Thursday, 23 January 2020

Brexit: the facts of life are pretty grim

Whatever the final agreement on fishing looks like, there's no getting round the fact that the UK sold its quotas and under international law foreign boats will still fish in UK waters. The June Mummerys (Brexit Party) of this world are in for a serious disappointment either way. If there is an agreement on fishing then we will subscribe to parts of the CFP and there will be a framework for mutual access in the future. If there isn't an agreement, however, then we are going to have to find a new market for over 70% of our catch because we won't be landing it or selling it in the EU.

If anyone is entertaining any notion of rejuvenated coastal communities then they're off their rockers. The industry has changed and it takes fewer boats to catch the same amount of fish. With Boris Johnson making huge promises to the industry he's going to be deeply unpopular with reality comes knocking.

I don't see a bright new dawn for British fishing or British coastal towns. They're too far away from anything to be useful as dormitory towns so they're destined to remain retirement villages or welfare slums depending on the quality of the nearby beaches. These towns don't really produce anything and there is no economic logic in regeneration. There have been attempts at regeneration in the 90's which by now look equally shabby and unloved. Those little plaques with EU stars on them didn't win them any friends.

We can also say pretty much the same of the mining towns. Nobody under thirty five can even tell you where the local pit was. There's no revival of "coalfield communities" to be had. Where mines do reopen they tend to be open cast using a fraction of the workforce. Even in he early eighties the pits were investing in advanced skip winding systems so had they remained open they would still have seen a dramatic reduction in the workforce seeing northern and Valley villages turn into ghost towns.

The same problem extends to steel production too. There are renewed efforts to return steel making to the north east but again production requires only a fraction of the manpower and even heavily subsidised (if such is within WTO parameters) it's still not going to be able to compete globally so we are likely going to see a drive for British ships made from British steel which is going to substantially increase the costs of defence which may even lead to a reduction in the number of ships we can afford to buy and operate. I can't see that lasting very long as an idea.

Being that we are so short on ideas we now see politicians of all stripes invoking the words "green new deal". The Americans are at it, Labour leadership contenders are at it, the EU is at it and very probably those words will fall from the lips of Boris Johnson (if only as he struggles to fill airtime in an awkward interview).

And we know that means. More land given over to solar panels and more offshore wind turbines. Basically a subsidy bonanza that we all pay for through our electricity bills and the jobs are going to be given to cheap foreign labour. We know this because that's how it's been for the last twenty years and there is no reason to believe any of that will change. It's going to get worse too. It won't be long before Amazon distribution warehouses are almost entirely run by robots. We're gradually making work redundant.

In short the crapology we see from "lexiters" with their grand reindustrialisation plan is dead in the water. The absence of EU state aid rules doesn't make WTO convention disappear and it doesn't stop the EU or anyone else retaliating. Moreover, with Boris Johnson terminating our single market preferences to a very large extent it's difficult to see where we're going to sell our goods.

Right now Liz Truss is jetting round the world working on continuity agreements and with a view to striking new FTAs but of themselves FTAs are of limited value and until our relationship with the EU is resolved, they can only be shallow in scope. They're certainly not going to create any new markets. I believe we can make a success of improving our exports to the USA but it isn't going to offset the loss of our services trade with the EU. The Tories also seem to be serious about joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) but as multilateral agreements go, it is far from comprehensive when compared with something like the EEA. On services I struggle to see how they can even call it comprehensive.

Then of course there's those fabled "free ports" which is nothing we couldn't have done in the EU and in any case are of limited use. They may be of marginal benefit combined with the shift away from the port of Calais but they do nothing at all to remedy the regional trade gap.

Whichever way you look at it, Brexit is in no way an answer to any of the issues. There are certainly good reasons to end freedom of movement but for every problem we solve we seem to be creating half a dozen more. Our stagnant political apparatus has no ideas and no answers. All they have is sticking plasters and electoral bribes and if it isn't already apparent that Boris Johnson is full of shit then it soon will be.

This is not to say I now favour remaining in the EU. After all the EU is doing nothing to arrest the decline and has no real answers either. The green new deal shtick is more of the same, creating regulation based markets out of thin air that actually produce nothing while making everything else more expensive. The best the EU can offer us is propping up a flagging status quo - one in which regional economic disparities are growing and the culture gap between city and county grows wider making national unity evermore difficult to achieve. All the while the lack of meaningful sovereignty and democracy exacerbates the resentment.

In a little over week leavers will be celebrating our formal departure from the EU. The official line from the Tory party is that we've "got Brexit done". But we are far from that point. This is not just a matter of tying up the loose ends or shaping our future relationship. When the UK voted to leave we started a political revolution with so many moving parts it"s impossible to predict. What we can say, though, is that it will consume the next decade or more and cast a long shadow afterwards.

Already Brexit has battered and bruised the Labour party, and though the Tories seem to think this is the point we build from, the Tories have a reckoning of their own to face up to when the full impact of Johnson's hard Brexit are known and understood. Like our coal, steel and fishing, we will find that which was so rapidly dispensed with is far more difficult to restore. Maybe even impossible. Once the jobs have gravitated elsewhere they tend not to come back.

Perhaps it is then and only then, when both parties must face up to their own inadequacy, will there be a wider realisation of the need for much more far reaching economic and political reform. Boris Johnson has alluded to moving the Lords to York while the opposition parties continue to blather about the selection process or proportional representation, none of which addresses the fundamental lack of democracy in the truest sense of the word.

The reality is that Westminster isn't going to fix what's wrong, economically or politically, not least when Westminster is a big part of the problem. This time around, without the EU life support machine, the sticking plasters are not going to work. If we wait on the politicians to deliver something that works then we will be waiting a long time for something that isn't coming. 

What we need is a political and cultural revolution to spark the ideas that will define the next era. It is already apparent that this wishy washy Tory government has nothing to say for itself. It exists only because the alternative was unimaginably awful. By the time this lot are finished, though, the country will at least agree on one thing. Politics as we know it just doesn't work and that place on the Thames has outlived its usefulness. 

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