Thursday, 30 January 2020

The wasted revolution

Power in politics is all about building alliances between disparate groups who do not necessarily agree but share the same objectives albeit only temporarily. That's essentially what The Leave Alliance was about, attempting to bring together some of the fringe Eurosceptic organisations together. With the inclusion of The Bruges Group it could have been more than it was, but ultimately Robert Oulds was seduced by the dark side and recognised his financial interests were better served by staying close to the Tory Brexit blob.

From that point, there wasn't much we could do and we were very much a minority opinion in the belief we should have a plan informing the exit campaign. We did the best with the limited resources we had but without any kind of recognition from within Westminster and a media only interested in voices with bubble prestige, we were always going to be on the outside looking in.

We then approached Arron Banks who adopted the Flexcit plan for all of twenty four hours and then dropped it when he realised there was a backlash from the Brexit militants on the Ukip side of the campaign. Banks was more concerned with his popularity with a view to becoming central to a populist right wing movement of his own.

Still we persisted in campaigning for exit, with the working assumption that if the leave campaign didn't define a plan then it would ultimately be decided by parliament. It was reasonable to assume that a two thirds remain leaning parliament would opt for a more sensible Brexit. Certainly parliament did have its window to dictate terms but they blew it by way of being unable to agree among themselves.

I had hoped, however, that the work of The Leave Alliance could somehow be carried forward. Following the referendum result I looked at building alliances outside the Brexit blob. I was invited to speak at an event in Brixton, to a group affiliated with the Invoke Article 50 Now campaign (an offshoot of the Spiked clan). Lee Jones and Luke Gittos were present.

The first thing was to dispel the notion that we should simply invoke Article 50 without having a plan. I needed to explain that the process was a good deal more complicated than was assumed.

I opened with an analogy that the EU was a complex machine similar to a Jumbo Jet. To the untrained eye, a 747 from the outside looks much the same as one of the last ones off the production line in 2008, but if you lifted up a panel on the wing, in place of the mess of wires and cables you might find on the 1960's variant, you'd find only a microchip. Externally they look the same but in substance are very different beasts having evolved over forty years. The same can be said of the EU, and if you want to remove a piece of it, you have to carefully extract it rather than going at it with a hammer and chisel.

I though it a good analogy, but Gittos wafted his hand with lawyerly affectation to tell us "we're not here to talk about aeroplanes". At that point I knew what these people were about. This was a People's Front of Judea meeting where they wanted table thumping speeches about seizing the moment of revolution. That's the Spiked clan all over. They don't want to be informed. They want to be entertained. Accomplishing something is a distant second.

Since then I've cleared the lot of them off my Facebook because they're never ever going to engage in the substance of Brexit. I have come to accept that if there was a window of opportunity to leverage meaningful change from Brexit then it's long gone. The Tories have successfully absorbed the insurgent movement and it no longer has a focus let alone leverage. The battle to shape Brexit was lost long before the referendum.

My mistake was thinking you could reason with any of these people. We were, after all, dealing with a canon with a long pedigree, having its own sacred cows and baked-in narratives. Brexiteers have never revisited their own dogma so they are very much looking at the 1960's Jumbo Jet rather than the one currently in service. They believed that Brexit would bring about a restoration of vital sovereignty in which we could deregulate, start subsidising things without consequence and "take back our fish".

All this dogma overlooks that international law now has a major influence in fishing (for starters) and the CFP exists inside an elaborate web of global instruments ranging from conservation through to trade governance and food hygiene. Further to this, there has been a proliferation of global regulation on anything from vehicle safety to maritime emissions and labour rights, where regulation has become central to trade agreements spanning more than a hundred developed economies. The classic Brexiter view, though, has it that outside of the EU there is an unregulated wild west, and beyond the Brussels horizon there is a world of unbridled sovereignty.

There is also one other inconvenient truth. Our departure from the EU does not mean the EU stops existing. It is a power in its own right and has a dominant influence on regulation across the globe. Being that we are in the geographic and regulatory orbit of the EU, Brexiteers needed to be realistic and manage their expectations. There would be compromises and trade offs. This, though, they were not willing to entertain and took the view that the only "true Brexit" was to leave without a deal and that any consequences were simply "project fear". At this point we were dealing with mass self-deception, keenly policed by opinion gatekeepers with an agenda of their own.

Early on, though, The Leave Alliance took the view that no deal simply wasn't an option (essentially putting us at odds with the whole Brexit camp). The damage from no deal would likely be irrecoverable. The exam question, therefore, was how we extracted ourselves while minimising the economic harm while maximising sovereignty. Something the absolutists never even thought about.

Here you have to go back to basics. The Brexiteer refrain is that we don't want the political union. We just want to trade with the EU. That's fine until acknowledge that trade is more than just the logistics of sending trucks of tinned beans through Dover. Trade as a discipline encompasses everything from tariffs through to highly complex regulatory domains on everything from fishing through to chemicals, cosmetics, energy, waste disposal, e-commerce and much else. Much of that commerce is then facilitated by way of governing instruments and flanking policies on labour rights, qualifications and of course, free movement. As such, there is no such thing as "free trade" outside of the black market.

To say then that we "just want trade" begets the question of how much regulation were are prepared to adopt and under what framework? An advanced economy just off the coast of mainland Europe was always going to require a comprehensive framework encompassing all of the issues above. Since in every equation the EU is the greater power, it was always going to be us adopting their rules and the ultimate authority on the interpretation and application of those rules was always going to be the ECJ with the exception of Efta (the basis of our departure plan).

Essentially the UK was going to have to choose from an array of suboptimal compromises where Brexiteers would have to lower their expectations and prioritise what was important to them. This they would not do, having set their sights on a no deal Brexit. At this point were were dealing with a singular fanaticism from people who simply hadn't bothered to inform themselves and were quite militant about maintaining their own ignorance.

I recall a Facebook exchange where Claire Fox was ranting about "seizing the opportunities of Brexit" telling us that a "jobs first Brexit" was a remainer concoction to bring about Brexit in name only. Since the woman evidently lives a cushy consequence-free life she can afford to simply write off jobs at the stroke of a pen. Not just ignorant. Actually proud of it.

But as with most things in life, if you refuse to make a decision, circumstances make the decision for you. And that's where we are now. Having decided that Efta was "BRINO" we now face a second cliff edge, after which we face the full brunt of EU third country controls whereby the UK will gradually be squeezed into submission by the EU, or we can carry on down the path we have drifted into - which at this point looks like a lopsided comprehensive FTA/Association Agreement, resetting the ratchet mechanism but essentially remaining under ECJ jurisdiction presiding over a raft of non-regression clauses with no viable scope for divergence. The UK then has no leverage to do anything about it.

Being that there is now no real alternative and no insurgent movement in a position to make demands, Britain's fate is more or less sealed to become a trade colony of the EU, after which the momentum for change will evaporate. The Tories have quashed the rebellion and can now resume business as usual so long as they throw in a "points based immigration" system (for what that's worth) and get rid of hospital parking charges. The only two coherent Ukippy demands.

So now when the Spiked children have their little "Battle of Ideas" and "The Full Brexit" shindigs to ask "What next for Brexit?", these idle chatterers (who tacked themselves on to the Brexit Party) will find that the decisions have been made for them - long after they opted out of the adult debate. Claire Fox will have had her fifteen minutes of fame and the Streatham revolutionary knitting circle will have had their fun, but ultimately they have squandered any real influence they might have had and pissed away any opportunity for democratic reform.

Having failed to do any research of their own and having no answers to any of the complex dilemmas Brexit presents us with, these people simply borrowed tract from the IEA/BrexitCentral blob, foolishly allying themselves with what was essentially a Tory coup to castrate then appropriate the insurgent movement. Farage let them move in on his turf, so now when he and his band of sycophants are popping corks on Parliament Square, it's more of a funeral wake for a failed revolution than a celebration of sovereignty - only they'll be the last to realise. When they do, they cannot say they weren't warned.

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