Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Brexiters are now responsible for whatever happens

The triggering of Article 50 marked, for Brexiters, a moment for rejoicing. It also marked something else: the moment from which Brexiters are entirely responsible for what happens to this country. There can be no equivocation about this. Brexiters can no longer play the victim card. Brexiters campaigned for years to leave the EU, they won the referendum and they now control the process of leaving. Often, they campaigned as if they were underdogs in opposition to the elite and the establishment. But by winning they became the elite and the establishment: it is Brexiters who now run things. The key Brexit posts in the government are filled by committed Brexiters: Johnson, Fox and Davis. So whether they are Alte Kameraden like Farage or March violets like May they are now accountable for whatever happens.

That is something they don’t like, which explains the calls from May for national unity and the more diffuse insistence from Brexiters that ‘we should all get behind Brexit’. They want us all to share responsibility. Well, tough; there is no reason why those of us who voted to remain should do so. Perhaps we might have done. If the Brexit government had pursued a consensual policy of soft Brexit (i.e. remaining in the single market) then there could have been some national unity. Leavers would have got exit from the EU, the ECJ, the CAP, the CFP and from any kind of EU military and foreign policy. Remainers would have got the single market and free movement. Some would have been completely happy, few would have been completely unhappy.

That consensual – perhaps characteristically British – compromise did not happen. So, now, Brexiters are on their own. They are now responsible for every single thing that happens. Every job loss, every company re-location, every price rise is down to Brexiters. And that extends, I’m afraid, to areas that voted to leave. So when, for example, Cornwall or Wales lose their EU funding or when the English regions see unemployment rising it will be no good looking for help. The areas, like London, and the educated group who voted remain won’t be there for you as they once might have been. You stuck two fingers up at them as the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’, remember? They’re not willingly going to bail you out for the decision you took, despite every warning about what it meant.

Perhaps that sounds harsh. But when Brexit goes pear-shaped it won’t just be remainers who abandon leave voters to their fate. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (Eton and Oxford) won’t be joining the dole queue. Nor Michael Gove, with his £150,000 a year from the Times. And man of the people Nigel Farage has said that if Brexit is a disaster he will go to live abroad. That won’t be an option for the working-class leave voters he led, especially if they want to move to the EU.

But Brexiters won’t be able to walk away from their responsibilities just yet. With Article 50 triggered they are now in the spotlight. As Jay Elwes, writing in Prospect, put it:

The guesswork, the flim-flam, the nonsense, the evasion, the jingoism—all that ends today. With the handing over of a piece of paper triggering Article 50, the campaign is finally over. No longer are we drifting in a hypothetical space of promises and assertions about the nation’s future, about its bargaining power and ability to “take back control.” All of that is now gone. It’s done. There can be no more tub-thumping statements about what Britain’s future looks like. It’s too late for that now. Reality has returned—and no matter how well-financed your campaign operation, no matter how well-honed your lines of attack or persuasive your arguments, there can be no escape from its unforgiving glare.

We’ll never know now what would have happened if we had stayed in the EU. All we can know is what happens as a result of leaving. And all that will be the responsibility of the Brexiters. In the few hours since the Article 50 letter was delivered one of its key demands – that the exit negotiations run in parallel rather than precede negotiations on the future deal – has been rejected by Angela Merkel. That is not surprising – it was said throughout the referendum campaign that it would be so, but Brexiters dismissed it as part of ‘project Fear’. Now, it is a reality.

That is only the first reality check for Brexiters. In the years to come there will be many more. As they increase, it’s inevitable that Brexiters will try to depict the situation as being a national crisis, in the face of which all must unite. And they are right that it will be a national crisis, but it will be one that was self-inflicted on our country by Brexiters. The rest of us will have no responsibility for it, and no reason to unite. We are the victims, not you.

There will be many remainers today who are distraught, and many leavers who are overjoyed. But perhaps it should be the other way around. From today onwards every leaver is responsible for everything that now happens, and every remainer is entitled to hold them responsible. It has become a familiar trope that remainers must ‘move on’ and accept the result. But by the same token leavers must now move on, and accept the consequences of their victory. Every single leave voter is responsible for every single one of those consequences. Every single remain voter is absolved from responsibility and is entitled to criticise every single consequence of leaving.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Triggering Article 50: A bleak and bitter day for our country

The handing of the letter to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50 marks the end of the beginning of the self-inflicted national disaster that began with the referendum vote. Prior to the vote it had been understood that David Cameron would invoke Article 50 immediately, and it was on that basis that many of the economic forecasts were made. In fact, he resigned without doing so. This had the potential to buy some time for politicians – the majority of whom wanted to stay in the EU – to find some way of avoiding or at least mitigating the stark economic, political and strategic dangers of Brexit.

In fact, that has not happened. The speed with which Theresa May emerged from a chaotic leadership election process may have contributed to this, as she immediately made appointments that seemed to tie the UK into a hard Brexit. Even so, for many months the government’s position was ambiguous and there did seem to be a real possibility that Britain would at least remain in the single market, if not also the customs union. That possibility was rejected in the May’s Lancaster House speech in January and we are now entering a process about which little is known and with an outcome that is completely unknowable.

So this breathing space, which could have been used to build some kind of national consensus in which the divisions of the referendum were somewhat healed, has been irresponsibly squandered. There could have been a soft Brexit which gave most people some of what they wanted and some people all that they wanted. Instead, the most divisive form of Brexit possible is being pursued, one which differs from what leave voters were told would occur as well as being one which remain voters cannot tolerate. May calls for national unity whilst insisting on a policy that makes this impossible. Debate is deemed disloyalty, dissent is deemed treachery. Leading business people and senior statesmen are dismissed as ‘remoaners’, judges traduced as ‘enemies of the people’. The future of Scotland and Northern Ireland is up in the air and the dismemberment of the United Kingdom is a real possibility. Meanwhile, hostility to immigrants has increased and the many European citizens embedded in communities in the UK have been left traumatised and in limbo, as have UK citizens in the EU. So there is already a huge cultural cost, and it will grow.

During this period, too, the economic effects of Brexit have begun to emerge. This is most evident in the collapse of the pound – which at any other time would have been seen as a major crisis – and the beginnings of the effects of that in terms of inflation, with little or no dividend in increased exports from the devaluation of sterling. There are daily reports that whole swathes of the economy – farming, finance, science, care homes, healthcare, construction, car making and in fact just about every other sector – are in turmoil, with no idea of what their future will be. To take just one example – relatively small but strategically significant for the UK’s economic future – every financial technology (‘Fintech’) firm of any size is reported to be actively looking to leave the country. Longer-established and more familiar, Lloyds of London, the world’s largest insurance market, is reportedly set to announce the creation of a new base in Europe. As many of the links just given show, jobs are beginning to leach abroad whilst, at home, vacancies cannot be filled because of the deterrent effect on EU immigration, the NHS being one important example.

Investment plans have been deferred or abandoned and where they have gone ahead it has been despite but not because of the vote. I am not aware of a single case where a company has announced a new investment because of Brexit. The public finances have taken an additional hit, with the ‘punishment budget’ occurring in all but name: £59 billion, or half of the extra borrowing over the next five years, is already attributable to Brexit. Economic growth has continued, but only supported by even more consumer borrowing and that is now waning. Most of what was dismissed as ‘project fear’ is becoming true, if not in exactly the order or timescale of some of the predictions. There has already been a huge economic cost, but the full cost has hardly yet begun to be paid or even quantified.

Meanwhile, the shape of international relations has dramatically changed with the election of Donald Trump. This has huge implications for how the UK positions itself both with respect to the US but also China and Russia (£link). At the same time much goodwill with the rest of the EU has been eroded by the way the British government has conducted itself. Every major ally we have counselled against Brexit. Now we have to navigate a geo-politics in which the entire post-war order is getting re-negotiated from a position which is isolated and to much of the outside world simply incomprehensible. There has already been a strategic price to pay, and it will get bigger.

The domestic political arena has also been damaged. A heroic legal action in the face of disgusting abuse opened the possibility of parliament restraining an executive that wanted to act without scrutiny or accountability. The House of Lords at least attempted to make use of that opportunity, but the House of Commons shamefully refused to do so. The Labour opposition simply abdicated its responsibility and its principles under a leader who is manifestly incompetent. The LibDems have been staunch, and may well make significant electoral gains as a result, but for now have too few MPs to make a difference whilst the SNP are understandably primarily concerned with Scotland and Scottish independence. Tory MPs who backed remain – the majority - are too cowed by government whips and the Brexit press to make more than squeaks of concern. The consequence is that the government is free to pursue a policy which, to repeat, most elected politicians know to be highly damaging for the country. How ironic, after a campaign centrally concerned with parliamentary sovereignty. And how ironic to see a Tory government shredding its traditional commitments to business interests and to maintaining the union in the one-eyed pursuit of Brexit at any cost.

For there is no sign at all that the government understands the realities of what it is now embarking on, and there have been numerous warnings that the civil service lacks the administrative bandwidth to cope with it. May’s apparent political selling point of mature pragmatism has morphed into a cavalier disdain for anything remotely practical. Even as the negotiations begin, the government is talking blithely about the possibility of exiting without any deal in place. Having chosen a hard Brexit of a trade deal over the soft Brexit of the single market, hard Brexit is becoming the ‘moderate’ position with a no-deal ‘ultra-Brexit’ now being touted as a real option, possibly even the preferable option. That would be crazy in terms of trade, which is how it is mostly discussed, but no less so in terms of the myriad of other parts of the UK-EU relationship from policing to air travel to nuclear safety.

The shift towards ultra-Brexit is partly a consequence of the unappeasable nature of the Tory Eurosceptic hardcore, as I wrote in my previous post. But it also reflects the fact that each time the claims of the Brexiters meet reality they are exposed as nonsense. Right from the beginning of the campaign people like Peter Hargreaves, the largest individual donor to Leave who funded a mailshot to every UK household, were repeatedly saying that a quick and easy new trade arrangement would be ensured by German car manufacturers. Typical was David Davis, now the Brexit secretary, who wrote in February 2016 that:

“Within minutes of a vote for Brexit the CEOs of Mercedes, BMW, VW and Audi will be knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door demanding that there be no barriers to German access to the British market.”

Within minutes! Well, we are not minutes but months since the vote and nothing remotely like that has happened. Nor will it, because it is not how trade policy works and it is not how the EU works and, in any case, it is not what German car makers think. But when confronted with realities that make a mockery of their predictions Brexiters refuse to backtrack and so have no alternative but to move to a harder and harder position ending, ultimately, in advocating a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Thus, for example, Lord Lawson, the French-domiciled former Chancellor, told people before the referendum that there would be no difficulty in having a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. Now he says that leaving without a deal is by “far and away the most likely outcome”. That wouldn’t resemble anything that was put to the electorate by the Leave campaign.

It is important never to forget that campaign, since its outcome is, and will be, used to justify all that will now happen. It made three main promises to voters. The first was that Brexit would mean that there would be an extra £350 million a week for the NHS. That was an outright lie and was disowned by the leave campaign within hours of the result. The second was that Britain would regain sovereignty by leaving the EU. But the Brexit government’s White Paper (para 2.1) has since confirmed that sovereignty was never lost. The third was about reducing immigration, but since the referendum Brexit campaigners and indeed the Brexit secretary have admitted that it won’t necessarily be reduced.

These were just the headline claims. Beneath them were a myriad of others, not just in relation to trade but, to take just one example, that a new deal with the EU would be negotiated before the leave process started. But this is exactly the opposite of what Article 50 states, hence the prospect, now, of leaving without a deal. Or, to take another example, leading Brexiteer Michael Gove claimed that there was no prospect of Brexit leading to a second Scottish independence referendum. Yet this is, indeed, now in prospect. Every single claim made by the Leave campaign, without any exception, has now been discredited or disowned. But that does not stop new ones being made. Thus faced with the obvious fact that the UK will have to settle its outstanding financial commitments to the EU, estimated as being as high as £50 billion, John Redwood, another leading Brexiter, simply asserts that there will be nothing to pay.

It is impossible to overstate the sheer stupidity and terrible danger of what has happened since last June. Political leadership and institutions have failed. A narrow vote for an undefined outcome on the back of a mendacious campaign has been fetishized as it being the ‘will of the people’ to pursue a policy favoured only by a narrow section of the political right. That policy is being pursued without any regard whatsoever for the cultural, economic, geo-political or strategic damage it is already causing and with reckless disregard for that which will follow. A combination of unexpected or accidental factors have coalesced so as to turn what was already a disaster into a catastrophe. It remains to be seen whether it will prove to be even worse than that.

It may be that even at this eleventh hour some sanity will prevail. There is a long way to go from triggering Article 50 to an actual exit – possibly longer than the two year period. If recent months have taught us anything it is that politics is more unpredictable than it has ever been. If, as I think is inevitable, the huge costs and dangers of Brexit become even more tangible it is just possible that public opinion will shift decisively. The danger is that these costs and dangers will be blamed on the EU, ‘remoaners’, the ‘liberal elite’ and so on, as indeed has already been the case. So it will be the job of those of us who can to keep reminding our fellow citizens that they arise from a decision taken by the British electorate on the basis of lies, distortions and misinformation. They can change their minds, and given how close the vote was it does not need too many people to do so for the prospects to be brighter than they seem on a bleak and bitter day for our country.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Why tomorrow's march matters

Tomorrow along with tens of thousands of other people I will be marching in London to show opposition to Brexit. In itself it will change little but it will serve as a symbol and a reminder that very many people are not reconciled to Brexit. That reflects the fact that the country continues to be very divided, but it is more than that: it shows that EU membership has become an issue in a way that it never was before.

Had the referendum gone the other way, there is no way that there would now be a march on this scale of ardent Brexiters. The truth is that, a small number of fanatics aside, leaving the EU has never been high on most people’s list of priorities. It is also true to say that before the referendum you’d have been hard-pressed to get more than a few hundred people to attend a pro-EU rally, either. It is only now that membership of the EU is probably coming to an end that very large numbers of people have begun to understand – and to feel – what it means. I would include myself in that number in that whilst I have long been generally pro-EU, albeit with several criticisms of it, it was only when the referendum was lost that I felt a gut-wrenching traumatic shock that was like a personal grief.

That grief is not simply an emotional reaction. What is becoming clearer every day is how disastrous the practical consequences of Brexit are going to be. In my next post, when Article 50 is triggered, I will catalogue those consequences in detail. In brief, they are cultural, economic, strategic and political. Brexit will be, quite simply and without qualification, a national catastrophe.

Moreover, it is a catastrophe that is quite unnecessary. It has been inflicted on us solely because of the attempt by David Cameron to appease the minority Eurosceptic wing of his party and to address the perceived electoral threat of UKIP. And it has been exacerbated, since the referendum, by Theresa May’s pursuit of a hard Brexit to appease that same minority and to address that same threat.

The horrible irony of this is that, again and again, that minority have proved unappeasable. At first, they just wanted to ‘be in the single market like Norway’ (and many promised the electorate that this would be the result of a vote to leave); then, it had to be a hard Brexit, leaving the single market and having a free trade deal with the EU; now, for some of them, that is not enough and there must be an exit on WTO terms; in the wings are others who want unilateral abolition by the UK of all tariffs and the creation of a low tax, low regulation ‘European Singapore’.

That recalcitrance is, in a new irony, likely to bite back and it is this which gives me hope that all is not lost. The hardcore Brexiters are cloaking themselves in the mantle of ‘the will of the people’ to pursue something that is certainly not what the majority want, and not even what the majority of what those who voted leave want. As one indicator of that, consider the latest absurdity. One of UKIP’s leading figures, Mark Reckless, now a member of the Welsh Assembly, is insisting that access to the single market is “crucial” and asking for “assurances over migrant labour” on which Welsh agriculture is dependent. Now, ‘access’ is an imprecise word but at the very least it implies that a ‘no deal’ WTO scenario is excluded. So even UKIP – belatedly and ridiculously – are recognizing that Brexit has the potential to cause horrible damage as it is pulled in an ever more extreme direction.

So there is a real possibility that public opinion will shift decisively against Brexit and if it does there is a route back into EU membership, as explained by one of the leading lights of the campaign against Brexit (who will address the demonstration tomorrow) Jolyon Maugham. I don’t think it likely barring a few remote scenarios that the UK will simply stay in the EU, not least as things have probably gone too far for that to be acceptable to the EU. But as the costs and complexities of Brexit mount there must be at least some possibility of a less reckless, damaging Brexit than is currently in prospect.

The march tomorrow will be one, highly visible, reminder to the government that many people in Britain hope so. It will be unusual in one respect. Demonstrations are usually the only resort of people who have no other voice and are largely powerless. But Brexit is understood to be catastrophic not just by millions of ‘ordinary people’ but by almost everybody whether in business, academia or civil society who actually knows anything about the practical issues involved. They, of course, are dismissed as ‘the elite’ by the media plutocrats who truly deserve that name. The massed ranks of the marchers tomorrow will give the lie to that.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Scotland and the absurdities of Brexit

After the long phoney war following the referendum, events are now moving much faster and it is hard to maintain a running commentary. With parliament now shamefully having, as predicted, passed without amendment the legislation to do so Article 50 will soon be triggered. At that point I will write a summary of where things stand.

For now, in this post I will focus on Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second Scottish independence referendum (‘indyref2’ as it is being called). That the SNP would seek indyref2 was highly likely from the moment the EU referendum result was announced. What made indyref2 both inevitable, and potentially winnable, was the government’s decision to pursue hard Brexit. On the one hand this made a mockery of any notion that the government would take Scotland’s views into account; on the other hand, it ensured that the price that Scotland, like the rest of the UK, would pay for Brexit would be incalculably high. In this and in many other ways, Theresa May is emerging not as the pragmatic, safe pair of hands that was her USP in the Tory leadership election but as extraordinarily inept.

Ian Dunt, the journalist who in my view has emerged as the most astute and interesting writer on Brexit, summarised the situation powerfully:

“This is on Brexiters. This is their responsibility. It's not just the result, although it was clear during the campaign this was a likely possibility if people backed Leave. It's about what has happened since the vote. This is where Brexiters' arrogance, their refusal to listen to counter-arguments, their extreme agenda, their bluffing about economic self-harm, their strategic incompetence and their grotesquely irresponsible behaviour has got us”.

It is important to remember that the possibility that Brexit would lead to indyref2 was explicitly denied by all the leading leavers, both during the campaign and afterwards. Thus on 8 June 2016 The Sun dismissed warnings that this would be the outcome as (of course) ‘Project Fear’ whilst as recently as this February Michael Gove was saying that there was no prospect of a second independence referendum.

But although it is important to keep holding Brexiters to account for their mendacious and misleading claims it is equally important to point to the absurdities of the Brexit government, and nowhere are these clearer than in the response to the prospect of indyref2. For Theresa May’s arguments against this are, without exception, arguments which apply equally to Brexit. Thus if Scottish independence would entail huge uncertainty, severance from its main market and a substantial exit bill, how much more so is this true of Brexit? Most extraordinary of all, May has said that Scotland can’t have a meaningful vote on leaving the UK without knowing what the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU will be. Yet she and her government treat as inviolable the UK’s vote to leave the EU when it was taken without knowing the terms of exit. The lack of logic and of honesty would be laughable if it was not so sickening.

No less absurd is the idea that indyref2 would distract from the Brexit negotiations, since with this issue unresolved the EU will not know whether they are negotiating with the UK as it is, or without Scotland, or – now a very real possibility – without Northern Ireland either. On that last point, I am not sure that many people in Britain realise how rapidly things are shifting in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. In the Republic – the EU country most affected by Brexit and likely to be highly influential in the exit talks – opinion is hardening against the UK and re-unification with the North is being widely discussed. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein are calling for a referendum on a united Ireland, and, although Wales voted for Brexit, there are emerging noises for a vote there as well.

These are not mere details, they are central, practical issues about what Brexit means. But the Brexit government is simply not interested in practical issues, as witnessed by the revealing appearance by David Davis at the Brexit Select Committee this week, where on issue after issue – from European Health Insurance Cards to personal data transfer he admitted that he just did not know what Brexit would mean. Most bizarrely of all, he confessed that the government have not costed the effects of leaving the EU with no deal in place, even though they believe that ‘no deal’ would be better than a bad deal.

But logic, evidence and argument have become completely irrelevant to Brexiters. In another great piece of commentary this week, this time from Nick Cohen in The Spectator, the cult-like nature of the Brexit government is dissected:

“Unconstrained by a political opposition and egged on by a Tory press that makes Breitbart seem like a reputable news service, modern Tories resemble no one so much as the right-wing parody of left wingers: utopian, contemptuous of detail and convinced the world owes them a living”.

Yet the left is by no means absolved of responsibility in the unfolding Brexit debacle. In fact, in a week littered with absurdities perhaps the most absurd event was Jeremy Corbyn calling for an ‘emergency demonstration’ in support of Labour’s amendments to the Article 50 Bill. Meanwhile, rather than refuse to vote for the Bill if the amendments were not in place, he whipped his MPs to support it. It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that Brexit is also the subtext of most of the other main news stories this week, even when they don’t seem to be directly related. So the row over Philip Hammond’s changes to national insurance contributions was partly about Brexiters wanting to ‘bring down’ the most senior cabinet minister who is opposed to hard Brexit. George Osborne’s surprising appointment as Editor of London’s Evening Standard can be seen as an anti-Brexit politician seeking to get a media platform in anti-Brexit London. And the GCHQ statement about the allegations that it had wiretapped Trump goes to the heart of the UK-US relationship which has been touted by Brexiteers as central to Britain’s post-Brexit future. Pretty much all roads in the current UK polity lead to Brexit, and will do for years to come. Although it looks increasingly unlikely that the UK polity will survive Brexit.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Why Brexiters don't understand borders

When Brexiters talk about trade, they seem invariably to envisage it in terms of something being made in country X and then sold in country Y. As with so much else, with the referendum won they are now having to grapple with a world that is far more complex than they realised. This has come to public attention because of the emerging implications of Brexit for the car industry. The secret deal with Nissan last year seemed to have put a temporary lid on this, but it has resurfaced in the last couple of weeks partly because of the PSA takeover of Vauxhall and its potential implications for job losses post-Brexit, partly because of Ford’s announcement of job losses in Wales, and partly because of doubts as to whether BMW will build the electric mini in the UK. Moreover, since the Nissan deal, the government’s plan to exit the single market and customs union has been revealed.

What Brexiters are now beginning to understand is something well-known to those in my academic field of organization studies who study them and to those who work in them: many modern industries, including the car industry, are characterised by international supply chains. Again, there is a simplistic image of this as being like a transnational assembly line, with part-finished goods moving to their next stage in a different country. But, again, the reality is far more complex. In fact, car components move multiple times across borders before the finished item is ready for sale.

Thus, as a useful recent Guardian article explained, the crankshaft for a BMW Mini moves across the channel three times during production and this process is repeated (often with more than three shipments) for hundreds if not thousands of parts within a car. Moreover, it needs to be done with a time accuracy in the minutes, so any delays caused for example by customs checks are disastrous. No British-made vehicle is composed wholly of parts made in Britain. In fact, on average 41% of parts are made in the UK. That number is significant because 50% of a car (by value) must be made within a country for it to conform to WTO origin of production rules. With the exception of some models produced by Jaguar Land Rover, no British car meets this figure and most don’t approach it. For the Vauxhall Astra, for example, the figure is 25%.

It’s probably true that the car industry is the most extreme example of highly integrated international supply chain management, but the same principle applies to many other industries and, in any case, the car industry is especially important both in terms of the quality of the employment it offers and the numbers, directly and indirectly, employed. It’s not possible to be certain what the effects of Brexit will be on the car industry, but they cannot be anything but disruptive.

An article in the Daily Telegraph headlined ‘hard Brexit would be good news for Vauxhall’ was seized on by Brexiters, but it was a misleading headline: the point being made by PSA’s chairman was that it could be an opportunity to develop UK parts manufacture. But there is no guarantee at all that that will happen and if it does it won’t be cheap. Nissan have called for the government to invest at least £100M precisely in order to develop the indigenous parts industry or risk a pull out from their Sunderland plant.

Movement across borders has also come to the fore this week with the belated realization that hard Brexit will have massive consequences for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as explained in this excellent Daily Telegraph article. This will not have been news to readers of this blog, as I posted about it back in October. Issues here include things similar to the car industry – milk, for example, can move five times across Irish border during processing. However, for obvious historical reasons, what matters even more are the political consequences which become especially acute given the constant movement of people between, and their relationships across, the border.

Which brings us to the parallel matter of freedom of movement of people across borders. A repeated Brexiter refrain is about ‘regaining control of our borders’. It is wrongheaded, of course, in that since Britain is not a party to the Schengen Agreement we retain – and enforce – border controls. This conflation of free movement of people and migration was alluded to by Sir Ivan Rogers (p.10) in his recent evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee:

They [the rest of the EU] genuinely do not understand a UK debate in which the two are conflated at all. They do not understand why a Government would have a migration target covering migration from within the European Union, which for other people is not migration. They do not call it migration; they do not call it immigration. They call it free movement… [t]hey said, “But one is migration, which is external to the European Union, and the other is free movement of people, which is not at all the same thing”.

This reflects the longstanding British failure to understand what a single market is and how it differs from a free trade area, which I have written about in another post. Because, indeed, within a single market it makes no more sense to talk about immigration between member countries than it does to do so between counties in Britain. Thus another issue which Brexiters are now having to face up to is that there is now a massive and longstanding intermingling of familial relationships between different countries. It is this which makes so especially significant the current debate about granting automatic residency rights to EU nationals in the UK: marriages, partnerships and children are caught up in Brexit.

This, too, flows from a na├»ve Brexit image, this time of immigration. As with trade, they seem to envisage it as a matter of person X moving to country Y and, typically, to take a job. But there is, so to speak, a metaphorical ‘international supply chain’ of human relationships – people moving backwards and forwards at different times and for different reasons which include, or may come to include, falling in love and having children. There are, of course, no WTO rules on the point of origin of a family, but a parallel set of issues in that many, many families have component parts from more than one country. There is no glibness intended in this metaphor – I personally have many friends who are caught in a limbo which is both massively anxiety provoking and also deeply insulting to them. People who have made their whole lives on the basis of what was understood to be a borderless Europe are being placed in an impossible position. The same is true for many British people in the EU.

There is a pervasive Brexiter response to all these issues which is to say ‘but we managed perfectly well before being in the EU’. With respect to business organizations, this is simply irrelevant: the world of international supply chains and just-in-time management barely existed in the early 1970s and not remotely in the form that it now does. With respect to Ireland, the Common Travel Area did indeed pre-date the EU (it dates to the 1920s) but the situation now is that Ireland is in the EU and there is free movement of people from other EU countries into Ireland; so on hard Brexit a hard border with the North is inevitable if Brexiters are to get their wish for border control. The Brexit vote is going to lead to us exiting the EU: it’s not a time machine that is going to deposit us back in 1973.

It is on free movement of people that the Brexiter response is the most perverse. Often I hear them say ‘but people moved countries, married people from other countries, worked in other countries before we had the EU’. And indeed they did – but with restrictions. The reason this is such a perverse response is that, on the one hand, EU free movement of people rights are seen by Brexiters as the one thing that above all must be ended and yet, on the other hand, that somehow doing so will not make the movement of people any less free!

I referred earlier to a very good article in the Daily Telegraph on the implications of Brexit for Ireland and Northern Ireland and, within it, there is a revealing sentence from an unnamed British civil servant work on Brexit: “It seems as if every day something new we hadn’t thought of comes up”. That could almost be the strapline (and perhaps will be the epitaph) for Brexit. At every stage in the debate, Brexiters insist that it will be easy and that those who say otherwise are doom mongers; but every time those claims meet reality there turns out to be far more complexity than Brexiters believed (or at least than they told the electorate). Borders and what they mean are perhaps central to the Brexiter mindset: it is to say the least unfortunate that they don’t understand them. It is doubly unfortunate that we are all going to have to pay a very high price for their enlightenment.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Brexit McCarthyism

Amidst the growing chaos of Brexit a particularly nasty and insidious development is a kind of ‘Brexit McCarthyism’ in which any reservations, any debate about the wisdom of Brexit lead to accusation of treachery. The most obvious example of this was the now notorious Daily Mail ‘Enemies of the People’ headline, but it runs much deeper than that.

As long ago as 2014 leading Tory Eurosceptic John Redwood threatened “punishment” for firms which spoke out in favour of EU membership. This week it was revealed that “contractors bidding for work with the government are being asked to affirm that they back Brexit”. This may well be in violation of EU procurement rules, to which Britain is still subject, but in any case that is not really the point. Since when have the political views of companies been subject to testing?

This is part and parcel of the extraordinary vindictiveness being displayed by the Brexit government towards the near majority who voted against Brexit. Theresa May’s New Year broadcast, calling for unity after the divisions of the Referendum, appeared to strike a conciliatory note towards those who voted remain, including the passage:

So when I sit around the negotiating table in Europe this year, it will be with that in mind - the knowledge that I am there to get the right deal - not just for those who voted to leave - but for every single person in this country”.

Similarly May’s foreword to the Brexit White Paper spoke of:

The strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it happen … because after all the division and discord, the country is coming together”.

Of course a reasonably unifying form of Brexit would have been perfectly possible, that is, a soft Brexit in which we remained in the single market. It would have honoured the vote to leave the EU, and would be exactly the form of leaving that some Brexit campaigners and voters favoured. It would have given most voters some of what they wanted and some voters all that they wanted. But this is not what May’s government have chosen to pursue. Instead, we have the most divisive of approaches to Brexit and the ‘consensus’ being sought is one in which the 48% who voted remain including (most likely) the vast majority of MPs, business leaders, civil servants, civil society leaders and experts are required to pay homage to what they know will wreck the country.

The former Conservative PM Sir John Major, in a major speech this week, voiced his concerns about this:

“This 48% care no less for our country than the 52 per cent who voted to leave. They are every bit as patriotic. But they take a different view of Britain’s future role in the world, and are deeply worried for themselves, for their families, and for our country. They do not deserve to be told that, since the decision has been taken, they must keep quiet and toe the line. A popular triumph at the polls – even in a referendum – does not take away the right to disagree – nor the right to express that dissent. Freedom of speech is absolute in our country. It’s not “arrogant” or “brazen” or “elitist”, or remotely “delusional” to express concern about our future after Brexit. Nor, by doing so, is this group undermining the will of the people: they are the people. Shouting down their legitimate comment is against all our traditions of tolerance. It does nothing to inform and everything to demean – and it is time it stopped”.

His reward for this plea for tolerance?  To be denounced as a traitor and subjected to vitriolic personal abuse with ever-spiteful Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg’s “a craven and defeated speech of a bitter man” being one of the milder assaults. As with Tony Blair’s speech the week before, none of the critics were able to engage with the actual arguments made by people who, whatever one thinks of them, have, as former PMs, pretty significant experience. Boris Johnson’s response to Major (‘Come off it, sunshine’) was especially risible. A host of others, from Mark Carney to Sir Ivan Rogers to Patience Wheatcroft have received similarly unpleasant treatment, and these are just high profile examples. Day in and day out on social media and internet discussion forums the same narratives of treachery and betrayal are being played out, often in very violent language.

The real point behind the behaviour of the Brexiters is a simple one: they don’t have any idea whatsoever of how to proceed. The bulk of the Brexit movement was based on a supposed victimhood at the hands of the establishment, but now that they are the establishment they have no mode of discourse other than victimhood and so they use their power to punish. But, beyond that, they are simply bemused. From the moment the referendum result was announced, with Johnson and Gove looking like terrified rabbits in the headlights, Brexiters have not known what to do with their victory.

Even now that they have the weight of the British Civil Service (rumoured also to be subject to demands to show unqualified enthusiasm for Brexit) behind them what is clear is that they have no grasp at all of the detailed, practical complexities of Brexit. Every day some new problem emerges, from nuclear safety to fishing quotas, which was either ignored or glossed over during the Referendum. There is even a sense that the Brexiters now regret having run so mendacious a campaign since they seem to realize that, having expected not to win, they are now forever tarnished by it.

This is the reason for the angry Brexit McCarthyism in which any concerns with practicalities become disloyalty. If Brexiters had any serious, coherent ideas about what Brexit meant then, having won the referendum, they would be confidently pushing forward with these. Instead, they still rely on a series of half-baked slogans (‘taking back control’) and economically illiterate claims (‘BMW export lots of cars to Britain’) girded by meaningless ideas about ‘Global Britain’. None of these survive contact with reality and they – kind of – know it. Hence the recourse to a facile but vicious rhetoric of loyalty and betrayal.

The consequence is that Britain is now not only in a slow-burn economic and strategic crisis, but politically and culturally we are drifting into viciousness and – almost as bad – stupidity. As the inevitable disaster unfolds in the coming months and years, the anger of the Brexiters will, also inevitably, grow as they search for scapegoats for what they have done. In the frame will be anyone other than themselves. How long before tribunals are set up to ask a variant of the infamous McCarthyite question: “are you, or have you ever been, in favour of membership of the European Union”?



Update (5 March 2017): as further illustration/support for my argument in this post, consider this extract from an article in today’s Mail of Sunday by Anna Soubry, a Conservative MP who is opposed to Brexit:
“I have never known a political atmosphere like the current one in Westminster. There is a danger that the insidious methods used to silence all criticism of Brexit, no matter how reasoned and measured, will have disastrous consequences for our country … Yet that is exactly what is happening now as a ‘hard Brexit monoculture’ takes hold. Some are determined to stifle all dissent in their zeal to make everyone ‘conform’ to their views. I and others who have done no more than dissent from supporting aspects of the Government’s policy on Brexit have received vile abuse. I received an email from a Conservative-supporting clergyman who told me to ‘burn in hell, evil bitch’.”