Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Walking into the Brexit minefield

There are two Brexit debates happening at the moment. One of them is not real. One or other politician or institute will bloviate and a clueless hack will respond to it in an equally clueless way. In this fantasy construct the establishment is potting and scheming to thwart Brexit. In the real world though, the machine is already creaking into gear. At every level from the WTO through to the commission to the back rooms of Whitehall, the system is preparing to leave the EU. There is now no question that Article 50 will be invoked.

Those who would have it some other way haven't really thought it through. The referendum has said "Brexit". In any relationship you can have disagreements and screaming rows and then things can be patched up. But on occasion there's that one row where something is said that cannot be unsaid. Something that permanently alters the shape of that relationship and usually the damage really is irreversible. Having spoken up to leave the EU the politics of Brexit are here to stay. Even the existence of the word Brexit makes it a political paradigm that by repetition makes it a reality. Should the process be thwarted the spectre of Brexit is forever present and it taints every decision made afterwards.

To go crawling and begging for forgiveness and to pretend it never happened is to fundamentally shift the balance of power in the relationship. That is how relationships become exploitative and abusive. We could never hope to enjoy the same standing again inside the EU and there would forever be a suspicion that Britain will leave. We would be permanently consigned to a second class relationship with the EU. And so we have to leave.

Now that the wheels are in motion we are now in the era of Brexit. We are all leavers now. In that we see the real Brexit conversations going on. In that we are in a phoney war. Many of the arguments advanced by influential voices are but a repetition of the same mantras we heard during the referendum. The motivation for doing so is to make Brexit appear so vast in scope and so complex with so few advantages that the political establishment will buckle and refer it back to the people. It will fail.

The main reason it will fail is because people have made their views known. We were not deceived by Vote Leave. Few if any believe that sunlit uplands are just around the corner. We went into this with open eyes and though there are consequences we don't care. If there are problems then there are problems.

Some have ponder how this could be. That the experts have been so roundly ignored by the voting public. There is an obvious answer to that. The experts may well hold expertise but experts can and do lie for political and self interested reasons and that is exactly what they were doing.

In fact, I'm almost tempted to let them push for a second referendum because I think we leavers could actually increase the majority. The remainers have convinced themselves that we voted to leave because we were conned and duped and cajoled and motivated by a dislike of foreigners. In reality we voted to leave because we very much dislike being patronised and told what to do. Imagine then how people will vote if they are told "you got it wrong, think again and come back with the right answer". If the Brexit vote was a two fingered salute to the establishment then it will be a bigger one next time around.

And in fact, I could even cope with losing a second referendum. That really will ensure that when Brexit happens it really will mean Brexit and no prisoners shall be taken and no compromises made. If the establishment wants to go ahead and commit suicide then that's fine by me. MPs will be so deeply unpopular they will have to live behind an iron curtain and will become ever more remote. The backlash against them will be a force not seen in politics for generations.

I think the establishment at heart knows this. We will see them going through the motions of denial and and we will see a grieving process as they come to terms with it. Futile attempts to derail it are only to be expected. They need time. Bless them.

But now we are in the very real killzone. A major problem for us is that a lot of what the remainers were saying is absolutely true. There are forces out there looking to give the UK a bloody nose. We may very well end up paying to keep what we have and there is no guarantee that we will not end up paying more to the EU than we do already. We may take back ownership of fishing but not the control we expected. We won't be deviating from the regulatory agenda by a wide mark and we will have to work doubly hard in restoring our trade advantages. The Brexit process will take at least twenty years to get fully clear of it. None of the advantages stated by Vote Leave will come to fruition.

Worse still, the opportunities Brexit presents are only worth having if we have a political establishment aware of what they are and how to exploit them. At present there is a total ignorance of the opportunities Brexit could present and the experts they consult are very keen on maintaining that institutional ignorance. They want Brexit to fail. They don't want to see Britain thrive. There is nothing they would like more than to make victory taste as hollow as defeat.

Our own worst enemy in this is our own side who refuse to entertain the risks and see the complexities as minutia to excuse lack of observable momentum. They cling to simplistic nostrums, refusing to acknowledge that entire industries and livelihoods are on the line. In so doing they give the opposition all the ammunition they need while also vacating the field when it comes to the technical arguments.

One area of real concern to me is Erasmus and Horizon 2020, the EU academic cooperation programmes. During the referendum we made the case that you don't have to be in the EU to have access to the grants system. Many vested interests would have us maintain it. I may even have made the case that we should and that we probably will. But actually, what we never had was a real debate as to what value we attach to such things.

If there is EU funding for scientific research then it is the EU setting the agenda, it has its own motives and there are stings attached. Moreover the EU funds research that we would not if given the choice. There is good reason for that. It has always been politically motivated and designed as a means to keep our academics on an ideological leash. And it worked.

Given the rank dishonesty of the London School of Economics and the FT throughout the referendum campaign I can see a strong case for a purge of academia and the well sinecured chair-warmers throughout the land who lie for a living. These are the experts we rejected during the referendum. We want rid of them.

But if we close our doors to that and change the mood music of academia, there is undoubtedly a political price to pay. Rather than being part of a European academic network we would be going into direct competition with it. Though we have two of the worlds top ten most prestigious universities, we would still have to make major changes to compete globally.

Brexit could either be a transactional process that results in little or no change or it could descend into a zero sum game where everybody loses. Moreover, the near total ignorance of our politicians and media could well mean that were are totally outclassed and humbled in front of the world.

Which way this goes is on a knife edge and presently when it comes to the technicalities and risks, leavers are still in denial mode leaving the running to be made by those experts and academics moving to be proved correct. The danger is not that we won't leave the EU. The danger is that the establishment will be looking to take revenge on the people for taking away their favourite toys. Frighteningly there is no-one moving to make sure they don't get away with it.

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