Hard truths about a hard Brexit

I’m helping making marmalade at the moment. Messy but satisfying. An early New Year diversion from Covid-19 and the Brexit-induced mess of our politics.

We’ve left, and Zenpolitics needs to put a marker down. This blog has been going eleven years, and it can’t let the Brexit Agreement pass without comment.

As a first and most basic proposition, we will achieve far more if we have the widest perspective – as citizens of Britain, of Europe and of the world. The one naturally folding into the other. We are foolish to think otherwise. Recent events represent a closing-in not an opening-out of our society, whatever the absurd and grandiose claims of the Johnson government.

Our Brexit divisions have often been compared to fractured personal relationships, where the only hope of coming together lies in attempting some understanding of the other side’s position.

I go along with that. It is after all what Zenpolitics espouses. But it’s hard when you’re dealing with a series of false promises, a disregard as it suits for truth and precedent. Michael Gove has expressed the hope that the agreement will see politics move away from the bitterness surrounding the 2016 referendum. He and his like fed that bitterness to serve their own ends. We are a polarised society, and that is unlikely to change.

Looking across the pond, we see Republican senators still trying to undermine Biden’s election – with no chance of success but taking what they see as a longer-term perspective – hanging in with the hard-line Trump agenda, however divisive the consequences. Brexit has bred a similar though less extreme cynicism. But the direction of travel is the same.

Johnson talks of friends in Europe, when insulting and misrepresenting them has been his trademark over twenty years.  There will be no easy coming together. Insofar as it happens it will be the pro-Europeans, who will never give up on working closely with old allies, who will be responsible.

Pro-Europeans will never abandon their position or their loyalties. They – we – know where the future lies. There must, if we are to hold any position in the world, be a coming together again with Europe. We will need another, wiser government before this happens. Taking back control is an absurd slogan – Brexit is by definition a losing of control, a losing of influence, a diminution of status, a constriction of sovereignty.

Yes, we are off-shore Europeans. We haven’t been invaded, or lost wars. We’ve no sense of needing to escape from our past. Our links with Europe are born of sympathy, common culture, convenience – not of necessity. Many of us are, as de Gaulle reminded us, closer to USA and Commonwealth countries than other European countries. But that gave us the priceless benefit of being a bridge, which we can be no more. Brexit has exacerbated an ‘outsider’ instinct, which will serve us ill.

This isn’t to downplay the issues which pushed Brexit up the agenda. Immigration was perceived to be out of control. Between 2008 and 2019 the UK’s Polish population more than doubled. Cameron’s government consistently aspired to and failed to bring the numbers down, and that helped focus the issue further.

In previous decades the failings of Common Agricultural Policy dominated debate. It rewards scale, guarantees the supply of food, and holds down prices, but in market terms it’s highly inefficient. But food was abundant, and prices were low. So it wasn’t a key issue. It wouldn’t resonate with voters.

The Leave side looked elsewhere. Fishing, however small as a sector of our economy, became a totemic issue. ‘Metropolitan elites’ likewise. The EU ‘elite’ and the ‘metropolitan’ became merged in the public mind.

Leave attached itself to the innate social conservatism of the ordinary voter. The Tory party as the party of Leave has been the big beneficiary. Opposition to overtly ‘woke’ behaviour has become a rallying cry in the popular press. Likewise, four years on from the Brexit vote, opposition, not always covert, to Black Lives Matter.

The likes of Douglas Murray stir the waters with articles in The Spectator and elsewhere. AN Wilson sounds off in The Times against the Archbishop of Canterbury. Johnson would rather be above all this but, being one for whom popularity is the ultimate aim, he will bend before the party wind as much as he needs to.

There’s always that sense we’re governed for the benefit of party, to ensure the Tory Party retain its role as the natural party of government. That’s an old accusation, party before country, but it rings true.

Jeremy Corbin and Militant Labour lent a big helping hand. For the Tories to sustain their northern vote through to and, they hope, beyond the next election a big south-to-north transfer of funds will be required. We thought we were dealing with a party which believes in hands-off government. All the more so since free marketeers staged their internal coup (and radically reduced the Tory talent base at the same time). And yet – we now have free marketeers becoming big-state spenders. They’re the ones in cabinet. The true diehards remain on the fringes.

The government’s language is palpably foolish. They talk of Global Britain. The country has ‘changed beyond all recognition’.  It now has ‘global perspectives’. There’s a notion spread about that the EU is somehow inward-looking. Yes, in the sense that it is more stubborn and hard-nosed, as Brexit negotiations have demonstrated. It has to be, in a world where the real battleground is between the three great economic power blocks, the USA, China – and the EU.

Both sides of the Brexit debate trade statistics on the relative performance of the UK as opposed to the wider EU economy. The hard truth is, to quote The Economist, ‘Britain’s recent performance has been poor, and Brexit will be a further drag on growth.’  Taking the most recent statistics from the House of Commons Library, ‘compared with the same quarter a year before (that is, Q3 2019) [UK] GDP was -9.6%. In the Eurozone it was -4.3% and in the US it was -2.9%.’

The current edition of The Economist further underscores the hard realities: ‘Since 2005 British firms’ share of world market capitalisation has fallen from over 7% to 3%, a much greater slippage than any other large European economy. Over the same period the share of the stock of global cross-border investment attributable to British-headquartered multinationals has fallen from 10% to 6%, also a bigger drop than for any other major economy.’

It is indeed curious how a government so committed to ‘free trade’, so focused in their aspirations on our future economic performance,  should have allowed ‘sovereignty’ and the 0.1% of our economy that is the contribution of the fishing industry to be the make-or-break issues in the final months of the Brexit negotiations. The multitude of new restrictions we now face as a result of leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market were treated as secondary considerations. For a brief summary of (some of) what we face see below.*

Services, including the financial sector, along with foreign policy and defence, are not part of the agreement just concluded. In great part the Brexit deal is defined by what is leaves out.

We won’t get better deals than we got under the EU. Brexiteers thought to court China. But investment in China is now the subject of close scrutiny. The EU has, as of last week, confirmed a China trade deal after seven years of negotiation. The best we can hope to get is a mirror image. That said, China has a long memory of Britain’s arrogance in our 19th century China dealings. Hong Kong doesn’t help. And China is happily wreaking vengeance on Australia for being the first to demand an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus epidemic.

We also have a weakling foreign secretary.

That touches on another big issue. We have a weak government of Brexit conformists, with free market attitudes which do not connect to the realities of our times, and abilities which fall well short of the abilities their briefs require. Raab, Truss and Patel were key figures behind the 2012 book Britannia Unchained. ‘The British are among the worst idlers in the world,’ is one quote I remember. Their subservience to Cummings told its own story.

Along with ‘Global Britain’ we have a ‘brave new future’. There’s something pathetic in these rallying calls. We’ve seen them all through Covid. Big statements and then they row-back, change tack, always positioning themselves behind the curve. (This should be a case study for future students of politics.)

We’ve had a defence review where hard decisions are helped by a big expenditure splurge. We will shortly have a much-delayed foreign policy ‘integrated review’. We will have to see what it says. We do of course have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We’re the second biggest contributors to NATO.  We have language on our side. But match that against a big reduction in the esteem in which we, and our democracy, a direct consequence of Brexit shenanigans, are held around the world. False pride is a biblical term that comes to mind.

Students of British politics in Europe, the USA and elsewhere will also be wondering about Scottish independence, and the likelihood of a united Ireland. The Johnson government is blind to what might well be realities, and further bitter divisions.

One lesson of history is that events never deliver on expectations. And the more radical the disturbance to the status quo the more disruptive the outcome. (Disruption was of course Cumming’s avowed aim). Brexit supporters back in 2016 thought we’d get a soft Brexit. A hard Brexit was for the extremists. And what do we have?

Another lesson is that you achieve by coming together, and not by splitting apart. A third would be that you don’t define your nation and your economy on the basis of its past achievements. We didn’t win 20th century wars on our own. We dispensed with Empire long ago, and we need to dispense with hangover imperial attitudes and sensitivities. We built our 19th century economy on cheap labour and captive markets. India had no choice but to buy our cotton manufactures. We don’t have those advantages now.

The sub-continent and Asian ‘tiger’ economies got their own back in the end. We have our expertise in specific sectors, defence, aviation, high tech, chemicals. But old Ricardian notions of comparative advantage mean very little these days. Tiger economies have shown how readily they can find investment funding, and how quickly they can overtake us in areas where we thought our advantage was well set.

Trade with our biggest partner is, by a vast margin, our best guarantee of future prosperity. At the same time we need to retain a healthy degree of cynicism. The idealism of the early years of the Common Market, when aspiration and market realities readily matched, is long gone. As a major driver of reform we have done the EU a disservice by leaving. That is, ironically, another reason for wanting to remain.

We won’t of course be rejoining in a hurry. But as and when, and if, we do, the EU in all probability is some shape or form will still be there. Many Brexiteers anticipated a wider fragmentation, precipitated by our departure. They have already been proved very wrong.

We have cast ourselves as outsiders, and it’s not a good place to be.

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*Quoted from an article by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform:

‘Most British people have no idea how hard Brexit will be…

Manufacturers and farmers will face irksome checks at borders for things like customs, VAT, safety and security, plant and animal health, and much else. Services companies will lose access to the single market unless they set up subsidiaries within it. British airlines and freight firms will no longer be able to operate freely within the EU. Citizens will lose the right to travel for as long as they wish, work, study or reside in the EU. Industries and institutions that have become accustomed to employing EU citizens – including farming, food processing, hospitality, care homes, construction and universities – will face difficulties. Britain is leaving a plethora of EU agencies, such as those that deal with medicines, chemicals, air safety and food safety. The British police will lose direct access to many EU criminal databases.’

Where are we now? – the day of a no-confidence vote in Theresa May

Anyone who wants a day-by-day and blow-by-blow of politics will have been disappointed in recent times by this blog. Others are better qualified than I am to debate the Northern Irish backstop. But if only for the record I thought I’d put down a few comments, on Ireland and a few other Brexit issues.

Tonight at 6pm there will be a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. It looks like she will win, but the legacy can only be a yet more divided party. What a frightful, appalling mess – and only one aspect, a passing moment, in a much bigger crisis.

The no-confidence vote follows only two days after Theresa May’s decision to postpone the parliamentary vote on her agreement with the EU, on the basis that she would be seeking improvements specifically with regard to the backstop. That such a delay should be announced just a day to spare is outrageous in itself, and even more when one considers that the EU has asserted, and so too the different countries within the EU, that the agreement is the final wording. They have other issues they want to get on with. The UK has the status of an annoying distraction.

The politicians and pundits in the UK (think back to their pronouncements in 2016) who thought the EU would give way because it was in their economic self-interest to do so radically misunderstood how EU countries read the economic runes. And rather than helping pull Europe apart Brexit has brought other EU countries closer together.

*

It’s curious how Tory Brexiteers failed to foresee the Irish difficulty (‘I believe that the land border with Ireland can remain as free-flowing after a Brexit vote as it is today,’ Theresa Villiers, former Northern Island Secretary, April 2016), or Brexit’s implications for the agreement – open borders between north and south were a cornerstone of the Good Friday agreement. (‘One key to the entire arrangement was the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that the European Union guaranteed.’)

We also have to consider the miserable shenanigans of the DUP, selling their vote to the government for money, advocating an impossible open-border Brexit while the province itself voted Remain.

Looking beyond, the Brexit vote marked out a pre-existing social divide, but prior to 2016 territories hadn’t been delineated, nor had the debate become entrenched and embittered. I accept the argument that the referendum gave Leavers a voice (though the EU was the wrong target). But Leave’s political and media advocates, before the vote and even more since, have turned a divide into a chasm unprecedented in British politics. And we have the curious argument that we should all now go along with Mrs May’s agreement because not to do so would tear the country apart, which would of course hand victory entirely to those who have feverishly fed the current tensions. Project Fear is now a taint attached even to the Governor of the Bank of England.

Hearing Brexit supporters on radio phone-ins brings home how much they’ve been gulled – for example, outside the EU we will be able to negotiate much better deals than anything the EU could. Statement of fact.

Back to Tory MPs’ no-confidence vote in Mrs May. Her opponents believe that one of their hardliners (‘free-traders’ being the false appellation they give themselves), Johnson, Raab or the like, will somehow be able to hammer out a new agreement, despite clear statements across the EU that what has been agreed is final. Or, alternatively, preside over a no-deal Brexit, which would of course create problems, but nothing that couldn’t be managed. They show little knowledge of the simple maxim that change rarely delivers the expected outcome, or indeed of chaos theory.

And on specifics – how weak the UK’s negotiation position outside the EU would be, how beholden to Trump, how our supposed gain in sovereignty would be matched by a far greater decline in influence, how a perceived glorious history is a dangerous chalice to drink from, how any kind of no-deal would devastate both our food exports and our food imports. Reading the Institute of Economic Affairs website is a useful experience.

Mrs Thatcher comes up in conversation. She saw referenda as tools of potential dictators. She was hostile to any kind of federated Europe, but well understood the economic benefits of a Europe-wide market for British goods. She was also a passionate supporter of an elective and representative democracy, as you’d expect of the daughter of a dedicated local politician such as Alderman Thatcher back in Grantham. But the Thatcher legacy has been ousted, and the ‘swivel-eyed loons’* as a Cameron supporter once called them have worked their way to the fore – an example of how a pressure group, with the backing from expatriate-owned media, can turn politics on its head. They’ve needed many accidents and Labour weakness to help them on their way, but they’ve never lacked staying power.

Accidents – immigration swung the referendum against Remain. The free-trade Brexiteers contribution was to use the immigration issue to their advantage, to promise a Britain that would function better without the EU than within. A false promise that was given equal status to wiser counsels by the media, and not least by the BBC.

Even now that supposed even-handedness continues. And the chasm continues to be fed and watered.

*I always try and use moderate language, to find the middle ground. But when that middle ground has been so spectacularly abandoned, and indeed there is a streak of madness in all the fury, should one still, even then, seek to moderate one’s language?