Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Spare a thought for Brexit Derangement Syndrome sufferers.


These days it is not uncommon to see formerly sane individuals losing the plot completely over Brexit. Brexit Derangement Syndrome has claimed its fair share of high profile victims from the ridiculous AC Grayling through to Alastair Campbell. They actually deserve their self-imposed torment. Poisonous vindictive silly little men deserve what they get.

But then as someone who wants to see a successful managed departure, I'm somewhat prone to losing my shit too. For a long time we've had the likes of Spiked and The Spectator telling us "we have nothing to fear from a no deal Brexit" calling on some of the most wildly wrong interpretations of WTO rules and seriously misreading how the EU trading system works. As much as they are demonstrably wrong, they cannot be told anything.

Typically there's the dribble about EU tariffs, often failing to understand that EU tariff rates are the default for those nations with no formal preferential agreements and in terms of developed nations and the oft invoked "poor African nations", that amounts to very few. The narratives just don't stack up.

Then there's the guff about "mini deals" in place of a withdrawal agreement. What they refer to is a limited number of unilateral contingency measures taken by the EU on the condition they are reciprocated. This may well offset some of the worst predictions made early on, but with a whole tranche of authorisations ended, and a number of additional third country controls detailed in the Notices to Stakeholders, that's still a very serious impact on trade.

Then there's the general misapprehension of what trade means. Trade in services is not just a banking concern. This is a question of being able to support goods sold all over the continent where we need visa arrangements, recognition of certification and a number of other market freedoms where agreements on tariffs (assuming the could be rapidly sorted out under Article 24 WTO) are neither here nor there. You need a whole stack of treaty instruments for the free circulation of goods and services up to and including recognition of driving qualifications. They prattle on about tariffs when tariffs are less than a tenth of the issue, emphasising how tinkering with tariffs somehow offsets the damage of trashing a complex integrated market system like the one we are presently part of.

For the no deal devotees, there is no problem to which they do not have a pre-prepared nostrum or slogan which either ignores the issues or ducks the question entirely. But then after three years of intense public debate, it's getting harder for the likes of Tice and Farage to make these assertions without being humiliated. This is perhaps why there has been a subtle shift in rhetoric, and perhaps explains why they have brought the Spiked groupies into the fold who persistently bleat about democracy and sovereignty.

Now this blogger certainly does not discount those issues. It is fundamentally why I am a leaver. But then democracy and sovereignty as objectives are problematic. You can have absolute sovereignty and jealously guard it but in so doing lose all of the trade advantages of coordination, harmonisation and cooperation. And then if we are simply transferring cack handed decision making from Brussels to the London bubble then that is no improvement for democracy either. In respect of technical governance it could even get worse.

And then there is a general failure to recognise that the exercise of sovereignty is not inconsequential. For sure after Brexit, especially in the even of a no deal Brexit, we will have the sovereignty to do a great many things as suggested by lexiters. The problem here is that the EU does not stop existing after Brexit and as the regional trade and political superpower, it can and will respond to the UK unilaterally subsidising things. As much as we are likely to breach a number of international conventions upon which EU rules are based, others will react to any behaviour they see as anti-competitive. Pretty soon you have a tit for tat war of frustrating measures which the UK loses most of the time.

The lexiters reside in non-interconnected world where economic policy can be imposed unilaterally without regard to global context, where increasing tax on upwardly mobile corporates and high earners inevitably leads to increased revenues without risk of relocation. Where the City's hegemony is inevitable and can be squeezed for new revenues as though other nations are incapable of competing for business. Where Government can pick and choose which international laws and regulations it deigns to adhere to without losing global influence in making those laws. Where the government can nationalise and subsidise industry at a whim without fear of reprisal or economic consequence. Like their ultra right bedfellows, they live in a world of their own.

Those of us who have factored in these realities recognised early on that much in the eurosceptic canon was obsolete baloney and that the march of globalisation means Brexit is only a partial remedy. For instance, it can be argues that the single market creates structures that favour corporates as only they can afford to the compliance. I have made that case myself somewhere on this blog, detailing how the EU has changed UK business culture in many subtle ways over the years - and not for the better. 

The problem here is that even in a WTO Brexit we are still signatories to the WTO Government Procurement Agreement and still independent signatories to a number of environmental conventions which create many of the regulatory requirements in the contract bidding process. We can leave without a deal but the scope for deregulation is nowhere near what is believed without dismantling a number of global accords - which is not going to happen. All that would happen is that we could fiddle round the edges to make marginal improvements but the net result is a reciprocal response form the EU and the loss of access to EU markets.

Then there are certain facts of life the Brexit blob choose to ignore. The dilemma of regulatory and trade gravity where the larger customer usually dictates the regulatory conditions where there are often clashes with other systems. This is where it gets to a technical level that the flapping mouths of Spiked Online cannot cope with. 

If you are going to leave the EU you at least need to have a destination in mind and a comprehensive overview of the potential obstacles, but in the binary brains of the Brexit blob we are moving out of the EU regulatory sphere and into an unregulated wild west inhabited by buccaneering free traders. If that was ever the case then it was a very long time ago. In the modern world there are dilemmas to which there are are no satisfactory answers and to arrive at an optimal outcome will will have to engage on a number of multilateral platforms seeking a global consensus - which is not at all easy. 

Those of us who have done the thinking arrived at the conclusion that the Efta EEA system was the best balance of outcomes between trade and sovereignty - and though suboptimal, the UK would still be sufficiently influential to rebalance the Efta-EU equation. But this wouldn't do for the headbangers. Spiked called it a "third way non-Brexit". Only a total self-immolation can be considered the One True Brexit.

After some years of trying to explain these facts of life to their devotees, I am now bordering on Brexit Derangement Syndrome myself - driven to the brink of insanity and dismay as they invent any flimsy excuse not to plug into Sanity FM. So now we have to go over the cliff for the sake of their education at a major cost to the UK economy and our political standing in the world. And even then they will still make excuses for themselves.

Now you can credibly argue that a no deal Brexit has certain beneficial social impacts (which I won't go into) - if your objective is to wholly transform the UK into a less dynamic and more austere country. There's no shame in that. There are reasonable moral arguments for doing so, but that tends to come from the more dour CofE wing of conservatism and it's certainly not what the lexiters have in mind. I've made some of the arguments myself and have been suitably ridiculed for them. It requires people give up a lot of the perks they are currently used to and that is not something people like doing.

You can also argue that we don't get anywhere near a new economic settlement without first resolving the politics, and the so-called WTO option certainly does open a window for seismic political change, but there are certainly no guarantees it will resolve anything and could in fact send our politics into a state of permanent dysfunction until such a point where there is general agreement that grovelling back to Brussels is our only salvation. We may want to govern ourselves but it may transpire that such is beyond our abilities when faced with the avalanche of problems created by a no deal Brexit.

None of this though is what they promise us. What they offer is a buccaneering "fwee twade" future free of the shackles of the EU - and as a reasonably well respected trade commentator I can tell you it doesn't have even a passing relationship with reality. The extent to which the no deal headbangers dissemble and obfuscate would send any reasonable person round the bend.

Worse still is the cynical tactics they employ, doing the rounds of northern working men's clubs to drum up support for their ill conceived venture. There is nothing about a no deal Brexit that will improve the fortunes of the northern slum towns and dead end seaside resorts. When the mines shut, the ones with nous retrained and used their substantial redundancy money to invest and get out of dodge. The ones who squandered it in those very same clubs on card games and horse racing are still whining bitterly even today.

The Working Mens Clubs are not representative of the north or indeed the working class. They are the fag end of the 70's working class and no longer a cornerstone of northern culture, which these days is not a million miles away from culture in the south. Bradford has its own craft beer offerings and Saltaire village is almost hipster insofar as anywhere in Yorkshire can be. The north has moved on yet we are to believe beer bellied northern rugby nerds are northern lions and the authentic voice of working class Brexit voting Britain. Well, that can fuck off basically.

My family home was less than fifty yards from an infamous working mens club, often the subject of television poverty safaris. You have to hunt pretty hard to find one these days so it's not surprising TV producers always land on the obvious. I never went in the place and nor did my dad. We had a crap Vauxhall Astra and a Fiat Regatta estate which I still regard as the worst car ever made and even worse than anything made by British Leyland. Middle class we were not. 

My parents just found nothing particularly edifying about the slovenly local behaviour and educated me to aspire to more. I went to the same mediocre schools and worked the same local chemical plant. Nowhere, though, does it say by beginnings dictate my political leanings or that I should be a slave to them and I fail to see why complex and consequential decision making must take into account the issue illiterate grunts of ignorant northerners who get their information from the likes of Farage whenever he's on the telly. 

That is not to say they should have no voice at all, but we cannot allow a populist fever massaged by demagogues to shunt reality into the sidings. The lionsation of a tiny fragment of an increasingly diverse and increasingly affluent working class is little more than narrative manipulation. But then of course this makes me an elitist! See how this works? You're a snob if you don't bend to the ignorant grunting of Ukip 2.0.

But then we need a little history lesson here. Brexit was never specifically about the WTO option. The Tory Brexit machine didn't really go hot on that until after the referendum. They popularised it by way of having enormous influence over London prestige media. It's only because Farage, being idle, knowing little and having no ideas of his own, that he adopted no deal as a populist default. So then a narrative engineered by a band of powerful Tory donors is now being sold back to us as the authentic voice of the working man in the north. Well, is it bollocks!

The average northern working man has no concept of the WTO and has no well defined concept of trade governance and it is fair to say they have virtually no idea how the EU system works because Brexit has shown even the experts aren't exactly sure. So to say that this would be anything like an informed and authentic decision is a twist of the truth. The referendum win in 2016 does not give Brexiters a blank cheque either.

I confess to a little intellectual snobbery on this subject but then few can say they have examined Brexit through as many sides of the prism as this blogger, where different examinations have brought me to varied conclusions. At some point you just have to call it how you see it. A no deal Brexit is the worst outcome. People often say they are willing to endure the disruption and knuckle down and get on with it, but then how does that play out for those starting their careers and their families to be facing a ten year jobs drought? If that is a possibility then politics has an obligation to do all it can to avoid it.

There are high principles we can proudly nail to the mast as we leave without a deal, but as the predators close in and we find the useful exercise of sovereignty is not nearly as potent as was assumed, we might then wonder if there really was anything so bad in Mrs May's deal that was worse than the predicament we may soon face, when it won't just be the aggressive moves of the EU we are fending off. But the Brexit mob will never ask themselves these questions. The madness prevails. So if you find me succumbing to a bout of BDS, you'll have to cut me a bit of slack. At this point I've earned the right to go a little mad. 

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