Friday 26 January 2024

Evaluating Brexit, honestly

In last week’s post, I discussed the way that Brexit has embedded dishonesty in British politics. That is an easy diagnosis, but the treatment, let alone any cure, is more difficult, and poses challenges for all of us, including those who are opposed to Brexit.

When the transition period ended, I made a point which now has growing salience, namely that it was going to become increasingly difficult to separate out the effects of Brexit from things which might have happened in the same or similar ways anyway. That isn’t so much about the difficulties of counterfactual economic modelling, which can be addressed, at least in a rough and ready way. It’s more about how particular policy areas are affected by Brexit, given that in many or most cases they have become an amalgam of continuity and discontinuity with EU membership. That problem is compounded by the often complex issue of whether and to what extent, within particular areas, UK policy had actually been a result of its EU membership in the first place.

Honesty therefore requires critics of Brexit to be careful in disentangling the impact of Brexit from that of other issues. However, having done so, honesty also demands of Brexiters that they accept how this impact differs from the promises they made.

Import controls

Of course, there are still plenty of cases where there is no difficulty in identifying Brexit as the sole cause, even if the nature of the effects is more complex to unpick. Amongst current high-profile examples is the long-delayed full introduction of controls on imports from the EU, the next main substantive phases of which are due to begin next week. This has led to warnings of “border disruption” (£) next month, and of further delays, shortages and price rises for some fresh produce and plants when the next stage is implemented at the end of April [1]. (However, as I write there seems to be a possibility of a further delay of some aspects, following a very low-key and unclear government announcement this week of changes to risk categories of many fruits and vegetables, but with the implementation of controls for these products now set for the end of October. Initial media and industry reports are confusing, so watch out for clarification in the coming days.)

Regardless of when implementation occurs, it remains to be seen quite how dramatic or visible the effects will actually be, and this will partly depend on whether sufficient customs and veterinary staff have been recruited, with vet shortages, themselves, being another example of Brexit damage. It is certainly likely that, at the least, as happened in the opposite direction, when the EU introduced its import controls on UK goods, smaller firms will struggle most and, in some cases, simply give up on trade. Meanwhile, larger firms may well adapt to the new processes and absorb the extra costs, but with consequences for prices, the extent of product ranges or the availability of products at particular times. This will apply in various ways both to EU firms sending the exports and to the UK firms receiving them.

Equally, further postponement would bring its own damage, or at least danger of damage, in the form of continuing the increased risk of, especially, importing animal or plant diseases. For, as I’ve explained at length before, these risks have been increased by Brexit, rather than simply being unchanged because ‘the goods are still coming from the EU, and we didn’t have these controls before’. The columnist Simon Jenkins this week suggested that their introduction was down to Rishi Sunak trying to be “macho on Brexit” and that a Labour government should “rescind the controls immediately on taking office”. That’s idiotic [2], and replicates the idiocy of those Brexiters who think border controls are optional, rather than a necessary consequence of hard Brexit (and, to the extent that the UK has controls on non-EU imports, are ultimately a requirement of WTO rules).

There seem to be many people, not all of them Brexiters, who still don’t grasp these risks, but the government’s own announcement of the new controls makes it abundantly clear that biosecurity is a large part of what is at stake. Yet, astonishingly, the government also plans (£) to cut funding for border inspectors at Dover by 70% from April, whilst moving most checks to a new inland border check point at Sevington, over 20 miles away. The head of the Dover Port Health Authority has said that these cuts will “increase the threat to GB safety by an order of magnitude”, whilst the Sevington plan “is in effect opening a new door. We’re not taking back control of our border, we’re removing the border control”.

This is all squarely down to Brexit, and a direct falsification of all the promises made or implied that a free trade deal would (or even could) replicate the ‘frictionless trade’ and deliver ‘the exact same benefits’ as membership of the single market and customs union. However, other things which are currently on the Brexit news radar are much more difficult to describe in such unequivocal terms.

Medicine shortages

One example is the shortage of many medicines, especially those used for the treatment of epilepsy and diabetes. This has been widely reported, often with reference to Brexit as one of the causes. Such reports primarily highlight the fall in value of sterling since the referendum, making the cost of imported drugs higher. However, it’s not clear that the shortages are due to lack of affordability so much as to lack of availability and, at least in that sense, it is a global supply chain problem that is also affecting EU countries (though they may be able to protect themselves better through bulk-buying). It’s true that there is a policy to limit the growth of spending on branded drug products, but this was introduced in 2019, when the UK was still in the EU, so that policy isn’t in itself attributable to Brexit, even if it may have bitten harder because of sterling’s depreciation.

It’s also true that a Nuffield Foundation report highlighted possible disruptions to medicine imports because of border controls, but this was in December 2021 and so, although well after the end of the transition period, such import controls had not been introduced and, as just discussed, still have not been. There were also concerns about whether post-Brexit regulatory approvals for new medicines might be slower than as an EU member but, in fact, the government has decided to grant “near automatic approval” for drugs authorized by EU regulators. This, of course, is in itself an indication of the fatuity of the Brexiters’ ideas of regulatory independence, as I discussed in August 2021, when the idea was being mooted, and again in March 2023, when the policy was announced. But, that aside, it does mean that this isn’t an issue as regards the current shortages.

So in this area, it seems that Brexit is only one, and perhaps not the main, source of the problems. However, it certainly hasn’t done anything to help. Moreover, for better or worse, Brexiter promises to speed up the development of new drugs by removing the “absurd” red tape of the EU’s Clinical Trials Directive have, at least for now, come to nothing, except in the sense that rather than update UK legislation in line with the latest 2022 Directive the UK still operates effectively in line with the previous directive. Moreover, whilst the decline in the number of clinical trials undertaken in the UK began before Brexit, its continuation has been attributed in at least some part to Brexit.

Environmental regulation

Another topic currently in the media is that of environmental protections in general, and control of sewage discharges in particular, again frequently reported as linked with Brexit. Compared with the question of medicine shortages, this is an even broader policy area, and therefore even more difficult to assess, still less to generalize about. For example, as regards sewage, specifically, a recent policy briefing from the Institute for European Environmental Policy UK (IEEP UK), a respected and well-established sustainability think tank,  points out that “there is no divergence (yet) between UK and EU Law relating to sewage discharges”. And, on the other hand, even when it was in the EU the UK was sometimes in breach of EU regulations, suggesting that recent discharge scandals are not simply caused by Brexit [3].

However, more generally, It seems clear that there are several examples of actual or proposed divergence from EU standards, including passive divergence, none of which would have happened but for Brexit.  Whether each and every one of them is also retrograde is beyond my ability to assess, but I don’t think it can automatically be assumed that they are. For example, whilst the relaxation of EU rules on gene editing/ genetic modification, with the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, 2023, is strongly opposed by some campaigners, others see it as a positive development, and it is even possible that the EU will move in a similar direction as part of a drive towards ‘sustainable’ agriculture. (Again this issue was discussed in more detail in a previous post, in February 2022, when the policy was still being developed.)

Nevertheless, looking at the overall picture, a summary report released this week by IIEP UK, whilst recognizing that some areas of divergence are “technical and complex in nature and difficult to assess”, shows “increasing incidences of divergence, some of which threaten to be consequential in their impact”, especially given anticipated changes to EU regulation in 2024. The report also identifies some areas where the UK has “flirted” with not just divergence but regression, including air pollution policy, and areas like chemicals and pesticides where the UK has been slower and less stringent in regulatory change than the EU. So, at the very least, we are a long way from the ‘green Brexit’ that Michael Gove promised in 2017 and 2018.

Steel job losses

The issue of the failed promises of Brexiters is also central to one of this week’s biggest news stories, the announcement of major job losses at the Tata steel plant in Port Talbot. Again this is a complicated story, which, despite some claims, doesn’t come down to being a consequence of Brexit or being nothing to do with Brexit. In the mix are the long-term decline of the British steel industry; the extent to which, whilst in the EU, the UK both did and  did not make full use of state aid and other support provisions which as a member it could have done; the extent to which the UK has greater scope for state aid since Brexit, given the Level Playing Field provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and the ways in which since Brexit it has both used state aid and not done so; the impact of not being within the EU-US steel tariff deal; the impact of the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM); and the impact of net-zero policies.

I’ve spent hours this week trawling though media and specialist reports, and I honestly can’t disentangle, or even see how it would be possible to disentangle, these and other issues so as to ascribe what is happening to Brexit, though that certainly doesn’t mean it can be completely separated from Brexit. But what I think can unequivocally be said is that Brexit has not in any way helped the steel industry, and this is where the failed promises made by Brexiters come in.

For instance, in 2016 Nigel Farage said that a vote to remain would mean the end of British steel industry – not quite the same as saying Brexit would save it, but certainly implying that – and Boris Johnson urged steelworkers, specifically, to vote leave, citing “EU rules” preventing cutting “steel energy costs” as the reason. Meanwhile, Michael Gove, speaking directly to a Port Talbot steel worker, again at least implied that post-Brexit state aid freedoms would benefit the industry. And the prospect of such freedoms was certainly central to the Lexiters’ case, something which, even though ostensibly pro-remain, Jeremy Corbyn agreed with, albeit that neither they nor he understood the subject.

I still have a vivid memory of seeing a TV vox pop conducted before, or possibly shortly after, the referendum with a voter in, I think, South Yorkshire. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a record of it, but the interviewee talked about how, before joining the EEC, the area had been dominated by steel and coal industries, and so leaving the EU would bring them back. The reason I remember it is because of the huge anger I felt realizing that decent people like this were being despicably conned, and that even as they held these unrealistic, but perfectly understandable and even noble, hopes, as early as 2012 Brexiters like Patrick Minford were glibly referring to the decline of coal and steel as a desirable template for post-Brexit manufacturing industry generally [4].

Evaluating Brexit

On all of the topics discussed in this post – import controls, medicines, environmental protection, and steel – there is much more that could be said than space allows here. For that matter, those with greater knowledge than me, or who have dug deeper into the details than I have, could undoubtedly identify all sorts of other Brexit connections. It is in the nature of Brexit that it threw so many spanners into the highly complex mechanisms under the legal and economic bonnet of the UK that identifying all its direct and indirect effects is all but impossible, and certainly impossible for any one individual. It’s this, along with the problem of disentangling what is and isn’t a Brexit effect, which makes evaluating it so difficult.

Some may think that such attempts at being fair-minded are misguided, not least because Brexiters have lied so much and continue to do so. Why not just say Brexit has made a mess of everything, and leave it at that? After all, there is a certain poetic justice in doing so when Brexiters spent years ascribing every ill to EU membership. Even so, I think there are good reasons to strive for fairness and accuracy, for two reasons.

The most general one is that the Brexit dishonesty that I discussed in last week’s post isn’t negated, but exacerbated, if it is replicated by anti-Brexiters. Secondly, there is a tactical reason. It becomes very easy for Brexiters to dismiss all the damage they have caused if their opponents make false or exaggerated claims about it. If they can genuinely show that some of these claims are false, it becomes easier for them dismiss those which are true. It also enables them to link post-Brexit criticism to their all too potent pre-Brexit ‘Project Fear’ accusation and, although much of that accusation was false, it’s true that the way that George Osborne, in particular, represented the pre-referendum short-term Treasury forecast gave them unnecessary ammunition. At all events, for me, personally, it is central to writing this blog to make it is as honest and accurate as I can [5].

All of which brings me back to my opening point, and the theme of this post. In some ways, the battle for the post-Brexit narrative that began at the end of the transition period has been lost by Brexiters, as opinion polls attest. But it is a battle which is far from over and, as time goes by, it will change in its nature, as the effects of Brexit become harder to disentangle from other factors. The Brexiters will try to exploit that, to deny or obscure its damage, but that is best countered by working even harder to establish and communicate the reality of what is happening.

Hand-in-hand with that is the need to keep hammering home the more fundamental point that Brexit was not supposed to lead to an endless debate about how bad it has been. It was not supposed to need justification by poring over statistics to declare that, by some dubious measure over some cherry-picked dates, it hasn’t been a disaster. It was promised as something which would make Britain unequivocally and self-evidently better. From that perspective, it’s nothing short of sickening to read how, in 2016, Daniel Hannan described what Britain would be like in 2025 if people voted for Brexit. It’s no good Brexiters constantly (and, actually, inaccurately) saying that ‘this was the biggest democratic exercise in British history’ and then expecting us to forget all those promises.

So in evaluating Brexit, the real test is whether it has delivered these promises – promises of specific, concrete, often economic, benefits, and not simply ‘sovereignty’ as an abstract ideal; promises sold using grotesque emotional manipulation, and made with no suggestion that they would take decades to transpire, or would have any downsides at all.

It is a test which Brexit has already failed, and looks set to go on failing.



[1] Politically, it is of note that the Labour Party are amongst those voicing these warnings. It is a further indication that, at least, they are serious in intending to seek an SPS agreement with the EU and, unless they are not serious about what would be needed to significantly reduce the border disruption, that implies a ‘dynamic alignment’ agreement as the EU Ambassador to the UK highlighted just this week (Labour are still ambiguous about this, as I’ve discussed in detail previously).

[2] Admittedly, Jenkins also advocates seeking to join the single market and to create a customs treaty with the EU, which would allow border controls to be dropped, but that does not justify his argument that they should, or could, be dispensed with immediately.

[3] However, there was a specific, albeit temporary, issue in 2021 about the relaxation of sewage treatment rules because of shortages of chemicals associated with post-Brexit shortages of lorry drivers.

[4] This doesn’t, however, mean that what is happening to Port Talbot now represents Brexit Britain following the path set out for it by Minford. He was advocating the complete, unilateral, removal of Britain’s tariffs (and, no doubt, though I don’t think he said it here, all state aid), so as to let manufacturing industry sink or swim. That has not happened.

[5] For those who may be interested, I have written an expanded explanation of this point which was originally going to be part of this post but for reasons of length and focus I have posted it separately.

Friday 19 January 2024

Brexit has embedded dishonesty in British politics

There has been relatively little Brexit news over the last week or so, and perhaps the most significant was Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s high-profile Mansion House speech, in which he said “it is now obvious that Brexit isn’t working”. Drawing on research undertaken by Cambridge Econometrics, Khan stated that the UK economy as a whole is £140 billion, or 6%, smaller than it would have been without Brexit, of which £30 billion was foregone growth in London. According to the same research, by 2035, the value of goods and services produced in London will be 7.5% lower than it would have been without Brexit, and 10.1% lower for the UK as a whole, whilst investment for the UK will be a staggering 32.4% lower than it would have been.

The speech was significant for two reasons. The first is political. Khan just about stayed within the parameters of current Labour policy by calling for a “closer relationship” with the EU, but in suggesting the need for a “more honest and mature discussion” about the negative impact, and about the benefits of rejoining the single market, he strayed further beyond it than any other senior Labour politician. That won’t have any immediate impact – the politics of remain-supporting London are different from those facing Labour nationally – and Starmer’s current stance is arguably (in my view) defensible and unarguably here to stay for the foreseeable future*. But it is slender candle in the wind, which might kindle a greater flame in the future.

The second significance is the Cambridge Econometrics study itself. Inevitably, Brexiters were quick to try to rubbish it, such as in a ‘Briefings for Britain’ article (curiously, written in the first person but credited to Briefings for Britain collectively, so we’ll never be able to assess the author’s credentials). But the fact remains that there are now at least four major counterfactual estimates, from the CER, the NIESR, the OBR and, now, Cambridge Econometrics which all show that Brexit has been damaging, albeit with a range from GDP (or in the latter case GVA) being 4% lower than it would have been to 10% lower by 2035. Each comes from a credible source, each is independent, each uses a different modelling or calculating technique, and all show a negative impact. Yet, mysteriously, all of them are wrong according to the that small group of avowedly pro-Brexit economists who, as I’ve discussed before, persist in ignoring the counterfactual question in favour of various largely bogus comparisons with the EU, or the Eurozone, or individual EU countries.

Brexiter sophistry

It is especially hard to take this group seriously when one of its most active members tweets approvingly things like this week’s Express report of a “Brexit victory” because a West Midlands firm has won some new export orders. Good news, no doubt, but there’s nothing to suggest it has anything to do with Brexit. To the extent that such empty puff-pieces have any meaning at all, it is that they grow out of one of the most disingenuous rhetorical strategies of the Brexiters. One of the ways they dismissed warnings of the damage Brexit would do as ‘Project Fear’ was to create a flawed reductio ad absurdum, so that, say, warnings of reduced investment or reduced trade with the EU were rendered as claims that all investment or all trade with the EU would cease; or claims about the EU as a peace project were rendered as claims that leaving the EU would cause World War Three to break out.

Hence, now, as with the Express report of a new investment and export contract, any piece of good news can be misrepresented as discrediting the mispresented false claim that Brexit would mean no new investment or export contract. It is doubly dishonest since it also posits as the test of Brexit not whether it has had the positive effect that Brexiters promised, but whether it has not had a negative effect.

Similar sophistry greets the release of any and every report about Brexit. Thus, this week a report in the Telegraph (£), of all places, highlighted the impact of Brexit in eroding the global standing of the London stock market. Within it, quite reasonably and correctly, there was discussion of the way that Brexit is not the only factor. But, immediately, that got taken up by pro-Brexit social media accounts to show that claims it was all down to Brexit were false, even though no such claims had been made. And, again, all the Brexiter reaction was about attempts to downplay any Brexit damage rather than to argue that, in fact, Brexit had benefitted the stock market, as if the Brexiters had sold their project with the promise ‘it won’t be too bad’.

Brexiter failure to take responsibility

This failure to take responsibility for their failed project is now endemic. The latest trade figures show that the percentage of UK trade done with the EU is now higher than before the referendum, at about 53.3%. Cue for many to declare that this showed Project Fear disproven and Brexit justified once again (see, for example, many of the responses to this Tweet). But it means nothing of the sort. The explanation is that growth in trade with non-EU countries has been weaker than with the EU. This is the exact opposite of the central Brexiter proposition about trade, which is that the EU has a declining share of world economic growth and so, ‘unshackled from the corpse’ of the ‘EU protectionist racket’, the UK would re-orientate towards the fast-growing areas of the world.

That this has failed to materialize isn’t because the UK has not (or not yet) developed many major new free trade agreements, for example with the US or India. We shouldn’t by the way, let the Brexiters off the hook by saying ‘not yet’, given that David Davis, when Brexit Secretary, claimed “it will be possible to secure bilateral trade deals with the rest of the world that are larger than the value of the EU single market within two years”. But, timing aside, such deals just don’t, and can’t, make a massive difference: CPTPP membership is expected to lead to a 0.04% increase in GDP over 15 years, the Australia and New Zealand deals together 0.1%, and a deal with the US perhaps 0.16%.

In fact, the reason the Brexiter proposition has failed to materialize is because it was always a fallacy, for multiple reasons. Global economic development in previous decades has of course meant that in percentage terms the EU accounts for a declining share of world economic activity, but that doesn’t mean it is declining in absolute terms. Nor do fast growth rates in other countries mean that, even if their international trade grows at the same rate, the absolute value of increased trade with the UK necessarily grows very much (i.e. because it starts from a small base). And, in any case, whilst being in the EU assists trade with the rest of the EU, it does not preclude trading outside the EU.

Meanwhile, the basic observation of ‘trade gravity’ – that geographical proximity is a major weighting factor on where trade occurs, something denied by the Brexiter idea of ‘post-geography trading world’ – remains well-evidenced (this also makes Brexiter glee about the poor economic performance of e.g. Germany misplaced: whether in the EU or not it is bad news for the UK if its trading partners are in trouble). Indeed, that is borne out by these latest figures.

In fact, it looks likely that the impact of the pandemic, Ukraine and, now, attacks on shipping in the Red Sea are leading to a general trend to shorten supply chains and, therefore, to make regional economic relationships more important. The Brexiters can’t be blamed for not anticipating those events, but they can be blamed for making a major strategic error in not appreciating the economic and geo-political significance of regionalization. For that is not the wisdom of hindsight: it is exactly what I spelt out in detail in a post of January 2019 – before we left the EU, before the pandemic, before the Ukraine war, before the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping. It’s not, as the Brexiters have it, that these kinds of events, rather than Brexit, are what have caused all our recent economic woes. It is that, on the one hand, unlike other countries, the UK has added Brexit to the list of negatives and, on the other hand, that such events illustrate the fundamental strategic flaw within Brexit.

It's worth saying that, assuming the UK starts to introduce full import controls on EU goods at the end of this month, we will see a new iteration of all these debates. Firstly, one consequence is likely to be that the figure of 53.3% for the share of UK trade done with the EU will fall a bit. That is because – to spell it out once again – increasing trade frictions will tend to make trade growth lower than it otherwise would have been. However, it won’t mean that the Brexiter ‘post-geography’ thesis is becoming vindicated. It will just mean that the relative gap between the rates of UK-EU and UK-ROW trade growth will have shifted. Secondly, using the same old trick as they did with Covid and Ukraine, we can expect the Brexiters to use the impact of the Houthi attacks to explain away the impact of import controls.

Brexiter lack of contrition

Of course, trade wasn’t the only way that Brexit was supposed to be beneficial. Domestically, it was supposed to see a re-balancing of the UK economy away from London, and away from financial services, both in itself and as the spur to the ‘levelling-up’ agenda. That was partly predicated on the anti-London sentiment that continues to define populist politics, but it was also a recognition of legitimate grievances about regional inequality and about the consequences of decisions, many taken by the Thatcher governments, to prioritise services, and especially financial services, as the key to future national prosperity. This re-balancing was supposed to mean that, whilst financial services would benefit from Brexit by being freed from EU bureaucracy, other sectors would benefit even more.

From that point of view, Brexit has also been an abject failure. The Cambridge Econometrics report was, understandably given its context, reported mainly in terms of what Brexit means for London. But, in the process, it revealed that, whilst damaged by Brexit, London is proportionately less damaged than the rest of the country, thus actually exacerbating capital-regional inequalities. That is mainly because, indeed, London has a more services-intensive economy, and international trade in services has been less affected than goods trade by Brexit.

So although, as the Telegraph report, and another this week, from recruiters Morgan McKinley estimating that there are 79% fewer newly open jobs in banking in London since the referendum, suggest that financial services have been damaged (and there’s plenty of other evidence to support this), this isn’t offset by any benefit for other sectors which, on the contrary, are as badly or even worse affected. Again it’s the opposite of what Brexiters promised. Again, the Brexiters were warned of this. And, again, it’s no defence for them to say that some of the warnings were for even worse outcomes than have so far transpired.

This also applies to non-economic issues and, of these, perhaps none more so than Northern Ireland and the politics of the peace process. Here, the warnings were clear, and made by senior politicians with direct and deep experience, most obviously John Major and Tony Blair, but they were shrugged off dismissively by Brexiters, including DUP Brexiters who called the warnings irresponsible scaremongering. Exactly how Brexit was going to play out for Northern Ireland couldn’t be said with certainty until the exact form Brexit took was known (and, to an extent, it still can’t be said with certainty). But that it would be de-stabilizing in some way or another was inevitable, if only because the fact that both Ireland and the UK were members of the EU enabled a crucial de-dramatization or blurring of issues of identity, identification, and allegiance.

As things have turned out, what it has meant in particular is the creation of an economic border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with all that means, at least symbolically, for the unionist community. That Brexit, and hard Brexit at that, was and is supported by unionist political leaders doesn’t negate that. And all communities of Northern Ireland are severely affected by the ongoing collapse of the power-sharing institutions and its consequences, of which this week’s mass public sector strike is one of the most serious examples.

For none of this is there the tiniest sign of contrition from any leading Brexiter, or even any admission of responsibility. On the contrary, their only response is to talk of Brexit having been ‘botched’, ‘betrayed’, or ‘not done properly’, even in those cases where they actually voted – as MPs or MEPs – for precisely the form of Brexit that we have.

The wreck of the Brexit government

Alongside all this lies the now hideous spectacle of the Tory government tearing itself apart, on clear display this week in its battle over whether to pass the disgusting and stupid Rwanda Bill in Rishi Sunak’s preferred form, or whether to add some even more disgusting and stupid clauses. At stake, here, is the bigger battle of the ‘Five Families’ or ‘Brexitists’ to slough off the last, moth-eaten, remnants of ‘traditional’ Conservatism. Or, to put it another way, the battle between those who would prefer to think, or at least prefer others to think, that they are not ‘the nasty party’ with those who are more than happy to be just that, and perhaps even think it a badge of honour.

That battle for the meaning of ‘real conservatism’ is, as I’ve argued many times before, inseparable from Brexit and, indeed, those castigating the party for not being ‘real conservatives’ are a perfect overlap with those who decry Brexit for not being ‘real Brexit’, just as there are parallels between Sunak’s plight now and Theresa May’s. I had thought that this battle would not be fully fought until after a general election loss, but it seems as if some within the ‘Five Families’ may be too impatient to wait, or perhaps that, as they pitched it this week (£), the impending loss of the election is what motivates them.

If so, it seems unlikely that they will be satisfied with anything Sunak may do in policy terms – fundamentally, they don’t think he is a real Conservative or a real Brexiter – and yet some, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg (£), seem to have recognized that ditching yet another leader before the election would be too ludicrous to contemplate. Certainly the tide went out on the Rwanda Bill rebellion, with only eleven Tory MPs – dubbed the ‘New Spartans’ by oddball ex-MEP David Bannerman – voting against the government. One rather amusing side-story was the beaching Lee ‘prolier than thou’ Anderson, who resigned as Deputy Chairman so as to be free to rebel, but then pulled out of voting against the government because some Labour MPs laughed at him (and perhaps because he could see how few were going to join him). The Brexitists aren’t yet ready, or able, to go in for the kill.

However, others, like Andrea ‘up yours’ Jenkyns, clearly think otherwise, and it can’t altogether be discounted that a new leader, calling a snap election, might not be able to snatch an unlikely victory. For one thing, there is a kind of febrile desperation in the air in Britain today, so that, faced with a choice between the uninspiringly cautious Keir Starmer and some novel, perhaps charismatic, Tory candidate, the electorate might just opt for the latter. For another thing, it wouldn’t be the first time such sudden surges in popularity have happened – remember Cleggmania? Quite who this charismatic Tory might be, I don’t know, but, after all, such things are in the eye of the beholder. Of course, it is equally possible that the Brexitists just don’t care about electability, and, as with political extremists of all sorts, ‘purity’ matters to them more than power. In a sense, we must hope that is true.

Crippled by dishonesty

If there is a guiding theme in this week’s post, it is how mired in dishonesty British politics has become. As with Britain’s economic problems, that dishonesty isn’t solely the result of Brexit but Brexit created a tipping point, embedding dishonesty to an extent from which it seems almost impossible to recover. Yesterday’s rebuke to the government from the UK Statistics Authority for its misleading use of asylum figures is just the latest example, along with the now almost routine ‘context additions’ (aka factual discredits) placed on posts on X from Sunak, or other government ministers, or government departments, or the Conservative Party. The lies and, at best, half-truths, just pour out daily.

This makes Sadiq Khan’s call for honesty both remarkable and marginal. We can’t, collectively, talk honestly about the most fundamental change made to our country’s entire economic and geo-political strategy. Indeed, we can scarcely talk about it at all. That can be blamed on the timidity of politicians, especially Labour politicians like Starmer who opposed Brexit, and surely know, quite as well as any of us, how damaging Brexit is yet are not able to say so openly. But, more fundamentally, it is the fault of the Brexiters, in both politics and the media, who have made honest discussion so difficult and toxic as to be impossible.

In doing that, they have ironically undermined Brexit itself. A habitual taunt aimed at ‘remainers’ is that they don’t trust their own country to run itself. But running our own affairs must mean, at a minimum, that the reality of those affairs can be openly and honestly discussed. Yet, with Britain having become, in their terms, an independent country, the Brexiters have created a situation where such discussion is impossible. I think the idea that EU membership means the EU running our country was and is utterly fatuous, but, looking at the terms under which the Brexiters have ensured we ‘run ourselves’ since leaving, it might be better if it did.


*I don’t think that point is affected by Rachel Reeves’ mention of the negative impact of Brexit this week which, although of note, seemed more aimed at the political chaos around the UK’s departure from the EU rather than at Brexit itself.

Update (23/01.24 at 10.54): Since writing this post, the article on the Briefings for Brexit website criticising Sadiq Khan and the Cambridge Econometrics study, which originally did not identify its author, has now done so. It is Robert Colville.

Friday 12 January 2024

The scandal of the settlement scheme for EU citizens

This week’s domestic news has been dominated by the Horizon Post Office scandal, following the screening of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office. There are some Brexit aspects to that which I will write about in my column in next month’s print edition of Byline Times, so I won’t repeat them here. However, the massive public outrage that has followed the drama ought to alert us to the scandals going on right now. It is all well and good to feel shock and revulsion about what happened to the sub-postmasters, but, aside from their campaign group and a handful of journalists and politicians, who gave much thought to their plight over the twenty and more years that it was unfolding?

It’s not that what was happening during that period was completely unreported, but it was perhaps easy not to pay too much attention because it seemed too complicated, or someone else’s business, or something that would all be sorted out and need not concern us unduly. And perhaps there is a harsher diagnosis here: it’s easy enough to join in with the baying crowd of condemnation now that there is such a crowd, but rather more difficult to do so when the cause was unfashionable and the outcome had to be fought for.

The ITV Post Office drama was aired on the first four days of the new year. But it was book-ended by three reports by Lisa O’Carroll in the Guardian which received far less attention. They all concerned issues arising for EU citizens who had been living in the UK before Brexit, and the government’s EU settlement scheme (EUSS), and they point to another scandal emerging under our noses but with little of the public outcry that the Post Office scandal has now provoked.

The emerging EUSS scandal

One of these reports, on 26 December, highlighted the case of ‘Silvana’, an Italian who has lived in the UK for fourteen years and faces removal from the country because she had not realized that her ‘permanent residency’ card is now insufficient, and that she needs to apply to the EUSS. However, that scheme has now closed and although it still accepts late applications on ‘reasonable grounds’, a change of rules in August removed lack of awareness of the scheme from the list of such grounds. A couple of days before, O’Carroll had reported another case, that of Massimo, an Italian restaurant owner, and his British wife, Dee, have had their bank accounts frozen because he, too, had thought his permanent residence card was still valid.

Then, on 7 January, O’Carroll reported that ‘Maria’, a Spanish woman resident in the UK, had been forcibly returned to Spain when trying to re-enter Britain after a short visit to her home country. She had documents, specifically a Certificate of Application for the EUSS, which clearly stated her right to live and work in the UK, but had not yet had a final decision on her application, in that her case was still under review following an appeal against an initial rejection. The border officials said this document was not valid, detained her overnight at Luton airport and then sent her back to Spain.

The details of each of these cases is different, and each has its own complexities, but they are not isolated. According to the3million, the main campaign group for EU citizens living in the UK, at least 140,000 people are in Maria’s situation of having Certificates of Application, but awaiting the outcome. More generally, there are an unknown number of people who have, or may, have fallen foul of the post-Brexit settlement scheme, whether because of their own confusion about it, or because of erroneous advice from officials or lawyers. As with the Windrush scandal, it may be many years before the full impact of this comes to light.

Nor is the issue just one which affects those who have not applied for, or not yet been granted, ‘settled status’. Even those who have received it can experience difficulties when they have to prove it, for example in order to get work, rent a home, open a bank account, or access the NHS. This was the case for ‘Agnieszka’, a Polish woman who has lived in the UK for sixteen years and has settled status, who found that when she tried to change her job there were errors on the government’s online ‘View and Prove’ system, and as a result she lost the position. It took the Home Office three months to correct the error.

This case illustrates one of the biggest travesties of the EUSS, the government’s refusal, despite repeated requests and legal challenges, to create a paper version of proof of settled status. The digital-only system is not only complex even when it works as intended, but has also been subject to what appear to be numerous bugs and/or hacks in which crucial data has been lost or changed.

The origins of the scandal

It’s worth delving back into the origins of all this. Of all those whose lives have been damaged by Brexit, EU citizens who were living in the UK, most of whom were not even entitled to vote in the referendum, along with UK citizens living in the EU, some of whom could not vote, have surely been the worst and most directly affected. There are many dimensions to that, starting with the emotional hurt of a vote which was to so large an extent animated by hostility to freedom of movement and immigration generally. That hurt was especially profound because so many of those affected had such deep, longstanding, roots, both private and professional, in the UK.

Then there was the psychological and economic insecurity created as the Brexit negotiations proceeded, captured by the painful testimony of the In Limbo books edited by Elena Remigi and others. Now, even with settled status, there has been a definitive loss of previous full rights of freedom of movement, and all the ongoing practical problems attendant to that loss for families and relationships. So there is a sense in which all this is scandalous in itself, even before the various issues of human, administrative, legal, and technical error which, collectively, constitute the specific scandal of EUSS.

From the outset, the EU insisted that there were three main priority areas which had to be substantially resolved in phase one of the Article 50 negotiations. These were the financial settlement, the situation of Northern Ireland, and Citizens’ rights. Perhaps surprisingly, and despite the bluster of Brexiters, including Boris Johnson, the first of these proved relatively straightforward, to the extent that the ongoing payments being made to the EU, and which will continue until 2065, are barely remarked upon now. There was not even much attention to the way that one consequence of Truss’s disastrous mini-budget was to add £91 million to the bill.

The Northern Ireland issue, despite a different kind of Brexiter bluster, to the effect that it was a non-issue, turned out to be far more complex, vexed, and intractable. Indeed, the reality is that, although this was supposed to be resolved in phase 1, it never disappeared during phase 2 (the future terms discussion), and its supposed resolution with the Northern Ireland Protocol proved chimerical once the transition period ended. Hence the Windsor Framework, which is only now starting to be implemented. All that has been discussed many times on this blog, and I won’t say more here.

What, to my discredit, I’ve discussed less often is the third of the phase one issues, Citizens’ rights. In fact, the most extensive coverage of it here was in the sole guest-authored post, written by Monique Hawkins (now Interim Co-CEO of the3million) in December 2018. That post contains many points that are still relevant. These include the fiasco of the original ‘permanent residence’ scheme and highly prescient concerns about the then emergent EUSS scheme, concerns which relate to all of the individual cases mentioned above, including the problems of a digital-only certification system.

For all these reasons, Alexandra Bulat, another campaigner in this area, and who is now the first British-Romanian Labour County Councillor, argued in February 2018 that public perception that Citizens’ rights had effectively been dealt with during phase one was mistaken. Five years on, and with the EUSS in place and giving rise to cases including, but certainly not limited, to those recently reported in the Guardian, it is now becoming clear that this is not just a scandal in the making but a scandal in progress. That is not just a matter of the EUSS itself, but also the extremely heavy-handed policing of the borders. Thus, last year, the Immigration Advice Service, again partly as the result of Guardian reporting, highlighted the high rate of EU nationals being detained at the border, including cases such as a Spanish woman arriving for a job interview without a visa even though that is something perfectly permissible under the regulations.

Parallels between the Post Office and EUSS scandals

There are some clear and direct parallels between this scandal and the Post Office, most obviously in the role of technology, where the flaws in the Horizon system can be compared with those in the EUSS View and Prove system. They also share an inversion of normal justice, in the way that the onus falls on the victims to prove their innocence in the face of an assumption that they are guilty. In a less direct way, there are parallels in the way that individuals are confronted with a massive and powerful bureaucracy, and a bureaucracy which not only applies its rules with impersonal indifference but, sometimes, does not even apply its own rules correctly.

Moreover, although EU citizens’ rights are overseen by the Independent Monitoring Authority (IMA), which is formally an “executive non-departmental public body sponsored by the Ministry of Justice”, it would seem that, as with the Post Office case, the effectiveness of political and public accountability is limited. That’s not to dismiss some of the good work the IMA has done, including winning a court case against the Home Office in 2022 on one aspect of EUSS’s functioning. Yet, on another aspect, where it investigated the effectiveness of the issuing of Certificates of Application for EUSS, making three recommendations for improvement, the Home Office, in its response of September 2023, was able simply to dismiss two of the three, apparently with impunity.

In a sense, people like Hawkins and Bulat (and others associated with the3million and similar organizations) can be compared to the very early campaigners in the Post Office scandal, and O’Carroll with the journalists who first began to report it. Some politicians, too, including Green MP Caroline Lucas, have taken an active interest in it, just as a few did in the Post Office case. But what the Post Office scandal should tell us is that it is now, when the damage is being done, that public outrage and outcry is most needed, as it is only that which galvanizes effective political action.

Where are the Brexiters?

It's true that for most of us there may be little we can do other than, say, write letter to our MPs, or make a donation to a campaign group or a crowdfunded legal action. But what of those with a public platform who have now so opportunistically started singing the praises of Mr Bates and the other sub-postmasters? What about Nigel Farage? Now, he is quite ludicrously* castigating Keir Starmer for having been Director of Public Prosecutions when the postmasters were being prosecuted and, of course, he made much of his ‘victimization’ when de-banked by Coutts. Surely, then, he should be leading the outcry, if only for those like Massimo who have been de-banked by Brexit?

And what of David Maddox, Political Editor of the rabidly pro-Brexit Express, who this week penned possibly the most dotty commentary on the Post Office scandal so far, opining that: “the real big picture story here is that this was once again an example of the establishment circling in to protect and reward itself while dumping from a great height on the little ordinary people – aka the decent hard-working folk who keep this country ticking over. This is one of the main reasons why millions of Brits, some of whom had never voted before, rose up and voted Leave in 2016 to leave another pan-European, rigged establishment club”? We await Maddox’s fulminations on behalf of the “little ordinary people” and “decent hard-working folk” being ‘dumped on’ by the EUSS.

What of thuggish Lee Anderson, one of those intent on making Ed Davey the villain of the Post Office scandal (a proposal which, along with other aspects of the current situation, was eviscerated by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop in a blistering TV appearance)? What, for that matter, of those Vote Leave campaigners who insisted that little or nothing would change for EU citizens in the UK and for UK citizens in the EU (£), dismissing all concerns as part of Project Fear, and often – with the habitual Brexiter proclivity to cite legal factoids which they didn’t understand – erroneously invoking the Vienna Convention as proof of this?

Why it matters

The need to recognize and resolve the emerging scandal of the treatment of EU citizens in the UK is, first and foremost, a moral imperative. But it also has a pragmatic and political aspect, and one which should be as important to those who want to ‘make the best of Brexit’ as to those who want to reverse Brexit altogether. The reason why the EU insisted that Citizens’ rights must be dealt with in phase one was because protecting those rights was very high on its list of priorities – higher, perhaps, than protection of UK citizens’ rights was to the British government.

It remains the case that the EU and individual member states are very much concerned about this. For example, in February 2023 (£) the EU raised serious concerns about the Home Office’s sudden rejection of over 140,000 on-line applications for settled status, with an EU diplomat reported as re-iterating that “protection of EU citizens’ rights is a priority for us”. Similarly, as early as May 2021 the European Commission expressed “concern” in relation to unwarranted detentions of EU citizens at UK borders.

So if there is to be a return to good relations with the EU, let alone an atmosphere in which a UK application to re-join the EU or even the single market would be viewed positively, then a pre-requisite would surely be fair treatment of EU citizens. One of the many ways in which Brexiters failed to show generosity in their victory was to treat these EU citizens so carelessly, effectively exposing them to the whole panoply of the ‘hostile environment policy’ the Home Office has created. For that, and for Brexit itself, they bear responsibility and deserve blame. But, whilst acknowledging that, I think that the Post Office scandal provides more uncomfortable and perhaps unpalatable lessons.

Uncomfortable lessons

Following the ITV drama, public revulsion at what was done to the sub-postmasters has, understandably, focused especially on Paula Vennells, the former CEO of the Post Office. In the face of that revulsion, she has since capitulated to the widespread demand to return the CBE she was awarded, and now faces pressure to return bonuses she was paid. Few will feel much sympathy for her.

Yet it doesn’t necessarily require sympathy to notice that the way she has been pilloried, including extensive reference to the gap between her conduct as CEO and her position in the Anglican Church, is itself not so very different to the way that some of the sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted were turned on by their communities at the time it was believed those convictions were warranted. That didn’t always happen, and in some cases their communities gave huge support to them, but sometimes they were insulted and even assaulted, as were their families. And, just as Vennells is depicted as a hypocrite because of her religious beliefs, so they were depicted as having betrayed community trust.

Vennells may well have been incompetent, dishonest, and, for all I know, malign, and I’m certainly not defending her. But making her the main scapegoat for the entire scandal, or at least the lightning rod for public anger, neglects the systemic nature of that scandal. To call it systemic means much more than just identifying a larger cast of scapegoats in the multiple actors in the Post Office, Fujitsu who created the Horizon system, and parts of the government. It also means recognizing the role of habitual practices around things including outsourcing, political oversight of ‘arm’s length’ agencies such as the Post Office, and the conduct of private prosecutions. Less comfortably, it includes the role of those who disdained the victims as criminals and those, comprising almost all of us, who didn’t give very much care or attention to what was happening, at least until we saw it depicted on TV.

How do these lessons apply to Brexit?

So what of the emerging EUSS scandal and of Brexit more generally? Just as I’ve argued in the past that it is useful to imagine how the UK would have regarded another country had it been leaving the EU, so is it instructive to think about how the UK looks from abroad. Whereas, internally, we may see a crucial distinction between leavers and remainers, from outside it is simply the case that the British people chose to leave. After all, few of us are familiar with the intricacies of other countries’ politics – mostly, we just notice the headline fact that, say, ‘the Italians’ have elected Meloni, or that ‘the Australians’ have voted against the indigenous voice change to their constitution. Brexit is seen a similar terms from outside as, no doubt, is Britain’s treatment of EU citizens.

At some point, especially if there is to be any serious possibility of re-joining, that has to be confronted. It’s not enough to indignantly say it was ‘Russian interference’, or an accident of Tory Party (mis)management, or dishonest campaigning using data analytics to malign ends, or manipulation by Tufton Street thinktanks, or, even, that it was all the fault of the Brexiters. Whether or not those things are true doesn’t adequately acknowledge that, as a collective entity, our country chose to leave, and so it’s like saying some version of ‘it was Vennells’ fault’ in relation to the Post Office scandal. In other words, it fails to acknowledge that, in ways that are far too numerous to discuss here, Brexit was a systemic decision born of the history of the UK’s membership of the EU, our public discourse, especially about immigration, and the nature of our political culture and institutions, all of which ultimately paved the way to the headline fact that Britain voted to leave.

If Brexit is ever to be reversed then it may well need at least some high-profile Brexiters to recant and, rather like Vennells returning her CBE, to give some acknowledgement of their misconduct and failure. But, more importantly, it will require a repudiation of the systemic factors that lay behind Brexit. That will take many years, if it happens at all, but in the meantime a small step in that direction would be to start making a noise right now about the unfolding EUSS scandal. It will not be enough to wait until when, in, say, 2044, there is a TV drama about all the lives ruined, and joining the angry crowd demanding justice becomes easy and even, in a perverse way, enjoyable.

*Ludicrously, as the vast majority of these 900+ prosecutions were private, not public, and of those which were not it seems only three occurred when Starmer was Director of Public Prosecutions, and it seems unlikely he is culpable for them.

Friday 5 January 2024

The Brexit self-punishment machine

It’s tempting to ignore the government’s announcement, made in the doldrums between Christmas and the New Year, that it is to become legal to sell wine and champagne in pint bottles. It seems such a silly piece of fluff designed either to trigger remainer jeers or leaver cheers, and so it’s better not to rise to the bait. Yet on closer inspection it has more significance than that.

It certainly wasn’t ignored as fluff by Business Minister Kevin Hollinrake, who was moved to tweet that “this will help support businesses and grow the economy”, whilst the Mail celebrated it as an example of “post-Brexit freedoms” from what the Sun called the “Brussels killjoys”. For this reason alone, it’s worth discussing as an antidote to the still active, albeit increasingly risible, Brexit lie factory.

Myths about myths … built on myths

As with most Brexit stories, there is much which is obscure and convoluted, starting with whether pints of champagne were ever on sale and if so when. Without exception, every news report of this made mention of Churchill having supposedly favoured champagne pints, as if they rank with the Spitfire, or Vera Lynn singing of the white cliffs of Dover, in the endless mythologization of the Second World War that so pervades and deforms Brexity folklore. That Churchill did so was confirmed by a 2018 BBC interview with Hubert de Billy, the head of the Pol Roger company that supplied it. But it does not follow that the practice was widespread, and in that interview (which also features Brexit dunderhead ‘Sir’ Tim Martin getting all moist about Churchill), de Billy also explains that this bottle size was already dying out from the 1940s.

Meanwhile, Simon Berry, Chairman of Berry Bros and Rudd wine importers, a keen Brexiter who has campaigned for the re-introduction of champagne pints, mentions that the Conservative politician and diplomat Duff Cooper was bemoaning its demise as early as the First World War, and Berry’s own campaign started in the 1970s. At all events, it is unclear whether pints were ever available on the shelves of British shops, as opposed to direct supply, and, however supplied, it seems as if they had disappeared well before Britain joined the EU. So the whole idea of this being some fabled British tradition killed off by Brussels is a myth.

The government’s announcement implicitly acknowledged this, with the press release being titled “’Pints’ of wine stocked on Britain’s shelves for the first time ever” (emphasis added), making it clear that it is not the restoration of a pre-EU ‘freedom’ but a novelty. That press release title contains another implication, in its use of speech marks around the word ‘pints’, for, as the text of the release makes clear, what will be permitted are 568 ml bottles – in other words, a metric measure (the other new provisions are that both still and sparkling wine can be sold in 200 ml and 500 ml containers, whereas, currently, still wine cannot be sold in 200 ml and sparkling wine cannot be sold in 500 ml).

So, not only is this not a return to previous customs, it isn’t an end to even a single case of the use of metric measurements. It may well be that these 568 ml bottles – if they are ever produced, which I’ll return to – will also say on them ‘one imperial pint’, but this just opens the door to more myths.

Although the idea of champagne pints as a Brexit benefit has never been widespread – the Berry interview from August 2016, referenced above, is the first mention of it I can find – that of the restoration of imperial units of measurement has a much longer and deeper significance going back to the 2002 ‘Metric Martyrs’ prosecutions, to the extent that these are seen by some as the ultimate origin of Brexit. One myth in play here is that metrication was something imposed on the UK by the EU, whereas in fact it was a process which had begun long before joining, and the Metric Martyrs case arose within a confused mélange of EU and domestic law. A second myth 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 more prominently (it was for refusing to do this that the ‘Metric Martyrs’ were prosecuted and, in some cases, convicted). In this sense, the fact that 568 ml bottles of champagne will be permitted to also be marked as imperial pints represents no change at all.

The will of the people

Building on these myths, ever since the referendum the idea of restoring imperial units of measurement has regularly been dangled in front of leave voters, almost half of whom supported it according to a 2017 opinion poll*. It featured in Iain Duncan Smith’s TIGGR review in May 2021 and again in the government’s January 2022 ‘Benefits of Brexit’ report. Then, to coincide with the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, Boris Johnson announced that there would be a public consultation exercise on the matter, enthusiastically overseen by Jacob Rees-Mogg, holder of the now defunct post of Minister for Brexit Opportunities. It’s of note that even some of those who reacted to that announcement with enthusiasm were confused about what was at stake, with one market trader appearing to think it was to do with the use of decimal currency.

The consultation was launched in June 2022 and concluded in August 2022, and the results were supposed to have been announced in November 2022. However, little was then heard about it until now when, in fact, the substance of what was announced in the ‘pints of wine’ press release was the outcome of that consultation. It was presumably headlined in that way so as to distract attention from the embarrassment of what that outcome consisted of, and this probably also explains the obscure timing of the announcement. For, as anyone might have known without going to the wasted expense – the kind of waste which Rees-Mogg, who at the time was also the Minister for ‘government efficiency’, himself so often castigated – it reveals that the public regard the idea as a complete dud.

Thus, despite using a survey design widely criticized as flawed and  biased towards garnering support for the use of imperial units, of the over 100,000 responses to the consultation 98.7% were in favour of continuing to use metric measurements, whilst an utterly miserable 0.4% favoured returning to imperial units only. As a result, even this government has finally realized the game is up, and although the unteachable Rees-Mogg continues to moan (£) that this is an example of “government of the bureaucrat, by the bureaucrat, for the bureaucrat”, it is rather more obviously a case where ‘the will of the people’ is abundantly clear. Indeed, what would Rees-Mogg have the bureaucrats do? Impose imperial measures on a population almost unanimously opposed to them?

Others were more ebullient, none more than the ever-peculiar Mail columnist Peter Hitchens who rejoiced at this “blow against the metric commissars”, apparently not grasping that the only thing that has been achieved is to allow bottles of a distinctly metric 568 ml. In calling for an official pardon for the original Metric Martyr, Steve Thoburn, Hitchens also seems to have missed the fundamental point, that nothing about metrication has actually changed. Former Brexit Minister and ERG hardliner David Jones was equally easily gulled, welcoming the champagne pint but calling on the government to “go the whole hog and allow people the freedom to use imperial measures if they wish” as if the horse he is still flogging had not now been definitively pronounced as dead by this announcement.

Taking everything together, then, this is a dismally instructive story, enfolding generalized myths about the second world war and specific myths about champagne bottles, metrication, and the supposed outlawing of imperial units, stirred in with the faux-victimhood of martyrdom. Layered on this are the silly Brexit boosterism of Boris Johnson and the laboured antiquarianism of Jacob Rees-Mogg, all topped off with the disingenuity of the manner in which the whole stupid episode has finally been laid to rest. Even treated as no more than a symbol of Brexit, that makes it revealing. But there is more to it than that.

The power of size and the size of power

When Hollinrake was challenged on X-Twitter about his claim that wine pints would help businesses and economic growth he rowed back slightly, saying that “No-one is claiming this is some kind of economic game changer, just one of many incremental improvements across the business landscape that add up to £bns of benefits” and linking, presumably in support of this claim, an article from The Drinks Business, although, in fact, the article suggests that  champagne and sparkling wine producers have no plans to produce pint bottles.

That was published in February 2022, so it could be argued that the latest announcement will spur a change, but it is unlikely to be extensive. Non-UK producers have little incentive to take on the extra costs of producing pint bottles, since they will probably only be sellable in the UK (or, possibly, though I am not sure, only in Great Britain). It’s true that the UK is quite a large market – for champagne, specifically, it is the sixth largest importer by volume in the world, though, even within the EU, the Netherlands imports more – but it’s unlikely that it can be much expanded by a pint product. Perhaps some will think this worthwhile – Pol Roger, with the ‘Churchill’ association, might find it viable to produce a niche, super-premium product, and there may be others. Equally, some UK producers might create a pint product for the domestic market, though the early indications are that they will not.

In short, for the most part, wine producers in both the UK and elsewhere will continue to conform to the established global norm, including the US, of the 75cl (750 ml) bottle. It is worth reflecting on why this is the norm. Hitchens’ article actually touches on it when he notes that it is “because that is the size of bottle most people like. And — because we in Britain have always been such good customers for European wine — it is based on an old English wine measure, of roughly a pint and a third, known amusingly as . . . a 'Bottle'.” This explanation is partly based, as with some other examples in the article, on the idea that ye olde Englishe measurements are somehow ‘natural’, and so “what most people like”. But the more substantive point is the allusion to the historic importance of the British market.

Specifically, according to almost all sources, at a time when most wine was consumed in its country of origin, the main export market for French producers, especially those of Bordeaux, was Britain. The wine was shipped in barrels and, since the British measured in gallons and the French in litres, in the nineteenth century the practice emerged whereby barrels of 50 gallons or 225 litres were used, thus yielding 300 bottles of 75 cl each (clearly this is compatible with Hitchens’ account, as there are eight pints in a gallon, yielding six bottles of a pint and third, although I can find no other reference to such bottles being a traditional English measure). This 75 cl bottle size eventually became a European, and later a global, norm.

That was then, but this is now

So this is a story about the market power of Britain when it was the wealthiest country in the world and (probably) the biggest importer of wine. It could, effectively, set the standard even of a product it scarcely produced itself. This is no longer true, and, in endless different versions, that fact lies at the heart of almost everything which is happening to regulation in post-Brexit Britain. Britain has, in theory, ‘taken back control’ of the laws and regulations that govern it. In practice, it has virtually no power to do so without imposing exorbitant costs upon its already ailing economy. There may be the odd exception but generally, as Joel Reland of UK in a Changing Europe has explained, “non-divergence [from the EU] is the new consensus in British politics”.

That in itself might be enough to show the fatuity of Brexit. All that effort and expense, and the outcome is not just to stay aligned with the EU but to actually lose all control over its decisions. But the reality is worse than that. For if ‘staying aligned’ demolishes the central argument made for Brexit by its advocates, it still does relatively little to allay the costs of Brexit: Britain is aligned with single market rules, which is certainly less costly than diverging, but does not get most of the benefit of that in terms of single market membership.

What makes the single market function as such is not just shared standards but a shared system of registering, certifying, and enforcing those standards so as to remove the regulatory borders between the countries who are members of that market. Aligning standards is a necessary condition for accessing the single market, and avoids the costs of producing to dual standards, but it is not sufficient to enjoy the benefits of single market membership which entail what Michel Barnier frequently described as the EU’s “common ecosystem of rules, supervision and enforcement mechanisms”.

It is an issue which is about come to the fore again when the UK finally begins to implement full import controls on goods coming from the EU at the end of this month (unless there is a sixth delay in doing so). Why bother, if the standards are the same? Because it’s not just about the standards, it’s about the systems for ensuring and demonstrating those standards are met (it’s exactly the same issue, in reverse, which explains why the ‘Not for EU’ labelling now appearing in the UK doesn’t tell us anything about the standards to which the products so marked are made). Outside of the single market, that means border controls in some form, even if not literally ‘at the border’, which means costs and, potentially, delays.

Betwixt and between alignment and divergence

However (although, really, it is another aspect of the same basic issue) the situation of post-Brexit Britain is worse still than that of largely maintaining alignment with single market standards whilst not reaping the benefits of single market membership. What has actually been created is a situation of complete confusion because, whilst remaining largely aligned, the UK is no longer in lock-step with the EU (except for goods in Northern Ireland). It’s not just that in some relatively minor ways the UK has chosen to diverge from the EU, it is that EU regulations themselves are constantly changing, but with no UK commitment to track them (or to be bound by any disputes arising from them) or any process to do so, or even the state capacity to create such a process.

One consequence of this is that much of the burden of compliance falls on individual firms and their trade associations, which must try to keep abreast of EU changes and to comply with them. Because these changes are ongoing, it means that, as William Bain, Head of Trade Policy at the British Chambers of Commerce explained recently, it is a burden that is growing rather than being “a static mechanism” of one-off adjustment to Brexit. Stephen Phipson, CEO of MAKE UK, has a similar message: “we don’t have the regulatory capacity to keep up: it’s not intentional but we’re lagging behind”. That same report shows how the government does not even have a consistent or logical approach, so that, having dropped the general requirement on UK firms to adopt the UKCA mark rather than continuing to use CE, the construction sector is still supposed to do so by 2025. Perhaps, even probably, that, too, will end up being dropped but, for now, businesses in the sector are obliged to continue to prepare for it.

The same basic problem of having to align with the EU, for economic reasons, whilst having refused, for political reasons, to be in lockstep, is evident in the emerging situation with the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) and the associated issue of the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). It is a complicated story, but in very brief the UK is set to create its own CBAM on similar lines to that of the EU. The UK can’t just ignore the EU because, despite having left it is directly affected by what the EU does. In this case, for example, a consequence of ignoring EU CBAM might be to end up having high-carbon steel from China dumped on the UK market.

However because the UK is not in lockstep, UK CBAM will come into force later (creating a ‘window’ for dumping) and, as things stand, without linking the UK CBAM and ETS and EU CBAM and ETS. Such linkage is something which might, in fact, be achievable via the existing Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and it is probably something that the next government, especially if it is a Labour government, will do. But even if so, the point holds: extra costs, uncertainties and complexities are incurred to no conceivable benefit or advantage, and with an outcome which in substantive terms is defined by the EU rather than the UK.


Compared with these things, the champagne pint announcement may seem trivial. It will most likely be almost entirely ignored. But it is illustrative of a far bigger issue. It arises from a wholly nonsensical and imaginary idea of sovereignty, itself predicated on a nineteenth century view of Britain and the world. This creates a self-punishment machine where we pay a massive price to have a freedom to diverge which in most cases is too costly to exercise, like someone spending a fortune on a new car and then finding that, as they had been warned, there are no roads to drive it on.

It is easy to get lost in the detailed weeds of all this, and also to be distracted by the endless gaslighting from Brexiters, but the reality is straightforward, and the public are all too well aware of it: there is nothing that Brexit makes easier, cheaper or more pleasant. And it’s going to get worse, not better.


*The survey question asked itself confuses the issue, since it asked whether “selling goods in pounds and ounces” should be “brought back”, as if doing so had been outlawed.

Update (05/01/24: 08.50): to add extra piquancy to the mythological nature of Churchill’s ‘pints of champagne’, I’ve been alerted by David Scott to a report that these bottles were in fact 600 ml, rather than a 568 ml pint, and very rarely produced.

Update (06/01/24: 11.30): In the post I state that I was not sure whether the pint bottles of wine and champagne would be sellable across the UK, or possibly only in Great Britain. I was implying, obviously, that I was not sure whether the Northern Ireland Protocol might mean that they would not be sellable in Northern Ireland. However, John Campbell, the BBC’s Northern Ireland Business and Economics Editor, has responded, clarifying that they would be sellable in Northern Ireland, and that they would be eligible to use the ‘green lane, under the Windsor Framework.