Sunday, 24 July 2016

The revolution that never was

Things are not as clear as we would like them to be. Britain has voted to leave the EU. Nobody has any good answers to what should happen next. Even the foremost experts are divided on how to proceed. Worse still, the government is completely unprepared for Brexit having never expected to lose.

That would be bad in itself but the Eurosceptic movement has disintegrated and has no credible ideas of what they want and no seat at the table. Our departure from the EU will be rudderless and technocratic in nature and those in charge will treat it as a damage limitation exercise resulting in what many are now calling BINO. Brexit In Name Only.

What that will likely entail in continued membership of the single market, continued participation in the many cooperation agreements and continued payments into the EU budgets. It will also likely mean continued freedom of movement albeit with some fringe restrictions. And though I am an avid Brexiteer, I think I prefer this to the idea held by the Tory right who would have us leave the single market and break off as many relations with the EU as possible.

As much as it would be a pointless act of economic vandalism, it is born of a simplistic understanding of what the EU is and what it does. They are fighting the battles of forty years ago, ignoring everything that has happened since. The notion that we can have full control over our own borders and make all of our own laws is not only obsolete; it’s not even possible if we wish to participate in the emerging global rules based trading system.

The Tory right believes that Brexit leads to sunlit uplands where Britain becomes a buccaneering free trade nation, carving through EU regulation to become free of “red tape”. This ignores that nothing functions well without regulation and it doesn’t especially matter who makes it so long as it works. My dispute with the EU is that the rules are made at the global level and that membership stifles our influence over them. What we need is better regulation, not less. But the quasi-libertarians of the right believe that regulation in any form is necessarily bad. This is a delusion.

Ordinarily there would be no real reason to worry in that the worst of them number around twenty in the Conservative Party. That said, they are ideologue zealots who, if faced with the prospect of continued single market participation could well threaten to bring the government down. The government’s majority is less than twenty MPs which means that a small cabal of ideologues have serious leverage that could see a seriously risky Brexit proposal on the table that would be of no benefit to anyone.

When it comes down to this kind of politicking there is very little point in trying to read the runes because anything could happen. Labour is presently in a real mess, threatening to split, and if something like a hard right Brexit is on the table we could see seismic shifts in the party system. We could see a new super party emerging to snatch the power away from the fringes on each side. It really is anyone’s guess.

In the end I believe the fringe elements will be defeated and the Brexit we get will be a somewhat pedestrian deal with Britain shoved into an annexe of the single market with little in the way of further development out of the EU and our political class will return to business as usual within the familiar framework. Brexit as a revolutionary idea will have been thwarted.

That should disappoint me and sadden me, but given the alternatives and the lack of intellectual capital on the leave side, a BINO scenario would at least put the issue back into stasis until a competent new movement is fashioned to take us the rest of the way out. The obvious ramifications for that is that leavers will have a hard time reigniting the issue since voters will wonder what any of the point was since it made no difference to immigration, makes zero impact on what we pay into the EU budget and leads to no deregulation of substance.

Were I to take any positives from this it would be that the political gesture makes further EU integration politically impossible and it allows the EU to forge ahead with consolidating the Eurozone economies, but without an injection of fresh ideas and new approaches our trade policy will be to simply think along the same lines as usual trying to patch up the damage done. Instead of looking at the bigger picture of what is happening in multilateral forums we will be back to making patchy trade agreements for very little overall gain. It will be a massively missed opportunity.

More to the point, the Brexit we end up with will do very little to heal the vast gulf between London political sentiment and that of the rest of the country. Looking at how the votes were distributed it rather looks like the regions ravaged by globalisation have turned on London. The mills, the shipyards, the mines and the steelworks have all gone, and though Northern cities have superficially benefitted from cosmetic investment, the economic imbalances and the lack of social mobility are still as acute as ever they were. Some say it is worsening.

In that regard nobody seems to have any answers. Jeremy Corbyn seems oddly fixated by privatising railways at a time when I couldn’t think of anything less of a concern to the North and the regions. Even if we did leave the single market, automation and modernisation means the old jobs are not going to come back and though manufacturing may return, the jobs will not go to low skilled labourers. They will go to robotics engineers and project managers. Many recruited from overseas.

I now take the view that the single market was something the UK should never have agreed to but now that we are in the process of leaving it would be as painful as joining it and in the end it doesn’t answer any of the underlying issues. Across the world we are seeing a rejection of the current political orthodoxy and the post war dynamics of world politics are collapsing. Nobody can quite say why or say which way it will go.

Meanwhile, I see a number of small organisations turning their minds to the possibilities that Brexit presents. And there could be many opportunities, but at this point the government is more concerned with securing a business as usual agreement with the EU and what the public thinks matters even less now than it did before. My view is that if people had specific demands of a Brexit settlement then the ideas needed to be there long before the referendum. Even if good ideas emerge from this process, there is a long road to travel to get governments to adopt fresh ideas and without political leverage there is little chance of succeeding. We will require a fresh political movement and it is difficult to see where that will come from.

It will be some months before we get a true idea of what Brexit will look like. Much of what is said by European leaders is for the time being merely political signals to their own electorates now that Hollande and Merkel are facing re-election. There is always a gulf between what politicians say and what is technically feasible. Most politicians are blissfully unaware of just how complex and procedural the process is and any ideas they may have about fundamental restructuring of the EU will be kicked into the long grass by time constraints.

Crucially though it will be the political manoeuvrings within the Tory party that define how this goes. Labour may be in a mess but when it comes to treachery nobody does it quite like a Tory. Mrs May putting various politicians from the leave campaign in charge of the process may be as a means of insulating herself from the mess they will inevitably make of it, keeping her own hands clean for when she steps into salvage it.

In that regard, I will not be watching PMQs or even paying that much attention to the words of the EU commission. It will be in the back rooms and select committees where Britain’s fate is decided. That is where I will be watching. What I have seen thus far is not encouraging.

As it happens I was never expecting that we would win the referendum and I am prone to pessimism so it is worth taking my opinions with some caution, but in this, it was the British public who gave me a pleasant surprise. When it comes to the politics and the politicians though, I have a feeling my pessimism will prove to be better placed. Brexit may well be the revolution that never was.

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