Friday 24 June 2022

Brexit: the next six years

We’re now six years on from the referendum, but I’m not going to do an ‘anniversary round-up post’ because I did that in April, to mark six years since the campaign got underway. That post was entitled ‘six years of failure’, and most of it still applies, although the saga of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) has moved on with the publication of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB), as analysed last week.

The second reading of the Bill will be on Monday, although the DUP are still refusing to take part in the power-sharing institutions*. Meanwhile, the President of the EU Commission has issued a clear statement that it will discuss implementation issues but not re-write the Protocol, and its member states have unanimously backed the Commission both in this stance and in taking legal action against the UK. It is desperately sad, but alas no surprise, to see a senior Dutch journalist, Caroline de Gruyter, drawing direct comparisons between the UK and Russia.

Brexit has failed, but what should be done about it?

There will be much more to follow on that, and of course the NIPB is in itself one important indicator of just how badly Brexit has failed. The big question emerging now, which is likely to pervade the next six years and more of politics, is what to do about that failure. It is only an ‘emerging’ question because, clearly, things are not so neat as that. Some are still fighting a rear-guard action to dismiss the damage of Brexit as the extension of ‘Project Fear’, generally invoking cherry-picked statistics or making bogus claims about vaccines or the Ukraine War, and will no doubt continue to do so forever.

However, that is increasingly the preserve of unpersuadable diehards. There will never be unanimity, but there’s no sensible way of denying that the consensus view of those economists and others with relevant expertise is that Brexit has been, and will continue to be, economically damaging. On this blog, including in the April ‘failure’ post, I’ve cited numerous studies to this effect. Under the telling headline ‘the deafening silence over Brexit’s economic fallout’, this week the Financial Times provided an overview of the evidence (£) showing the damage, drawing on studies from the LSE and the Peterson Institute amongst others. Meanwhile, the Resolution Foundation produced a major new report about the mainly negative impacts on productivity, wages, household incomes, investment and competitiveness, and three major US banks warned that the UK would experience “searing inflation” for years because of Brexit. The idea that all the academics, thinktanks, banks and consultancies have, as David Frost suggested yesterday, “an axe to grind” and their analysis should be ignored is, frankly, puerile.

Indeed, the economic damage is now built in to the government’s own budget plans and modelling and, as mentioned in several previous posts, there are many signs that Brexiters themselves are coming to accept the failure of their project. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s refusal this week to publish any assessments of the success of Brexit itself shows that the government knows it has failed, for you can be sure he would do so if even the slenderest evidence of success existed. So whilst the diehards will continue to decry the damage reports as remainer propaganda, we are seeing, as I argued in a recent post, the gradual revelation of the ‘public secret’ of Brexit’s failure. It’s on the assumption this process continues, and what a New Statesman editorial this week calls the “conspiracy of silence” over Brexit breaks, that the question of how to address its failure becomes crucial.

The Brexit Ultras’ answer

In this context, this week’s widely reported-on document from the Centre for Brexit Policy (CBP), entitled Defining Britain’s Post-Brexit Role in the World, is illustrative and important. In its own way it is an acknowledgement that Brexit has not yielded tangible success, although it ascribes that to the government’s half-hearted implementation rather than to any flaws inherent in Brexit, and tries to chart a future path that will deliver such success for the nation. Not that it is in any sense a blueprint for national unity, being a highly partisan, not to say a paranoid, document, speaking of “rejoiner plots” that are “led by Tony Blair” (p.31) and replete with disparaging references to ‘remainers’.

Crucially, its collective authorship of seventeen are mostly readily identifiable as ‘the usual suspects’ associated with the CBP and similar groups, and partly as a result its proposals are both predictable and predictably flawed. So, for example, although the report is not mainly concerned with trade or economics, where these are discussed it rejects the gravity model of trade, in which geographical proximity is a key factor in trade volumes (p. 39). It’s a model endorsed by the vast majority of trade economists but there are a small number of exceptions, such as Professor Patrick Minford. And, what a surprise, amongst the collective authors we find … Patrick Minford. Reality, at least as understood by the vast majority of those competent to judge, is simply discounted (in this case by the usual trick of disaggregating EU trade into that with individual member states) which makes it hard to regard it as a serious analysis.

This same echo chamber quality permeates the report which, as regards its main geo-political focus, puts huge weight on the Special Relationship with the US (p. 41), the Anglosphere+ (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and, um, Japan), and the Commonwealth which, we’re told, “is much more than politics. It is the sense of instantly if indefinably feeling at home in each other’s lands; of the smells of shared, fusion cuisines, shared passions for cricket and rugby, of the Commonwealth Games, of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme” (p.34) and which “looks to the UK for leadership” (p.56). It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at an analysis so naïve and so inattentive to modern history, but finding John Bolton and Alexander Downer (the former Australian Foreign Affairs Minister who is a leading opponent of Australian Republicanism) amongst the collective authorship helps to explain it.

A less partisan and more realistic account would recognize that for many years now the special relationship has been something of a diplomatic fiction, and one reduced by Brexit because of the loss of the ‘transatlantic bridge’ role. That isn’t to deny there is an important relationship, especially in intelligence services, but it shouldn’t be over-stated. Certainly the days when Australia, New Zealand and Canada looked to the ‘Mother Country’ are long gone, and Australia, in particular, is set to at least reconsider republicanism when the Queen dies. That will also be a pivotal moment for the future nature of the Commonwealth, and Professor Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London thinks that “perhaps the Commonwealth has historically run its course and what you’re really seeing now is the ghost of an organization”. Murphy, who as his job title implies, is a leading expert on the topic, has also written a book that debunks many of the myths the CBP report relies on.

So, at the very least, these are questionable materials from which to build a sustainable post-Brexit future and, as with trade issues, the problem with the CBP approach is that it’s not based on the deep expertise of specialists but instead put together by those whose allegiance is to the Brexit project and discounts or downplays any expertise that contradicts what they would like to be true. The authors of the report would, no doubt, dismiss such criticisms as ‘elitist’, and perhaps enfold them into the category of the ‘declinism’ which they hold responsible both for Britain having joined the EU in the first place and for having failed to capitalise on its post-Brexit opportunities.

But this kind of Brexit ‘revivalism’ is as problematic an account of British history as declinism itself, with both being “symptoms of a nation unable to come to grips with its place in the world” as the historian Professor David Edgerton recently put it. Again, Edgerton is an expert on (and indeed himself a critic of) declinist explanations of British history. Both declinism and revivalism simply get in the way of realism, by constantly invoking historical myths or boosterish projects rather than serious strategic thinking which, to be successful, has to be based on the best available evidence. That evidence also needs to be understood, whereas Phillips O’Brien, Professor of Strategic Studies at St Andrew’s University, whose groundbreaking work on Britain and WW2 is cited in the report, says the authors do so in a way that convinces him they “have no idea what they are saying”. O’Brien also describes the report as a whole as “witch-burning” and “substanceless” and says that the authors “have no realistic understanding of Britain’s place in the world”.

Unsurprisingly, the “witch-burning” comes to a crescendo in proposals for a wholesale ‘reform’ of the Civil Service, which is depicted as being in the grip of declinism and of its supposed “bias against Brexit” and “continuing obstruction” of post-Brexit initiatives (p.87). This has been the perpetual cry of Brexiters since 2016 and it continues for the same reason: because the Civil Service has to enact real policies, it can’t indulge Brexiter fantasies. Since these fantasies persist in the echo-chamber world of bodies like the CBP, the only recourse is to posit that if the Civil Service were true believers then the fantasies would become real. But whereas expertise can be ignored and evidence cherry-picked in order to develop proposals, a Civil Service is needed to deliver policy - so the answer is to get a new one. If this becomes the template for Britain’s post-Brexit future then it will be as doomed to failure as the Brexit process itself because however strong belief is, reality always trumps it.

Why does the CBP report matter?

Despite its evident weaknesses (which would take a book to catalogue) the CBP report matters. Like several similar outfits under various names over the years, the CBP has close affiliations with the ERG MPs. Its Chairman is still the disgraced ERG ex-MP Owen Paterson, and its Fellows include ERG MPs Iain Duncan Smith and David Jones, both listed as authors of this latest report. Time and time again the propositions put forward by such groups move from being the apparently fringe meanderings of extremists to becoming pretty much government policy.

The most important example is the CBP’s July 2020 report on Replacing the Withdrawal Agreement. Some of it has been overtaken by events, but its wholesale objection to the NIP can be seen as setting the direction of travel that has resulted in the current NIPB. This, of course, was months before the NIP came into effect and so was plainly not motivated by the unexpected impacts of its operations.

The chances of the ideas in the latest CBP report, and the closely related deregulatory agenda, having an impact are considerable. That is partly because of Johnson’s current political weakness, making it easy to push him around, limited only by the fact that the Ultras’ wilder proposals would be wildly unpopular with the electorate. It is also for the more fundamental reason that – and in this respect, at least, the Brexit Ultras are right – he and his government have never had any coherent post-Brexit strategy, and indeed hardly mention it beyond boasting that it has ‘been delivered’.

Just as in 2016 there was no plan for how to do Brexit and the Institute for Government was warning that “silence is not a strategy”, so, now, the Brexit government has no plan for what to do with Brexit, as this week’s unveiling of Rees-Mogg’s risible Brexit ‘Public Dashboard’ illustrates. Now, as then, that leaves a vacuum into which the Ultras can push their agenda for the coming years. Crucially, apart from the content of that agenda, that means the continuation of an approach based on wilful distortions of evidence and reasoning, denial of reality, and hyper-partisanship.

This is the reason why things like the CBP report should be paid attention to. For what is at stake now is not Brexit – the question of whether to leave the EU or not - but the multiple severe problems Britain faces, problems which include social and regional inequality, poor productivity, crumbling infrastructure, a rentier economy, and declining living standards. No doubt there are others (including many, such as climate change, which aren’t specifically national) but as a core list it would probably be accepted by people of most political persuasions, including those with different views of Brexit.

In an interesting essay in The Atlantic this week – not all of which I agree with - Tom McTague makes the point that whilst Brexiters need to face the fact that leaving the EU has worsened many of these problems, erstwhile remainers need to accept that they did not begin with Brexit. I certainly don’t have any problems accepting that, though all it suggests to me is that Brexiters were wrong to say that the UK was not free to make its own, often poor, policy choices whilst in the EU, and then exacerbated them by leaving. The implication of that is to make better policy choices now, which includes acknowledging and limiting the damage that Brexit has done, and part of that includes – and here I agree with McTague’s implication – ceasing to treat 2016 as the sole, defining moment of recent British history.

Looking towards 2026

There’s no realistic prospect of the present government doing this. I suppose it’s remotely possible that a future Conservative government could, and Nick Tyrone, author of This Week in Brexitland, has argued that it may well be such a government that will eventually take us back into the single market and even the EU. But that is at best a very long-term prospect and what matters in the more immediate period, given there will be a General Election by 2024, is the other part of the vacuum, namely Labour’s near silence on Brexit. In a recent post I wrote about how Labour have the chance to lead the debate and, though I’m hardly the first person to have made that observation, my post attracted a fair bit of comment on Twitter with some suggesting (as indeed Tyrone argues) that this ignores the electoral risks to Labour of re-opening the Brexit debates and divisions.

I’m not, of course, unaware of those risks. I’m also aware of my own biases. I spend much of my week reading for and writing what are now normally 3000-word blog posts, and over the last six years have written, in various places, well over a million words about Brexit. So I recognize that I’m not exactly typical, that I’m far more likely than most to see merit in talking about Brexit, and therefore highly prone to understating the damage that doing so might do to the Labour Party.

Against that, Alastair Campbell – who knows more than me or most people about political strategy and communication, and who is passionately committed to Labour’s electoral success – also believes that Labour should and could be speaking more directly and forcefully about the damage of Brexit, and ways to mitigate it. Labour MP Stella Creasy has said something similar this week. And, whilst not explicitly mentioning Labour, former Foreign Secretary David Miliband has recently tweeted about the need for “an honest debate about how to limit the damage” of Brexit. Then, just yesterday, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy unveiled some limited ideas on how Labour would try to develop the existing Brexit trade deal, although it remains to be seen how forcefully even these will be pursued. These ideas are a step in the right direction but as yet they fall short of providing the necessary leadership.

Why Labour needs a policy

Clearly there are electoral risks in alienating leave-voting potential Labour supporters, but there are also risks on Labour’s other flank, with its present flaccid stance alienating to the very large number of remain-voting potential Labour supporters. Of course there’s a view that Labour can afford to lose some of these to the LibDems or Greens in urban areas where Labour has huge majorities if it enables them to hold on to, or attract back, ‘Red Wall’ voters, and it may be re-enforced by today’s Wakefield by-election result. However, that ignores how Labour seats in very strongly remain-voting areas like Cambridge (26.3% leave) or Hampstead & Kilburn (23.7% leave) could be lost to the LibDems given not inconceivable swings (9% and 13% respectively), or how Conservative seats that Labour might hope to win on very small swings, like Chipping Barnet (41.1% leave, 1% swing to Labour needed)  or Chingford (49.9% leave, 1.3% swing to Labour needed), might remain Conservative by virtue of disaffected remainers voting LibDem, or not voting at all.

And then there are Labour marginals like Warwick & Leamington (41.6% leave, Tories need 0.7% swing) and Canterbury (45.3% leave, Tories need 1.5% swing), which Labour could lose for lack of remainer support. Beyond such seats, even in those which had majorities, even large majorities, of leave voters, could still be affected by remainers feeling inadequately represented by Labour. In short, Labour can’t simply focus on its leave-voting actual or potential supporters and think that it can bank its remain-voting support.

This can also be put in a different way. Brexit isn’t automatically good territory for the Tories. No doubt it’s true that Johnson believes it would help him to pull Labour on to it, hence they resist going there, but that doesn’t mean he is right. It is not 2016 or even 2019 anymore. Of course the hard core of Tory leave voters will be galvanized by Brexit coming up the agenda again, but opinion polls show a clear and consistent lead for the view that Brexit was a mistake over those thinking it was right, and that many voters, including at least some who voted leave in 2016 and/or Tory in 2019, are now disillusioned by the way it has been done by Johnson including, as the NIPB amply shows, the emptiness of his promise to ‘get Brexit done’. It’s notable that yesterday, the anniversary of the referendum, two leave-voting seats rejected the Tories in by-elections. That may be more about Johnson than Brexit, but either way it is very far from clear that Labour will be monstered if they hold his Brexit record up for scrutiny. But to do that they need to a have a good and suitably crafted answer to the inevitable question: what would you do differently?

The policy that Labour needs

That does not mean a ‘rejoin’ policy, which would effectively go back to the in-out question of 2016. I don’t think that’s in prospect for years, perhaps not ever. It need not even mean a single market policy, and although some, including recently Labour frontbencher Anna McMorrin have called for that, it’s clear from what Lammy said yesterday that Labour are not going to endorse that for now, and I suspect that will hold right through to the election. However, that doesn’t mean that a Labour-led coalition – perhaps the most likely outcome - would not adopt it.

But it could certainly include a commitment to extensive regulatory alignment – perhaps, as, again, David Miliband has recently suggested, for a specified period of five or ten years – to include Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) alignment. In itself, that makes the Irish Sea border substantially thinner. Temporarily or permanently abandoning the UKCA mark, already postponed by the government, would barely be controversial but would make life a lot easier for UK businesses. Both of these things go substantially beyond the Lammy proposals, especially as it’s not clear whether the SPS deal he alluded to implies full dynamic alignment. Proposing to add a mobility chapter to the TCA so that musicians and other service providers could more easily travel within the EU would be an equally pragmatic position, and one which Lammy appears to have suggested Labour will endorse.

It's worth recalling that none of the things listed above was remotely controversial even amongst most committed Brexiters until very recently. It is only the rapid radicalization of their demands that has led to the scorched earth ‘sovereignty-first’ Brexit delivered by Johnson and Frost. Labour can, with absolute truth, say to leave voters that this was not the Brexit they were promised. Even leaving aside the whole soft versus hard Brexit issue, a core Brexiter claim was that sovereignty would mean the UK choosing for itself which rules it wanted to follow, according to its own best interests. It didn’t mean eschewing all regulations other than those unique to the UK. So it is perfectly reasonable for Labour to argue that alignment is currently in the UK’s best interest, and to commit to it.

In this way Labour could develop a position that allows them to criticise the damage Brexit is doing and provide a pragmatic alternative, and to do this not as ‘re-opening Brexit’ but as part and parcel of a wider policy offer on the economy, in particular. It won’t please everyone, but nothing will. Crucially this, or a more fully developed version of it, would be a policy rather than the present policy vacuum. That, just in itself, would change the terms of the debate. If Labour won the next election, it would also change the delivery of policy.

Beyond Brexit

The perennial political mistake is to fight yesterday’s battle. To some, that implies, indeed, that Labour should relegate Brexit to the past. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand how Brexit is a still ongoing process and that the post-Brexit condition is the necessary context of all policymaking. This means that those resisting discussing Brexit are actually trapped in yesterday’s battle, thinking it means the 2016-2019 battle over leaving the EU. Indeed Alastair Campbell (in a personal communication) “thinks Labour are fighting the last battle not the next one, which is to re-build Britain’s economy and reputation after austerity, Brexit and Covid, the ABC that has done so much damage”.

That can’t be done without mentioning the damage of Brexit, any more than it can without mentioning that caused by austerity and Covid. The Tories may want to continue to see Brexit through the prism of the dead question of leaving or remaining in the EU even if this has declining salience even in leave-voting areas (as Guardian journalist John Harris suggests, also invoking the motif of ‘generals fighting the last war’, but applying it to Johnson). Labour does not need to do so and should not do so. The new, living, Brexit question, and it is not just a question for Labour but everyone, is: what now?

At the moment, we are still on the cusp. Much of the content and terms of the debate are the same as they have been in the six years since the referendum. That won’t disappear, but it is beginning to shift and in the next years will do so even more. That’s inevitable just because of the passage of time. It’s also because one of the few Brexiter slogans which was true, albeit perhaps not as they meant it, was ‘we’re leaving the EU, we’re not leaving Europe’.

So, here we are, having left the EU but not left Europe. The question, then – and it’s a question with profound implications for economic, foreign, defence, security, science, and many other policy areas – is the nature of that inevitable relationship. This is acknowledged by the CBP report (p.75), but predictably refracted through the hostile and unrealistic lens of seeing the EU as “declining” (declinism being a permitted narrative when applied to the EU), “incoherent” and relatively unimportant, and to be approached more through bi-lateral relations with member states than with the EU bloc.

But the Brexiters do not own this question or its answers, and if they are allowed to do so by default and others’ silence then the failures of Brexit so far will be compounded by those of the coming post-Brexit period. In particular, the UK’s approach to this question needs to break with the evidence-distorting, logic-twisting, reality-denying mentality that has characterised the Brexit process so far.  Crucially, whilst the question arises as a result of the referendum of six years ago the answer is not, as they want it to be, in any way specified by that referendum. This is the coming battle, and it is going to be central to the politics of Brexit for at least the next six years.

*Note: Updated/ corrected at 10.40 on 24/06/22 because an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that no date had been set for the second reading of the NIPB.

Friday 17 June 2022

Brexit is shaming Britain

Since the very early days of this blog in 2016, I have been writing about the self-pitying victimhood and perpetual grievance that permeates the political psychology of Brexit. A recent example was last weekend’s doltish claim from David Davis that what we have is “remainers’ Brexit”. Admittedly, almost everything Davis has ever said about Brexit has proved wrong, but this latest comment is undoubtedly widely shared by all those, including David Frost who negotiated it, who now insist that Johnson’s ‘triumphant’ Brexit deal of 2019 was actually an abject defeat forced on them by ‘Theresa the remainer’, ‘remainer civil servants’, the ‘remainer parliament’ and its ‘Surrender Act’, and, of course, the EU’s ‘brutal’ treatment of poor little Britain.

This recurring sense of victimhood is directly linked to the main Brexit event of the week, the publication of the long anticipated and several times postponed Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB). For as Fintan O’Toole puts it, “self-pity has always been the dominant emotion in Brexit, and it has shaped the story the Brexiters are now telling themselves about the protocol”. In that story, the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) is treated not as an agreement freely made, and trumpeted as a triumph, but a grievance to be redressed by any means, fair or foul. For what’s perhaps less well-recognized is that the the flip-side of Brexiter victimhood is that it justifies them breaking all the rules to ‘get Brexit done’: we’ve been ‘cheated’ of ‘true Brexit’, so we can cheat in pursuit of it.

Ever since agreeing the NIP, Boris Johnson has continually stoked grievance about it amongst both the ERG Brexit Ultras and the DUP, not least by lying to them about its provisions and its impermanence. At the same time, in typically Johnsonian style, he has wavered between that and taking a slightly more pragmatic approach. Thus, for all the threats throughout 2021, he never ‘triggered Article 16’, and his unwillingness to do so and his apparent softening on demands for changes to the Protocol are widely believed to have led to the resignation of Frost who, ever since, has been a high-profile agitator for a hardline approach.

With the NIPB, the government’s approach has now become considerably harder in that, although retaining the right to use Article 16, it seems that it has abandoned that idea as too partial. Instead, the NIPB would unilaterally scrap the bulk of the NIP’s agreed provisions and replace them with the UK’s preferred, much more limited, arrangements, despite knowing that most of these are unacceptable to the EU. Yet, already, Johnson is reported (£) to be wavering about that, and wanting to ‘de-escalate’ the row at the very moment he escalated it.

In consequence, there are at least two strands to understanding the NIPB. The first is solely bound up with the internal politics of the Tory Party and the second to do with the wider Brexiter politics of the UK-EU relationship.

Tory factionalism

Regarding the first strand, as has been the case in various ways for 30 years, and despite the considerable clear out of ‘remainers’ and other moderates since the last election, the Tory Party is riven by different factional views of European policy. That factionalism is made more complicated by the post-partygate weakness of Johnson’s leadership and by the consequent jostling for position amongst his potential successors. As discussed in last week’s post, there are particular divisions between the ERG, the One Nation group and what might be called the ‘Mayite’ faction, which framed arguments over the text of the NIPB. With its publication, it became clear that the ERG view had won out (£) because, if enacted, it almost completely guts the NIP, the only rider being that its provisions would not immediately come into effect but would be available for subsequent implementation by ministers.

This would also seem to be a victory for Liz Truss, who has hitched her leadership ambitions to proselytising for the ERG. That’s understandable enough, since it’s highly unlikely that anyone will succeed Johnson who doesn’t have their support. But she might want to reflect on the fate of Theresa May, who also sought to lose the taint of having been a remainer through the warmth of their embrace. It turned out to be a bear hug.

So if Truss does succeed, she had better be ready for the inevitability of their next demand which is likely to be derogation from the ECHR. That has long been in the Ultras’ sights and, as shown this week, it’s a demand they are hair-triggered to make. It won’t be met for now, if only because it would contravene the Good Friday Agreement, protection of which is the government’s supposed rationale and diplomatic cover for the NIPB, but the one thing that can be said with certainty about the Ultras is that they never give up trying.

The legality of the NIPB

That’s a matter for the future. In the meantime, the ERG have got their way, and the only sop to the ‘moderates’ is the summary of the government legal position explaining why the NIPB supposedly does not break international law. Simply providing an explanation demonstrates that the government has learned the lesson of having publicly admitted that the 2020 Internal Market Bill (IMB) did break international law. The fallout from that episode still matters, since it showed that the government is willing to break international law, and that it does actually understand that unilaterally breaking the NIP constitutes such a breach. For both domestic and international reasons it wants to avoid that charge.

Domestically, much will depend on whether enough Tory MPs, not to mention Peers, accept the validity of the government’s new legal position. This departs from the previous, absurd, attempt – which did the rounds again this week, attracting much Brexiter excitement - to argue that the IMB was legal because domestic law trumped international law, and even from the recently trailed and much mocked suggestion that the NIPB could be justified on the hitherto unknown legal concept of ‘primordial significance’ apparently advanced by Attorney General Suella Braverman. Even so, it is clear that she views the new legal position through the distinctly non-legal lens of leave versus remain.

This new legal position is based centrally on “the doctrine of necessity”. Numerous heavyweight legal experts have already explained what that means and cast substantial doubt on its applicability in this instance, with David Allen Green saying the position is “weak to the point of non-existent”. Meanwhile, the former Head of the Government Legal Service, Sir Jonathan Jones, who resigned over the illegality of the IMB, has called it “hopeless”.

One of the main problems these legal experts identify in the government’s legal position is that, indeed, Article 16 has not been invoked. How, then, can over-riding the NIP meet the “grave and imminent peril” criteria required by the doctrine of necessity when the provisions within it to deal with any difficulties have not been made use of? And if the peril is “imminent” why forego the immediacy offered by Article 16 in favour of a legislative process that may take a year?

Equivocation and inconsistency

I am not a lawyer, but an important political aspect of this is the ongoing equivocation about whether the UK’s objection is to the operation of the Protocol or to its very existence. One reason why the government seems to have decided not to use Article 16 is precisely because doing so would be to stay ‘stuck’ within the framework of the NIP rather than breaking free of it altogether, or at least drastically re-writing it. The desire to entirely ditch the NIP, rather than just operate it differently, is clearly the position of at least some of the ERG, the DUP, and some other unionists, whilst the text of the NIPB certainly entails it being drastically re-written. Others, including Johnson himself when he refers to the NIPB as simply dealing with some bureaucratic trivialities, imply the opposite.

That it is the operation not the principle at stake is also implied in the paper on the government’s legal position, which states that “the peril was not inherent in the Protocol’s provision”. Yet, since the ‘peril’ is, apparently, the strain being put on the power-sharing institutions then, certainly from a unionist point of view, it was inherent in the Protocol’s core provision of the Irish Sea border. The legal position paper also refers to the way the NIP has been “applied and administered”, again as if it is implementation that is at stake, even though it is not claimed that this implementation violates the written terms of the NIP. Yet that seems inconsistent with a requirement of the doctrine of necessity that the UK (in this case) has not “substantially contributed to the situation of necessity”, since the government freely agreed to the written terms of the NIP. Of course this is where the Brexiter myth that the NIP wasn’t freely agreed (because of the Benn Act etc. etc.) hits the brick wall of reality.

This lack of clarity has been present since the outset, with Brexiters’ and the government’s arguments oscillating between objection to specific practical effects of the NIP, and objection to and denial of the very existence of an Irish Sea border. It is also present as regards the Good Friday Belfast Agreement (GFA), which is central to the government’s legal argument of necessity. Does the NIP violate the GFA as a matter of principle, and if so why did the UK government sign it and say that it did not? Or is it averred that it only does so in terms of its operations, in which case why will it not suffice to reform these in the ways already offered by the EU? This matters, not simply in terms of the viability of the government’s legal position but also in terms of how the politics of the NIPB are likely to play out, something I will return to below.

Beyond issues of international law, the NIPB has constitutional implications. The Brexit process has already resulted in a growth in the power of the Executive, especially in the use of ‘Henry VIII powers’. So MPs and Peers might also be alarmed by what the Hansard Society describes as the “quite breathtaking” powers the legislation would give to Ministers, with virtually no Parliamentary scrutiny. All this will play out in the days, weeks and probably many months to come. For now, at least, it seems as if most Tory MPs are ready to go along with the NIPB, though I doubt that will hold.

However, unsurprisingly, it is already clear that the European Parliament, the European Commission, and many member states including Ireland, regard it as both illegal and a grotesque breach of trust irrespective of its legality. Whatever now happens, the memory of this moment will leave a long and sour after-taste. It will also have implications for how the UK is viewed globally, and will certainly make it much harder for it to take the moral high ground in all sorts of international disputes. That makes even the publication of the NIPB an especially irresponsible act given current global issues, something else which will weigh with some Tory MPs and Peers. As Anton Spisak of the Tony Blair Institute pithily put it, “wait until Moscow or Beijing invokes ‘the doctrine of necessity’ to override its international obligations”.

The politics and diplomacy of the NIPB

That brings us to the second strand in understanding the NIPB. Its appearance is not simply about the internal dynamics and current disarray of the Tory Party, but also about the myths that Brexiters, and Johnson and Frost especially, have developed about what happened in the Brexit negotiations with the EU. As mentioned above, these include the idea that the NIP was forced on the government because parliament denied it the ‘nuclear option’ of no-deal Brexit. Added to that is the claim that it was the threat of the illegal clauses in the IMB that pressured the EU into reaching the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Given this ‘analysis’, it is perfectly possible that the NIPB is not intended to be used, perhaps not even to be passed, but that its threat is simply a tactic to extract far greater concessions from the EU than might otherwise be the case. Indeed, the repeated comments from Truss and others that the government would prefer a negotiated solution to using the NIPB may well imply that this is the aim. But if it is such a tactic, it is fraught with difficulties, even leaving aside the damage that it has already done to the UK's reputation.

First, precisely because it is so unreasonable from an EU perspective it is likely to be counter-productive in securing such concessions. In the meantime it has already attracted EU retaliations, with new infringement proceedings for non-compliance with the NIP plus the revival of those relating to the UK’s unilateral extension of grace period last year – for it shouldn’t be forgotten that the NIPB démarche is only the latest, albeit the most serious, of the government’s duplicities over the Protocol. Despite much media comment, the EU’s response will fall short of a trade war for now, though it’s true that the publication of the NIPB is a step down the track towards that. Generally, the EU is likely to ‘play it long’, partly because the NIPB will take a long time to pass and partly because Johnson’s fragility means he may not survive. That doesn’t make it economically cost-free, however, because the possibility of an eventual trade war creates an uncertainty that is a disincentive to investment.

The second difficulty, if the NIPB is ‘just’ a negotiating tactic, is that even if it were to extract the maximum conceivable concessions that wouldn’t satisfy the ERG or those unionists within and outside the DUP who want the NIP not just gutted but totally scrapped. This relates back to the ambiguity of whether the government regards the NIP as unacceptable in principle, or only in the manner of its operation. That ambiguity is enough for now to satisfy the ERG and, possibly, to keep semi-sensible Tory MPs on board, but it can’t be sustained forever and is already under strain, as Johnson’s ‘de-escalation’ comments show.

Northern Ireland and the NIPB

This links to the third problem, namely the dimension of Northern Ireland politics specifically. The claimed proximate cause of the NIPB is the DUP’s refusal to participate in the power-sharing institutions, thus Truss suggests that the legislation will “support political stability in Northern Ireland”. However, despite reported government pressure to do so (£), it’s unclear if the DUP, whose MP Ian Paisley denies there has been any such pressure anyway, will change position on power-sharing until the legislation is passed and perhaps not even until it is applied.

This in turn reflects their profound distrust in Johnson because of his previous duplicity, and their awareness of the ambiguity just alluded to. In consequence, if the NIPB is just a tactic to bluff the EU into greater concessions but without necessarily scrapping the entire Protocol, that may not satisfy the DUP and certainly not groups such as Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Indeed the TUV leader has already made it clear that even the provisions of the NIPB do not go far enough to satisfy them.

But, in any case, for all that the DUP may loathe the NIP, the recent Assembly elections produced a majority for parties which do support it and have already expressed their opposition to the NIPB. Northern Ireland business groups want any changes to be negotiated with the EU, rather than unilaterally declared. As for public opinion in Northern Ireland, Truss claims that the majority want the NIP to change, but that is based on including the 36% who in an opinion poll of November 2021 said it would be “acceptable with some adjustments”. That doesn’t endorse the much more extensive proposals of the NIPB, for which the same opinion poll implies at best 41% support. More recent polling, from Queen’s University Belfast in February 2022, shows that 53% did not think the triggering of Article 16 would be justified and 39% thought it would be, and it’s reasonable to think that support for the much ‘harder’ NIPB approach would be less than, and certainly no greater than, that.

So anything that does satisfy the DUP, let alone the TUV, is likely to be anathema to the majority. Of course, ultimately, this reflects precisely the warnings before the referendum that, however Brexit was done, it would destabilise the fragile politics of Northern Ireland. That is now undeniable, but the NIPB certainly doesn’t solve things. This in turn means that the US stance is likely to be a significant factor. Already, several influential American political groupings have made criticisms of the Bill ranging from the robust to the downright damning. However, the official reaction from the Biden administration to the publication of the bill has so far been muted and reports suggest it will continue to be low-key, though much will depend on how the NIPB process unfolds.

A new and shaming low

The publication of the NIPB is a pivotal but not a decisive moment. It certainly marks a new phase in the Brexit process – yet again making a mockery of Johnson’s boast and promise about ‘getting Brexit done’ – but it is a phase which, unless something very unexpected happens, will last for a long time, conceivably longer than Johnson himself.

It also marks a new low, beyond all the many that Brexit has occasioned. It’s easy to become caught up by all the political machinations and legal intricacies which surround this latest event. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to the sheer rottenness, dishonesty and irresponsibility of it all. The idea of a country signing a major international agreement in what was plainly bad faith and threatening to break it on threadbare grounds is contemptible. So too are all the lies told to and by MPs along the way. So too is the reckless disdain for the troubled politics of Northern Ireland and the daily lives of its people.

It is shaming, and the worst of it is that those responsible feel no shame. It is left to others of us to feel ashamed at what Brexit has done to our country and to how it is now seen by the rest of the world. Ashamed of Johnson’s incurable moral delinquency, enabled by a cabinet of sycophants, ghouls and nonentities. Ashamed, too, of a country where ghastly old waxworks like Bill Cash and his ‘Star Chamber’ get to pass judgment on whether what has been proposed ‘goes far enough’ to satisfy their perverse fantasies, and where circus sideshow freaks like Liz Truss dance to their debased tune.

And it is not even the most shameful thing the government has done this week.

Friday 10 June 2022

Brexit is stuck, but is the secret coming out?

Three years ago, when the Brexit process was in a limbo whilst the Tory Party held the leadership election that Boris Johnson eventually won, I wrote of a Brexit aporia, meaning a pathless path or a place you can't go back or forward from. In brief, the idea was that Britain was suspended between an unrecoverable past and an unattainable future.

This week, Johnson managed to survive a confidence vote of his MPs but his grip on power is now fragile. In a sense, his administration has also reached an aporia: it can’t go back to its raison d’etre of ‘getting Brexit done’, since that has supposedly been done, but it has no definable policy agenda and none is likely to be accepted by the multiple warring factions amongst its MPs. As is often the case, the foreign press is the best place to look to understand your own country, and The Australian described his government as a "zombie administration" (£). As such, we can expect it to continue to be characterised by the performative politics and symbolism discussed in last week’s post.

The Brexit process is at a very different point now to what it was in June 2019, of course, but the notion of aporia still captures the present situation. Indeed, in one particular way, there is a direct relationship between the two moments, namely the unresolved matter of Northern Ireland and Brexit.

How Johnson and Frost came unstuck

In 2019 the over-riding issue in the leadership election was the insistence of the Tory Party that May’s ‘hated backstop’ must be ditched and the EU forced to accept ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border (meaning technological and administrative arrangements to render an Irish land border totally invisible).

This was always impossible in the sense it was meant, because the EU had made it clear that it would not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and that whilst alternative arrangements could render the backstop obsolete if and when they came to exist, they could not mean removing the backstop from the WA precisely because they did not exist. Yet part of the Brexit aporia of that time was that this impossibility was simply unspeakable for any viable candidate to be leader. There was no way back from the false promises Brexiters had made or forward from the WA that had been agreed. Brexit was stuck.

This diagnosis was by no means falsified by the fact that, after Johnson won, he and David Frost ‘delivered’ on removing the backstop, because they did so via three sleights of hand. To be blunt, they lied and cheated and then lied about lying and cheating. Doing so enabled them to say – as Frost did again just a few weeks ago – that they had achieved what critics had said was impossible, although they had done no such thing.

First, they got round the EU’s refusal to renegotiate the WA by reverting to a version of the earlier backstop, despite this having been said by May and Johnson to be unacceptable, and also repurposed this not as a backstop (a last, and possibly temporary, resort) but as a frontstop (an in principle permanent arrangement from the outset).

Second, in doing so they gave up on ‘alternative arrangements’ for an Irish land border because this ‘old backstop turned frontstop’ was an Irish Sea border, and because what had been agreed to was to run it just like any other external border to the EU single market. In the process, they had agreed to segment the UK single market.

And, third, despite what they agreed with the EU, they presented it to Tory MPs as only a temporary measure whilst subsequently, in the December general election, presenting it to voters as an oven-ready deal that would ‘get Brexit done’. They also, again despite what they had agreed with the EU, denied to both MPs and electors that there would actually be any Irish Sea border.

A new aporia

It’s necessary to keep going over all this ancient history partly because so much of it has since been obscured and denied, but more because in apparently finding a way out of the 2019 aporia what they actually did was to elongate it, to the extent that, right now, we are still stuck in effectively the same place. For, now, the over-riding Brexit issue is the insistence of the Tory Party that Johnson’s ‘hated Protocol’ – aka his ‘negotiating triumph’ of 2019 - must be substantially ditched or, at least, ‘alternative arrangements’ made for the Irish Sea border. This, like getting rid of the backstop in 2019, is now an unquestionable and undiscussable dogma for the Tories, and some even want to go right back to the idea of a land border.

If there does come to be a leadership contest any time soon, this dogma will be the sine qua non of any viable candidature not least because of the extremist nature of the party’s membership in the country, never mind its MPs. In the meantime, it is, up to a point, one of the few policies where there is a measure of consensus within the Tory Party. However, it is only ‘up to a point’ since it is clear that many Tory MPs, notably Theresa May, will not support the government if it plans to break international law in pursuit of the policy.

The result of this, as RTE’s Tony Connelly discusses, is that the government is torn between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches to the proposed legislation, meaning whether it immediately disapplies parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) or whether it only creates the powers whereby at some future points ministers could do so. The former would delight the ERG and dismay the ‘Mayites’, the latter might placate the Mayites but disappoint the ERG. These factional splits are now also bound up with jostling for position to succeed Johnson (£), and presumably explain the now repeated postponements to the legislation appearing (along with the bizarre machinations over advice on its legality, elegantly explained on David Allen Green's blog).

Thus, as so often before, the internal dynamics of the Tory party condition how the government approaches Brexit negotiations with the EU, which can be expected to retaliate to some degree whichever approach is taken to the legislation since in any form it amounts to a complete breach of good faith, if not indeed international law. Meanwhile, the substance of the NIP issue remains as intractable as ever. Viable solutions, such as an SPS alignment agreement, remain undiscussable for the government. The same probably applies to the interesting proposals for a solution put forward by Anton Spisak of the Tony Blair Institute, even though these also require very considerable flexibility from the EU.

Meanwhile, the government’s own anticipated proposals, apart from the opposition they will encounter from the EU and some Tory MPs (and Peers), will not satisfy the DUP (£) and have already been pronounced “unworkable” by industry leaders in Northern Ireland. Fundamentally, because the Brexiters within and outside government are unable to admit or even recognize the lies they have told themselves and others about Northern Ireland in the past, which brought things to this point, they have no realistic future path to resolving it. Again, an aporia.

The public secret of Brexit’s failure

The same obtains on the wider canvas of Brexit in general. The Tory MP Tobias Ellwood recently suggested that single market membership would resolve many of the economic problems the country faces, and somewhat resolve the NIP issue, and was promptly eviscerated by Brexiter politicians and commentators. Academic research, including my own as it happens, has developed the concept of the ‘public secret’, meaning something that is both widely known and yet not openly spoken off, or even both known and yet not-known. The economic failure of hard Brexit is somewhat akin to that – only somewhat, because within many sections of the public it is both known and spoken of, whilst amongst others it is arguably not known at all. But it is relevant because I believe that amongst a great many ‘informed’ Brexiters it is precisely such a public secret.

By definition I can’t prove that, but I notice that Guardian columnist Zoe Williams detects a similar sense that “their heart isn’t really in it”. I think they are coming to realise that a colossal error was made with hard Brexit, if not necessarily Brexit itself, but it is all but unsayable within their circles. Yet it is increasingly whispered of. Thus Iain Martin, The Times’ prominent pro-Brexit commentator, has begun to talk about the need to recognize the economic damage hard Brexit has done and to seek a more harmonious and better trading relationship with the EU, building on the existing trade agreement. In the process he rejects as unworkable the Thatcherite Brexiters’ call for wholesale deregulation. Yet he cannot bring himself to endorse Ellwood’s single market call, or even regulatory alignment, instead plaintively hoping for “some bespoke arrangement … to minimise friction at borders”. So he accepts there is a problem, but for the solution reaches back to the same old ‘cakeist’ idea that there’s some special way of being a third country without being treated like a third country.

Daniel Hannan’s recent article (£) is different in acknowledging that it would have been better to have stayed in the single market, unsurprisingly as he was always in the ‘soft Brexit’ camp (though he didn’t stand up against the hard Brexiters very vociferously when it could have made a real difference). But, unlike Martin, he proposes that the way to redress the mistake of hard Brexit is to go even harder by pursuing the deregulatory route. So, albeit that they reach different conclusions, Hannan and Martin both illustrate the public secret of hard Brexit in giving at least a glimpse of Brexiters’ submerged but emergent recognition of its failure, and also in regarding any attempt to revisit it as untenable, almost unthinkable. There’s no going back, because it’s too late.

An absurd taboo

That appears to be the consensus, if for different reasons, across both the Conservatives and the Labour Party. It is a crazy, almost masochistic, stance, which few would apply to poor decisions made in private or even corporate life. It can’t legitimately be justified by reference to the referendum, as that has been honoured and has no purchase on the question of future relations with the EU. So to regard even discussing the full variety of these relations as taboo is an absurdity that applies to almost no other political issue, and all the more so when the form of Brexit that was chosen is so manifestly not working.

That contention is supported by the opinion polls showing, albeit no doubt for a wide variety of reasons, that only 29% think the government is handling Brexit well (and just 4% think ‘very well’) whilst 60% think it is doing so badly (and 35% think ‘very badly), and that 49% think it was wrong to leave the EU against 37% thinking it right. It is most especially evident in the constant complaints of Brexiters, most vociferously and regularly David Frost, that Brexit isn’t delivering its promises. So it can’t make sense to speak of the problems, yet refuse to discuss the full range of possible solutions. It is especially absurd that the only version of the solutions that are up for discussion are those proposed by the very people, like Frost, who created the Brexit they now say wasn’t the one they wanted.

Unspoken causes create insoluble problems

The consequence is that not only is there no going back, there is also no way of going forward. Thus Britain faces multiple serious, obviously Brexit-related problems that simply can’t be addressed by its Brexit-silent polity. To take just a selection of the latest news reports, these range from the shortage of home-grown produce, to the apparently imminent collapse of participation in the Horizon science programme (£), to the “existential crisis” of the car industry (£, ignore the misleading headline), to the £500 billion under-valuation of public companies due to “Brexit scarring” (£), to the calamitous damage to trade with the EU, to the related precarious position of sterling. On the latter, an analysis last week from the Bank of America said that the pound faced an “existential crisis” (another one) comparable to that of an emerging market currency and, crucially, linked this to “a failure to discuss and acknowledge” the effect of Brexit.

It’s a theme taken up by several serious economic commentators this week, such as Simon Nixon of The Times and Simon French, Chief Economist at Panmure Gordon. In his thoughtful overview of the post-Brexit economy, French itemises the damage done, including some of the things just listed as well as the stalling of business investment, which he estimates as being £58 billion a year lower than if Britain hadn’t left the single market and customs union. He also makes the point, which relates to one I made in my last post, as well as to Iain Martin’s article, that the free-market deregulatory Brexiters have yet to accept that enacting their preferred Brexit would come at high costs, with severe political consequences attached. In a different sense to Martin, they, too, have not moved on from the ‘cakeism’ of the entire Brexit project. Overall, French frames his analysis in a similar way to my term of an aporia, in suggesting that Britain is in an economic “limbo”, and also implies that this is compounded by the lack of serious public and political discussion of the choices that Brexit entails.

If these economic issues seem intangible then, very visibly over the long Jubilee holiday weekend and beyond, we saw the cancelled and delayed flights and passport queues. The Brexit dimension of this is resolutely ignored by government ministers and only patchily mentioned by the media, but the airlines themselves and  travel industry experts are absolutely clear that hard Brexit is a big factor. Meanwhile, even the pro-Brexit press reports passenger anger at the passport queues faced by British holidaymakers entering the EU, albeit without mentioning, let alone reflecting on, its championship of their cause.

This is a part of a larger picture well-described by hit-and-miss columnist Simon Jenkins, in one of his occasional hits. Echoing my own recent lament of a country going rotten, Jenkins observes how, in multiple everyday ways, including the travel chaos, “Britain just isn’t working any more”, identifying hard Brexit as a major cause. It’s unparalleled, at least in my lifetime, that in the face of a multiple crises in trade, sterling, food supplies, the labour market, travel and multiple amenities of daily life politicians barely discuss one of the main causes. For sure, such a discussion would produce sharp disagreements, but such is politics, and it would still be a discussion, not this obtuse, perverse, deafening silence.

Getting unstuck

By contrast, some say, as they did in response to Ellwood’s statement, that it is bizarre and perhaps even in some way unsophisticated or stupid to still be talking, six years after the referendum, about different models of Brexit. But that reflects precisely the aporia it has brought us to. We are stuck, and, actually, those responding in this way are contributing to that ‘stuckness’ by suggesting that we ought not to be going back, whilst at the same time preventing any moving forward. The ultimate reason, as with the NIP, why models of Brexit are still legitimately up for discussion, even if that discussion remains peripheral to mainstream political discourse, is that there was no honesty at the time about what Brexit meant.

In particular, the core dishonesty that all forms of Brexit, but especially hard Brexit, would be cost-free – a dishonesty encapsulated by Johnson’s ‘cakeism’ and all the denunciations of costs as Project Fear – is the reason why now, when the costs are so evident, the entire question of why and how to do Brexit remains a legitimate one. Yet it is still unresolvable partly because it is not discussable as a central political question, and partly because the old lies are still being told. So, again, we – in the sense of the polity, collectively – can talk about the problems, but we can’t talk about the causes, and therefore we can’t find any solutions. Another aporia.

Labour’s chance to lead

Thus Britain remains at a Brexit aporia and will do so until there is the political courage and honesty to face up to it. In other words, it requires the public secret to be broken and become a public discussion. In practice that will indeed mean re-visiting, perhaps through citizens’ assemblies, questions of single market participation and a customs treaty or, at a more minimal level, creating a sensible policy on regulatory alignment with the EU or, at the most minimal level, developing a realistic approach to build upon the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in advance of its five-year review. The latter could draw on the suggestions of Dr Peter Holmes of the UK Trade Policy Observatory, writing for the Progressive Economy Forum, and should take in enhanced security cooperation as well as easements on trade and mobility.

It seems all but impossible that the current Conservative government, under Johnson or any conceivable replacement, will do any of these things, but the Labour Party should be developing proposals to tackle them if it is serious about forming or leading the next government. Doing so would signal political leadership and would speak directly to the evident disquiet the opinion polls reveal about Brexit both in itself and in the manner of its execution. And whilst Brexit doesn’t figure high in the list of voters’ political priorities, its effects are inseparable from those that do, notably the economy and the health service.

As political sociologist Martin Shaw discusses in Byline Times this week, “the single market taboo won’t last forever”. At some point the dam will break and the near-silence will end. In fact, as I’ve suggested in this post, the very early signs are already there. Labour would be electorally wise and politically right to get out ahead. The LibDems, especially, can play a role (and they – unlike Labour – have already produced a well-considered set of proposals), as might the SNP and the smaller parties. Indeed one part of what is needed is to build a new, cross-party, cross-nation process to find a new way forward. But, realistically, only Labour can currently lead this process and, ultimately, lead a government that might deliver its outcome.

Aporia is not stasis

The need for such leadership is becoming increasingly urgent, and will become more so the longer it is delayed. Aporia is not stasis. For whilst Britain remains stuck, and silent about how it got stuck, and silent about how to get unstuck, the world continues to change – economically, geo-politically, environmentally. This means that the costs, economic and non-economic, of Brexit aporia continue to rack up.

Hannan’s recent article likens Brexit to moving into a new home that may be “more elegant and more comfortable” but, since moving is stressful, an EFTA-type arrangement would have been easier. But, he goes on, now that we’ve moved in all our furniture it would be folly to get the removers in again. The Iain Martin version of that metaphor would, I suppose, be that we should re-arrange the furniture and give the walls a lick of paint.

A better version would be to recognize that having moved out of a comfortable house into what was sold as a shiny palace but turned out to be a crumbling and vermin-infested maisonette, we aren’t going to make things better by ignoring the dry rot and the rats. On the contrary, if we do so much longer the walls will begin to collapse and the ceiling fall in.

Friday 3 June 2022

Brexit symbols that stand for nothing

From time to time I lose motivation to write this blog or even to continue following Brexit developments. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of other things to write about and to care about. But invariably such moods are ended by reading something which immediately re-ignites my anger, irritation or astonishment about the sheer stupidity and dishonesty of everything associated with Brexit.

Indiana wants me … barely

The latest example was the flurry of triumphant announcements about the government having achieved a US trade deal. Of course this was misleading. Firstly, it is an agreement with one of the States within the US – Indiana, although it seems that several more are in prospect – and, secondly, it is not, as might be thought, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). That is because only the US Federal government has the power make such FTAs, including reductions to tariffs and most other trade barriers. For that matter, it isn’t a ‘trade deal’, or even a ‘deal’ at all, in any sensible meaning of the terms.

What has actually been agreed is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). These are non-binding agreements which may be about various things, and it would seem that each of the MOUs the UK envisages with particular US states will have a somewhat different focus. The text of the Indiana MoU identifies various areas such as innovation where cooperation will be aspired to, but these aspirations are almost entirely vague (for a detailed analysis, see Peter Ungaphakhorn’s trade blog).

The government has not provided any figures for anticipated benefits and as the terms are so vague there’s no basis upon which they could be estimated. It is perfectly possible there will be none at all, and likely that if they transpire they will be very small. Nor is there any parliamentary scrutiny that might tease out what, concretely, the government expects the country to gain. But it’s not a bad thing to have done, either. It’s just not much of a thing at all, and could almost certainly have been made whilst still a member of the EU, in the way that Finland has a MOU with Michigan which covers some similar areas of aspirational cooperation.

What makes it galling is the triumphalist pretence that it is something it isn’t, not just through misleading headlines but what is woven into the stories beneath. To take just a few examples, writing in the Daily Telegraph (£), Trade Policy Minister Penny Mordaunt presents this as the start of a ‘bottom-up’ path to a ‘top-down’ FTA with the US. It really isn’t – they are entirely separate processes - and suggesting otherwise avoids admitting that the Brexiters’ cherished dream of a UK-US FTA is now a remote prospect, made all the more remote by the government’s conduct over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mordaunt also refers to the US as “our biggest trading partner”, when that is still the EU, a familiar Brexiter sleight of hand achieved only by ignoring that the EU is a single market and treating each of its members as a different trading partner. That’s all the more absurd in the context of talking about trade agreements with the US in terms of its separate constituent states.

Equally absurdly, she writes of Britain “still” being one of the biggest recipients of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the world “because of Brexit – not despite it”, which isn’t just misleading but nonsensical. If it is “still” in this position, it must have achieved it before Brexit, so it can’t be “because” of Brexit. She presumably wants to imply that Brexit has somehow been good for FDI, whereas in fact it has fallen as a percentage of GDP ever since the vote to leave, and the UK has lost its leading position amongst its peers for attracting FDI (figures 4 and 5 of link). The latter is, indeed, because of Brexit, not despite it.

Alongside these bogus economic claims, Mordaunt runs numerous political ones about how the Indiana MOU somehow discredits those who doubt the promises of Brexiters. Writing this time on the Conservative Home website, this encompasses the headline claim that “they said a US trade deal couldn’t be done. It can. We are doing it”, which, as I’ve discussed, is simply false. It extends into the text, where she suggests the MOU discredits those who say individual states can’t do trade deals. But it doesn’t, except by the silly pretence that an FTA and a MOU are the same, or even similar, things. And it bleeds into a wider culture war claim that the critics of Brexit are “over-educated under-achievers” and “armchair lefties”. What these insults can’t conceal is that the critics have almost invariably been right.

Multi-layered misinformation

It might seem pointless to pull apart Mordaunt’s articles. As with those that spew week-in and week-out from Brexiters like Dan Hannan and David Frost in places like the Telegraph and the Express there’s scarcely a single line which isn’t, at the very least, questionable. So you could literally spend a lifetime pulling apart each claim and still get nowhere. However, it’s worth trying in order to show the multi-layering of the duplicity and disingenuity that lies behind – and in some sense is – Brexit, precisely because the Brexiters feel the need to keep pumping out articles. That reveals two things.

First, having to present trivialities, in this case the MOU with Indiana, as some great vindication of the Brexit project in itself shows just how fragile it now is. Had Brexit been anything like the success it was supposed to be then it would not be necessary to even mention, let alone big up, such paper-thin achievements. So by the same token it’s worth continuing to challenge and discredit each fresh attempt to do so.

Second, whilst it is surely true that most Brexiters (meaning committed, active, and leading figures advocating Brexit) will never recant their faith, that is not so for many in the general population who supported or still support Brexit (i.e. ‘leavers’). They, along with some who may have once been ‘remainers’ but have come round to Brexit, and the quite large number (about 12%) who ‘don’t know’ if Brexit was the right or wrong decision, are still very much open to changing their minds.

In a recent post I discussed the way that Brexiters are losing the post-Brexit narrative, citing opinion polls now showing a consistent lead of those who think leaving the EU was a mistake over those who think it was the right thing to do. So the endless production of Brexit-justificatory articles and stories in the media can be seen as an attempt to gain control of that narrative or, at the least, to secure the core of the support for Brexit.

Disentangling metric martyrdom

The same explanation lies behind the wheeling out this week, for the umpteenth time, of the idea of restoring imperial units of measurement. This proposal is regularly dangled in front of leave voters, almost half of whom support it (or did, in 2017, the latest polling evidence I’ve found). It featured in Iain Duncan Smith’s TIGGR review in May 2021 and again in the government’s January 2022 ‘Benefits of Brexit’ report. Even now, despite headlines implying these units would re-introduced for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, all that is being proposed is a consultation exercise, alongside a different but related proposal to place the ‘Crown’ symbol on pint glasses.

As an idea, it is the subject of multiple misunderstandings from all sides and has a greater significance than is generally recognized. Erstwhile remainers mock it (to such an extent that this mockery is itself mocked, if only for rising to the bait and being ‘triggered’ as is perhaps intended) for showing the triviality of the supposed benefits of Brexit. Those criticising this mockery do so on two, subtly different but related, grounds. One is that leavers do not, in fact, regard it as being a significant benefit of Brexit but merely as symbolic of these benefits. The other is that leavers do indeed regard it as a significant benefit because it is symbolic of Brexit itself.

I’ll come back to this symbolism, but it’s certainly the case that mocking the issue ignores the particular place it holds within Brexit folklore, going back to the 2002 ‘Metric Martyrs’ prosecutions, to the extent of being seen by some as the ultimate origin of Brexit. Folklore is the apposite term here, since it is based on various myths, including that of ‘martyrdom’ which is expressive of the recurring self-pity and victimhood in the Brexiter narrative.

One myth is that metrication was something imposed on the UK by the EU, whereas in fact it was a process which had begun long before, and the Metric Martyrs case arose within a confused mélange of EU and domestic law. Another is that metrication made it illegal to use imperial measures, whereas in fact it only prohibited the use of those measures alone, without also displaying their metric equivalent. A third is that EU law prohibited the use of the Crown mark on pint glasses, whereas in fact it was always allowed but a CE mark was also required (as, in the future, unless the plans are scrapped, a UKCA mark will be required when the post-Brexit conformity assessment regime is introduced).

Equally, in relation to the present proposals, some people on both sides seem wrongly to think that what is at stake is the replacement of metric measures with imperial measures, or alternatively the requirement to use both measures. In fact, if any change is made, it would be to allow traders to advertise and sell their goods using imperial measures only, if they wanted to, rather than using both measures, and it would not require any trader to use imperial measures at all. So whereas, currently, traders can use metric only, or metric and imperial, but not imperial only, the only likely change would be to allow all three options*. In practice, there would be a vanishingly small number of traders who would choose to exercise the right to sell goods using imperial measures only, for the simple reason that they would have a vanishingly small number of customers who wanted, let alone were able, to use these now arcane units.

The better criticism of it as a supposed benefit, rather than ignore or belittle its symbolism, begins by asking the question: what is it symbolic of? The answer, of course, is ‘freedom from Brussels’ rule’. But what does this freedom consist of? The answer to that can’t be things like imperial measures (or blue passports), as that is purely circular: symbols are symbolic of … symbols. So it must be other, substantive, things. In which case, what are they, and why not invoke them to trumpet the benefits of Brexit rather than symbols? In other words, the point is that symbols aren’t necessarily trivial and shouldn’t necessarily be mocked. Indeed symbols are central to human existence, including political life and, arguably, effective policy. But the problem with the symbols of Brexit is that they have no corresponding substance, and can’t on their own provide the basis for workable economic and foreign policy.

A central flaw in Brexit

This is perhaps one of the central flaws in Brexit, if not its central flaw. It both conflates symbol with substance and yet also detaches symbols from their substantive effects. The latter is the ultimate reason why Brexiters so often act as if the damaging substantive effects of Brexit are an unnecessary punishment from the EU rather than the consequence of a policy based on symbolism. It also lies at the heart of the ongoing row over the Northern Ireland Protocol where (unlike the more general decision to avoid the substance of borders by having no import controls, or to ignore the substantive effects of export controls by not talking about them) the symbol and substance of Brexit have collided head-on with the potent symbolic issues arising from the presence of a substantive Irish Sea border.

That is a more complex point than I have space to develop here, but the first aspect, the conflation of symbols and substance, is evident in the way that having an ‘independent trade policy’ is presented as if it was a substantive economic benefit when, as with the MOUs with US states or even the FTAs with Australia and New Zealand, this benefit is tiny or non-existent. So it in fact operates purely symbolically, with its value lying in being ‘independent’ not in being a ‘trade policy’. Similarly, things like imperial measures and blue passports operate as symbols of sovereignty, whilst having no relationship to the substance of the economic and geo-political realities which shape and constrain what any nation state can actually do.

More specifically, the regulatory freedom that imperial measures supposedly symbolize is, in substantive terms, illusory. This is shown by the publication this week of a list of the top nine Brexit benefits provided by the public in response to a call from Brexit Benefits Minster Jacob Rees-Mogg. Almost without exception they are things which don’t require Brexit or are trivial, or both, and very likely nothing will come of them anyway. In that sense, the very call for suggestions can itself be regarded as symbolic of ‘listening to the people’ or, alternatively, of how bereft of ideas the Brexiters in general, and Rees-Mogg in particular, actually are.

Equally, it’s perfectly likely that no change at all will derive from the consultation on imperial measures, and that the possibility of such change will go on being periodically raised as a crowd-pleasing exercise, or that it will be enacted with virtually no practical impact. More widely, the constant promises, made again this week by Rees-Mogg (£), of a “bonfire of EU regulations” will most likely go nowhere, to the angst of the deregulatory ideologues like Hannan (£) who still haven’t grasped that the very nature of the Brexit vote, with its under-specified manifesto, was always unlikely to yield the utopian (in their terms) Thatcherite revolution they craved (something they share, ironically, with those erstwhile remainers who still insist that such deregulation ‘was the plan all along’).

That manifesto temporarily united those who wanted ‘freedom from Brussels’ without creating any corresponding unity about what to do with that freedom. That may develop, but it will be as a result of post-Brexit political struggles, rather than deriving from Brexit itself. Of course that means that the Thatcherite Brexiters may still get their deregulatory way, but, and this is why they haven’t as yet done so, it would be at an economic price so huge as to be extremely difficult to sustain politically. On the other hand, it’s politically impossible for the Johnson government to disown the promise of regulatory freedom, leaving as the only possibility a ‘performative politics’ of endless announcements with no substantive follow-through.

The substantive limits to political symbolism

That is because, for the reasons I’ve enumerated endless times on this blog, the modern world economy is incompatible with purely national regulatory systems. In particular, for the UK the regulatory gravitational pull of the EU will tend to keep it in the EU’s orbit. Hence, for example, as Rees-Mogg seems to have half-realised, the fatuity of the (postponed) UKCA mark. Hence, for another example, the unresolved problems caused by (postponed) regulatory duplication in the chemicals industry. Hence, to take a third, the quiet agreement last year (and compare that quietness with the MOU brouhaha) that the UK will remain within the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENLEC) standards systems.

It’s therefore more likely, in the long-term, that the UK will move, if slowly, more closely to the EU – symbolically ‘free’ but substantively aligned. This, of course, is exactly what Thatcherite Brexiters like Hannan fear is in prospect and rail against. But, whilst it will go on being contested terrain, the very fact that so soon after having got Brexit they are reduced to protesting that ‘this is not their Brexit’ shows that they know they are failing. Their problem is that they still don’t understand why.

Brexit was proposed partly on the grounds of sovereignty in the abstract (‘take back control’) and partly on the grounds that this would yield tangible, substantive, and substantial economic benefits (‘£350 million a week for the NHS’). But these two strands cannot, and never could, be separated. If taking back control does not lead to such benefits, then what does it actually mean? This week’s news of the Indiana MOU and the imperial measures consultation tells us. It shows that all Brexit consists of is symbols, but symbols which do not symbolize anything. They are simply empty gestures, like waving the flags of a non-existent country.

We can expect such empty gestures to continue for now, and not just in order to shore up the false prospectus of Brexit. It is also because that false prospectus is inseparable from the Johnson government itself, since its core vote is comprised of those who supported Brexit and/or who elected it to ‘get Brexit done’. With that vote now beginning to crumble, Johnson’s leadership in crisis, and with by-elections and, eventually, a general election in prospect, there is an urgent need to assure waverers that Brexit has been done and done well, or at the very least that without Johnson it would be undone.

It is ironic that, for all their talk of the patronizing ‘liberal metropolitan elite’, this entails Brexiters treating leave voters, in particular, in the most patronizing of ways. For it assumes that they will be forever satisfied with such symbolism and never notice the gaping hole where the substantive promises made for Brexit were supposed to be. If and when they do notice, the anger will be ferocious, and that should worry us because whereas it is the Brexiters who deserve to be its target they almost certainly won’t be. Indeed they are already busy setting up the ‘armchair lefties’, ‘over-educated under-achievers’, ‘activist lawyers’, ‘treacherous civil servants’, and ‘remainers’ in general to be blamed for the increasingly undeniable failure of Brexit.


*It’s true that, apparently, the consultation will include consideration of the imperial-only option, but there is not the tiniest chance that this will emerge as the policy.