Thursday, 20 December 2018

Brexit: the death of reason


Pictured above is a sample of my reading over the last two years. I don't consider myself an expert because the subject is so vast and there is always much more to learn. Of what I do know, and of what I have understood, it would be fair to say that I have acquired a very specialised knowledge of a largely misunderstood and complex discipline. There are only a handful of people who interrogate the subject at this level.

I am, therefore, not in the least but persuaded by the optimistic assertions of the no deal Brexiters. Whenever I raise the subject on Twitter I have people telling me that they work in the sector and they believe everything will be fine. The basic misapprehension at work is the belief that negotiating commercial contacts is anything like international trade diplomacy. It isn't. Commerce is not trade. Trade is a discipline in its own right.

Those who think trade is simple are largely the beneficiaries of international trade accords that remove customs formalities and technical barriers. After thirty years of single market operation, those now working in commerce have never known anything different. 

Facilitating this trade is multiple tiers of regulatory controls involving dozens of different specialisms from veterinary officials to trading standards. What most people see is just the tip of the iceberg. The rest makes up a fabric of invisible government that no-one knows is there until it goes wrong. The system is taken for granted. What we can say with confidence about this system of controls is that if we unplug it all at the wall then things very rapidly start to go wrong.

This is where the no-dealers provide me with a litany of nostrums based on half-understood memes proliferated by Tory propagandists - the latest being "managed no deal". My reading and writing on the subject, I think, entitles me to say with a similar confidence that they are wrong. 

We are told that because we start off from a position of conformity there is no problem. But of course conformity means nothing if there is no formal recognition of conformity. And for every subsequent problem there's a made up WTO rule that magics it all away. At this point you're not arguing with a rational mind. You're dealing with somebody reinforcing their own dogma. These such debates only strengthen their ignorance.

Worse still, we then get celebrity businessmen who have no real role in the day to day running of their own companies telling us they believe no deal will be fine because they export all over the world without any problems. People choose who they want to believe on the basis of prestige. All of my reading, all of my understanding is rendered inert. When people need to make a decision based on zero knowledge their look to sources of prestige on their own side be it a QC or a businessman.

With this dynamic, each side builds its own sacred scriptures which then circulate within the tribe to become articles of faith and no amount of argument or evidenced debate is going to make a dent. Every breath is wasted. Consequently the petition to leave without a deal is now racing up to three hundred thousand signatures.

The reason the ERG no deal propaganda machine is so successful is because each of their simplistic nostrums and slogans require thousand word technical refutations that their supporters will never read, much less understand. We are now deep into what Carl Jung called a "psychic epidemic".
“Indeed, it is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes. The supreme danger which threatens individuals as well as whole nations is a psychic danger.
Reason has proved itself completely powerless, precisely because its arguments have an effect only on the conscious mind and not on the unconscious. The greatest danger of all comes from the masses, in whom the effects of the unconscious pile up cumulatively and the reasonableness of the conscious mind is stifled".
Ordinarily this would not present us with much of a problem. This is, after all, parliament's decision. It is within their power to stop a no deal Brexit. The no deal extremists are in the minority. The problem, though, is that there is a psychic epidemic on the other side of the house which believes that it can legislate against the automatic outcome of Article 50 if no deal can be agreed. Such is not in their gift. 

They believe that, should they vote down the deal on the table, Mrs May will have to go back to Brussels to reopen the books. This is not something Brussels is inclined to do. There may yet be one last little dance but it will not fundamentally change the substance of the deal. There are then the ultra remainers who are playing a game of double or quits, believing that if the deal is voted down the can force Number Ten to revoke Article 50. A dangerous gamble. 

We therefore stand on a dangerous precipice where literally everything depends on May's wildly unpopular deal scraping through parliament. It is for this reason alone I support the deal. There is plenty to say about the pitfalls and potential traps within the deal and plenty to pick holes in, but it is the deal on the table and no deal is not something we can afford. 

In another mind I might be inclined to dump the deal and stand up for the principle, but in the end that does not get us anywhere. No deal cannot remain no deal and we will be in no better position to strike a bargain with the EU after the fact. What little leverage we have will be used up just trying to reopen talks. There is a danger we could very easily sour relations with our closest allies resulting in a decade or more of economic turmoil and political discontent.

For all that fellow leavers tell me that May's deal is a trap and that the customs union will become permanent, my reply is less detailed than it once would have been. My answer is now "tough shit!". There was a plan, the was an alternative there were windows of opportunity along the way. All of them were squandered. At some point you have to simply accept the consequences and take it up with those responsible. 

In the final analysis, Theresa May's deal has one redeeming quality. It keeps us in the game and gives us another roll of the dice. There is a window in which to press for an alternative. The Efta option may be dead but the EEA acquis is still an artefact and there are ways and means to make use of it. The political declaration has more binding effect than is assumed and once we have a withdrawal agreement in the bag, the mood will change and we can expect a change of tone on all sides. The immediate dangers will have passed. 

Here I am guided by one simple premise. Brexit was always going to be an evolutionary process. We were never going to get what we want in one go. May's deal means it will take longer than I ever anticipated and the deal will park us in a suboptimal position for a decade or more. 

But then European relations are a continuum and there will be events along the way that influence and steer the process. In some ways we will converge and in others we will diverge. But in every formal sense we will not be a member of the European Union and that singular fact has real world implications that will lead to future clashes in which issues will be resolved one way or another. This is true of all non-EU European states. Politics will eventually collide with technocracy.

Brexit was never an economic proposition but that doesn't mean we can simply disregard the economic concerns. They are both real and urgent. Our future trade and geostrategic position matters - and for Brexit to be workable long term we need to be mindful of that. On that score we need to start from a position of relative strength - which we won't if we leave without a deal. We will very rapidly slide down the rankings and then there is no future window to salvage the situation.

No deal Brexit is ultimately the pet project of of the Tory right. Their economic theories are a relatively new addition to the Eurosceptic worldview and really only tracked on after the fact. Through their respective propaganda channels they have successfully co-opted the eurosceptic movement as a figleaf of democratic legitimacy for their radical economic agenda. There was no built in mandate for this in the referendum and it has never been openly debated. They are using the referendum for their own nefarious purposes; to advance and agenda based on intellectually bankrupt ideas. May's deal is at the very least a safeguard against that.

My younger self may have subscribed to the ideas of the Tory right, and were it not for my corrective education I might still favour no deal, but the world is not as simple as they believe it is. There are rules within rules and there is no simplifying the inherently complex - much though we may wish it were otherwise. It's one thing to believe in Britain and to be optimistic for the future; to trust in Britain's capabilities, but to act on the basis of wishful thinking is pure foolishness. We are better than that. I hope.   


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