Friday, 10 August 2018

Yes, Brexit IS worth it.


Brexit of itself should not be controversial. There is nothing outlandish or extreme in wanting to be able vote for a government that has the sovereignty to implement policies that the EU and its agencies (ECJ, Commission, etc) do not agree with. We leave so the UK can determine its laws, control its money and borders, independently of the EU and can diverge from EU policies where there is utility in doing so.

Nor is it especially outrageous to say that these things matter more than perpetual increments in GDP and that some economic turbulence is within tolerance. Economic growth is one thing but how we shape our culture and our environment still matters and having control over that is not an unreasonable demand. 

Remainers react in different ways to this. Some deny that we ever lost control, others say it is better in the hands of Brussels and some accept that what we leavers want is not unreasonable but demand a list of quantifiable advantages. That latter one is especially irritating since lofty principles such as sovereignty and democracy cannot be reduced to a single metric. Of themselves they are desirable.

Take for example trade. Trade is one of those things that can shape a country and its character. In recent years we have become a much more frivolous society thanks to an endless supply of conveniences where we place little premium on the things around us. We have an influx of cheap Chinese goods we are all to happy to consume - but then we complain about the demise of the high street and the decline in domestic production. 

Arguably, with China very often exporting low quality produce which would fail even cursory regulatory compliance assessment, evading taxes in the process, often using stolen intellectual property. At the first sign of this form of economic warfare (for that is what it is) we should have erected some form of trade defences. But that is no longer within our gift. 

Free trade fetishists will argue that this ultimately costs the consumer more and reduces their choices. But that really all depends on the externalities of that trade. If we are importing goods from China produced by low wage labour, cutting corners on pollution and using stolen intellectual property then our own producers cannot compete on a level playing field. The result then is an overall decline in available quality - and quality costs more. 

Similarly with agriculture. Some advocate a total withdrawal of subsidy and unilaterally dropping all trade defences so that UK farms have no hope of competing and landscapes are turned over to industrial development or giant solar farms. As someone who happens to think our landscapes are priceless and irreplaceable, along with placing a premium on a populated countryside, I am willing to tolerate an inefficient agriculture sector. 

What drives trade economists is the singular desire to make markets as efficient as possible. This is what I call spreadsheet sociopathy. Humans by their very nature are not efficient creatures. Hardly anything we do is efficient and if it were life would be dreadful. We are whimsical animals and our oddities define us. 

So the question of trade is really one of how do we wish to shape our surroundings and what we value. What should we seek to conserve and protect from the ravages of globalisation? Being that the UK has a sizeable tourist industry because of our landscapes it stands to reason that we should seek to maintain farming and countryside culture. 

This we cannot do if we do not have control of our own trade policy. Moreover, while some things may seem technocratic and apolitical, food and beverage labelling, for example, is more political than one might imagine. One recalls the feud between the EU and Norway as Norway sought to ban alcopops aimed at children. The measures they took we seen to be protectionist by the EU and the EU challenged them successfully. That has since become a totem case as to how the elimination of trade barriers attacks democratic control over social issues. 

Similarly I need not make much mention of the Tobacco Products Directive which has to be among the most unpopular measures from the EU in quite comes time. With little or no warning fundamental decisions affecting consumers are made at a level where they cannot be challenged or reformed and that's the end of the debate.

All of these points here above are arguable. You may have a different value system to mine. You may have different priorities which may lead you to conclude that the free trade fetishists are right and I am wrong. But that debate largely doesn't matter if that public debate stops dead without conclusions being actionable through our institutions.

Now this is all good in theory, but where it gets murky. Taking back control is a lot harder to do than giving it away. There are limitations to sovereignty. If we are not willing to cooperate with nearby countries we lose out on economies of scale over some commodities and we add overheads to the cost of commerce by adding controls and UK only specifications to imports. In many cases it is in our financial interests to cooperate. That is why we do want a deal with the EU.

What is unacceptable about the EU is that all of the negotiation and all of the rule-making is outsourced to Brussels and happens in a technocratic realm, devoid of politics and without necessary safeguards to ensure that the public does have a say in what can be bought and sold inside their own country.

Here we find that some free market liberals particularly love the EU because it prevents politics from interfering with consumer choices. But that turns us into passive consumers who simply graze on what is available on the basis of what is supplied. We are robbed of any kind of control.

We also have to look at this from a national security perspective. As this blog has pointed out, should we leave without a deal then the UK faces a number of acute supply problems. To have all of our external trade relations tied up in a single treaty system is quite obviously very risky. Unbundling such relations is a strategic necessity for an island which is absolutely dependent on imports.  

When we've left the EU we will seek to correct this by having our own bilaterals with third countries. Because we are a smaller market we can expect that these deals will not have the same advantages nor will we have the same leverage as the EU. But this is the trade-off for more control. 

As parliament takes a greater role in shaping our trade relations we will see a resurgence of lobbying from industry associations to ensure that UK producers are protected. Some will call this protectionism - or special pleading, and in some cases that will be true. It will be down to our elected individuals to make that call and they will be held accountable. Once we have those deals we will be able to modify them or trigger safeguard mechanisms if and when we find there is a problem.

Here we can combine aid, trade and foreign policy to pursue our own agendas according to our national strengths allowing our strongest sector to thrive. So long as we have a comprehensive trade relationship with the EU there is no reason why we should be substantially poorer for having left the political union. Over time the worst effects can be mitigated. 

The point to Brexit is to have the decision-making where we can see it where it responds to the impetus of public debate and input from civil society. Where this does happen in the EU, it tends to favour corporate lobbying in Brussels and diluted by the interests of twenty-seven other members. There is no possible way that can ever be democratic however many voting rituals they have.

In so doing we reignite politics and jump start participation which has long been dormant under EU rule. Agriculture and energy once again becomes political and part of the national discourse rather than managerial topics hived off to Brussels. There really is nothing reactionary or unreasonable about wanting to assert a level of control over things that directly influence our lives. 

What makes Brexit controversial is not the act in itself, rather it is is our hamfisted approach to it where we have oversold Brexit (or rather Vote Leave did) and underestimated the difficulty in unravelling forty years of technical integration. That alone is difficult enough but it's made worse by the exertion of political pressure from the Tory right who are obsessed with a very narrow definition of free trade where their approach actually exacerbates the many issues we experienced as EU members.

Through skilful manipulation of the agenda through their various sockpuppets and media outlets they have turned the Brexit question into a choice between the suboptimal status quo and a harebrained experiment in "free trade" with irreversible consequences touching every part of our lives. For all they accuse remainers of not respecting the result, they have taken the referendum verdict as a mandate for their own agenda which would lose hands down were it on any manifesto. 

This is why being a defender of Brexit is no fun these days. The Brexit camp can loosely be divided into two categories. The devious manipulators and the gullible followers. There is now a growing army of EEA Brexiters and we are gradually winning the argument against no deal, but the core of Tory influenced Brexit is still setting the agenda. 

In this I find there are no mainstream journalists commentators or politicians I support or respect and I've been shocked and saddened to see how some individuals I formerly admired have tragically fallen into the Tory trap. Consequently I spend more time attacking Brexiters than I do making the case for Brexit.

What's more, there is a core misapprehension at the heart of Brexit and it seems to affect both side of the debate. Brexit has been sold as a solution in itself rather than a means to an end. I cannot say how things will change for the better in that all Brexit really accomplishes is to give us the means to change. 

That, though, doesn't mean we will have a government any time soon with the wit, courage and imagination to go down a different path. The Brexiters have no credible vision but through their own shortsightedness have left it to the establishment to fill the policy void. We cannot, therefore, expect them to deliver change we will approve of. 

Being that opinion is atomised six different ways and good answers to difficult questions are in short supply, there is no negotiated Brexit that will satisfy everyone or even appease Brexiters. Brexit, therefore, is drowning under the weight of its inherent contradictions while those left to defend it are tainted and not up to the task. Since many of the miraculous converts to the cause never have no track record of even wanting Brexit we cannot expect them to put up a credible defence. 

This means it is left to grassroots activists to continue making the case for it - and there's only so much we can do in the face of a torrent of negative press - most of which is a consequence of Tory arrogance and profound ignorance. I then have leavers attacking me and calling me a remainer while actual remainers point out that the Brexit I argue for is increasingly not on the cards and the whole thing is likely to go south. 

The latter point I cannot argue. Skilfully negotiating our exit is simply beyond the ken of our political class and in the absence of intelligent media there is no guiding light. Much of the media coverage fixates on the leadership manoeuvres and Chequers plan without reference to anything Barnier has said about it. Meanwhile the remainer press indulge themselves in their second referendum fantasies Since there is no stopping this runaway train we simply have to wait for it to crash into the buffers and then see what can be salvaged.

I console myself with the fact that politics is a continuum and that there is no end point to this. The European question will remain central to our politics for a long time to come and once the Tory position stands as an abject failure and the Tory right are marginalised, we can then have an honest debate about how to repair this mess and bring the country back together. Even if we crash out, no deal cannot stay no deal. We will have to rebuild some form of formal relations with the EU. 

Back in 2015 when we started The Leave Alliance we always knew Brexit would be a question of how rather than whether. To date the Remain campaign have yet to offer a compelling reason to remain. They can only cry foul about shenanigans of Vote Leave, the loss of "rights" the remain voting middle class enjoy and the inherent dangers of mishandling the exit process. None of this can persuade me or any dedicated Brexiter that we wish to remain a bit part of le grand project.

The prize at the end of this road is a self-governing country where the public are better able to shape the decisions made in their name. Anyone who voted with that in mind knew there would be a long road to travel and that we would have to make sacrifices. There is nothing in the Remainer arsenal of arguments that can compete with the idea of self-determination. That is what they never truly understood and that is why they lost. We took a long hard look at our politics and decided that this must change. Nothing happened since to shake that view. We cannot go on like this.  

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