Thursday, 2 August 2018

Brexit: another Dunkirk moment

One of the more irritating facets of the Brexit debate is those academics for whom Brexit is a hobby horse to which they can append their repertoire without any reference to the issues in play. This is especially typical of vessels such as Spiked Online and latterly Breifings for Brexit

Typically they will churn over any morsel of Brexit news to see how it fits in with their pet narratives, which leads them to produce meaningless verbiage which adds nothing to the debate. One example of this, the linked Briefings for Brexit article, starts on the premise that there is an ideology driving the Chequers plan. There isn't. This is politicking.

Richard Tuck argues that the key aspect of the Chequers deal is UK adherence to EU state aid rules and competition policy primarily because of Conservative values - as if there were any such thing. "It is not the Conservative Brexiteers who have been out-manoeuvred by this document: it is the Corbynite Left" he says. Like much of our media, he only sees it in terms of Westminster party political manoeuvres entirely divorced from any external impetus.

This negotiation, though, is not a negotiation and it is not driven by directly by any doctrine. It is more a matter of the UK making a decision as to which of its narrow options it can live with. Once that decision is made we might actually get somewhere but until then we are drifting toward an accidental Brexit where our fate is decided for us.

Here you have to scrap any notion that there is an intellectual driving force behind the current approach to Brexit. Even looking for one is a mistake. This is all about navigating EU technocracy in situation where the UK has next to zero leverage.  

The EU single market is a market governance system. If we want to be able to get past its outer firewall, which for the purposes of the NI border we certainly do, then there are conditions which must be met. 

The short of it is that if you want frictionless trade then you must have regulatory harmonisation. The Tory right, however, think the whole point of Brexit is so that we can deregulate thus are implacably opposed to either a common rulebook or the EEA. They mistakenly believe that divergence maximises trade potential. It doesn't.

But this puts May between a rock and a hard place. She has political obligations in respect of the Irish border along with a need to maintain as much existing trade as possible. She has therefore attempted to package which satisfies both the EU demands and those of her party. It cannot work though because the two positions are irreconcilable. You cannot have unilateral divergence in a regulatory union. That is why the plan was a stillborn at its first mention.

There is no higher philosophy at work here. This is just the collision of Tory "free trade" fantasy with the reality that the EU is the regional regulatory superpower. In or out of the EU, the EU will call the shots.

This, therefore, is not a negotiation. Rather we ware presented with two possibles for future trade relations with the EU from which the government must pick one. Instead, they have been utterly deaf to what Brussels has said, trying to square the circle with new proposals none of which are workable because the Tory high command simply hasn't understood the nature of the dilemma.

This is made all the more acute since the Tories have since convinced themselves that we can in fact leave the EU without a deal and expect trade to carry on as normal. We are, therefore, getting absolutely nowhere.

The mistake made by this author, is the belief that there is a doctrine behind the Tory approach. There isn't. It is purely an attempt to bridge and unbridgeable gulf in an equation where one side goes away with nothing.

Meanwhile the left won't commit to a decisive position since they left has its own unbridgeable divide. There is London metro Labour who voted to remain and then there's working class regional Labour who voted to leave. One side wants to keep freedom of movement, the other does not. They will, therefore, duck the question of the single market and instead mutter platitudes. 

The bottom line is they don't want to touch it with a barge pole. The EU issue is something the left simply don't care about. They have only ever had a united position on a surface level in order to exploit the "Tories are split on Europe" narrative.

What we now find though is that Labour is acutely split on the issue, with the hard left believing we must leave the single market because they think it prevents nationalisation, because that's the gossip in the Westminster bubble. They haven't done the research and the wouldn't know where to start.

So now we have an entirely atomised politics with no coherence from any side, with positions mutating on a weekly basis while no single faction commands an overall majority.

To ascribe doctrinal qualities to the Chequers plan is to misread it as a decisive political position with particular objectives in mind. It isn't. It was a fudge and one based on recycled material the EU has already declined. Only an academic could be unaware of this.

The joke of it is that the Tories are looking for a solutions which won't see them wiped out at the next election. Again this is entirely futile. If May does make the only concession to reality that she can make - then she loses the hardliners and the DUP. If she doesn't then we leave without a deal and we end up trashing a £270bn a year trade relationship - costing us millions of jobs and causing cuts to government like we haven't seen for decades. She'll be out on her ear.

This is what many on the extremes want. The disaster capitalists on the Tory right see a no deal as an opportunity to bring about Singapore on Thames, while the Momentum clan see it as an opportunity to give us the full Venezuela treatment. Given that neither is realistic and both and uniquely damaging to the UK, you cannot be surprised if most conclude that the economic status quo of the single market is massively preferable to the alternative visions on offer.

This is where an EEA Efta compromise comes in. It's only 27% of the EU acquis largely safeguarding frictionless trade and going most of the way to uphold our political obligations to Northern Ireland. May, for the moment, will not touch this, because her hardliners have convinced themselves that the EEA option is akin to remaining and does not satisfy the vote. 

Frighteningly, a large contingent of leave voters now believe that because the media can only cope with an issue if it turns it into a confrontation between the far extremes. We therefore get the ultra remainers on one side and then the morons like Kate Hoey, Julia Dunning-Kruger and Brendan O'Neill on the other. Being that people are generally tribal and bovine they cannot separate the issues from the personalities and will now support the hardline narrative simply any form of compromise is now described as a "betrayal".

That this how it is. Attempts to divine some kind of philosophical substance in all this based on time honoured divisions and principles is really just intellectual masturbation from academics who no more understand the systems, processes and intractable dilemmas than the man in the street - who probably has a better grasp of it than they do.

High politics has all but retreated from the arena. We are used to an irrelevant self-indulgent politics with its denizens squabbling among themselves - where their excesses are successfully contained. That, in part has been the greatest achievement of the EU. It is why we have enjoyed an era of relative economic and political stability.

What we find, though, is that eventually the status quo is sufficiently offensive to the majority that the status quo must change. A quick look at any northern high street gives you some indication as to why the public feels inclined to change it. But now we confront the biggest of all the EU's failures.

Having isolated and contained normative politics, it has retreated to high fantasy - and now that we want to put politics back in the fame we find is is no longer equipped for governing and all we are left with is zealous teenage ideology to guide us based on tried and failed ideas. Managing a transition like Brexit was always beyond their ken.

In this we might look to our media and academia to provide some kind of direction, but having become a part of the warped Westminster ecosystem, it is no more equipped to handle complicated change than our politics. Now we pay the price as we coast toward a calamity. What is driving our approach to Brexit is not ideological. It is simply an attempt to balance the electoral equation to stay in office. 

That right there is the fundamental dysfunction of our politics. We have an exhausted party political system with ideas which are simply not relevant to the world as we find it. Our parties are just marketing brands opportunists can use to to get their nose in the trough and once they get there they will use the apparatus of government to stay there. The national interest falls between the cracks. This is why we probably have to have a Dunkirk moment in order to return to good governance.

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