Taking time off from Brexit

I’ve written a lot about the referendum and Brexit in this blog. It is after all a blog with ‘politics’ in the title. But we’re all tired of reading analyses of one kind or another, about hard and soft Brexit, free trade and customs unions, the democratic deficit, immigration levels and the like.

And I want to get back to writing on other subjects, could be political, but just not Brexit, chill out, write poetry, seeking out high mountain or deep country retreats – or more prosaically, just get on with ordinary life.

That said, I’m not signing off without one last submission! With a focus on the action – the actions – we should be taking.

There’s a sense at the moment that events are running away from us. We’re anticipating dire consequences from the Brexit vote – but that means we’re looking out for those consequences – almost willing them – to prove ourselves right. And that’s no place to be.

A sense that more than ever in my lifetime we are headed in the wrong direction, and led by the wrong people – amateurs in a ruthless world. Rarely has hope – false hope – so triumphed over pragmatism.

Nor should we forget anger. Anger over the simple mendacity of many in the Leave campaign. But also over our own foolishness for not seeing it coming, for not realising the potential for a protest vote – and not understanding earlier why that protest vote might happen.

We now need to take action, to build up and sustain pressure – working with others, as part of campaigning groups, as supporter/members of the pressure groups, or pro-EU political parties – the Lib Dems, or an actively opposing opposition, as I hope Labour will become after the September leadership election. (It may be another kind of Labour, a breakaway or a reborn Labour, as it needs to be if it’s to regain support among the old blue-collar, working-class vote.)

‘Actions’ in italics.

All the while we have to keep that open and open-market, European, international, global perspective. International agreements by continent or wider are a much more effective, more reliable way forward than agreements at a single country level. (Which isn’t to say we should be immediately signing up to TTIP!) Europe is also an attitude of mind, relating back to how we connect with the world.

But – don’t so much shout in from the roof-tops, develop a wider, quieter strategy, but one that’s no less determined. There was too much shouting during the referendum campaign.

And too little awareness – now I hope radically changed for everyone on the Remain side – of economic and social and political realities, too little awareness of what life is really like beyond city borders – the sense of a government that doesn’t listen, the decline in prosperity and pride in traditional working-class areas, and the hostility and alienation felt even in prosperous Tory outer suburbia. If immigrants bring increasing wealth to the country, where is the infrastructure, the investment in the NHS and schools? If industries close down, where are not just the re-training packages but the industries, the services, the actual physical jobs to allow people to re-engage with society?

We may find we’ve common ground with Brexiters here – arguing for (sensible, nationwide – not HS2) infrastructure and investment.

Cameron and Osborne all but turned their backs on the problem. Inadequate re-training, and little sense of a wider industrial strategy. The irony is that it’s now the Brexiters, the old-style grumbling Tories of the shires who have to take action, when it’s just they who have been happy to turn their backs on run-down, de-industrialised areas in the past.

There are critical procedural considerations – how we can best secure votes in parliament before before Article 50 is invoked, and likewise on the results of negotiations, if we get that far. And how we can make certain we win those votes, should they happen. In the first instance – by supporting individual MPs, think tanks, pressure groups – and political parties, Labour I hope as well as the LibDems. 

God knows how the immigration debate will play out over time. Business and the NHS and social care depend on immigrants, and if the economy expands, and the NHS and social care improve their services, we will require continuing high levels of immigration. If we’re to stand a chance of retaining a sane immigration strategy it will need some radically re-thinking at an EU level – which we must argue for.

The sovereignty debate is one where opinion if it changes will only do so over time. It’s become confused with national identity, and too many people have argued that British and European identities are not compatible. The EU has to a great extent only itself to blame. It has now to show, and we have to argue hard for, a radically improved awareness of national concerns and susceptibilities. It will go to the wall, and one country after another will exit, if it doesn’t. Federalism must be put out to the very longest grass .

And that, for now, is it on the subject of Brexit!!

China shock

A digression – an important digression – into trade policy. Maybe a little heavy-going, but important!

*

Apropos my comments in my last post on de-industrialisation, there’s an interesting article in the current (July) edition of Prospect, by the FT’s economics leader writer, Martin Sandhu.

Has the cause of growing inequality in the rich world since circa 1980 been caused by globalisation or technological change? In Sandhu’s words, by the late 1990s ‘… the economics profession settled on the consensus that technology more than trade was to blame. Then China joined the World Trade Organisation.’

He quotes Autor, Dorn and Hanson’s paper, ‘China Shock’, and highlights their conclusion that ‘Chinese competition had localised but substantial negative and long-lasting effects on the places particularly exposed to it’. ‘On one estimate more than half of [US] factory job losses can be attributed to the China effect.’

’… the imbalanced effect of trade liberalisation can only be corrected if the losers are compensated out of the overall gain – but more redistribution and greater public goods are not on the cards in Trump’s deck.’

Of course technology is also a key factor, so too the shift of power away from labour to capital – not least, the decline of trade unions.  Benefits have also been hit hard – even more in the USA than the UK.

‘It is no surprise that that people feeling powerless and alone in the face of their demotion yearn to regain control – to ‘take their country back’. That is what Trump promises them.’

So too the UK. ‘The same dream of regaining control …fuels the growth of socially-conservative nativist right-wing parties in Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia and central Europe.’ Some of the same grievances have been picked up by Bernie Sanders as well as Trump. (We have nothing directly comparable in the UK.)

But whereas Trump talks of putting up trade barriers the Brexit message has been all about lowering barriers with the rest of the world , ‘to escape the walls of Fortress Europe’ – a rigorous free trade message. (Both the USA and UK insurgencies are of course agreed on immigration.)

Also bear in mind that economic theory ‘predicts that the effect of low-skilled immigration is the same as freer trade with countries that have a lot of low-skilled labour’. Put another way, freer trade (especially negotiated from a position of lesser rather than greater advantage post-Brexit) will hit hardest those areas already suffering.

(Some will course want to rubbish economic theory. That’s the mood of the moment.)

The impact of Chinese imports on British industry, and the resultant job losses, has been far far greater than the impact of immigration. And yet it’s immigration on which the Leave campaign has focused.

And the impact of free trade? Now that we’re escaping from an EU that’s perceived to be the over-regulated and slow-moving ?

‘…Brexit will not lead to a bonfire of the regulations, but a redoubled effort to harmonise rules – that’s what trade openness increasingly means.’

There’s an obvious and striking irony here – we put behind us the EU and harmonisation, and negotiations over TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and we find that we’re faced with just the same issues when we seek to negotiate free trade deals around the world. But without the clout the EU gives us.

More than ever it’s apparent that immigration for the Leave campaign has been a target of convenience. The issues we face as a country with regard to our future prosperity are of a very different order. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t pay heed to the specific impacts of immigration, but our future lies in facing up to the global context in which we operate, and in which we will be, post-Brexit, less equipped to operate.

And our response as a country to those who feel excluded and resentful will involve strategies which simply aren’t part of the Leave agenda. That’s the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves.