Sunday, 4 August 2019

Brexit: a matter of faith

It's not too taxing to come up with a hundred good reasons to leave the EU. One thing I can say with certainty, though, is that "free trade" is not one of them. For me it's purely an estimation of what the EU is and its direction of travel. It is a global trade superpower but one whose global flex comes at the expense of member states' democracy.

Were one strictly concerned with the geopolitics of the issue then Brexit is perhaps not a very good idea. Being in a trade alliance makes a good deal of sense in a world full of predators and carnivores. The problem though, is that a mere trade alliance is not on offer. You're either in all the way, on the Ever Closer Union bus, or you're not. Whatever opt outs and vetoes we may have are only temporary and there is nothing to stop any future administration giving them away. On past form, and on a long enough lime line, there is every reason to expect they will; handing powers over taxation and foreign policy to Brussels.

What makes the EU all the more disturbing is that it does not take no for an answer. That power it doesn't get by way of agreements and treaties, it can gradually appropriate through ECJ and Commission decisions, redefining the scope of EU powers all the time. little by little, it chips away at national sovereignty, in many cases without direct consent and without the knowledge of legislators.

Any leaver of Twitter is now used to the remain tactic of disingenuously asking "Can anyone name just one tangible benefit of Brexit". As it happens, I can't. The benefits are largely the intangibles pertaining to the nature of our democracy and the culture of our governance. These are questions, I feel, are more vital than mere tangible benefits. I would ask, what are the tangible benefits of EU membership that especially matter to me that I have the time or the money to exploit?

Brexit to me is about something more fundamental. For as long as we are in the EU the real power seeps away from the people and into the hands of technocrats where government becomes management theory and so long as the economic vital statistics look good, then they're convinced they're doing a good job. Trade has winners and losers and the latter are expected to make sacrifices in the greater good.

It's actually Brexit that shows us just how deep set this process is. For all that the media is now focussed on the damage Brexit will do to UK commerce, it should not be forgotten what was done to us. The EU project led to the breaking of powerful national industries in favour of distributed supply chains such as Honda and Airbus. The mentality behind it is much the same as the original Coal and Steel Community. Primarily to stop us going to war over such resources, but secondly to make us so interdependent that we would never even entertain the idea of something like Brexit.

Except that we did, and now losing those supply chains goes with the territory. We can  expect to take a major hit to our automotive and aerospace sectors along with much else that was designed to be transnational in nature. Airbus itself is a product of European me-tooism and is fundamentally a political project. Producing aeroplanes is a secondary consideration.

But of course, the British public were warned we could lose all these jobs. Nobody can say we weren't warned. We had a months long referendum campaign where the remain camp spelled it out in the most gruesome terms on a daily basis. They decided, for right or wrong that Remain was either exaggerating, or that the issue was of such importance that secondary economic considerations didn't matter. It was a matter of individual conscience.

Remainers would have it that we now know a lot more about what what Brexit looks like and with more and better information we should all go away and think again. This overlooks their own role in making it look the way it does. Remainers have fought tooth and nail to frustrate the implementation of the result, voting down all of the alternatives to no deal. They have fought hard to make Brexit as bad as they said it would be. To suggest then that we should be allowed another vote on the matter is somewhat disingenuous.

Of course, there are still plenty of Brexiters around who think no deal is no problem despite three years of intense technical discourse on the subject. Some people are just determined to listen to cranks. But I don't think it would matter if they thought otherwise. They expect to see the result implemented because ultimately it is not for politicians to second guess a democratic verdict. We fought long and hard to get the referendum and if we're now saying that we only implement the results we like then we're saying that a lifetime of political participation isn't worth a damn.

So what about the cost? It would seem all of the "tangible benefits" asserted by the leave camp are evaporating. That actually speaks to the the way in which the debate has been framed since early on in the campaign. This was never primarily an economic question. Fundamentally it is a question of who governs us but somehow we got sucked into an economic debate. There's a reason for this.

This is partly a tactical victory on the part of the remain camp. On the economics alone the remain argument wins every time. That's the ground they had to fight this battle on, framing the EU as a trade bloc. They couldn't afford to get into  the more existential questions of what the EU really is and its direction of travel. They would have to keep up the pretense that it was just a trade bloc which exposes the fundamental dishonesty of their position.

This is where a lot of leavers have a great deal of respect for the likes of Guy Verhofstadt who is a "balls out" federalist and his only dispute with the EU is that it isn't going fast enough toward full federalisation. That's a more honest position than pretending the EU isn't a political project. That must have been most inconvenient to remainers who were busy telling us the EU was something else.

 Meanwhile, there were those of us on the fringes of the debate who always said that Brexit would come at a cost but the ultimate prize was the freedom to govern ourselves. A freedom that trumps all of the EU's "tangible benefits". This issue tackles the more fundamental questions around the role of the nation state in an ever globalising world, where the globalist consensus is that the nation state is a redundant, obsolete thing rather than the best protector of rights and liberties.

On that score, I will always come down on the side of Brexit. The mounting concerns in respect of our departure are less to do with the act of leaving as it is the grotesque incompetence our own political establishment, and the process has revealed a deep running dysfunction that suggests the problems in our so-called democracy are worse than we thought. We may be regaining the right to govern ourselves but there is scant chance it will be done well.

That may force some to conclude that Brexit isn't worth it after all ad that we are safer in the hands of anonymous technocrats than British politicians informed our lamentable media. It has certainly been a test of my own convictions. A quick look at vox pops from the Brecon by-election is enough to shake anyone's belief in democracy when the public has some horribly flimsy and often flippant reasons for voting the way they do. But that's ultimately how democracy goes.

This then comes down to a question of where I place my trust. Do I trust in the bureaucratic behemoth in Brussels or do I trust my fellow citizens to make the right call at the right time? I think the latter. They have proven themselves to be trustworthy.

I hated Tony Blair. I had a pretty good idea of where to was going to end up in 1997 and was sickened to see Blair winning successive elections. But then you look at why he won. We'd had well over a decade of worsening Tory rule and it was time for them to go. What kept Blair in power was the unelectability of the Tories under Hague, Howard and Duncan Smith. But then when it was time, when the nation would not tolerate Gordon Brown any longer, he was kicked out to return a Tory-Lib coalition. That Cameron wasn't sufficiently popular to win in his own right speaks further to the inherent wisdom of the electorate.

Even now that wisdom holds. Readers know well that I am no fan of Boris Johnson and his crony government, and is destined to be the worst PM in history, but then Jeremy Corbyn and his intellectually subnormal shadow cabinet remind us that things could always be a magnitude worse. This is how politics functions. We have to chose the least worst among dreadful options. The electorate has a track record of getting it right.

That this particular episode in British politics is likely to deliver a pig's ear of a Brexit resulting in massive job losses and a decade of stagnation (if not recession) is really neither here nor there. The public have rightly sensed there must be fundamental change.

Whether you agree that Brexit is the right change is also neither here nor there. The point being that it is the only way to get meaningful change. Had we voted to remain our politics would have resumed on its normal course with the same inherent dysfunction, failing to address a series of acute problems with consequences perhaps graver than a no deal Brexit. The first step to correcting a problem is to acknowledge it, but we have a politics in ostrich mode with their heads in the sand over a number of vitally important matters from social cohesion to the future of the welfare state.

At this point I am resigned to a Boris Johnson government and in that time the free market ideologues will have their chance to do a lot of damage, but when the results of a no deal Brexit come in, the public will soon conclude that it's time for the Tories to go if the opposition can provide a viable alternative. We're just stuck with then until Labour can remove bed blocker Corbyn. When the time comes the Brexiters will have to answer for their incompetence.

Ultimately Britain is going to have to take the long and hard road to become a self-governing country. We have lost touch with the art of statecraft by way of having the lived a long time where the fundamental questions are settled. The EU has provided the economic foundation of every government in the last forty years. During this time, foreign policy and trade have vanished from public debate and in the absence of our own direction we have tagged along with the EU until we could go no further down that path. We now have to decide our own purpose.

We will make mistakes on the road to national rediscovery, and there's a major fight to be had over who we are and the values we project - but we must have that reckoning in order to find a new political and economic settlement because nothing else gets resolved until we do. To chicken out of Brexit would simply defer that reckoning while we continue to pretend all is well in the country. If we accept that a reckoning is both necessary and inevitable, then this is is the time to do it.

We are told there are better ways to spend the national treasure, but if we are not willing to invest in this political process, what are we even for?  If the job of national government is simply to distribute funds to put out brushfires then we no longer exist for a reason.

The failure of our politicians to come up with a workable departure agreement with the EU is just the first of many failures in what is sure to be a long line of them. The "free trade" ideologue Tories are working to obsolete and anachronistic ideas about the world of trade and we are all going to pay a price for their education. The errors will be further compounded by botched attempts to correct them. We will limp from problem to problem until we rebuild the national institutional memory required to guide them.

The crucial thing, though, is that they will be our errors. We will own them. They are a direct consequence of our voting decisions and our willingness to accept mediocrity in politics and media. One imagines that eventually British tolerance for it will run out. Then and only then will we stand a chance of building the democracy we need and deserve. 

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