Friday 19 April 2024

Gibraltar, and reviewing the Brexit 'bill of goods'

Last Friday saw a potentially significant piece of Brexit news with the joint statement of the first meeting in its current format of political leaders from the UK, EU, Spain and Gibraltar, which reported that “significant progress” had been made towards achieving an agreement about the post-Brexit arrangements for Gibraltar. This was followed by widespread media reports that such an agreement was very close, and “within kissing distance” in the words of Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo.

An agreement about Gibraltar was described in the Financial Times (£) as “the last big unresolved problem of Brexit”. That is slightly misleading in the sense that Brexit is, and will remain, an ongoing process, giving rise to ongoing problems, and even to ongoing negotiations, if only because of the joint governance structures that exist in relation to various part of the Withdrawal Agreement and Trade and Cooperation Agreement. But it is true in the narrow, yet important, sense that it marks the end of the negotiations which began in 2017 between the UK and the EU about the institutional form of Brexit.

As such it is a good time to take stock of the Gibraltar strand of Brexit and how that intertwines with the Brexit saga and, ultimately, to the extent that it does represent a certain kind of completion, a good time to take stock of Brexit itself.

Gibraltar and Brexit

Gibraltar’s situation is complex. As a British Overseas Territory it is not part of the United Kingdom but is a part of the UK’s sovereign territory, a sovereignty long-disputed by Spain since having conceded it in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. In recent years Spain has sought various models of joint sovereignty over what the UN currently characterizes as a non-self-governing territory. However, Gibraltar has twice, in 1967 and 2002, held referendums showing massive 99% majorities for remaining as UK sovereign territory. Yet in the Brexit referendum, opinion was completely different to that of the UK itself, with 96% support for remaining within the EU. This situation, along with the military significance of ‘the Rock’, its border and economic entanglement with Spain, and its role as a tax haven, means that Brexit posed a particular conundrum.

Even before the referendum, the status of Gibraltar was a fraught issue in UK-Spanish relations, so it is actually quite surprising that negotiations over its post-Brexit situation have dragged on rather quietly for so long, especially given that it gave rise to the first flashpoint in the Article 50 process. 

To briefly summarise that row, immediately after the UK gave notice under Article 50 at the end of March 2017, the EU Council produced its draft negotiation guidelines, which included a paragraph to the effect that no agreement on the EU’s future relationship with the UK would apply to Gibraltar without the agreement of Spain. Quite what that meant at that time was slightly obscure, since there were different understandings in play as to whether the future relationship would require unanimous agreement of all EU members (which would include Spain anyway), and for that matter different understandings of how the future relationship would be negotiated (at that stage, the UK was still pushing for it to be done in parallel with the Article 50 talks).

However, one thing it very clearly meant, even if only symbolically, was that the EU regarded Spain as having some kind of special status as regards Gibraltar and, whilst that might be taken to be no more than a recognition that it was the only country apart from Ireland where there was a land border with the UK territory, it also seemed to recognize, if not to uphold, Spain’s claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar. Certainly that was how it was taken by Brexiters, and it unleashed a torrent of jingoistic nonsense, to the extent that some even speculated about going to war with Spain over the issue.

This episode happened almost exactly seven years ago, and many may have forgotten it, but it is worth recalling now, not just because a Gibraltar deal is finally in the offing, but because even at the time it foreshadowed some more general lessons, which I identified in my post of 2 April 2017, the consequences of which are still playing out.

The lessons of Gibraltar

Lesson #1: The negotiating process

One lesson was, indeed, about the issue of the sequencing of exit and future terms negotiations, and the fact that the EU was clearly not going to accept the UK’s suggestion, in Theresa May’s Article 50 letter, that these be conducted in parallel. The roots of this actually went back much further. Before the referendum, the Vote Leave campaign had promised: “Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop - we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave.” This was always nonsense in terms of the Article 50 process – the only legal leaving process that existed – and an hour before the referendum result was officially confirmed the European Council had already circulated an advisory note to EU members reiterating this.*

In one way, that lesson was fairly quickly learned. Having threatened that it would be the ‘row of the summer’ of 2017, when the time came, shortly after May’s disastrous 2017 election, Brexit Secretary David Davis immediately capitulated to ‘sequencing’.  Yet in other ways the lesson went unheeded in that, throughout the negotiations, UK politicians and the media frequently confused or conflated exit and future terms, and Boris Johnson deliberately did so in the 2019 election, when he proposed his ‘oven-ready deal’ as something which would ‘get Brexit done’ when it was, in fact, only the exit deal.

Ever since then, many of the Brexit Ultra MPs have persisted in the belief that the Northern Ireland Protocol part of that deal was somehow temporary, contingent on the terms of the future trade deal (on the most charitable interpretation, this rests on a confusion between Johnson’s ‘front stop’ Protocol and May’s ‘backstop’, but even that degree of charity entails that those MPs were lamentably incompetent). More generally, even now, Brexiters represent the acceptance of sequencing as the first failure of May to ‘play hardball’ with the EU, and hence it is a foundational component of their explanation of why Brexit hasn’t been done ‘properly’.

It’s a myth which will not die, and was trotted out yet again this week by Liz Truss (as she seeks to drum up sales for a political memoir variously described by reviewers as “self-serving” and “ludicrous”, “shamelessly unrepentant, petulant … and cliché-ridden”, and “weird”). I suspect it will be years, if not decades, before this myth finally disappears from British politics.

Lesson #2: The meaning of a union

The second lesson of the April 2017 Gibraltar row was that whilst the EU would negotiate as a bloc, and in the interests of the bloc, it would do so with particular regard for the interests of those members most directly affected by Brexit, such as Spain, Cyprus (in relation to UK military bases) and, perhaps most of all, Ireland. This again exposed the hollowness, if not downright ignorance, of the Brexiters’ pre-referendum position, most notoriously articulated by David Davis when he asserted in May 2016 that “the first calling point of the UK’s negotiator in the time immediately after Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike the deal: absolute access for German cars and industrial goods, in exchange for a sensible deal on everything else. Similar deals would be reached with other key EU nations.”

It was an especially idiotic idea given that one of the Brexiters’ own objections to the EU was that it did not allow its members to make their own trade deals, and such nonsense was quickly exposed as such. However, it never quite died and, throughout the negotiations, the UK frequently used – whatever the Ultras may say – “hard tactics” to try to pressurise individual states or even regions into breaking the EU’s unity, as recorded by a key member of the EU’s negotiating team, Stefaan de Rynck, in his book Inside the Deal (p.61).

That these failed reflects, as the early Gibraltar row portended, the care which the EU took, and will continue to take, over protecting the specific interests of its member states, including small ones like Ireland (compare this with Davis’s airy reference to “key” EU nations). As such, it also served as a reminder of the ways that sovereign power is magnified, rather than extinguished, by EU membership. The contrast with the carelessness, bordering on disdain, with which the London government treated the interests of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, in a sense, Gibraltar itself, was a marked one. There is still no sign that Brexiters or the British government have learnt any aspect of this second lesson.

Lesson #3: The complexity of Brexit

The third of the lessons identified in my post about the 2017 Gibraltar episode was that, even leaving aside the nature of the exit process, it was an early example of the huge number of complex problems which Brexiters had poured scorn on during the referendum, but which the UK was now going to have to face up to. For although it was certainly not a major campaign issue, the possible implications of Brexit for Gibraltar had been pointed out.

In particular, in May 2016 the then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond had said: “I genuinely believe that the threat of leaving the European Union is as big a threat to Gibraltar's future security and Gibraltar's future sovereignty as the more traditional threats that we routinely talk about.” The reaction from Brexiters was furious, with Liam Fox enraged that the possibility should even have been mentioned, saying “I think there are limits to what you can and cannot say in any campaign that goes way beyond acceptable limits” (sic). All this had been reported in the Daily Express under an inevitable headline about ‘Project Fear’ yet, just a few months on, and there was actually talk, admittedly ludicrous, of going to war to defend sovereignty over Gibraltar.

As the months and years have gone by, just about everything which the Brexiters said would be simple, quick, and easy has been shown to be complex, slow, and difficult. It’s true that there have been exceptions. Rolling over EU trade deals proved less difficult than many, including me, thought, and so has the creation of a Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the EU, following exit from Euratom. That’s not to say that either of these things has been beneficial, but they haven’t presented the intractable problems associated with, say, the search for ‘frictionless trade’, or a solution to the Northern Ireland Trilemma.

However, the general picture is that almost everything, from fishing quotas to residency rights, has thrown up massively more complexity than the Brexiters had admitted, or even understood, before the referendum. And this remains the case. Just this week, Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch spoke of the increased trade barriers with the EU as being something done by the EU to the UK rather than something chosen by the UK. Then came yesterday's truly ludicrous news of yet another delay in the introduction of import controls on goods coming from the EU (more on this in future posts, no doubt).

Gibraltar in limbo

As regards Gibraltar itself, after the initial flare-up in 2017 its post-Brexit future became detached from the main Brexit negotiations and effectively ‘parked’, following an agreement in November of 2018 as part of the attempt to get May’s ill-fated Withdrawal Agreement off the ground, and it was not covered by the eventual trade agreement, simply leaving the single market at the end of the transition period (it had never been part of the customs union).

Since then, the territory has been “in limbo”, operating under the terms of a series of Memoranda of Understanding created in 2018, and then a temporary agreement made in December 2020 which also set the path for negotiations for a UK-EU treaty. This has enabled Gibraltar to be a party to the Schengen agreement, allowing an open land border with Spain, and for Spain to be involved in policing its port and airport – these, along with regulatory alignment, being amongst the most disputed issues in the negotiations.

However, this does not mean that these temporary arrangements have run smoothly. For example, in April 2022 several British citizens were refused entry into Spain from Gibraltar because they did not have documentation showing onward travel or evidence of being able to financially support themselves in Spain. Brexiters expressed outrage, apparently unable to understand that they are not alone in wanting to secure borders from potentially illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, after some fractious pre-negotiation, negotiations for a formal treaty began in October 2021, since when there have been seventeen rounds of talks. As discussed in relation to other policy areas in one of my recent posts, the churn of Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries since then may have been one barrier to progress. It is of note that the conduct of the negotiations gave rise to one of the allegations of bullying against one of these Foreign Secretaries, Dominic Raab, which led to his subsequent resignation as Deputy Prime Minister. That allegation arose because a senior civil servant had supposedly jeopardised UK sovereignty over Gibraltar, emphasising how this concept has continued to lie at the heart of the negotiations.  

There were rumours of a deal in December 2022 and again in November 2023, so it is possible that nothing will come of the latest announcement. However, there is now a clearer sense that there has been political agreement, perhaps a result of David Cameron becoming Foreign Secretary, and that the outstanding issues are of a technical nature. It seems likely that any agreement that is reached will entail Schengen area passport checks being undertaken at Gibraltar’s port and airport by EU Frontex staff (rather than Spanish border staff), accompanied by an agreement to keep the Spanish-Gibraltar land border open without checks, and some form of joint UK-Spanish management of the airport (which has a particular sensitivity as it is also an RAF base), as well as full regulatory alignment.

These possibilities have already attracted the ire of Brexiters such as Bill Cash and Andrew Rosindell, and dark mutterings of “the EU taking Gibraltar by stealth” in the Telegraph, but how much actual opposition they would put up to an agreement is unclear. Very likely, as with the Windsor Framework, the power, and perhaps even the interest, of the ERG will be shown to be much reduced.

Crucially, as with the Northern Ireland situation, and in a different way with the import controls situation, the Brexiters have no answer to the fundamental conundrum, which is of their own making: they have created the need for a border but don't want to create a border. More generally, their naïve idea of untrammeled sovereignty has again been exposed to the realities of power and found wanting. But if they are not able to prevent a deal, nor are they able to understand why a deal has been done. The warships will not sail, and Gibraltar will become yet another grievance of Brexit betrayal.

The Brexit bill of goods

As Brexit issues go, Gibraltar has received less attention in the UK, at least, than it should have done (I include myself in that criticism) although, of course, there are good reasons why Northern Ireland, to take the most obvious, somewhat comparable, issue, has received so much more. Yet it is a revealing one, not least as a reminder of the quite casual, careless way in which the Brexiters tossed the lives of so many people into disarray, uncertainty, or even crisis.

It is also an example of the way that the entirety of the Brexit process is a still unfolding lesson in the realities of what Brexit means, as compared with what Brexiters claimed it would mean, a lesson which is only very slowly and painfully being learned as Brexit continues its relentless degradation of national life. Just in the last week there have been more instalments, from news of medicine shortages to news of restaurant staff shortages to news of garden centres having to stockpile goods, whilst the latest import controls delay continues to expose us to increased risks of disease and sub-standard products. But although the lesson is by no means over yet, there comes a moment at which it is reasonable to set a test, and that surely cannot wait for the 25, 50 or even 100 years that, since though not before the referendum, some Brexiters have suggested need to pass to assess their project. Nor can the test of success be, as most Brexiters these days seem to imagine, whether it has been less damaging than the worst predictions made for it. Brexit was, after all, sold as a positive project.

In an interview the other day, the actor Michael Douglas remarked, apparently in passing, that Britain was “sold a bill of goods” (meaning something passed off in a deception or fraud) and that “they should take the old political speeches that were made [before the referendum] … they should remind people of what they were promised”. It’s such an obvious point, and yet one rarely made in British political discourse. People should indeed be reminded of what David Davis promised in the article I referred to earlier. Or of what Daniel Hannan promised. Or of what Vote Leave’s slick, shamelessly manipulative video promised Brexit would mean for the NHS.

This isn’t about picking around in the entrails of long-past events. It is about promises made to the British people less than a decade ago, and made by people many of whom are still active in political life. Moreover, many of those people are now, like Hannan, using the same tricks to urge us towards an equally ruinous Brexit 2.0 of ECHR derogation to, as he put it this week (£), “finish the work of Brexit”, whilst others are now seeking a referendum on immigration.

We live in a time when almost every controversial decision or event is made subject to an independent inquiry. None of them relates to anything of the magnitude of Brexit, which surely warrants such an inquiry. If a Gibraltar deal is about to be done, and the long years of literal Brexit negotiation are finally ended, that would be the ideal time. It won’t happen, of course, but here’s a thought: if, as David Lammy said this week, the coming Labour government will be committed to ‘progressive realism’ in foreign policy, including relations with the EU, then what better place to start than a realistic assessment of whether Brexit has lived up to the promises made for it?



*There are two different issues nested within this. One is about the EU successfully insisting that there could be ‘no negotiation without notification’ (i.e. without triggering Article 50). The other is about whether any discussion of future trade terms could be undertaken prior to the completion of the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. On the latter, whilst refusing the UK’s attempt to undertake the two sets of talks in parallel, the EU somewhat softened its position to the extent of agreeing that the talks within the Article 50 period could encompass two sequenced phases, the first broadly agreeing exit terms and, subject to ‘satisfactory progress’ on these, a second that would finalise the exit terms whilst also discussing preliminary future terms. Phase one was ostensibly completed with the agreement of December 2017 but, for reasons far too long to be summarised here, phase 2 discussions about future terms never really happened (for details, see just about every post on this blog for the two years after that date, or chapters 2-5 of my book Brexit Unfolded).

Friday 12 April 2024

Britain's Brexit drift

It’s fair to say that Brexit has ceased to provide much in the way of drama. To use a cricketing analogy (and they are always the best ones), it is as if Brexit’s Bazball days have given way to the cricket of an earlier era, so that what we are now seeing is akin to Geoff Boycott (who, it’s relevant to say in this context, is both a keen Brexiter and Theresa May’s childhood hero) grinding out a painfully slow innings on a dead wicket. Such play as there is gets constantly interrupted by rain. The crowd got bored long ago, and are huddled down under macs and umbrellas. The captain, though as keen an enthusiast for cricket as for Brexit, has no strategy, no leadership skills, is despised by half the team, and will surely be replaced when the inevitable defeat arrives. Meanwhile, dreary, be-blazered bores chunter on about Lord’s being the home of a game that long since found its centre on the other side of the world.

And so we drift on.

Import controls and the common user charge

Probably the biggest piece of Brexit-related news over the Easter holiday was the government’s announcement of the ‘common user charge’ to be levied on imports of animal and plant products from the EU. This is the latest aspect of the much-delayed introduction of post-Brexit import controls, the next phase of which become operational at the end of this month. These in turn are part of the economic border with the EU which Brexiters swore would not be necessary because there would be some miraculous deal which ensured ‘frictionless trade’ without participating in the institutions which ensure frictionless trade.

The common use charge will add £29 to a consignment of an individual product line, so where a consignment contains more than one product line the charge will be multiplied by that number, up to a cap of five, making the maximum charge £145. This maximum is likely to be reached on many consignments because the kinds of products involved, many of which have short lives, are typically shipped in small quantities within a bulk assignment. However, it shouldn’t be thought that these are the only costs Brexit has added to importing from the EU. In some cases there may be health certificates to be paid for, in others duty or VAT to be paid. In all cases there will be the administrative costs of ensuring compliance.

The impact of all these costs will be very similar to what happened when the EU introduced controls in the other direction (i.e. British exports to the EU), on time, when the transition period ended. That is, small firms (£), trading smaller volumes of goods, with tighter margins, and perhaps no experience of international trade other than with the EU, will struggle the most and many will cease to trade at all. A study by Allianz Trade released this week suggests that the first year of these latest changes will add 10% to the costs of importing the products affected. Larger firms will be more able to ‘absorb’ these costs, but doing so doesn’t make them disappear, it just means they manifest themselves in other ways, including higher prices. It is one of the many ironies of Brexit that, before the referendum, we were told that it was decadent, globalist ‘big Business’ that opposed leaving the EU but that plucky British entrepreneurs couldn’t wait to be rid of ‘Brussels’ red tape’.

The common user charge only applies to goods coming through the Port of Dover or the Eurotunnel at Folkestone, and will be used, according to the government’s obtuse rhetoric, “to recover the costs of operating our world-class border facilities where essential biosecurity checks will protect our food supply, farmers and environment against costly disease outbreaks entering the UK through the short straits.” At least this statement clarifies one thing, which is that these checks do actually serve a purpose. It’s a point I’ve made repeatedly on this blog, but one which Brexiters like Jacob Rees-Mogg never understood, and fails to understand even now.

Food security and farming

At the same time, by confirming the purpose of checks, the government has tacitly admitted that its failure over the last three-plus years to operate full import controls has put the public at risk, which ought to be a scandal. And that scandal will not be ended once the controls are in place. The decision to use Sevington, 22 miles from Dover, as the main site for sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) checks, means that, far from being ‘world-class’, the border will have a “gaping hole”, according to the head of the Port of Dover Health Authority, risking “illegal, unfit, dangerous, and diseased” products entering the country. Meanwhile, the Chief Executive of the Cold Chain Federation has said that it is becoming evident that the new Border Target Operating Model (to give the new “world-class border” its official name) is “broken” before it has even been fully implemented.

The lack, or inadequacy, of import controls is one of several Brexit-related complaints from British farmers which have led to recent protests, including a tractor go-slow outside parliament. Other complaints include the impact of the one-sided trade deals the UK made with Australia and New Zealand, and the ongoing failure to create a viable replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). As with other instances of Brexit damage, Brexiters are keen to point to what is happening in other countries, in this case meaning farmers’ protests in the EU and elsewhere. And, as usual, this misses the point which is that whilst all sorts of countries, including this one, have such problems, it is only this country which has added Brexit to them.

In fact, agriculture, and the replacement for CAP in particular, serves as a case study not just of the damage of Brexit but of how Brexit has overloaded what in my last post I called Britain’s ailing state. Despite CAP having been a cause celebre for Brexiters for decades, policy since leaving the EU has been characterised by endless changes of direction and no coherent or consistent strategy, in part because of ministerial churn. The consequence, as Jill Rutter of the UK in a Changing Europe puts it in her review of this saga, is that “the people whose livelihoods depend on Defra decision-making are crying out for some stability in its ministerial team to allow them to plan long-term.”

The "death" of the London stock market  

There was a time when farmers, like fishermen, another of the Brexiters’ supposed causes, believed that they would be ‘sold out’ by the government in its trade negotiations with the EU in order to protect access for financial services. In fact, although both groups do indeed feel they were sold out by Brexit, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) had little coverage of financial services. Instead, there have been several one-sided equivalence agreements, where the UK has granted EU firms access to UK markets, and one major EU-granted equivalence agreement for UK-based derivatives clearing houses. A Memorandum of Understanding regarding financial services regulatory cooperation was signed last year, reflecting the thaw in UK-EU relations following agreement of the Windsor Framework, but there is little chance of it yielding any substantive changes, at least until after the next election.

In any case, Britain’s post-Brexit financial services policy is hardly any more clearly defined than its agricultural policy and, in both cases, the political instability and incompetence unleashed by Brexit have taken their toll. A particular casualty has been the decline of the London stock market. As always, there are many factors in play, but even the Telegraph has identified (£) Brexit as the “prime suspect in the death of the stock market” and the referendum as a decisive moment in the City’s “brutal losing streak”. That losing streak saw a record fall last year in the number of companies listed on the London market, and it has been reported this week that Shell may move its listing to New York. If it does so, it will be following several others, although it would be the most high-profile and damaging case.

In his latest Substack newsletter, the respected economics commentator Simon Nixon pulls no punches in describing what is happening to the London stock market as “one of the biggest issues facing Britain today”, and a “national disaster that is unfolding”, having ripple effects into numerous professions and, hence, into the businesses that service them. And whilst many may care little for the fate of City fat cats, the impact on tax revenues and public services affects all of us. Nixon is equally clear about why it is happening. Rather as with the failures Rutter identifies around CAP, Nixon says that “this is above all a verdict on the political chaos and uncertainty that has arisen in Britain since Brexit.”

It is an important diagnosis because it points to the complexity of what is going on (and which is also important for other sectors). One aspect is purely economic. Brexiters, Nixon says “failed to recognise the extent to which [the stock market’s] pre-eminence had ceased to hinge on British exceptionalism but on the anchoring of the British economy in a deep single market of 450 million people.” The other is the elusive but undeniable factor of ‘investor sentiment’ and, although Nixon doesn’t say this, or not in these terms, that cannot really be separated from international perceptions of post-Brexit Britain in a more general sense than that of particular policies; or, rather, that Brexit is the ‘meta-policy’ which defines those perceptions.

Brexit: structural change with no strategy

One acute, albeit almost unbearably depressing, account of that was provided recently by Sam Knight in a long essay in The New Yorker. One of its key sentences notes that “overnight, and against the will of its leaders, the country abandoned its economic model—as the Anglo-Saxon gateway to the world’s largest trading bloc—and replaced it with nothing at all.” It’s a damning but entirely accurate verdict, which doesn’t just apply to the economy, and even arch-Brexiters like Sherelle Jacobs are beginning to recognize it (£). True, she ascribes this to Britain being too cowardly to use its Brexit freedoms, rather than accepting these are illusory, but her conclusion, that we might as well re-join the EU as be effectively within its orbit but outside the security it provides, is an interesting straw in the wind as to how Brexiters may come to regard their project.

However, even if so, it is far too little and is already too late. Ever since the first post on this blog, I’ve been wary about trying to discern the deep impact of Brexit from individual events or, at least, to try to be careful to separate the two. In that post, I suggested that the referendum “vote was akin to dropping an economic depth charge: a huge splash, followed by an eery silence … that does not however mean that beneath the surface important things are and are not happening.” Admittedly, an ‘eery silence’ was perhaps not quite the right description, but the fundamental point was correct, and I made it again when the transition period ended, and I wrote about the need to “get ready for ‘Long Brexit’”. There, I used a better metaphor in saying that “what is underway is a fundamental shift in the ‘tectonic plates’ of the UK trading economy and its supply chains.”

It's still too early to identify all of what that shift is going to mean, but we can see how, beneath all the noise, there have already been structural changes in the British economy or sectors within it. To take examples from today’s post, that is evident in the differential impact of trade frictions on small and large businesses, the changes happening in agriculture, and the decline of the stock market. It may be that some of these don’t feed through into big changes in aggregate measures such as GDP growth – if, say, small importers of artisanal foods go to the wall that will barely register in such measures, but it will impinge horribly on those people’s lives, whilst making the lives of their erstwhile customers a little worse as well. Other structural changes are leaving a bigger mark on the aggregate data, as the many estimates of foregone growth attest.

Crucially, there is nothing positive to set against them. There are no, or almost no, ‘winners’ from Brexit, and certainly no benefits which, when set against costs, would show an aggregate positive. Nor is there any underlying strategy behind the structural changes that are occurring. Knight is right that there was no new economic model in 2016, and there is no such model now. The vague notion of ‘Global Britain’ never made any sense in a regionalized world, the deregulatory ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ agenda (leaving aside all its other problems) never had sufficient political support to be viable, and the idea of the UK as a kind of regulatory superpower in emergent technologies like AI was a fantasy. Even less persuasive is the idea that all three could be pursued simultaneously. What is left is a muddled confusion, which no one can articulate, let alone defend.

So, Labour?

No one expects the present government to develop such a strategy, as it slowly rots away into oblivion. Instead, all eyes rest upon what a Labour government might do, with that attention given new focus by Rachel Reeves’ recent Mais Lecture. About the most positive of the assessments of it came from Will Hutton in the Observer, who, despite finding Labour’s recent repeated retreats “disheartening”, saw the lecture as “an important moment” leaving him “upbeat and encouraged” that Starmer and Reeves might trigger an investment revolution, lower inequality and revive the green agenda when in government. However, rather more common were reactions such as those of the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf, whose reading of the lecture was that Labour’s “plans should not make things worse”, but questioned whether they can make things better.

The issue here isn’t just Brexit, in the narrow sense of the UK’s trading relationship with the EU, but it is inseparable from Brexit in terms of whether under Labour the UK can develop a viable post-Brexit national strategy. Doing so certainly entails normalizing the tone and deepening the content of UK-EU relations, and there’s every reason to think that will happen. That in itself, especially if in the context of a huge electoral victory, would help to establish a sense internationally that the country has returned to the kind of normality that has eluded recent Tory governments, and not just in terms of Brexit. Whether that is enough without a more profound change in the trading relationship than Labour has committed to is the big question.

Infuriating as it may be, this question is not going to be answered this side of the election, and the reason is very obvious simply from reading the front-page banner headline of a recent edition of the Express. Originally titled “Tory MPs warn voting for Reform UK will kill Brexit”, the article is a desperate plea to would-be Reform voters to back the Tories, including a warning from the Party's new Deputy Chairman Jonathan Gullis not to be “seduced” by Reform as that “will let Labour in through the back door”.

This is not a new message, and it is one which will be deployed ever-more vociferously as the election approaches, but at the moment it has little cut-through. For one thing, it can hardly be lost on its target audience that Gullis’s predecessor, Lee Anderson, used to say the same things - and then proceeded to join Reform. Indeed, to the extent that Gullis appears to see his “mate” Anderson as a role model – an astonishing possibility given Anderson’s thuggish mediocrity, and made plausible only by Gullis’s own – it would not be altogether surprising if he followed suit.

And this points to a more fundamental problem. For years now, MPs on the Tory Right like Gullis have been pushing views that are indistinguishable from those of Reform, whilst denouncing their own party for not being ‘real’ Conservatives. So asking voters now to back the Tories is hardly convincing, and even less so now, given the extraordinary intra-party cooperation between Anderson and some of his other Tory MP ‘mates’. Likewise, so often have such Tories denounced the Brexit delivered by their own government to be ‘Brexit in Name Only’ that it is hardly going to make much difference to leave voters if Starmer plans to continue in the same vein. Even the suggestion that Labour will “kill Brexit” may not mean much to voters who have already been told ad nauseam that it died long ago at the hands of the remainer Establishment.

In fact, one of the many reasons why the Brexiters have so comprehensively lost the battle for the post-Brexit narrative is their attempt to defend Brexit whilst simultaneously insisting that it hasn’t been done properly. Although what they mean by it is something different, that insistence has gifted Labour the line ‘make Brexit work’ (irritating and silly as it is) and, with that, a degree of cover for what could otherwise be depicted as undoing the success of ‘proper’ Brexit. However, that would change in an instant if Labour were to make a proposal for any kind of re-joining, including a customs union, rumours of which have been discussed and denied this week. Suddenly, the Tories would be given the best possible chance of capturing the Reform vote and of avoiding a heavy electoral defeat, if not even avoiding defeat entirely.

The flip-side is that Labour will have little or no mandate for seeking substantive changes in the EU trading relationship after the election. That might be less of a problem than some think if such changes were wrapped up in technical jargon, and agreed with the EU quickly, whilst the opposition was in disarray. It’s not exactly an appealing idea to anyone fastidious about democracy, but nor does it require an inordinate amount of cynicism to imagine. At all events, we are not going to know until the time comes, and if that is a fresh sign of the dishonesty that Brexit has brought to British politics, then it must be chalked up as yet another item on the seemingly endless list of Brexit damages.

And so we drift on – no, I haven’t forgotten where I started this post – in the apparently Timeless Test that is Brexit.

Friday 22 March 2024

Brexit Britain’s ailing state

Although not the commonest of the taunts aimed at remainers at the time of the referendum, a recurring one was ‘don’t you think this country is capable of running its own affairs?” The obvious answer was that it was based on the false premise that the EU ran the country, and that EU membership was one way in which the country ran its own affairs capably. Nearly eight years on, it’s increasingly tempting to think that the answer to the question should simply be ‘no’.

Of course, that is partly because of the particularly useless, almost absent, government we are currently enduring. It’s a government with virtually no discernible policies or even ideas, and the most discernible, the frenzied desire to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, is as morally grotesque as it is impractical. It’s a government which doesn’t even have any ideological coherence: notionally Conservative yet engaged in an endless internal debate about what ‘true Conservatism’ means. The sense of political decay is palpable.

That is accompanied by an equally palpable sense of a country in decay. That ‘nothing works any more’ has become a cliché. Introducing an article this week bemoaning how the country is “stuck” waiting for an election to somehow unblock things, Suzanne Moore captured (£) the everyday manifestation of this sense:

“Someone in the queue for the bus replacement service had had enough. The train was cancelled because of “rain”. There was little information about when and where this bus would arrive. Some were struggling with luggage and buggies. Many were muttering under their breath. This happened to me recently and it has probably happened to you, too. Every single person was saying to each other: ‘this is just how things are these days’.”

A state in decay

These quotidian experiences are not, of course, the most serious examples of decay. A swathe of official figures released yesterday show how on multiple measures poverty is rising, including that 18% of the population are now in absolute poverty following the sharpest rise in 30 years. Last year saw a 6.8% increase in homelessness, and a record high in the number of households in temporary accommodation. The dental crisis which is seeing people extracting their own teeth is now so longstanding that it is reported abroad with puzzlement as to how this can be happening in a G7 country. People are spending their life savings to have routine, but vital, operations done because NHS waiting times have become so long, again a situation which has been developing for years. The Food Foundation’s latest survey found that 14.8% of UK households experience food insecurity in January 2024.

These, and many similar examples that could be given, are not just irritations, they concern some of the basics of life: food, housing, medical care. They are instances of the many ways that ‘nothing works any more’, but that, in turn, is a sign of something deeper, the way that, as the journalist John Harris wrote this week, “the state is abandoning its people”. He was writing primarily about the impact of the cuts being made by the now effectively bankrupt council in Birmingham but also about the way that “squalor, mess and festering social problems are now seen as the norm” much more widely than Birmingham.

That may be most painfully evident in relation to the welfare state, broadly conceived, but there are even more profound signs that what is happening is not so much governmental incompetence or callousness as it is a wholesale crumbling of the state. Those signs include the now entrenched crisis in prisons and in the criminal justice system as a whole, and, this week, the latest news from the dysfunctional HMRC, which is to close its helpline for half the year, having utterly failed to solve its longstanding problems. A more trivial, but telling, example this week might be the report that the Defence Secretary was flown in a jet which lacked electronic protective equipment because the RAF could not afford to install it. For that matter, the ultimate reason why the government has got into such a mess over asylum seeking is the abject failure of the Home Office to create an efficient and effective processing system. These examples are significant because they relate to things which all but the most crazed libertarians recognize as the core functions of even a minimal model of the state.

So what has this to do with Brexit? It is certainly not the case that it is the cause of these problems. Many of them have their origins in the Austerity years, and some have been decades in the making. Some have been exacerbated by recent events, especially the Covid pandemic and its aftermath. Yet Brexit is part of the mix, in two senses.

The permanent drag of Brexit

One, which is now going to be a permanent fact of British economic and political life, is that our problems are going to get worse, and their solutions less likely, because the country is poorer than it otherwise would have been as a result of Brexit. I’m really not going to rehearse the evidence for that yet again. There is simply no honest way of denying it, even if there is room for debate about the extent of the impoverishment. Within that debate, wherever the true figure lies within the range of credible estimates, which run from long-term annual GDP being between 4% and 6% lower than it would have been, it represents an economically significant cost by historical standards. This isn’t a one-off ‘hit’, it is a permanent effect.

That’s not going to be changed by the bogus graphs and misleading, cherry-picked data which some Brexiters are still churning out. It’s not going to be changed by this or that piece of economic good news which may sometimes be genuinely attributable to Brexit. It’s irrelevant whether or not the damage is as extensive as some predictions claimed. It’s irrelevant whether other countries also have economic problems. And it’s irrelevant that it is not the sole cause of this country’s economic problems. It would be far better for Brexiters to say, if it’s what they think, that this is a price worth paying for Brexit. That would at least have an honesty to it, although it would entail admitting the massive dishonesty with which they campaigned for Brexit, a campaign that emphatically denied there would be any economic costs at all, and promised economic benefits.

So that is one issue, and unless or until there is a political possibility of reversing Brexit, this drag on economic growth, and what that means for the tax base and for public services, is a truth which just has to be accepted.

Brexit overload

The second way that Brexit is part of the mix is related, but different and more subtle. If what we are experiencing is a crumbling of the state, in the sense of its basic functionality, then that is in no small part because Brexit has simply overloaded the bandwidth or capacity of the state. That this would happen, and has been happening, has been obvious to many of us from the outset, but it is only really now that its full meaning is becoming clearer. This has been brought into focus by a recent excellent report from the UK in a Changing Europe research centre entitled Brexit and the State (hereafter, the UKICE report, which includes coverage of many relevant issues beyond those discussed in this post; see also Jonty Bloom’s discussion in the New European).

This state overload began in the period spent ‘doing Brexit’ in its most literal sense, that’s to say from the referendum in June 2016 through to the completion of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) in December 2020. During that time, Brexit was self-evidently the major focus of politics, and of much governmental activity, at least until the arrival of Covid in early 2020. Brexit inevitably ‘crowded out’ other concerns and priorities, neglect of which might be regarded as one of its ‘opportunity costs’.

According to the UKICE report, following a period when civil service numbers fell, the referendum saw an immediate increase, so that there are now 100,000 more civil servants than there were then, with Brexit a key, though not unique, reason. Yet at the same time, as I’ve discussed many times on this blog, the relationship between politicians and the civil service deteriorated, at times to the point of almost open warfare, and this was entirely because of Brexit. So Brexit had a dysfunctional effect both in absorbing state attention and in disrupting the basic axis of its operation, namely the interplay of elected politicians and permanent officials.

At the same time, from the referendum right through until the present day, Brexit unleashed massive political and, at times, constitutional instability, the most obvious manifestation being the fact that there have been five Prime Ministers, four Tory leadership contests of varying extents, and two general elections. Not all of this was due to Brexit – a Johnson regime, under any circumstances would have been likely to generate scandal and instability – but none of it is separable from Brexit. That is obviously true of the chaos, and eventual demise, of Theresa May’s premiership, but no less so of the even more dramatic collapse of Liz Truss’s short-lived ‘true Brexit’ regime (£). Meanwhile, Tory factionalism and infighting, much of it related to Brexit, has been a constant feature of the post-referendum period, and is probably worse right now than it has ever been.

This political instability inevitably has consequences for the effective functioning of the state. If nothing else, it has meant very high levels of ministerial ‘churn’ with each change of leadership as well as between times. This applies to most government positions, but one striking example is the post of Housing Minister, which has had no less than thirteen incumbents since the referendum (although the present one, Lee Rowley, was one of the earlier holders), compared with four in the period between the 2010 election and the referendum. I highlight this example because, although it is a relatively junior post, housing is one of the most fundamental ways that the state is failing to deliver and a good example of how the UK is lagging behind other countries.

The other consequence of the political instability since 2016 is that even when issues other than Brexit have received political attention, and even where the problem of ministerial churn did not prevent consistent policymaking, the government’s capacity to pursue a policy programme was compromised. That was most obviously true after the 2017 election, when May lost her working majority, but, actually, it continued to be true after 2019 despite the government having an apparently healthy majority. For there have often been enough actual or potential rebels to force the government to dilute or abandon policies, not least because at the root of the Tory factionalism is a profound dispute about the actual meaning of Conservatism. 

The strain on state capacity

Apart from the general way in which Brexit has overloaded the state, it has also occurred in the more specific sense of the state taking on all of the new activities and responsibilities that had hitherto been undertaken by the EU. These include the operation of the much-vaunted independent trade policy, as well as the repatriation of the regulatory functions of the EU. Taking back control may have been a fine-sounding slogan, but in practice it means a massive amount of fiddly, boring, but vital administrative effort, which is also part of the reason for the increase in civil service numbers.

It is now abundantly clear that Brexiters did not have the remotest idea that this was the case, or about how to undertake it. That is an outgrowth of their central failure, which has dogged the entire Brexit process, to specify even the general outlines, let alone the detailed mechanics, of what Brexit actually meant. This would have been bad enough, but they compounded that by their paranoid insistence that Brexit had to be done as quickly as possible, despite the fact that much time was wasted by all the Tories' internal conflicts and leadership changes, thus resisting every extension of the Article 50 process and eventually making any further extension impossible. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was because they realized that, as the meaning of Brexit became clearer and public support for it fell, there was always the possibility that the political impetus to abandon Brexit would prevail.

There was not even that rationale, reprehensible as it was, for their initial resistance to even the idea of a transition period, and refusal to extend the short transition period that there was, despite it coinciding with the major crisis caused by Covid. By then, Britain had left the EU and Brexit was assured. As I wrote at the time, the demand to extend the transition period wasn’t the last stand of remainers, it was the first chance for Brexiters to show that they could govern post-Brexit Britain. They failed the test and, in doing so, not only made the Brexit process even more damaging than it needed to be, they also undermined capacity to deal with the pandemic.

Perhaps the most obvious consequence of this mixture of ignorance, dishonesty, and irresponsibility has been the multiple postponements to the introduction of import controls, which still hasn’t been fully completed. The UKICE report also highlights the unresolved issues of the EU settled status (EUSS) scheme and the farm payments scheme. On regulation, there is a long list of new agencies that have had to be created and staffed, some with long and ongoing implementation periods. There are far too many to itemize here but many of them have been discussed in previous posts.

It is important to stress that, whilst burdensome, almost all of this new activity for the British state is also unproductive and pointless. Some of it, such as import controls and EUSS, is extra cost to do things which would not have needed to be done but for Brexit. Much of it, especially the new regulatory agencies, is unproductive not, as Brexiters would have it, because it is unnecessary bureaucracy – on the contrary, for the most part it is vital bureaucracy – but because it simply replicates what the EU was doing anyway. For reasons discussed endlessly on this blog, regulatory ‘independence’ is largely chimerical.

The structural weakening of the state

So all that has been achieved is the ‘freedom’ to pay more to have, at best, the same regulation but, more often, less effective, more clunky versions of the same regulation. The issue here isn’t so much the financial cost – the staff and other budgets are not, in the scheme of Brexit costs, huge – but the poor functionality of what has been created. This is partly a result of the difficulty of recruiting staff with the necessary skills, but even if that were resolved it would leave the bigger difficulty of the structural deficiencies of UK-specific regulatory infrastructure. An important example, which I’ve discussed in the past, is that however well-staffed and effective UK food safety regulators may be, the structural fact that they are not fully hooked in to the various EU databases and agencies means that they can never reduce health risks to the same extent as was the case before Brexit.

To all this can be added the confusing mess left by the attempt to expunge retained EU law which, again, was driven by Brexiter impatience and dogmatism. In the event, the chaos that would have been caused could not be ignored even by Brexiters like Kemi Badenoch, who ended up with responsibility for the legislation when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, and so it was substantially watered down in what became the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act, 2023. This climb-down was a relatively pragmatic piece of damage limitation. Nevertheless, as a Bar Council briefing note earlier this month explained, it has left substantial areas of uncertainty in fundamental areas of the law, something compounded by the lack of detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the legislation.

The consequences of this will play out over several years, as issues arise for the first time in what, in many cases, will be complex and highly technical areas. How extensive these consequences will be is impossible to say. Indeed, as the briefing puts it: “a central part of the problem is that no one yet knows quite how much of our law has been thrown into question by this new legislation” [emphasis added]. In terms of the theme of the basic functions of the state decaying or crumbling, there could hardly be a more potent example than the uncertainty about the law that governs us which Brexit has created.  

An ailing state

No country is, was, or could ever be, perfect, and the UK certainly isn’t alone in facing numerous problems, including problems of state capacity and effectiveness. But the now widespread sense of decay and failure here isn’t an illusion, as shown by how we are seen abroad, for example in a powerful short film just made by Annette Dittert of Germany’s ARD TV. It shows not just poverty and desperation but, tellingly in relation to this post, notes that “the state has long since disappeared from people’s lives here” (at 6.50). Or as the Telegraph’s Assistant Editor, Jeremy Warner, wrote this week (£):

“People sometimes come up to me at conferences abroad and ask, with faux sympathy, what has become of our country, which is now frequently characterised as almost third world. This may be a gross exaggeration, though scarcely so to judge by the mounting litter in my neighbourhood. In any case, you’d be a fool to think there wasn’t at least something in it.”

The UK is not a “third world”, failed or even a failing state, and it would be insulting to the many people around the world who have to endure in such states to say otherwise. But it could reasonably be called an ‘ailing state’, increasingly unable to meet the basic expectations of what a rich and technologically advanced country should be able to deliver to its citizens.

Brexit isn’t the only or even the main cause of that, but it does seem increasingly obvious that Brexit is not so much the straw that broke the camel’s back as the addition of a crushing, new, and permanent burden upon what was already a struggling beast, and has put leaden shoes on to its feet into the bargain. In this sense, although the UKICE report identifies many of the features of this new burden, I think there is more at stake here than its overall conclusion that “the post-Brexit state is still very much a work in progress”, whilst true in itself, suggests. The question is, more, whether there is a viable post-Brexit state at all.

Is there a remedy?

In the first instance, that is going to be a question for the expected Labour government. There’s certainly a good chance that at least the Brexit-induced political instability since 2016 could end, which is arguably a justification for Labour’s unwillingness to re-open the fundamental issue of Brexit. There’s also a good chance of some possible easements to the regulatory burdens of Brexit.

One early opportunity will be linking the UK and EU Emissions Trading Schemes so as to avoid the looming “regulatory nightmare” of the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) that the Financial Times reported on this week. Quick delivery of the SPS agreement Labour have committed to will be another. Whilst it’s widely observed that such moves won’t make a huge economic difference, they, and Labour’s evident commitment to ‘alignment’ as a default, would partially address some of the issues of Brexit overload of the state. That would speak to the need for a post-Brexit strategy, but would not address the deeper structural and systemic problems of the ailing state.

Warner suggests that radical planning reform, a central Labour pledge, offers the only obvious solution. That may be true, but it shouldn’t be underestimated how controversial it will be. Still, it is at least an example of something which only needs political will, rather than a lot of money.  Also in that category, and potentially addressing the more fundamental issues, is Labour’s commitment to reforming the machinery of government (£), and to constitutional innovations like Citizens’ Assemblies. In a climate of fiscal constraint, such initiatives could at least give a sense of momentum and progress, and the public some much-wanted hope of better times to come, though delivering on them – and doing so in ways which clearly improve everyday life – is quite another matter.

How all this plays out remains to be seen. So, going back to the Brexiters’ taunting question, ‘don’t you think this country is capable of running its own affairs?”, the answer is still in the balance. But if it turns out to be that we are, it will have been achieved despite Brexit, rather than because of it.

Correction (22/03/24, 10.00): In the post, I state that the HMRC has decided to close its helpline for half the year. In fact, having announced it, the HMRC reversed that decision a couple of days later. However, the ongoing issue of poor service levels remains.

I will be taking a break from blogging over Easter and so, unless there is a major development, the next post will be on Friday 12 April.

Friday 15 March 2024

‘I want my country back’: what’s in a phrase?

Lee Anderson’s decision this week to join the Reform Party, becoming its first, if unelected, MP brought into focus several of the Brexit themes I’ve been writing about in recent months. At the beginning of October, discussing the ways that Brexit has driven the Tory Party mad, I made specific reference to Anderson, then the Deputy Chairman, as illustrating how there are no discernible differences between many sections of the Tory Party and Reform. So, given the prompt of losing the Tory whip, it was an obvious move for him to make. It’s possible that other Tory MPs will follow him to Reform without that spur to action, but none have done so yet. And why should they? It is now obvious to all, as it should have been for a while, that, as I wrote in February 2023, Brexitism is eating Conservatism.

Thus the end-game for the Brexitist (or NatCon populists, or Five Families, or whatever label we might use for them) is to take complete control of the Tory Party after it loses the election, and then to bring Reform Party voters and politicians, perhaps including Nigel Farage, into an invigorated ‘true Conservative’ Party. Meanwhile, the job of Reform is to siphon off as much as possible of the vote, so as to inflict a catastrophic defeat upon Sunak, facilitating the Brexitist takeover and paving the way for an actual or effective merger. Who knows, Anderson himself may re-enter the Tory fold in the process. Or perhaps he will disappear into well-deserved oblivion, a footnote in dusty volumes of political history.

Why Anderson matters

Whatever his personal fate, the more interesting thing about his defection (though, technically, it wasn’t quite that, given that he had already lost the Tory whip) was the way Anderson explained his motivation. It was, he announced, using the kind of grave tone that implied it was some deeply thought-out, startlingly original insight, because “I want my country back”. Fellow Brexitist Andrea Jenkyns was in agreement, though apparently miffed since she had been “saying this for months!”, as if she had the copyright. In fact, it was exactly the decades-old cliché which I referred to in my post only a couple of weeks ago when discussing the politics of nostalgia feeding what I called ‘radical Brexitism’ (though the precise words I used there were ‘I just want my country back’).

Anderson claims, probably rightly, that his is a desire shared by “millions of people up and down the country”, although whether, as populists believe, it amounts to a (‘silent’) majority is another question. Allison Pearson in the Telegraph (£) certainly thinks, using a formulation with a certain redolence, that “Lee Anderson was right.” And it is the extent to which his idea has support, rather than Anderson himself, that matters. It is at least part of what gave us Brexit, but in doing so, as I suggested in my post, that revealed how chimerical it is as a political goal. After all, immediately after the referendum, Nigel Farage declared that “We’ve got our country back” and yet now, eight years later, Anderson and his ‘millions of others’ are still complaining, still aggrieved, still making the same demand.

One thing I didn’t know when I wrote my own post about nostalgia, but learned about this week from a poster on X-Twitter, is that in 2016 the critic A.A. Gill wrote a highly incisive critique of the ‘I want my country back’ motif, and its role in the nostalgia that informed the case to leave the EU. It is far better-written, and far more amusing, than my own effort, but there’s one important thing which Gill doesn’t mention, and which I only briefly touched on, which is that, whilst the demand suggests that at some point in the past those making it had ‘had their country’, but lost it due to recent changes, that suggestion is invalidated by the way that the demand is an old and recurring one.

Nostalgia - or déjà vu?

I certainly recall it being an expression which was widely used by adults when I was growing up in the 1970s. It was a sentiment channeled by Margaret Thatcher who, as the distinguished sociologist Stuart Hall wrote: “has always spoken quite authentically on behalf of those people who felt they were left behind by permissiveness … challenged by the sexual revolution, who never wanted a libertarian society” [1].

That was most obviously connected with the then prevalent Mary Whitehouse crusade against moral decline, a backlash against the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s, and as such may seem rather passé now. However, something similar continues to exercise the Conservative right, as shown this week (£) by Melanie Phillips’ equation of populism with social conservatism and traditional family values. That’s a view shared by the co-leaders of the New Conservatives, Tory MPs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, and notably all three make the foundational Brexitist claim that the vote for Brexit was an indication that their socially conservative policies have majority support. Notably, too, all three of them, plus Anderson, were amongst the speakers at last year’s London NatCon Conference.

In other words, the conservative, and sometimes Christian conservative, critique of ‘the permissive society’ is by no means an historical curio from the 1970s. Certainly there is much contemporary resonance in the way that those who Hall described (using a term familiar from Brexit, though with an accent on its cultural rather than its economic meaning) as “left behind” were as alarmed about rising crime and disorder as they were by sexual licence.

That alarm was examined, at the same kind of time, by another sociologist, Geoffrey Pearson. His analysis showed how such fears in the 1970s and 1980s typically referenced an imagined past, vaguely referred to as ‘about 20 years ago’, before things got ‘out of control’. Yet, he demonstrated, going back about 20 years to the 1950s and 1960s revealed that exactly the same fears were being expressed, and also with reference to the period ‘about 20 years ago’ or ‘since the war’, and so on back into the even more distant past [2].

I was reminded of this when Reform leader Richard Tice expanded on Anderson’s reference to wanting his country back by talking about the way things have changed “over the last 25 years or so” (I can’t find the link, unfortunately, but elsewhere he waxed lyrical about the 1980s and 90s), showing the enduring relevance of the pattern of ever-refreshed, ahistorical grievance that Geoffrey Pearson identified. Even more pertinently, Pearson showed how the sense of crime and social breakdown, and the decline of traditional British or English (and he notes the frequent slippage between the two, also evident today) virtues, both in the 1980s and in previous periods, going back to the nineteenth century, was almost invariably linked to immigration and the arrival of ‘alien’ cultures.

This is also almost invariably what lies behind contemporary demands to ‘get my country back’, with Allison Pearson writing that “our nation is being abducted by aliens” (though also, inadvertently, demonstrating the endless recurrence of these claims by opening her article with a mournful lament for England written by Philip Larkin in 1946). It is plainly what Anderson meant, as suggested by his reference to his desire being to “speak my mind” (prompting some giggles from the assembled journalists), presumably a nod towards his remarks about Sadiq Khan which led to him losing the Tory whip. That was made explicit when he went on to use his new-found freedom by airing his “concerns” about legal and illegal migration and “hate marches”, concerns which he, just like his predecessors, ran seamlessly together with those about “street crime” and “the shoplifters” who go unpunished.

It’s not just immigration which is a recurring theme. The preoccupation Anderson and his fellows have with fighting culture wars against ‘wokery’ also reprises earlier anguish about ‘political correctness gone mad’ and, in Geoffrey Pearson’s telling, the persistent 1970s complaint about “the 'softy-softy, namby-pamby pussyfooting' of the 'so-called experts’” (p.4). That latter side-swipe at experts is another point of resonance with Brexit and Brexitism, as is the reference to social liberalism, which could effectively be expressed in the present-day terms of wokery, snowflakes, and safe spaces. Conversely, it’s not hard to imagine the next line being a quote from some preposterously-named, reactionary, over-privileged, 1970s warhorse of a Tory MP calling for the workshy to be conscripted for compulsory national service. But in fact that call was made just his week (£), by the fabulously wealthy, ferociously pro-Brexit Tory MP Richard Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, formerly of the Coldstream Guards, and descendent of pioneers of the sugar and slave trade.

In short, with some minor modifications of language and emphasis, there’s really no difference between the complaints made by people like Anderson, Tice, Cates, Kruger et al. now, and those made by their predecessors at the very time, whatever the time, they want to ‘get back’ to.

When nostalgia turns vicious

It's important to notice these recurrences and continuities partly because they help to explain why the demand to ‘have our country back’ is based upon an imagination of past stability and harmony – what might be called ‘simple nostalgia’ – which means that, even if the clock could be turned back, the recovered past would not be what people think they remember. But what is even more important is that it reveals the essential dishonesty of the pretension to moderation and reasonableness. That pretension is implicit in the word ‘just’ in the phrase ‘I just want my country back’, as if it were merely a humble demand. It also figures when that word is used in a different way, namely the claim commonly made by such populists that they ‘have nothing against immigration or immigrants, it’s just that the numbers have got too big’, or that they ‘have nothing against equality, it’s just that it has gone too far now’.

Yet the fact that such suggestions are recurrent, so that even when, say, immigration levels were much lower than they have been in recent years, exactly the same disclaimers were made, shows populists to have a highly immoderate agenda, which might be called ‘vicious nostalgia’. That is, they say that it is only now that immigration is too high that they are concerned, but in fact they said the same thing when immigration was lower. So were their demands ever to be satisfied, say by enforcing a low immigration cap, they would immediately demand even more extreme restrictions, all the way down to compulsory repatriation or even worse. For once the basic premise of ‘getting our country back’ is accepted, the list of who no longer belongs, of who is not ‘us’ but ‘them’, can only get longer. This is also an illustration of Brexitism, in that it is the wider application of the way that, with Brexit, as soon as one form of it was proposed, there was a demand that only an even harder form would be ‘true Brexit’.

This does not just apply to immigration. That is but one, albeit crucial, aspect of the more fundamental issue of who are the ‘we’ or ‘us’ in all this. Even leaving aside the obvious question of whether it refers to the English or the British, it is always implicit, and often explicit, that ‘getting our country back’ means, like Brexit, expunging ‘the enemies of the people’ and the ‘saboteurs’, and the ‘wokerati’ more generally. So what happens to all these people, numerous and powerful enough to have taken ‘our country’ from us? Public recantation? Imprisonment? Re-education? Deportation? And who are to be the arbiters of what is acceptable in ‘our country’? A Star Chamber of Lee Anderson and his pals?

So in these and other ways the apparently humble, slightly self-pitying, lament that ‘I just want my country back’ leads, or at the very least points, to the darkest corridors and most degraded chambers of human history.

Inverted snobbery

This mock-humility finds another kind of expression, superficially benign but deeply malign, which again was illustrated by Anderson’s explanation of his defection - all this in a statement which lasted just under two minutes! Rehearsing his trademark ‘prolier than thou’ schtick, he simpered that “I might not know some of these long words that people use in parliament”.

At one level, it was a horrible, Uriah Heep-ish, attempt to ingratiate himself – horrible not least for trading on precisely the stereotype of the northern working class which populists like Anderson ascribe to ‘the sneering remoaner elite’. At another level, it was self-evidently an example of the passive-aggressive inverted snobbery which some Brexiters have made their own. For it’s quite obvious that Anderson is not inarticulate, and doesn’t regard himself as such, but wants to use the idea that he is as a way of depicting himself as a plucky, plain-speaking underdog, standing up against effete privilege. It evidently struck Cambridge graduate Allison Pearson that way, as she breathlessly recounted how he had spoken in his “no-nonsense, Nottinghamshire miner’s style”, for all the world like Constance Chatterley meeting Oliver Mellors for the first time.

Again this is worth commenting on because it has a much wider currency and significance than Anderson himself. It is a recurring conceit amongst Brexiters, on both the right and the left, that their opponents are cushioned, self-indulgent, and privileged. Examples include representing ‘remainers’ as only concerned to keep their cheap EU nannies or plumbers, or to preserve the ease with which they can take foreign holidays or own holiday homes. It was evident recently in some responses to the report that the introduction of import controls has, predictably, led to shortages of artisanal delicatessen products, responses which were reminiscent of the comment in Gill’s essay about the desire to go “back to gooseberries, not avocados”.

It’s cartoonish at multiple levels, as if working-class people never go abroad, never employ childminders or plumbers, and subsist solely on bread-and-dripping and pints of wallop. But it serves an important purpose, which is to ignore the significant levels of support for leaving the EU amongst affluent middle-class southerners as well as the significant support for remaining in the EU across the UK, but especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland, amongst poor and working-class people.

Indeed part of its dishonesty is not to differentiate between ‘poor’ and ‘working class’ at all, even though the notion of the Red Wall was originally bound up with Labour-held constituencies where there were large numbers of people with characteristics of home ownership and small-business ownership which associated with voting Tory in other parts of the country. It was these older, probably leave-voting, working class but relatively affluent voters who were central to turning the Red Wall blue in the 2019 election. They may not be rich, but they are not living precariously on the very fringes of society, unacquainted with avocados and confining their holidays to Bridlington. Ignoring this is again part of a rhetorical strategy to depict Brexit – and the more extensive agenda of Brexitism – as being the people’s crusade against the elite.

So just as ‘I want my country back’ codes a vicious agenda of exclusion, Anderson’s ‘man of the people’ act, and similar efforts by Farage and others, mobilize inverted snobbery in pursuit of that agenda.  

Who are the baddies?

We can obviously expect the Brexitists to go on mining this seam, and it will be much easier to do so in opposition than in government. That’s because, as with Brexit itself, it can’t translate its promises into deliverable policy. This is one of the reasons why Sunak’s government is in such a mess, as it constantly tries to assuage the unassuageable demands of the Brexitists within the party and the electorate, whilst maintaining at least a semblance of rationality and competence. Hence Sunak’s periodic forays into populism, such as last year’s embrace of the ’15 minute city’ conspiracy theory, which go nowhere in policy terms.

More recently, and to the present point, his strange, impromptu speech condemning extremism was evidently designed to speak to current concerns - about the safety of MPs, rising Islamophobic and antisemitic attacks, public disorder and ‘no go zones’ - some of which are genuine, but others exaggerated or deployed opportunistically by Brexitists. Indeed it spoke to precisely the issues and events which were the proximate cause of Anderson’s demise as a Tory MP, and promised “a new robust framework” to deal with extremism (the first step, it later emerged, being to get Michael Gove to define it).

This may have been intended to placate Brexitists, perhaps even to promise them that they were about to get their country back! Yet, far from being satisfied, they were infuriated because Sunak included far-right extremism in his condemnation. Yet he could hardly do otherwise without losing all credibility as a mainstream politician, given the widespread evidence of such extremism, including, for example, the fact that last year saw the highest ever number of those in prison for far-right terror offences.

So, suddenly, the Brexitists began to be concerned that the “robust framework” this speech was going to lead to might include them, with, most prominently, Miriam Cates fearing that “attempting to define such nebulous terms as ‘extremism’ and ‘British values’ will have a further chilling effect on those with lawful, conservative views”. Quite what existing ‘chilling effect’ there is on expressing ‘lawful, conservative views’ was not clear when Cates wrote those words, and has become even less so since, given Sunak’s equanimity about holding on to Frank Hester’s money, despite his remarks about Diane Abbott.

At all events, the Brexitists needn’t worry about facing their ‘are we the baddies?’ moment because, ironically, what is almost certainly going to unfold is a textbook illustration of why populism can’t give rise to workable policy. After all, it’s not as if we haven’t been round this loop before, sometimes even with Gove flying the plane, in the fruitless quest for a definition of British values which isn’t either so narrow as to exclude everything except Morris dancing and eating baked beans or so broad as to include everything but satanic rituals and cannibalism.  As it turned out, although he did produce a new definition of extremism yesterday, Gove seems to have avoided re-opening the issue of ‘British values’ directly. Perhaps he felt, as my father did when faced with the task of telling me ‘the facts of life’, that it was better to leave the details only vaguely hinted at (so that at the time, and for some years afterwards, I thought he had been explaining the basic skills I would need if I wanted to pursue a career in plumbing).

What will happen with Gove’s definition, which has already predictably been criticised for going too far and for not going far enough, remains to be seen. I suspect that in practical terms it will amount to nothing and will soon be forgotten. But what Cates’ initial reaction inadvertently demonstrated was the essential fatuity of the central Brexitist ideas of ‘the people’, ‘the will of the people’, and, with that, of their outgrowth in the slogan ‘I want my country back’. For all of these things falter on the same rock as attempting to define British values. There simply is no single ‘people’, with a single ‘will’, and a single set of values, and nor is there a single ‘country’ that belongs as of right to one segment of it. There’s almost certainly not even any agreement within the segment which ‘wants their country back’ about what that actually means, just as there was no agreement amongst those who wanted Brexit about what that meant.

A joke

The fundamental problem in all this is that attempts to define extremism in what is still a liberal democracy inevitably rely on some notion of the tolerance of diversity of beliefs, lifestyles, speech and so on. But, at the same time, the underlying implication of the desire to ‘have our country back’ is the politics of vicious exclusion which is at odds with such tolerance and, itself, a form of extremism. Of course liberal democracies can, should, and do have laws prohibiting many kinds of extremist behaviour, from terrorism to hate speech, as the UK does. Yet, evidently, that is not enough for Anderson and the millions who agree with him.

However, although what is, again, still a liberal democracy isn’t going to give those people what they want, most politicians, and certainly Sunak, continue to pander to them. That is a doomed enterprise, since they remain aggrieved, and it is unsatisfactory for everyone else because it constantly gets in the way of useful, productive and effective politics. It is the political equivalent of indulging a childish tantrum and, again, Brexit provides the template.

Perhaps the best response whenever someone shrieks ‘I want my country back’ would be to say: ‘Well you can’t. You’ve been given Brexit, and that’s more than enough. So suck it up’. It’s true that such treatment would provoke screaming populist rage about the insufferable arrogance of the liberal elite, but that reminds me of one of my favourite jokes, in which a man goes to the doctor, who prescribes a medicine but warns that its side-effects are depression, weight gain, impotence and hair loss. The patient replies that he already has the side-effects, so he might as well start taking the medicine.



[1] Quoted in Philip Whitehead, The Writing on the Wall. Britain in the 1970s. London: Michael Joseph, 1985.

[2] Geoffrey Pearson, Hooligan. A History of Respectable Fears. London: Macmillan, 1983.