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.

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