Friday, 28 April 2023

Raab, Brexit and the Civil Service

One day there will undoubtedly be a book written about the impact of Brexit on the civil service, and it will be one of the most important parts of the story of the harm Brexit has done to Britain. Some elements of the story it will tell have already been outlined on the blog. In the very first post, in September 2016, I wrote that “there are already noises from Brexiters that civil servants are obstructing British exit. We will hear much more of that in the coming years as the complete lack of realism of Brexit becomes impossible to avoid. Over a whole swathe of issues … the Brexit position is composed of, at best, half-truths or just outright fantasies. It is therefore inevitable that the coming months and years will see a series of collisions between these fantasies and the realities (and equally inevitable that Brexiters will blame this on others)”.

Not every prediction I’ve made about Brexit proved true but that one most certainly has, and since 2016 I’ve returned to it in detail several times. Particular moments have included the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers in January 2017, the concerted attacks on Olly Robbins and the civil service in general, especially in the wake of the Chequers Agreement in 2018, the 2019 resignation of Sir Kim Darroch and what it betokened, the 2020 ‘hitlist’ of senior civil servants deemed to be anti-Brexit, the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam and the associated allegations of bullying by Priti Patel, and the resignation of Sir Mark Sedwill.

The consequences of faith-based politics

These are just a few of the key episodes in a very complex story. Of course, tensions between civil servants and government ministers didn’t begin with Brexit, but I think it is fair to say that there has never been such sustained hostility from politicians, and their media supporters, towards both individual civil servants and the institution of the civil service as Brexit has engendered.

Moreover, as with Brexit itself, that hostility has become entwined with a more general culture war attack on ‘the liberal elite’ and ‘wokeness’. For example, supporting the attacks made by Boris Johnson and Dominic ‘hard rain’ Cummings on civil servants, the ferociously pro-Brexiter Sunday Telegraph Allister Heath insisted (£) that “Brexit is not enough” and that “our arrogant overrated civil service must now face a political reckoning”.

The former senior civil servant Jonathan Powell has described these attacks as part of a “rolling coup against institutions”. And, indeed, under Liz Truss it became even clearer that Brexiters and the wider populist Right consider not just civil servants, the judiciary, universities, the Bank of England, the OBR, and the BBC to be part of an ‘anti-Brexit Establishment’ but also the IMF, OECD and even currency and bond market traders. Welcome to what David Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg are pleased to call “National Conservatism” (£), or what I have called ‘Brexitist Conservatism’.

Without repeating all of the analysis in the previous posts I’ve linked to above, the core reason why Brexit has provoked a particular issue for the civil service is that it is a politics based upon faith rather than rationality or evidence. This inevitably brings Brexiter politicians into conflict with the civil service in a way that very rarely happens over ‘normal’ policy and has never happened over what amounts to a complete change in national strategic direction. As Jill Rutter, a leading expert on the civil service, has put it: “for many Brexit supporters, Brexit is an article of faith that people believe in ‘in their heart’. Ideas like sovereignty and autonomy are not amenable to the usual civil service approach of solving problems by looking at the costs and benefits”.

Thus Brexit wasn’t simply a ‘policy’: it betokened a completely different principle of political and governmental conduct. At the most extreme, it led to Brexiters demanding of civil servants things, such as ‘frictionless trade’ outside of the single market and customs union, which were simply undeliverable, or things, such as the clauses in the Internal Market Bill that led to the resignation of the head of the Government Legal Department, which were illegal. In a faith-based politics, that inevitably gave rise to the accusations of ‘obstructionism’ and ‘sabotage’ that were levelled at the civil service throughout the Brexit negotiations, as if a different civil service of ‘true believers’ could have changed the facts and would not have been bound by the law.

Raab’s resignation

Against this background, what of Dominic Raab’s resignation last Friday and its aftermath? Ostensibly, it has nothing to do with Brexit. Raab faced eight accusations of bullying civil servants, two of which were upheld by an independent report prepared by Adam Tolley KC, and as such demonstrated that Raab had violated the Ministerial Code. This report also showed that, even where bullying was not proven, Raab’s conduct was “abrasive” and “intimidating”. As former Justice Secretary David Gauke put it, it “may well have been that it was only evident that Raab crossed the line on a couple of occasions but it is also clear that he was at or near the line as a matter of course”.  It could be argued that, even leaving aside any breaches of the Ministerial Code, this showed him to lack the effective leadership skills needed by a senior minister. At all events, as a result of the report, Raab resigned.

To read Raab’s account of these events (£), and those of his many supporters, it might be thought that he had been entirely exonerated and his resignation was an act of principled nobility; that he was a victim if not indeed a martyr in the whole affair. That piece of moral gymnastics was achieved through three moves. Firstly, he implied that because most of the complaints of bullying weren’t upheld, he was somehow more innocent than guilty. Secondly, he suggested that those which had been upheld had applied a ludicrously “low bar” in defining bullying. Thirdly, he suggested that he only resigned because he had promised to do so if any of the accusations of bullying were upheld, thus, far from being disgraced, this was an honourable and actually needless act of self-punishment. The implication - which, given the fact that Priti Patel was not punished by Boris Johnson for her bullying of civil servants, might actually be true - was that, but for Raab’s promise, Rishi Sunak might have decided that he need not resign.

All of this could be read as the slippery self-justification of a discredited Minister or, as with the Patel case, an example of the ludicrous inadequacy of how the Ministerial Code operates. Instead, it became twisted round, as if it was not Raab who had been investigated for misconduct but civil servants. On this account, as with Patel, the suggestion was that all Raab had done was to demand good performance of civil servants, whose complaints arose from a combination of covering up their own incompetence and a ‘snowflake’ inability to accept criticism. Hence Oliver Dowden, now installed as Deputy Prime Minister, rushed to insist not, as one might expect after such a Ministerial resignation, that higher standards would be expected of Ministers in future, but that “there would be no letting up in the high standards I expect of civil servants”. At the same time, further weight was added to the pre-existing suggesting of making civil service roles the subject of political appointment.

Yet even this wouldn’t have amounted to a direct connection with Brexit, had Raab himself not made it in blaming his downfall on “anti-Brexit activist civil servants”. This accusation, eagerly repeated across the Brexit bubble, obviously related to Brexit itself, with Raab having at different times been Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary, but also to post-Brexit policies on the judiciary and migration. So here, once again, was the same accusation that has been made ever since 2016, although the Tolley report had made neither explicit nor implicit mention that opposition to Brexit had in any way motivated the complaints about Raab.

In this sense, Raab’s resignation is, indeed, the latest episode of the story of Brexit and the civil service. It is all too easy to envisage the collision of Raab’s own fanatical belief in Brexit and his dealings with civil servants who had to cope with the realities of implementing it. After all, it was Raab who, at a Select Committee in 2016, was totally bemused by the fact that hard Brexit would increase, rather than decrease, border red tape; it was Raab who, as Brexit Secretary in 2018, announced that he “hadn’t quite understood” the UK’s reliance on the Dover-Calais crossing for its goods trade; and it was Raab who admitted in January 2019 that he hadn’t read the Good Friday Agreement.

Thus Raab, who apparently prides himself on his meticulous attention to detail, seems to have lacked an understanding of some of the most basic facts about Brexit, a policy for which he campaigned for years and had a key role in implementing. So, given the general picture of his conduct given by the Tolley Report, it isn’t hard to imagine how he would have reacted to civil servants having to tell him, for example, what hard Brexit would mean for border controls or cross-channel goods flows. The ‘abrasiveness’ of that reaction might be attributable to his personality, but the likely ascription of the civil servants’ advice to their “anti-Brexit” bias would be a consequence of the systematic refusal of Brexiters to accept reality, as well as their almost wilful ignorance about what Brexit entails.

A scapegoat for the failures of Brexit

However, whilst Raab’s case is in part an illustration of what Brexit has meant for the civil service, the current debate around it reflects two slightly different, though related things. One is just the general extension from Brexit into culture war, the targets of which all have ‘remainer’ as the foundational ascribed characteristic, to which can be added indiscriminately any or all of ‘liberal’, ‘elite’, ‘establishment’, ‘woke’, ‘declinist’, and ‘unpatriotic’ to make up the dismal bingo card of the populist imagination. But the other is about Brexit itself, and the now unavoidable evidence of it having failed to deliver any of the promises Brexiters made for it and of its massive damage to almost every part of economy and society.

It's true that there is still a small industry of Brexiter politicians and commentators who deny every single example of such damage, using every trick of sophistry to do so. But it is hardly convincing, perhaps even to themselves given that so many of them, often the very same people issuing the denials of damage, are equally adamant that ‘the Brexit I voted for’ hasn’t been delivered. Moreover, they can’t avoid the clear polling evidence that most of the public believe that Brexit was a mistake and (which isn’t necessarily the same thing) that the government is handling it badly. So an alternative strategy is to blame this on, well, everyone but themselves. Theresa May, the EU, and the ‘remainer parliament’ are all amongst the targets, but none more so than civil servants.

Thus, recently, the first Brexit Secretary, David Davis, denounced the “crap job” the civil service did of the Brexit negotiations. The charge sheet again is one of entrenched opposition to Brexit and ‘pro-EU’ sympathy. The alleged result was that Brexit was unnecessarily delayed and that Britain failed to get a good deal, still less the deal which would have allowed the promises of Brexiters to be realised. However, there are three big problems with this analysis – or perhaps four if you count the fact that, as I identified in that first blog post, and many others also said at the time, it was obvious from day one that this was where Brexit was going to end up.

The case for the defence

The first problem is that what is believed to be the biggest research study of the civil service ever conducted, led by Andrew Kakabadse, Professor of Governance and Leadership at Henley Business School, concluded unequivocally that “there is no evidence of bias against Brexit by the Civil Service or civil servants. I found no civil servants who attempted to frustrate or disrupt the Brexit negotiations due to their alleged anti-Brexit or pro-European sentiments”. This goes to the heart of the entire issue, and could not be a clearer refutation of the Brexiters’ case against the civil service.

Of course, they have never accepted the findings of this study, and have continued to make those claims since it was published in 2018. Nor does it take a huge leap of imagination to think that, if confronted with it, they would dismiss it as ‘remainer bias’, since academics are regarded as being just as suspect as civil servants (unless, of course, they are one of those academics who supports Brexit, such as Patrick Minford or Robert Tombs, who then automatically become distinguished intellectuals and totally free of all bias).

The second problem is with the accusation that civil servants (or for that matter others) delayed Brexit. This has become an unquestioned belief amongst many Brexiters, and many of the general public. In fact, what is most striking about Brexit is how quickly it was done. The initial Article 50 period of two years was, it’s true, extended by eight months from March 2019 to January 2020, but that was almost entirely due to the fact that the Tory government chose to hold not just one but two General Elections, as well as a leadership contest, after having triggered Article 50. Together, these knocked at least six, and probably seven, months out of the negotiations. As for the subsequent trade negotiations, few thought they could be completed as quickly as the year they actually took, a year in which the massive disruption of the pandemic occurred.

So there is no basis for saying that Brexit was delayed by the civil service. In any case the real problem with the tempo of Brexit was the excessive speed with which it was undertaken. It is now widely agreed on all sides (£) that Article 50 was triggered far too early, without proper preparation or agreement on the UK position, and this was entirely because Theresa May accepted (or agreed with) Brexiter insistence that delay would be betrayal. Subsequently, what Johnson and Frost were later to denounce as a wholly unacceptable agreement about Northern Ireland was made solely to avoid extending the negotiations, and their total refusal to extend the transition period was one of the reasons why both businesses and the government were so badly prepared for its ending, just days after the trade agreement was finalised on Christmas Eve 2020.

All of this was self-imposed by Brexit-supporting politicians, and at the urging of Brexiters, and had nothing at all to do with civil servants who repeatedly warned against it. Indeed, it was the issue of unrealistic implementation timescales that began the conflicts between Priti Patel and Sir Philip Rutnam, which ended in his resignation and a payment of £340,000 for unfair dismissal amid the bullying claims.

As for the accusation that it was civil service sabotage or ineptitude that led to Britain getting a poor deal, this is falsified by the fact that Boris Johnson, and all his MPs, fought the 2019 General Election on the claim that, as regards the Withdrawal Agreement, it was an excellent deal. They said the same thing about the subsequent trade agreement. If the civil service had negotiated such bad deals, why did these politicians even agree them, let alone sing their praises? And in any case, which comes back to the core issue, what was this better Brexit deal which would have delivered the promises? If these included the ‘exact same benefits’ as EU membership, and no Irish border anywhere, then they were never going to be delivered because they are not deliverable.

The bigger picture

In linking his resignation to Brexit, Raab revealed the ongoing hostility of Brexiters to the civil service, as well as aspects of the still ongoing ‘battle for the Brexit narrative’. That battle has now largely shifted from a debate about whether Brexit has failed because, with the exception of a handful of admittedly very vocal diehards, the Brexiters realise they have all but lost that.

One illustration of this was the outcome of this week’s parliamentary debate about holding a public inquiry into the effects of Brexit, a debate held because a public petition demanded it. The fact that the government refused to hold such an inquiry, and the fact that no high-profile Brexiter supported the call for one – indeed only one Brexiter MP, Adam Holloway, even attended the debate – is a tacit admission that any such inquiry would show the effects to have been hugely damaging. Hence the ‘battle for the narrative’ is increasingly turning to arguments about who is to blame for the failures and damage of Brexit – Allister Heath, again, supplying a splenetic and spectacularly illogical contribution this week (£) – with the civil service being amongst those most frequently lined up.

Equally, and as the Raab resignation also illustrates, Brexiters are shifting their focus to a wider contestation between ‘Brexitist’ or ‘National’ Conservatism and what they would no doubt call the ‘Wokerati’ or the ‘New Elite’. In that context, the post-Brexit discussion about the civil service, with which Raab’s resignation has become explicitly linked, is potentially quite different to the more familiar one of the possible desirability of party-political appointments to the civil service or the possible problem of party-political bias amongst civil servants.

Indeed, the key to understanding this whole issue of Brexit and the civil service is that it isn’t the party-political impartiality of the civil service that Brexiters have called into question. Rather, it is the more fundamental question of whether the civil service should operate on the basis of belief rather than facts and be guided by zealotry rather than legality. (It’s actually a very similar question to that posed by Brexit for the BBC, in the way that factual reporting of Brexit is readily perceived and portrayed by Brexiters as being animated by lack of belief in Brexit, but that is a story for another time.)

The stakes in this question are very high, and if Brexiters could but see it they are higher even than Brexit. For what Brexiters should be considering is not the desirability of having a civil service imbued with true belief in Brexit, but the dangers to them, quite as much as to everyone else, of a future civil service imbued with true belief in a creed that they find obnoxious, and willing to sacrifice both reason and legality in pursuit of that belief.

Friday, 21 April 2023

Britain's Brexit degradation

In the last few posts on the blog, especially the most recent one, I’ve suggested that it is at least arguable that the government and, in a wider sense, the British polity are becoming slightly more realistic about Brexit. That is most evident in the Windsor Framework, the refreshed Integrated Review, and possibly in the reported, though not quite announced, news that the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill is to be delayed though not, apparently, abandoned. But that lack of clarity about REUL shows how precarious this emergent ‘realism’ is, and is damaging in its own right since it means that multiple sectors – for example healthcare – simply don’t know whether they are soon going to face major regulatory upheaval.

Political stasis is degrading Britain

This reflects a wider stasis about Brexit, such that it is both central and marginal. There is scarcely anything in the UK which is not adversely impacted by it, as attested by the superb Yorkshire Bylines’ dossier of Brexit damage which this week recorded its thousandth entry. That impact extends to the most pressing of economic problems, namely persistently high inflation. Yet Brexit has ceased to be a major political issue, at least for the two main Westminster parties and perhaps even the smaller ones, with the LibDems fairly muted and the SNP having other preoccupations.

Sunak faced down the Brexit Ultras amongst his MPs to deliver the Windsor Framework but they, and more importantly their counterparts outside parliament, remain a powerful force. That is shown by the anti-ECHR provisions of the Illegal Immigration Bill. Even if he was willing, he isn’t able to crush that force and so has little choice but to let the damage drift on, with, at most, some tinkering around the edges. He certainly isn’t going to suddenly admit the truth of what a disaster Brexit has been.

The Labour Party’s ‘make Brexit work’ position is almost the same. Whilst there are few Brexit Ultras amongst its MPs, it is also fearful of being monstered by the pro-Brexit media as well as of leave voters in its traditional electoral base, especially in the ‘Red Wall’. It’s true that there is some recent polling evidence that Labour could gain some electoral advantage if it came out clearly in saying that Brexit was a mistake, without sacrificing its current projection to re-take all of the ‘Red Wall’ seats,  but there are obvious limitations to that finding.

For one thing, any such advantage might not survive the likely shrivelling of Labour’s current huge polling lead when the next election gets closer. More importantly, Labour policy plainly couldn’t just be to ‘call Brexit a mistake’ without specifying a solution, presumably seeking to join either the single market or the EU. Doing so would immediately open up all the division and toxicity, ensure that the next election was dominated by Brexit, and, at least potentially, transform the Tory Party’s fortunes by enabling it to re-group around that single issue. So it’s not hard to understand why that survey result isn’t being heeded by Starmer and, at all events, there no sign whatsoever of him doing so.

It's also worth considering the implications of other survey evidence. It's certainly striking that public opinion on the question of whether Brexit was a mistake or not has for months been fairly stable in showing 53%-55% thinking it was a mistake and 32%-35% thinking it was the right thing. However, over about the same period as that opinion has settled, the public view of the significance of Brexit as a political issue has declined, so that only 17% currently regard it as one of the top three issues facing the country. Moreover, despite a sustained poll lead for (re-)joining the EU, opinion remains significantly divided (46% join, 35% stay out, 19% don’t know in the most recent poll) and there is little reason for confidence that the outcome of another referendum would yield a majority, let alone a clear and convincing majority, to do so.

These various results help to explain the current stasis: although the entire basis of the UK’s national strategy is seen by most people as a mistake, most of them wouldn’t vote to reverse it, and very few of them regard it as a pressing issue. That may change after the next election, given the palpable sense of a country which is in all kinds of ways ‘on hold’ until then. But, for now, it means that Brexit is like a kind of political and economic mould or fungus, slowly degrading the country, making it gradually poorer, meaner, shabbier, sillier and nastier, but with no real consensus on what to do about it.

Yet even as the main parties and much of the public settle to a resigned, impotent despair about Brexit, it has a small but powerful, well-funded, well-organized and indefatigable group of defenders, constantly twisting the truth of the damage it is doing to the country. Indeed, they are one of the biggest reasons why the main parties are so cautious about addressing or even admitting that damage. So in parallel with Brexit degradation in the sense of gradual damage and decline, there is a continued Brexit degradation in the sense of a humiliating, demeaning and corrupting dishonesty.  

CPTPP: a degraded debate

Nowhere is that dishonesty more obvious than in relation to CPTPP accession, which at the time of my last post was just being announced. Subsequent discussion of it has fairly predictably focussed on its puny estimated economic value of 0.08% growth of GDP over 15 years, by contrast with the estimated 4% loss of GDP growth over the same period as a result of the impact of Brexit on UK-EU trade. Predictable as it was, this critique met with confused and contradictory responses from Brexiters.

Trade Secretary Kami Badenoch rejected the legitimacy of such comparisons even being made. We should “stop talking about Brexit” and simply see the deal in its own terms as an economic boost. That might be fine, and in line with my suggestion that we should ‘de-Brexitify’ policy decisions. But that suggestion was the fourth in a series of steps of which the second was to drop false claims of Brexit benefits, including trade deals. Since, from Sunak downwards, CPTPP is being hailed as a proof of the benefits of Brexit freedom from EU trade policy then, inevitably, it will and must be judged against the corresponding costs. Brexiters can’t have it both ways.

Briefings for Britain

At least Badenoch’s response showed some glimmer of recognition that, judged in cost-benefit terms, CPTPP is a dud. In the deep heartlands of Brexit true faith even that is missing. For example, writing on Briefings for Britain (formerly ‘Briefings for Brexit’), one of the small group of dogmatically pro-Brexit economists, Catherine McBride, sought, first, to attack the 4% figure which, apparently, “no one on Twitter has been able to explain”. She decided that it is a garbled version of a 2018 OBR estimate of a 4.4% loss if – and she bolded her text for emphasis – “the UK left the EU on WTO terms”. So, apart from chiding the critics for having got the figure wrong, McBride accused them of ignoring the “inconvenient truth” that there had been a trade deal.

Alas, this critique was misplaced on both counts. The 4% figure is a correct report of the OBR estimate, first produced in 2020 and still expected, and it is explicitly an estimate of leaving with a trade deal. McBride went on to castigate the nay-sayers because “these were expectations of long-term changes in the UK’s GDP relative to a baseline, not an immediate 4% GDP decrease on leaving the EU”. She is quite right in that, and also right to say that some people on Twitter misunderstand that (though citing unspecified Twitter accounts is an obvious ‘strawman’), but then made exactly the same error she accused them of by arguing that:

“Brexit dissenters will be disappointed to know that the UK’s GDP increased from £2.24 trillion in 2019 to £2.49 trillion in 2022 an increase of 11% in current prices although unchanged when you account for inflation. But either way: this is not a ‘4% hit’.”

In this, unlike many Brexiters, McBride at least recognized that in real terms there was no growth, yet she, herself, suddenly ignored her own observation that the 4% figure means 4% less GDP than would otherwise be the case, not a 4% decrease in GDP.

She then turned her attention to the 0.08% figure, criticising the modelling, with an inevitable side-swipe at civil servants, as being likely to under-estimate the benefits of CPTPP. But in fact the figure was based on a new, changed, model that, if anything, would tend to over-estimate those benefits. At all events, whilst it is obviously true that any modelling can be criticised, there’s no reason given to think that the gain of CPTPP is going to be anywhere near the loss of Brexit. Indeed, the fundamental flaw in the attempts to defend CPTPP (and post-Brexit trade policy generally) on cost-benefit grounds is that entails simultaneously denying that substantially increasing trade barriers with the UK’s closest and largest partner entails much, or any, cost, whilst asserting that somewhat decreasing trade barriers with small and remote partners is a significant benefit.

Why bother?

It might be said that it is hardly worth wasting so many words on the self-evidently partisan offerings of ‘Briefings for Britain’, but that misses the way that such documents get circulated as if they were reliable evidence. For example, Reform Party leader Richard Tice did just that with the McBride briefing, describing it as “brilliant”. Moreover, writing in the Spectator, which has a much wider reach, Robert Tombs, who is one of the Editors of ‘Briefings for Britain’ and one of the most active peddlers of the kind of pseudo-analysis it specialises in, produced a very similar discussion of CPTPP. In fact, if anything, it was even more slipshod, for reasons Gerhard Schnyder explains in detail on his latest Brexit Impact Tracker blog, and itself fell prey to the slippage between criticising and yet reproducing false claims of a 4% drop in GDP. This one also got circulated approvingly by, for example, David Frost, who described it as “excellent”.

Admittedly a disinterested observer wouldn’t be hugely impressed by endorsements from Tice and Frost. This is peer review only in the sense that the authors and reviewers share a common dogma. But whilst it’s true that no serious analyst takes them seriously, within the Brexit bubble such writings do contribute to the degradation of political discourse by purveying misinformation and, at best, half-truths, and that is amplified by high-profile recommendations.

Endless opportunism

One of the many reasons why that degradation of political discourse has occurred is that, throughout the Brexit saga, Brexit ideologues have been adept in their opportunism, especially in economic arguments. Pre-referendum claims that Brexit would be hugely economically beneficial effortlessly segue into defences that ‘it hasn’t been as bad as some predicted’, or into outright denials that it was ever proposed as an economically beneficial project but was ‘all about sovereignty’.

That opportunism can be seen In relation to CPTPP, where there has also been a shift from attempts to justify it on economic grounds to asserting that its real value isn’t economic at all, but ‘geo-political’ (£). It isn’t an entirely fatuous argument, and is made by serious analysts such as Marianne Schneider-Petsinger of Chatham House, who stresses in particular its significance for cementing UK-Japanese relations, themselves much damaged by Brexit. But in the hands of Brexiters like John Longworth it becomes entirely opportunistic and internally contradictory.

For one thing, Brexiters also repeatedly laud CPTPP as against EU membership on the basis that it is simply about trade rather than politics, so it hardly makes sense to make political heft the claim for its value. For another, it fails as an attempt to side-step the embarrassing fact of the disparity in economic value of the two memberships in that exactly the same applies to any geo-political value it may have. If, as Longworth says, having a ‘seat at the table’ and ‘being in the room’ is what makes CPTPP worthwhile, then how does that stack up against not being at the table or in the room of the EU? What, concretely, does the former enable the UK to do? And what does the latter preclude it from doing?

Daily life degraded

As I said in my last post, CPTPP isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Schneider-Petsinger is right to see it as having some strategic value - given that Brexit has happened. But this is only damage limitation and, as such, different not only to what Brexiters claim about CPTPP but also to what they promised for Brexit. In fact, as time goes by, it becomes ever clearer that Brexit has done nothing but create new problems for which damage limitation is the best that either the present government or a Labour successor have to offer.

The recent Easter holiday queues at Dover are a good example. The predictable Brexiter insistence that these were nothing to do with Brexit was quickly discredited, largely because of some robust reporting from the BBC and other media outlets, facilitated, perhaps, because Simon Calder, the media’s go-to travel guru, is a respected independent expert who feels no need to pull punches on the causes. But, given Brexit, what are the solutions? One is just to accept that, at least at busy periods, we are stuck with massive queues over and above those that occurred before Brexit. Building extra facilities, something previously rejected by the government, might help, a reminder that both Brexit and the incompetence of its execution are the problem. But the realities of the need to ‘wet-stamp’ passports at facilities where e-gates are not feasible mean that, as has already happened on Eurostar, the ultimate solution is to reduce capacity, meaning less choice and higher prices for customers.

Also recently in the news have been the difficulties faced by travellers from the EU in visiting Britain. These include the fact that these tourists aren’t able, as before Brexit, to simply use their national ID cards, meaning that they either have to go to the expense of getting a passport or choose a different holiday destination. Unsurprisingly, this means numbers have fallen. School and other group trips from the EU face particular disruption, where paperwork problems for just a few members of the travelling party can scupper the journey, problems made all the more likely by the ‘Kafkaesque’ post-Brexit visa system (£). As a result, French schools increasingly favour Ireland as a destination. And there are similar difficulties faced by EU groups coming for commercial or cultural purposes, from touring punk bands to opera singers.

All of these things come with costs, both economic and non-economic. The economic costs are obvious, for example in the loss of tourist income. But, especially in the long-run, the non-economic costs of declining interest in and knowledge about the UK, and its declining reputation as a friendly and welcoming place, are perhaps even more significant (and, indeed, may have knock-on economic costs, too). To some degree they are problems that can be smoothed. There is already talk of simplifying processes for French school trips, for example. But that will take time and will have to be replicated on a country-by-country basis even to get back to something like the pre-Brexit situation. EU travellers could be admitted using their ID cards again, though there is no sign of that. The UK could create an efficient and user-friendly visa scheme, but that seems an even more remote prospect given a Home Office that failed even to provide visas for a visit from a Ukrainian state orchestra (and, thereby, did yet more reputational damage to the UK).

Trade degrading, with worse to come

What is more likely is that each of these things, in itself not disastrous, adds another layer of damage, as things that used to be very easy become very hard. At an aggregate level, that can be seen in the latest calamitous ONS figures for UK goods exports, now established as by far the weakest in the G7 for over two years (£). In fact, the picture for trade in general is bleak*. The ONS’s latest quarterly figures show that exports of both goods and services to both EU and non-EU destinations have fallen. There is not a shred of credibility in blaming this on the pandemic or the Ukraine War, which affects all countries, with the Institute of Directors stating (£), “it is clear that Brexit has had the largest influence”.

What we are now starting to see in these aggregate figures is the effect of all those ‘small stories’, dismissed as anecdotal by Brexiters, of mainly small companies which have struggled with, and in many cases given up on, exporting to the EU. But no less important is the more hidden story of larger companies coping with the new barriers but, as a result, increasing their cost base and becoming less competitive. What has happened, as I anticipated in January 2021 when the transition period ended, is not a process of dealing with ‘teething troubles’ but one of making long-term structural adjustments to the UK’s permanent detriment.

That process is not over. Although already badly affected by post-Brexit customs formalities and other costs, imports from the EU have not yet been subject to full controls in the way that exports to the EU were since the day after the transition period ended. Now, after several delays, that is set to change in what is expected to be a staged process beginning in October 2023 but with the main measures coming into force over the following year. Although billed by the government as a ‘slimmed down’ and ‘risk-based’ border, this will entail new processes and costs, estimated as £420 million a year. It should be added that a risk-based border, whilst cheaper in upfront terms, may turn out to be much more expensive if there turn out to be defects in ‘low risk’ products.

The consequence of import controls will be a mixture of more expensive products or reduced consumer choice, and possibly some import substitution (i.e. domestic production of what were hitherto imported goods), though that, too, has cost implications since it implies production only becoming viable because imports have become more expensive. That these are new costs, entailed solely by Brexit, was admitted by the government when their introduction was postponed.

It is therefore, to say the least, perverse that the government is claiming the (arguably) lower cost of the ‘slimmed down’ controls compared with those it was originally going to create to be a “saving” from “reduced red tape” (£). If post-Brexit visa processes are ‘Kafkaesque’, then that inversion of truth is surely ‘Orwellian’, but here again we can see how what is, at best, damage limitation is now being claimed as a ‘Brexit benefit’. Thus, along with the degradation of terms of trade we see another degradation in political honesty.

A country degraded

It’s always been easier to predict, explain, and measure the economic degradation of Brexit than its geo-political damage, but Joe Biden’s trip to Ireland provided a further illustration of the latter. Agreeing the Windsor Framework headed off the threat that he might not come to the UK for the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but the continuing deadlock over the Assembly was a reminder of the damage Brexit has done. Hence Biden made only a perfunctory stop in Northern Ireland, including a short, awkward and bizarrely low-key coffee meeting with Sunak. That was followed by an extensive, high-profile and markedly warm tour of Ireland during which, whilst addressing Ireland’s parliament in almost extravagantly friendly terms, he urged that the UK “should be working closer with Ireland”.

Brexiters, and the right-wing media in Britain generally, were moved to bitter comment, much of it focussing on Biden personally and some of it saturated with anti-Irish prejudice. But what the visit illustrated had little to do with Biden and much to do with what Brexit has done to the UK’s international relations and standing. The UK-US ‘special relationship’ has long been a polite fiction, apart from intelligence, especially signals intelligence, and, to an extent, defence cooperation. Brexit ended, for good, the UK’s strategic role as a US-EU bridge. And any idea that Trump would offer a new form of UK-US partnership, whether in trade or anything else, was always na├»ve, as it will still be if he comes back for a second term in office.

As for Ireland, Biden is by no means the first US President to place deep importance on his Irish heritage, and certainly not the first to recognize the political importance in the US of the Irish diaspora or the importance of that diaspora to American history and identity. Hence the US was closely involved in the peace process and has a large stake in it, so that it is now pivotal to US-UK post-Brexit relations. Moreover, Ireland is a significant international player in its own right, a significance enhanced by its membership of the EU, as has been shown not least by the Brexit process itself. It is an object lesson in how the sovereignty-sharing enhances rather than, as Brexiters have it, diminishes national power, and one all the more unpalatable for those Brexiters who think “the Irish really should know their place”.

A country degrading itself

So Biden’s Ireland visit and the British reaction to it rammed home the double degradation of Brexit. On the one hand, it showed how the importance of the UK has been degraded. On the other hand, the combination of neediness and nastiness in the reaction was shaming.

In October 2017 I wrote a post entitled ‘Brexit is bringing humiliation to Britain, and there is much more of it to come”, and in September 2018 that “Britain is humiliating itself”. In both cases, the core of the analysis was that this humiliation came from the government’s refusal to accept or acknowledge the realities of what Brexit means. It’s this which links the two senses of degradation: the more persistent the dishonesty and fantasy of Brexit politics, the more the country becomes diminished, poorer, and daily life more difficult.

It is now 2023 and, yes, there are the tiniest glimmers of realism about Brexit, but they are limited, painfully slow in coming, and fought every inch of the way by the Brexit Ultras. Thus Britain’s Brexit degradation continues, and there is no end in sight.

 

 

*A rosier picture is presented in the government’s latest UK Trade in Numbers briefing, released yesterday. It is partly based on the same ONS data I mentioned, so why the discrepancy? One reason is that the briefing highlights annual changes, rather than the monthly and quarterly changes which are what is new in the ONS data. Another seems to be because the briefing states that “figures include non-monetary gold and other precious metals”. However, for its main reporting the ONS excludes non-monetary gold and other precious metals, explaining that such trade “can be large and highly volatile, distorting underlying trends in goods exports and imports”.