Monday, 8 April 2019

Peter Oborne is wrong


Peter Oborne has come out as a reluctant remainer in the face of the government making a total pig's arse of Brexit. He's probably not alone. We are at the end of the line and we now have to hold this thing up to the light and say what we see.

In most respects I find it hard to disagree with Oborne in that much of what he says has already been charted over the course of this blog. The ignoramuses in the Brexit campaign aristocracy have made endless misleading and false claims and it is hard to argue that there is any geopolitical or economic merit to Brexit as envisioned by the lead Brexiters.

Oborne is right to cast a critical eye on Brexit's remaining supporters. On the one hand we have foaming rightists whose economic arguments are not supported by any sane or honest analysis, and then on the left it's a ragbag of radicals from the Corbynistas who see Brexit as a prerequisite for full socialism, and then there's the infantile Spiked brigade who've persistently refused to engage with the subject matter on an adult level.

Brexit has been dogged by saboteurs throughout the process but I can think of no political cause in living memory so prone to self-sabotage. The ERG would have a far more legitimate claim to betrayal had they at any point worked up a deliverable plan instead of doing everything in their power to bring about a no deal scenario. Not at any point have they constructively engaged in the process or recognised the realities of modern trade.

Through their respective propaganda vessels they have poured substantial resources into promoting the idea that we have nothing to fear from no deal, enlisting their friends in the Spectator, The Telegraph and even The Times to deliberate pollute the debate and obfuscate on critical points of detail. They cannot then be surprised to see that the whole of the Westminster apparatus works to frustrate their agenda. The ERG are the ones who made this a winner takes all fight to the death. They are the ones who gambled our win to say double or quits.

The ultimate absurdity here is the belief that having no deal with the EU is a sustainable place from which to operate internationally. The Brexiters have played on public ignorance of trade, skilfully confining the debate to tariffs on goods which barely scratches the surface of what is an academic and professional discipline in its own right.

Here Brussels has made itself clear. The EU will do the bare minimum to preserve its own commercial interests but will act to preserve its own territorial sovereignty and the integrity of its legal order. They would find means to avoid a hard border in Ireland - not least because they have made explicit promises to Ireland in respect of that. This, though, will require that they bend every rule in the book to make it work. That presents them with a problem.

If the UK leaves without a deal then there is a gaping hole in its customs frontier which the Tories can very easily weaponise. Up with this they will not put. The precondition of restarting talks on a formal relationship for the future will be something akin with the backstop and they will use all of their soft power and weight as a trade superpower to ensure we sign on the dotted line before they talk turkey. We'll be hanging out in the breeze, hemorrhaging jobs and investment until we do. This could have been avoided by taking the EEA Efta path at the very beginning but Brexiters wailed about that saying that it was not Brexit. Another spectacular own goal.

Whether we sign May's deal now or crash out on to WTO terms, it will be the case that Britain will have an inferior and asymmetric trade relationship with the EU. That is jointly the fault of the ERG and Theresa May with her irreconcilable red lines. That is the consequence of entering this undertaking without vision, ambition or even half a clue. At every turn ignorance has won out.

Were I viewing Brexit solely through the prism of economics, disregarding all other factors, then I would find myself resigning to the depressing conclusion that we have squandered the window for a successful Brexit, and we as a movement were largely defeated by own own incompetence and dishonesty. That is Oborne's very pragmatic conclusion. 
Finally – and without naming them – I must state that there are many MPs (and not a few journalists) still marching under the Brexit banner who will read this article with a sympathy and support they do not feel able to declare. They too have changed their minds. I have, and must say so. Fair enough (you may think), but where is the ringing declaration of love for the European Union? We have seen the passionate beliefs of the Brexiteers. Where’s your own positivity? Where your matching passion for Remain?
I have none. Only a deep, gnawing worry that we are making a significant mistake: a worry that is growing by the hour. Call that negative, if you like, but precaution is negative – yet it is part of our kit for survival.
This is where I part company with Oborne. Every single argument rests on the fact that whether we like it or not, the EU has us by the balls. That fundamentally describes our entire relationship with the EU. We have always viewed it as an entirely transactional relationship out of resignation. It is that same resignation that has seen us sucked ever deeper into the EU where we have sleepwalked into a supreme government for Europe - which has massive powers over how we are governed, and substantially more than any of us ever realised. It is that precise resignation and defeatism that led to what we were warned of in 1975. This is why the issue still festers and divides our politics. 

Much of what has been done to the UK is largely irreversible. There has been a quiet revolution in trade and governance. We have moved from fumbling democracy to ruthlessly efficient managerialism where all concerns in respect of identity, heritage, culture and democracy are entirely subordinate to the four freedoms - and though these care dressed up as individual freedoms they are ultimately the four freedoms of capital which always drives a bulldozer through democracy.

There is no winding the clock back, there is no great restoration, but at the very least Brexit is drawing a line in the sand and sets us on a path of restoring the people as the supreme authority. That does not lead to sunlit uplands nor does it bring about a renaissance in free trade. It will cost us greatly. Brexit is a seriously expensive business. That, though, is not reason enough not to do it.

One can pick fault with the withdrawal agreement as it stands, arguing that the EU retains control in a number of key areas. I liken it to erecting scaffolding in order to deconstruct EU membership a piece at a time where the control the EU has wanes over time as the legacy concerns become less relevant. The EU can be trusted to honours its obligations under the political declaration and eventually the backstop will be replaced. Politically it could not be sustained and neither side is especially keen on it. All bilateral relationships evolve and ours with the EU has always been a continuum.

Hardline Brexiters, though, are still insistent that May's deal "is not Brexit" but in truth, though the EU holds us to maintaining certain standards and requires that we coordinate our trade policy with the EU (which we would end up doing anyway) it still removes most of the EU's power over domestic governance. We would still, in the eyes of the world, be a distinct entity to the EU. Out is out. 

Here, though, it is not the ERG standing in the way of leaving with a deal. The ERG are certainly a nuisance but it's parliament as a whole steering us to the edge of the cliff, hoping that the terror of no deal will be enough to put brakes on Brexit for good. Economic blackmail. And it worked on Peter Oborne.

I take the view that if we leave without a deal then it won't take very long for there to be a wider realisation that a deep and comprehensive relationship with the EU is both inevitable and necessary and if we have to rebuilt that relationship from the ground up then so be it. As much as it will discredit the ERG ultras, ultimately the blame for the damage will rest squarely with Parliament as a whole and as much to do with them playing the same double or quits games as the ERG. 

I didn't vote to leave the EU because I thought it would be good for the economy. A long time ago I probably believed that it would be, but those days are long over. Fundamentally it is a question of what the EU really is. It may not be a federal superstate and may never become one, but it's ninety per cent of the way there and increasingly acts like one on the global stage and is largely accountable to no one. Democratic safeguards are non-existent. 

The fact of the matter is that Britain has finally decided to resolve the matter of its uncomfortable and divisive membership of the EU. It is essential we find a way forward everyone can live with. If we do not now commit to that process then we will never be given another choice. That singular fact is perhaps the most glaring and most urgent matter to resolve. Democratic politics is supposed to be about choices where the people have the power to make them. Here we're saying we have no choice and we will rob the people of the power to make that choice. 

That Brexit is going to end up more expensive than it ever needed to be is not the fault of Brexit as an idea. There are a multitude of reasons why this process has unfolded so badly, and all of the key players on both sides share in some of the blame. It points to a deep dysfunction in politics and media and a more worrisome chasm of values between our political class and the country as a whole. It is the intransigence of our establishment that has brought us to this point. they are the ones making us pay more for Brexit that we ever had to. 

We could defer this decision and attempt to sweep it all under the carpet as though it never happened, but it wouldn't resolve anything, and there is no reason to believe we will handle it any better the second time around. Opinion is too atomised and the complexity is beyond the ken of our low grade politicians. We cannot be held hostage to their galactic incompetence. In so doing we would be admitting that this shambolic managed decline is the best Britain can aspire to. That is not an admission I care to make.

Britain is a first world nation of sixty-five million people. We can and should be self-governing. We have a long way to go before we can call ourselves a democracy but we won't get there unless we are able to choose who governs us. It really comes down to whether you believe that the UK has the intellectual and material resources to make a go of it. Though the former is certainly not evident in our ruling class, the human capital of this country is enormous. We do have the talent if only there is the political will.

If it is not already abundantly clear, it will soon become unmistakably necessary to have a fundamental clearout in Westminster. Brexit will be that catalyst. The process has already started. The Independent Group will likely lose most, if not all of their MPs and it won't take very long to dispense with the Brexiteer deadbeats too. 

Britain's social, political and economic problems are not going to be solved until we reboot our politics and if our politicians must grovel to Brussels for permission to make meaningful changes to the way we do things, then politics will remain in its current stagnation. However expensive you think Brexit may be, the cost of flushing our democracy down the pan is unthinkable. Sooner or later there is a price to be paid. 

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