Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Brexit: knowing our place


I've read just about every smug, self-serving article there is on Brexit - or at least every permutation. It has taken this long to see anyone in the legacy media show a glimmer of insight. This from Robert Shrimsley in the Irish Times almost gets it.
In one sense, Boris Johnson is right. The Brexit process has indeed felt like a national humiliation. How many Brits have felt our innards shrivel at key moments of the negotiations? And I am not talking about the incidents of diplomatic bumbling, of unwarranted second World War references and Dad’s Army condescension. I am talking about the parts of this process that have gone as predicted.
Perhaps we should step back from the bloviated rhetoric. Humiliation is too strong; a national humbling is more accurate. The philosophy of Brexit was that, freed of EU constraints, the UK would take its rightful place in the world. This is indeed what is happening, but alas that place is not as the great power of their imagination. The UK’s place in the world is hardly terrible but, as Mr Johnson learnt during his brief but undistinguished term as foreign secretary, our emissaries no longer bestride summits like Castlereagh. 
For far too long British politicians, journalists and voters have enjoyed a patently distorted vision of the nation as indispensable world player. Now the nation is facing the painful truth that the UK is not as pre-eminent as it has liked to believe.
Here we can fairly stick it to the Brexiteers, many of whom believe that once we leave a CANZUK alliance is in the offing along with a revival of the Commonwealth. The stereotype of the Colonel Blimp Brexiter who pines for lost empire no longer really exists. They all died off in the 90s - some even falling off their perch at Bruges Group meetings, falling asleep during a Ruth Lea lecture, never to wake up. 

Mostly, they are now just a piece of Brexit folklore. It is fair to say, though, that many of Leave's leaders do have an overstated sense of national importance. If anything it's the Tory Brexiters displaying the worst of it as many of them only stole the clothes of Euroscepticism in recent years. Boris Johnson himself is a pretender. Brexit, for them, is turning out to be a humbling exercise. 
For proof, look at the negotiations over the Irish border. One need not get into the rights and wrongs to see that the UK has essentially been pushed around by Ireland, because the EU has thrown its weight behind the demands of its continuing member. The hard fact is that the power imbalance has meant the UK is being forced to choose between the chaos of a no-deal Brexit or undermining the constitutional integrity of one of its four sovereign parts and signing up to a significant amount of rule-taking. This is what happens when a single country that is not America or China negotiates with a global trading bloc.
From the sequencing of the negotiations to the empty scorecard of British wins, the entire process has been a lesson in power politics. Few who saw the TV programme on America’s London embassy will forget the smirks as a US official described the British Brexit delusions: “They sort of see it as a negotiation between two equal parties.”
That insight, though, does not stretch as far as self-awareness for Shrimsley and the rest of the FT crocodile fodder. Where Brexit is concerned, Britain is a toothless old hasbeen (still with a few tricks up her sleeve) but essentially a second rater finally coming to terms with her irrelevance. But who suffers most from grandiose delusions? It ain't the Brexiters.

The UKs delusion of being a major power is facilitated and amplified by EU membership and it is that narcissistic self-image that shapes our establishment and how it operates domestically and internationally. Too often do we see British prime ministers joining the G20 parade puffed up with their own self importance. Of the illustration above you could pick any one from a thousand similar images which is ultimately power projection to send to the folks back home.

When it comes to the daily grind of international affairs, British representation is just another chair behind a little desk flag from which our diplomats "urge" tinpot dictators not to slaughter their own people and maybe not treat them like cattle. Without the soft power tools such as trade at our disposal Britain is toothless inside what is already a mostly pointless talking shop.

All the same, though, this allows us to nurture our own institutional self-righteousness that feeds a bloated NGO empire under the mantle of DfID that leads to UK aid spending in countries that at best regard us as irrelevant and at worst are waging a silent trade war on us. India for one. It is that same bloated self-importance that sees the UK at the font of the queue for vanity bombing campaigns in Libya and Syria, and leads to a bidding war in climate talks as to who can make the largest job killing sacrifice.

The British establishment, particularly through the Blair years, has nurtured a sense of moral superiority which starts in Number Ten and travels all the way down into the respective departments, making them tools of the UN Sustainable Development agenda providing all manner of junkets and non-jobs for MPs and their bag carriers. Britain has pioneered virtue signalling on an industrial scale.

The consequence of this is an perverse international aid target where we are throwing money away on narcissistic agendas completely independent of any national objectives and without any consideration of the direct national interest, not least because our own are trained to work for the greater glory of Brussels - which to them is the sum total of our national interest and participation in international affairs. The British government has turned itself into super NGO.

The liberal establishment loves this. It suits their vanity. The actual outcomes to them are wholly irrelevant just so long as we are loudly broadcasting our righteous intentions. We may congratulate ourselves for that but soundings from UNCTAD tend to suggest that the UK is suffering from White Saviour Syndrome. Our media is capable of acknowledging our impotence and arrogance in respect of Brexit, but these critical faculties are strangely absent at all other times. 

As much as there are domestic economic factors driving Brexit, the vote to leave was as much a spasm of revulsion at an aloof and out of touch establishment which is very much a consequence of having engineered a bubble of self-righteousness and international piety funded by the British tax payer.

Though there is still a case to be made for directed international development aid, the more egregious excesses have contributed to a perception that Britain is funding anything from the Ghanaian Spice Girls to subsidising the Indian space programme. It's not strictly true and the media gets the wrong end of the stick more often than not, but the liberal establishment then defends such spending without strategic objectives as an instrument of our moral imperialism. 

Here there is certainly a case for a sea change in how Britain conducts its international affairs. I have long argued that the NGOcracy should be purged from DfID with DfID being brought back under the umbrella of the Department for International Trade with aid spending being a tool of economic partnership agreements. Acting in the direct national interest is no sin. It is a peculiarly British thing that we do not. Here we could restore some of the UK's trade agility simply by way of being an active participant. Something Shrimsley doesn't seem to grasp.  
Much of the UK’s global clout derived from its being one of the big nations of the EU. Margaret Thatcher used that very platform to help create the single market, drive forward global trade and entrench democracy in eastern Europe. The 1970s champions of Britain’s membership were right in arguing that the alternative to pooled sovereignty was not more influence but less.
Now Britain is about to taste life as one of the loudest of the next level of voices. In this tier, maintaining influence beyond military matters requires the painstaking unbombastic alliance-building that saw our existing political and diplomatic practitioners so derided as sell-outs by our chauvinistic MPs and media. It might, for example, mean expediting entry permits for Moldovan trade representatives so they do not delay the UK’s ambitions at the World Trade Organization. 
And how will the UK’s status be reflected in its new trade deals? One has only to look at Donald Trump’s treatment of Canada to see that his negotiators will offer no special favours to the UK. Mr Trump is pro-Brexit because he wants to see a weakened EU, not to play benefactor to the UK. EU nations will be similarly cut-throat. Nor will sentimental attachments affect Commonwealth nations. Too many Brits fail to grasp that former colonies do not look back to the empire with unalloyed affection.
It is actually a popular fiction that the single market is a child of Thatcher. It was always part of the EEC blueprint and was sold to Thatcher as a liberalising initiative in keeping with her own economic reform agenda. This has seen the UK give up much of its regulatory autonomy. Pooling sovereignty (an entirely mendacious phrase) in many respects means handing over powers to Brussels and if the ECJ rubber stamps it then that;s the last time we have direct control over our own affairs. 

Shrimsley would have it that we are now reduced to "unbombastic alliance-building". Such is in the eye of the beholder. To me it marks the return of of the UK as an independent actor with its own dedicated corps of trade diplomats able to facilitate trade in a matter of months that would normally require a seven year negotiation and agreement of the EU 28 over a long ratification process.

As to that unbombastic alliance-building, with the UK once again having a free vote, freedom of association, and the right of initiative, we are very much able to from and lead alliances in the many global regulatory forums bringing pressure to bear on the EU that could see us leveraging trade reforms in the EU that we never could as members. There is more to trade than the WTO goldfish bowl. With the UK able once again to negotiate its own transatlantic and north-south air routes (for example) there is a lot we can do to expedite deals in ways the EU cannot. Disagreement among the EU 28 is partly why the EU is a graveyard for good ideas. 

For sure, the UK won't be rebuilding the Commonwealth but that it not to say that it isn't a worthwhile informal trade alliance (just one of a hundred forums) and though some members may not view the UK with "unalloyed affection" they are still pragmatists and enhanced trade relations with the UK are very much in their own interests. Part of the reason they seek trade with the EU is because the UK is presently a member of it. Shrimsley though, typical of his ilk, concludes with the usual array of tired Brexit cliches.
While this has all been understood by serious figures in government, too much of Britain’s politics, culture and self-image has been driven by its colonial past and the national myths built up around the last war. It is why the Brexiteers cling so desperately to the theory that Theresa May has betrayed Brexit. The alternative is to accept that it is their own reckless chauvinism that has reduced the UK to the role of supplicant with its former partners.
Adjusting to a reduced status will require a reality check in our media and our politics and a touch of humility. If Brexit helps the UK come to a more accurate realisation of its global significance, some good may yet come out of this wretched business. Still, it seems an expensive way to learn a lesson.
The Tory Brexiters may have a misty-eyed self-image of being a residual colonial superpower, but I'm not sure that's worse than the liberal establishment's narcissistic belief that we are a moral authority in the world using the EU as a proxy empire to dictate the internal policies of emerging economies. It is this delusion driving destructive regional and trade policies that drive migration into Europe, filling the seas with tens of thousands of corpses. 

I have long viewed Brexit as a yank on the leash of our politicians. It is long past the time our establishment had its toys taken away and be forced to confront our true place in the world. More than that it is a reminder to them that they are our servants whose loyalties do not belong to Brussels. What is required throughout the British establishment is a fundamental change of mindset. 

For a time this may mean we are in part an EU supplicant (in some competences), but only for as long as the EU remains a regulatory superpower which is far from assured. With every FTA the EU signs the centre of regulatory gravity shifts from Brussels to Geneva and as global standards overtake the EU, the UK's interests are best served by having its own voice and that "unbombastic" alliance-building capacity.

Here Shrimsley gives us an insight into the establishment mentality that nothing over an above the EU exists and Brussels is the fullest extent of their horizons. This is very much part of the problem and why, as the UK has dismantled its own regulatory diplomacy and diplomatic presence, it increasingly finds itself powerless in its bilateral discussions with those we seek to influence. It will take time to adapt to being a mid-ranking power and will come at a cost, but we are trading clout for agility and sovereignty - which is not to be underestimated. 

Arguably it is this political correction that is key to our economic revival. The disjointed economic, foreign and trade policies we've been running over three decades has meant riding two horses and attempting to serve two masters. It is this schizophrenia causing our economic and political dysfunction. It may very well be an expensive lesson - but most things worth having do tend to be expensive. 

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