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 na├»ve 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.

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