter disarray, might not encounter much public opposition to such a policy. In the end ‘cancelling’ Brexit could mean not so much fully reversing it – still, surely, most unlikely - as most people just not caring that much one way or another about what is done with Brexit. Very much, indeed, as they felt about EU membership before it got whipped up into a matter of frenzied concern by those who now mostly have nothing to say about it. Of course, even if this analysis is right, there is still much damage that will be done before we start on the slow road to some semblance of sense.
Friday, 11 March 2022
Performative politics is gaslighting post-Brexit Britain
Freedman’s point is that Putin’s addiction to the dishonesty of the spy may blind him to the many ways in which Russia’s attack on Ukraine is not going according to the plan which his fantasies anticipated. This leads to important questions about what prospects, if any, there may be for peace in Ukraine the central of which is “can a war launched on lies be stopped with the truth”? That is the subject of Freedman’s essay.
That Putin’s modus operandi is one of fabrication and manipulation has a relevance for Brexit. I have never accepted the proposition that Brexit was caused by Kremlin influence – that is far too reductionist an explanation of a complex and multi-faceted event. But it is undoubtedly the case that, as summarised by Peter Jukes this week, Putin was active in attempting to solicit Brexit and the fact that it happened was hugely to his advantage.
The much-delayed publication in July 2020 of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s ‘Russia Report’ does not shed much light on what Russia was doing during the referendum, principally because the intelligence services didn’t investigate it, but suggests it is “inconceivable” that such an investigation would not have shown Russian “intent” to interfere (paragraph 43). We can be sure that this wasn’t because Putin wished us well, what we can’t be sure of is whether and to what extent his activities affected how people voted. But the modus operandi of fabrication and manipulation has a second relevance for Brexit, which is quite separate to whatever Putin may or may not have been up to.
The gaslighting of Britain
Whilst I certainly don’t draw any direct comparison between Brexiters in general, or Boris Johnson in particular, and Putin and his regime, there is an oblique resemblance of mindset in the insistence on maintaining that fantasies must be true, even in the face of reality. Such a mindset has characterised the entire Brexit process. In a recent post I discussed the many ways in which Brexit “wasn’t just sold with lies, it actually consisted of lies” and, over two years ago, the way that ‘Zersetzung Brexit’ creates a disorienting swirl of misinformation and disinformation (that metaphor derives from the psy-ops of the Stasi in East Germany, which were well-known to ex-KGB officer Putin who was once based there).
The particular comparison I drew was with “the way that it is becoming almost impossible to separate out what is true from what is false, what is intended from what is accidental, what is incompetent from what is malevolent”, or what is often called ‘gaslighting’. However, I also made the point that this was not necessarily to suggest some deliberate conspiracy of Brexiters or the government to mislead or confound the rest of us, but instead (or also) something that they did to themselves. In that sense it is both more complex and perhaps more dangerous than simple dishonesty or lack of realism.
It is through this frame that we can understand many of the current events in the UK.
Reality not allowed to intrude on fantasy
One characteristic of the most committed Brexiters is that they are able (and are obliged) to continually distort new events in order to fit them into their pre-existing narrative. This has long been evident in the way that their claims are ‘unfalsifiable’. Anything that happens is taken to ‘prove’ that Brexit was right, and nothing that happens can show it to be wrong.
So it is currently, with the Ukraine war. As so often, Daniel Hannan provides the most convoluted example of Brexiter sophistry. Writing in the Washington Examiner he proposes that the war has made nationalism “fashionable” again, against the supposed way that “sophisticated people” had derided it as “the ultimate low-status opinion, associated with Brexit …”. Here, he re-purposes the always absurd idea that freely-chosen EU membership was some kind of oppression from which Brexit was a ‘national liberation’ by lazily, even insultingly, implying that it bears comparison with resisting a military annexation. It is all the lazier and more absurd coming at a time when Ukraine is seeking immediate membership of the EU, whilst Georgia and Moldova have both applied to join.
If Hannan’s comparison is grotesque, then that of former Brexit Party MEP, Ben Habib, is positively unhinged. In, naturally, the Express, he compares the invasion of Ukraine with “the annexation [sic] of Northern Ireland by the EU”. Whilst admitting that no use of military force is involved – which to any half-way sensible person invalidates the entire comparison – he insists that the EU’s “aim with respect to the United Kingdom is the same as Putin’s with Ukraine”. Clearly it is gibberish, since not only is there no armed force involved but the Northern Ireland Protocol is part of a negotiated agreement, hailed by Boris Johnson as a triumph, and freely signed by him as part of an international treaty. It’s all the more outlandish given that, when an MEP, Habib actually voted for the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol – a good example, perhaps, of ‘self-gaslighting’.
Another person now apparently regretting his parliamentary vote for the Protocol is Steve Baker, the ERG ‘hard man of Brexit’, who this week called (£) for the immediate triggering of Article 16 of the Protocol, regardless of the war in Ukraine. This, at least, does not involve drawing a false comparison with what is happening in Ukraine, but instead acts as if nothing, or nothing of relevance, is happening there. In this sense, it seems more to be prompted by frustration that – as predicted in my previous post – the war is tending to improve UK-EU relations (£) or, at the very least, reducing the appetite for antagonism.
Even so, Johnson’s government is unable to resist constant claims to be “the global leader” of the international response to the war, and at least implying that the EU is marginal or under-contributing. It’s a theme that Hannan, again, articulates, as in another article last weekend (£) where he suggests that the war has discredited “Ultra-Remainers” who said that Brexit would mean the UK losing all influence – pointing out the various things that Johnson has done in response to the Russian invasion, whilst sneering at the EU’s reactions.
Hannan over-states the extent that this amounts to UK ‘leadership’ but the real problem with his argument is that it is based on the familiar Brexiter construction of strawmen. Just as they render warnings (which the latest data analysis continues to prove correct) of reduced trade with the EU as claims that ‘all trade will end’, so too do they pretend that warnings of reduced influence are predictions of ‘no influence at all’. There may have been the odd person saying this, but it wasn’t a generally made claim. However, that Brexit has reduced UK influence, and that the response to Russia has centred on the US-EU relationship, is plain, at least to international relations experts. And, even if that isn’t accepted, it is still, and crucially, the case that nothing the UK has done, or might conceivably do, required Brexit. So, at very most, Hannan’s argument is the now increasingly common one from Brexiters that the worst fears of some remainers proved false. But Brexit wasn’t sold on that modest basis – it was meant to have unequivocally beneficial results.
Fantasy is reality
In fact, a fair-minded assessment of the UK response to Russia’s latest aggression in Ukraine would say it has been mixed: strong on early and ongoing defensive military support, reasonable on economic sanctions in general but weak on rapid sanctioning of oligarchs, and woefully inadequate on refugees. And whilst none of this, in and of itself, is because of Brexit, the gap between what has been done and what is being claimed to have been done does have a strongly Brexit-related aspect. Both Brexit itself, and Johnson’s post-Brexit government, have the ‘spy-like’ quality of being not just dishonest but of smudging, even dissolving, the line between truth and lies.
No doubt that did not start with Brexit, but it has been much intensified by it, because the only way to sustain the fantasies of Brexit has been to insist that what Brexiters claim to be true is, in fact, true. Thus the hard core of them have never accepted that Brexit required a border – somewhere – with Ireland, and have never accepted that it required all the border checks that have arisen with the EU generally. Instead, these realities have been treated as unnecessary punishment by an EU intent on thwarting Brexit, aided and abetted by remainers within the UK and especially by the civil service. In a similar way, when faced with realities, the response has been to insist that there is an easy solution at hand (technological solutions for the Irish border, GATT Article XXIV for trade and, currently, Article 16 for the Protocol) if only the faint-hearted and the black-hearted would take it. The problem isn’t (ever) Brexit, it’s lack of ‘belief in Brexit’.
It’s this Brexity idea that reality must be as the fantasy or lies claim it to be which has shifted British politics from the normal practice of, probably, all governments to over-state their achievements to one where simply stating an achievement is deemed to have made it a reality. Johnson’s government has made that its hallmark, and no doubt that is in some measure because of his own personal mendacity, but it was immanent in the Brexiter mindset in any case. Now, not just in relation to Ukraine, but Covid and just about every policy area, his post-Brexit government is defined by making grand announcements but then doing nothing (from e.g. the ‘dementia moon shot’ [£] to the Northern rail link), or making grand claims for what it has achieved which turn out to be false when investigated (from e.g. claims about the numbers of people in work to claims about crime falling).
In a way, it is a version of the theme that has characterised this Brexit administration all along, namely acting like a campaign rather than a government. And it has to be admitted that it has paid dividends, because enough people remember the grand announcements or claims but barely register the lack of follow-through or the subsequent revelations of falsity. In relation to Brexit, a prime example is the false claim that the UK was able to roll-out its vaccines early because of having left the EU, and the accompanying misleading claim that this has meant that the UK’s entire vaccine programme has been much more successful than that of other European countries. As a recent survey shows, a better vaccination programme is by far (at 49%) the most widely believed benefit of Brexit.
Britain’s refugee shame
With the Ukraine war, we see the same pattern. Tough-sounding claims about ‘world-leading’ sanctions on Russia turn out to be exaggerated or the reality to be milder or slower than those of the US and the EU (£), which, in passing, also gives the lie to the Brexiter claim that ‘independence’ would bring agility and nimbleness to the UK. Far more obnoxious have been the endless lies and distortions about provision for Ukrainian refugees, which has now become a matter of international censure and disgrace. It is hard to keep track of them all, but they include promises of ‘rapid processing’ of visa applications, and of a ‘surge team’ to deal with applications in Calais that was then to be in Lille until, yesterday, it turned out it would be 30 miles away in Arras. In these and other ways, desperate people have been pushed from pillar to post in confusing and undoubtedly frightening ways, with pitifully small numbers so far receiving the visas that the UK, unlike the EU, insists they must have.
Overall, this amounts to a shamefully feeble response, especially compared with the EU – so much, again, for the nimbleness that was supposed to come from escaping EU red tape – but perhaps almost as bad is the hypocrisy of continual claims that Britain’s approach is a “generous” one. Johnson, as ever, is the misleader-in-chief, quoting highly selective statistics to pretend that Britain has out-performed other European countries, leading Guardian columnist Zoe Williams to make the highly apposite observation that “when you stand up and deliberately mislead, call the worst the best, turn facts on their head, it all sounds a bit Putin-esque”. It also sounds remarkably like something else: the way that Johnson and others presented Brexit.
Johnson has now started to talk about taking hundreds of thousands of refugees and – with tedious predictability – there’s a promise that ‘the army will be drafted in’ to help, which has become this government’s standard way of showing that it is dealing robustly with issues (e.g. flooding, vaccination, ambulance driving, tanker driving, Nightingale hospital building). We’ll see what happens, but we’re well past the point where such promises constitute anything that his government is held accountable to. He and his ministers just say what they think will get them off the hook, and later obfuscate or set up some interminable inquiry and then say it’s time to move on.
It can be argued that pre-Brexit the government would have been just as unwelcoming to Ukrainian refugees, and it’s also true that the (post-Brexit) welcome for Hong Kong refugees has been remarkable. As regards the former, I still think part of the picture is the hangover of the Brexit panic about migration from Eastern Europe and Priti Patel’s post-Brexit frenzy, stoked by Nigel Farage’s vile campaign, about refugees and asylum seekers. But admittedly it is a strange picture. For if, as might be thought, the government wants to appeal to its Brexit base and Farage-vulnerable flank by strict control of Ukrainian numbers, then why keep saying that it will do more, which is likely to infuriate that base? Or if it recognizes that many Tory MPs and most Tory voters would support a liberal approach, then why keep failing to deliver its promises? The same could also be asked of the government’s failure to live up to promises made to Afghan refugees.
The perils of performative politics
Of course, one answer could just be incompetence and lack of resources, or the habitual disaster of sub-contracting. But I think another answer – or another part of the answer - does indeed lie with the ‘performative’ politics of Brexit in which saying something is true supposedly makes it true, if only you believe it enough. It is this which from the outset gave Johnson’s Brexit government its ‘cult-like’ quality, and it has leached into, or is part of, the wider environment of post-truth politics.
Hence the rhetoric (e.g. massive trade deals, Global Britain, our ‘proud history of giving shelter’, world-leading this that and the other) comes to be inseparable from reality – except, perhaps, to the ‘experts’ from whom ‘we’ve heard too much’. The other aspect of this performative rhetoric is performative silence. These are the things which are ignored, left unsaid, or rendered unsayable. Hence, also, Brexiters scarcely acknowledge any of the myriad of ways, from lost trade to lost influence, that Brexit is damaging Britain, even to the point of trying to ban the word ‘Brexit’ (a parallel, perhaps, with Putin’s refusal to call the war by that name).
It's important to understand that ‘performativity’ does not simply mean ‘performance’ – that is, it is not just about putting on an act or knowingly telling lies and leaving truths unspoken. It also ‘performs’ or ‘does’ things: specifically, it makes the rhetoric and lies real to at least some who speak them and to at least some who hear them. That is profoundly debilitating for the rest of us, who are not just sick of the lies but actually made sick by them, because it becomes ever harder to hold on to our own sense of reality.
Even as regards the Ukrainian refugee issue it’s already hard, after only a couple of weeks, to recall just exactly what was promised and when. It’s precisely that sense of disorientation that Zersetzung engenders. It’s far worse than that, of course, for the refugees themselves in adding misery and fear to all that they have already experienced. More widely, as I warned in a post in January, before the war had actually begun, there’s a danger of the UK performatively promising more than it can really deliver in support for Ukraine. In matters of life and death, rhetoric is not enough, nor is belief and nor is fantasy. Performativity and post-truth can only do so much and, as seems to be slowly happening over Ukrainian refugees, can with sufficient public and political pressure be discredited by truth and facticity.
So this brings us back to Freedman’s diagnosis of Putin as a dishonest fantasist, gaining advantage through manipulating perceptions and leaving his opponents disoriented, and the question of what he will do faced with the realities of a Ukraine which neither welcomes his invading army nor buckles to its assault. The answer to that matters far more to the world, and certainly to Ukrainians, than anything to do with Brexit, but a version of the same question applies to Brexit Britain.
We, too, enacted a policy based on manipulative fantasies that “the best soldiers” (for which, here, substitute those with experience and expertise in everything from trade to international relations) knew and know to be unrealistic. So do we push on, blundering ever more deeply into a self-delusional world where words substitute for actions and ‘true belief’ trumps reality? Or do we regain the pragmatism and realism for which, at least by reputation, we were once, to coin a phrase, ‘world-leading’?
Friday, 4 March 2022
Ukraine and Brexit: reminders, lessons and hopes
Nevertheless, this is a blog about Brexit and there are linkages, important ones at that, with the Ukraine war. It is both wrong and stupid that some commentators have tried to render any discussion of these illegitimate or irrelevant. It is especially wrong and stupid when coming from Brexiters given that some of them are, themselves, trying to suggest (£) that the UK’s response to the crisis in some way shows the benefits of being out of the EU, or that Brexit has enabled the UK to exert international leadership in the face of Russia’s attack. So let’s have no hypocrisy when others also discuss the linkages.
I think these linkages are of three types. The first are reminders of things we already knew, rather than new things revealed by the war. The second are things we may have known but which are freshly illustrated, or exacerbated, by the war. The third are the at least potentially hopeful things that these reminders and lessons may lead to.
To speak of linkages most certainly doesn’t mean that Brexit ‘caused’ the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I’m not sure that anyone is actually claiming this (reports of people doing so seem to distort what is actually said, though of course it’s always possible to find a tweet from someone or other saying almost anything), but if they are then it’s nonsense.
However, it can be said that Brexit is one aspect of the more general fracturing of the liberal international order in recent years - a topic well beyond the scope of this blog – which has made its response to previous Russian nationalist aggression so ineffective, thus encouraging Putin to this latest act of war. But Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the limited international reaction to these, both pre-date Brexit.
It can also certainly be said that those campaigning for Brexit contributed to enfeebling the international response to those earlier aggressions. Both Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson used the Crimea annexation as a stick to beat the EU with, claiming that it had unjustifiably provoked Russia by offering Ukraine an Association Agreement. In Johnson’s words during the 2016 referendum campaign, “if you want an example of EU foreign policy making on the hoof, and the EU’s pretensions to be running a defence policy, that have caused real trouble, then look at what has happened in Ukraine”. This, of course, is still Farage’s line about the current war.
However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine doesn’t shed any new light on the causes of Brexit, and in particular on the question of whether and to what effect there was Russian interference in the referendum. It serves only as a reminder of how Brexit was a policy which was very much to Russia’s advantage, and therefore of the folly of pursuing something that our friends counselled against whilst our enemies were delighted by. If the Brexiters could but see it, Putin’s gloating support for Theresa May’s refusal to hold a confirmatory referendum was a sign of how they were aiding his goals. Indeed a significant well-spring of support for Brexit came from Putin apologists like Farage on the far right and probably from those of the Lexiters who overlap with those parts of the far left who are pro-Putin, if only because they are also anti-US, anti-EU and anti-NATO. Again we already knew this, so Ukraine is a reminder not a revelation.
The Ukraine war is also a reminder of the extent to which Russian money has flooded into the British economy, bringing with it influence and corruption and, most seriously of all, radically infiltrating the funding of the Tory Party and arguably compromising Boris Johnson. The former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve is surely right to say that tolerance of all this has blinded and perhaps distorted the UK’s approach to Russia for years. This at the very least raises questions about where the Tory government’s interests lie in responding to the Russian invasion, but it is not an effect of Brexit.
Whilst all of the previous issues are important to recall as reminders of things we knew, there are many other things which the Ukraine war has illustrated or revealed about Brexit.
· Brexit is the proximate cause of Boris Johnson being Prime Minister, and therefore of the UK having a leader who is totally unsuited to serious statesmanship (£), disliked and distrusted abroad, and mired in scandal which he uses the war to distract from. His predilection for grand statements that turn out to be untrue has already been in evidence in this crisis, with his false claims about how many individuals have been sanctioned. In this very general sense, Brexit has made the UK less effective in responding to the crisis because it saddled us with his leadership.
· More specifically, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, regardless of who the Prime Minister is Brexit has diminished the UK’s standing in the world. According to Christopher Phillips, Professor of International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London, this marginalisation has been underlined by the Ukraine crisis. Crucially, Brexit diminished the UK in the eyes of Russia, both in itself and because of the internal divisions it unleashed, divisions much exacerbated by the Brexiters’ choice to enact it in the hardest and least consensual way.*
· Whilst Brexit marginalised the UK it was not, in and of itself, at odds with the rules-based international order. However Brexiters, and Johnson in particular, chose to regard Brexit as a licence to flout or threaten to flout national law (e.g. Prorogation of Parliament) and international law (e.g. Internal Markets Bill, unilateral extensions to grace periods in the Northern Ireland Protocol). In this way, the UK’s moral authority and ‘moral image’ have been undermined, blunting its ability to challenge Russia now. Indeed this consequence of Brexit Britain’s flirtations with international pariahdom was exactly what even pro-Brexit statesmen such as Michael Howard warned of, citing Russia specifically.
· By definition, Brexit makes the UK an outsider to EU decisions about sanctions and other measures. To the extent that there is a co-ordinated UK-EU response it is made more complex by Brexit, which does not remove the need for co-ordination but adds an extra layer, as discussed in my post of 28 January. Having an ‘independent sanctions policy’ isn’t a great prize, it’s a new problem. Moreover, Brexit hasn’t just added complexity but also, because of how it has been done and especially in the disdain for international law just mentioned, it has injected profound distrust into UK-EU relations. Yet co-ordinated sanctions and EU support are vital, as the UK found out at the time of Russia's Salisbury poison attack.
· Brexit has enfeebled the UK economy making the costs of exerting really tough sanctions on Russia that much more difficult to bear. This perhaps partly explains why the UK’s initial sanctions response, for all the claims made for it, was so timid, and still lags behind that of the EU (£).
· The war exposes the utter fatuity of a central Brexiter claim, that security was the province of NATO rather than the EU. It was nonsensical anyway, because of the deep interconnections between the two. But also the scope for NATO involvement has been limited because Ukraine isn’t a member, which has underscored the existence of multiple channels (economic, diplomatic, cultural, intelligence, military) of security, and brought the role of the EU and the EU-US axis to the fore. It’s true that the UK still has significant assets in all these domains, but patching them on to an architecture from which it has partially detached itself reduces their potency.
· Brexit has increased the propensity of the UK to make boastful claims about its global leadership and, especially, to make them by explicitly belittling the EU and its member states. This blunts the effectiveness of the collective effort against Russia by making it competitive rather than co-operative, and by offending allies from with whom co-operation is needed. In any case, despite the UK’s initial ‘muscularity’ about Russia's threat to Ukraine, since the invasion it has lagged behind the EU in the extent of sanctions (£), including action against the RT TV and Sputnik Radio propaganda broadcasters, and as regards receiving refugees.
· Related to this hubris, Brexit has led the UK to position itself as ‘Global Britain’ understood as distinct from what Johnson called “the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy” when launching last year’s Integrated Review. This in turn has led it to disperse the limited resources it has by posturing as a global military power. For example, the deployment of the carrier fleet to the Indo-Pacific, which was also meant to show the UK’s tilt in trading relationships, is at best irrelevant to, and at worst detracts from, its European defence and security role (for that matter, it is also irrelevant to extending global trade opportunities). As Peter Kellner writes for Carnegie Europe, the Ukraine war has exposed the absurdity of this entire strategy.
· Brexit has often involved the claim that the EU is slow, lumbering and prone to internal disputes that prevent it agreeing on effective actions, whereas the UK on its own would be quicker and more decisive. In relation to Ukraine, this was being claimed as recently as a few weeks ago. But events since the invasion have comprehensively shredded that idea (as, had Brexiters been paying attention, did the Brexit process itself), with the EU moving quickly to a much firmer sanctions response, a much more robust military supply response, and a much more humane and supportive refugee policy. In fact, it’s quite likely that had the UK still been a member state it would have slowed or even prevented this, given its antipathy to anything that looked like an EU defence policy as well as its hostility to accepting refugees.
· Indeed Brexit was supported in no small part because of hostility to migration from, especially, eastern Europe which was also (and wrongly) conflated with the actual or possible arrival of refugees and asylum seekers. A key Brexiter claim for what Brexit has achieved is a points-based immigration system, and the post-Brexit government has trumpeted a highly hostile policy to refugees and asylum seekers. The persistence of that mood can be seen in the odious suggestion from Immigration Minister Kevin Foster that Ukrainians fleeing war might be able to come to the UK on fruit picking visas, and even more explicitly in Sir Edward Leigh’s morally bankrupt call to temper any relaxation of restrictions because of the number of East Europeans already in his constituency. For this reason, it is unsurprising that the government’s approach to refugees from Ukraine has only grudgingly and limitedly been liberalised under public and political pressure and, as with sanctions, the leadership shown by the EU. In this sense, Brexit – or at least a Brexit-related mentality - has made the UK’s response to the crisis less effective, as well as less humane, than it might have been.
If the Ukraine war has done much to expose the adverse geo-political consequences of Brexit, it may also serve to repair some of the damage of Brexit. I speculated last week that it might make the UK more amenable to an amicable resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol row. That remains speculation, but it is shared by the well-informed analyst Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform and there are now reports that, at the least, the war has postponed any likely use of Article 16 (£).
Some experts are already suggesting that the war may also lead to a much tighter UK-EU security relationship. In fact, under Theresa May, and even as late as the Political Declaration that accompanied Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement, this had always been envisaged. It was one of many casualties of the way that Johnson and David Frost immediately discarded the declaration, and insisted on a ‘sovereignty at all costs’ Brexit. Hence the security arrangements under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement were quite thin, as the former national security adviser, Lord Ricketts, explained at the time. It’s too early to tell yet, but a straw in the wind may be Liz Truss attending, by invitation, today’s meeting of the EU foreign affairs council (£) just as she would have done, as of right, had the UK still been a member.
None of this means that re-joining is any closer. But the Ukraine war might serve to show Brexiters that the EU is not the enemy. For with the new clarity the war has brought comes the particular clarity that a war is underway. Some, such as the courageous and much-abused journalist Carole Cadwalladr, say it has been underway as a Great Information War since 2014. Similarly, Fiona Hill, a leading analyst of Putin’s Russia, asserts: “We’re already in [World War Three]. We have been for some time … People shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that we’re just on the brink of something. We’ve been well and truly in it for quite a long period of time. But this is also a full-spectrum information war …”. In other words, it may in some ways be a different kind of war to those of the last century, but it is still a war, and now that it has broken out in the much more familiar ways of the last century that has become plain.
This is not, to state the obvious, a cause for ‘hope’ in any general sense. It’s a disaster. But it may force us to be realistic, and to see that it’s a war in which the UK and the EU are very much on the same side. It may be wishful thinking on my part – though regular readers will know this isn’t one of my more obvious failings – but I think there’s already an emerging sense that the Ukraine war has somehow ‘punctured’ Brexit, making it seem pointless and almost embarrassingly out of date.
For example, writing in the Financial Times Robert Shrimsley suggests (£) the war “marks the end of Brexit illusions”, based on similar points to those I’ve made about the Global Britain strategy and the complex architecture of European and global security. In the same vein, the Guardian’s Rafael Behr writes of how it should expose the “detour into Brexit fantasy land” and lead to the UK aligning more closely with the “idea” of Europe to which Ukrainians also cleave. Even smaller things, like the endless hostility to the BBC, suddenly seem like yesterday’s indulgence as (along with other outlets) their journalists broadcast from the front line and it opens new short-wave radio services for Ukraine.
Clarity – and unity?
Of course much depends upon how Brexiters, especially, react. MPs like Leigh are clearly still stuck in 2016 as are those determined to snipe at the EU response to Putin, whilst Brexiter journalists like Steven Glover bray that the war vindicates Brexit. Meanwhile the alt-Right has started to fantasise that the war is the new ‘Establishment ploy’ after Covid to bamboozle the masses, with some anti-vaxxers getting behind Putin, and insulting Ukrainians taking up arms by linking them to their insane ‘New World Order’ conspiracy theory. In a related part of the Brexitosphere, the peculiar and peculiarly influential spawn of the Revolutionary Communist Party, spiked, has come up with the all too predictable 'contrarian' analysis that Putin has been emboldened by the ‘woke’ elite in the West. Thus the information warriors are mobilising (but, importantly, also getting divided).
But in the face of the literal war, hopefully many more people, whatever they voted in 2016, will find that they once again have much in common. The unusual sight of MPs unanimously giving the Ukrainian Ambassador a standing ovation symbolises that. As for the public, surveys show considerable shared concern about the invasion of Ukraine (overall 88% are concerned, 95% of remain voters, 87% of leave voters), shared belief about the extent of Russian territorial ambitions beyond Ukraine (45%, 46%, 51%) and shared belief about the likelihood of a wider war involving the UK (52%, 53%, 54%). There is more of a split in support for waiving visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees but even so it reaches a hefty 70% amongst leave voters (91% amongst remainers).
Much as I think World War Two analogies are over-used in British politics, it’s worth remembering that by 1940 the very bitter divisions over Munich had been forgotten. Those who clung to appeasement, and even those who sympathised with Nazis, didn’t entirely disappear but were massively marginalised. Of course there are no bombs falling on British cities in 2022, but as we see them fall on our friends and allies in Ukraine and hear Putin talk chillingly about using his nuclear weapons, there may emerge a new sense of unity amongst those who, at the simplest of levels I described earlier, detest bullies.
As we witness the stupendous bravery of the Ukrainian people, that could give us the moral and political courage to admit, as a nation, that we made a terrible mistake in 2016. It was a mistake which delighted and emboldened the bullies and, as we are now discovering, made it harder to support those they would victimise. But, with such courage, mistakes can be rectified. That courage will need to come from at least some Brexiters, and if it does then remainers will need to find the courage to respond magnanimously. Only then might we take the first steps on a wiser – and safer – path.
*A small personal note about this. During the years of political conflict over Brexit I was invited several times to appear on RT TV and Sputnik Radio, both propaganda arms of Putin’s regime. Had I done so, I would of course have been critical of both Brexit and the government’s handling of it, as I was in other media appearances. So I always refused these invitations, because it was clear to me that (in a very minor way) I would be serving Putin’s purposes by displaying the divisions Brexit was causing to the audiences of those broadcasters.