Saturday, 6 January 2018

Brexitology: a redundant trade


The study of the nooks and crannies of Brexit, or Brexitology as it is known, is now a cottage industry. There is a platoon of self-appointed experts, myself included, each pontificating on various aspects of the process. For the most part we have all been elaborating on the same few morsels of progress and the debate has barely advanced in all this time.

Noticable is the space race between various think tanks seeking to own the issue, positioning themselves for greater influence in the bubble - keen to divide the spoils of war. Here I have to laugh at the futility of it because if there's one constant throughout this entire proceeding, it is that the government is not listening to anyone. The most prestigious "experts" in the field might as well be talking to themselves.

Parliament has its preferred and sanitised sources, but very often it adds little to the debate, and it is way over the heads of MPs who are generally unable to focus and they themselves are incapable of wielding any influence over the process. Though I might well complain that my message isn't getting through, nobody else can claim success either. Wasting an hour talking to a room full of MPs in a committee meeting might well add to reputational prestige but in terms of progressing the understanding, it is a wholly futile pursuit. 

With that in mind, the running commentary on Brexit is largely redundant. The government has set the tone and we know how this will go on the basis of previous form. The government will plough headlong into each stage with its own galactic misapprehensions and then prat about until the clock winds down. It will then be forced to concede, hailing each micro agreement as a great success - all the while the more difficult issues will be kicked into the long grass.

The media will get bored, tuning in only for the biff-bam showdowns while the Brexitologists churn over the same handful of topics, devoting its entire runtime to debating ever more arcane aspects of the debate to no useful purpose. As far as the trade debate goes, we are a way off that yet. It will be some time before much of the institutional knowledge of the Twittersphere can be put to good use but even then the government still won't be listening.

By then, the government will be taking its cue from the Tory right cronysphere pushing the usual predictable dross about mutual recognition. People who know what they are talking about (the few that there are) won't get a look in. Outwardly it will appear that Legatum Institute is running the show, but actually they're not being listened to either. They are just in the habit of telling the Brexiters what they already think.

By the time it comes to trade talks we will be trapped in the same cycle where one by one, the government's delusions will be dismantled by the EU and we'll be told what we must agree to. What form it will take will largely depend on the EU's regional policy at the time. If Mrs May sticks to her line that we are leaving the single market then we'll end up taking what we are given.

At this point, unless there is a change of government or some sort of seismic political event, the chances of the EEA/Efta solution are now somewhere around nil. Just as well since I will bleed internally if I have to have yet another conversation about Norway. It's really then just a question of how quickly we lose the trade that depends on the single market. Will it be a body blow or a slow bleed of vitality?

All the while, as an adjunct to the debate we will see the topic of trade with the rest of the world occasionally making a splash, but this will be considerably less political than the Brexit process, largely kicked out to civil servants and of interest to hardly anyone. This you can guarantee they will make a pigs ear of because trade wonks will be tasked with the technocratic task of replication without any political instruction, leadership or vision. Something that has dogged the entire Brexit process.

Tories have pressed hard for an independent trade policy but have zero idea what to do with the power when they have it, and all the dismal functionaries tasked with doing the job will be political appointees and one trick pony nerds who can't even acknowledge anything beyond the realm of free trade agreements. There won't be anything close to a global strategy simply because it means diving into the singularly unglamorous world of technical standards and interagency cooperation.

According to UK IPO's OECD report, 60,000 jobs were lost in the UK due to counterfeiting in 2016. Counterfeiting may have resulted in a potential loss of almost £3.8 billion in tax revenue for the UK government. Solving that is a bigger win than removing a dozen tariffs and yet it features nowhere in the Overton Window.

There has always been plenty of scope and opportunity for the UK in a post-Brexit world, and having explored some of the options, I think a motivated UK could do quite well for itself. The problem, however, is that the energy and drive isn't there because those concerned with delivering Brexit think only in terms of the constraints without thinking of creative ways around them. I do not think our political establishment is capable of recognising or mobilising the sort of talent we need.

This is ultimately why we are in for a long fight. We cannot expect economic renewal until we have political renewal - and unless we can restore some vitality and vision to our trade and foreign policy then the UK will gradually vanish from the international stage while our economy stagnates.

For that reason, Brexiters should focus their efforts on political reform. Brexit of itself cannot deliver - and that was always the case. Ridding ourselves of Brussels is only half the job. Driving a stake into the heart of the monster on the Thames is our biggest and most pressing concern. Let the Brexitologists carry on waffling to themselves.

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