Sunday, 5 November 2017

Whichever way it goes, Brexit Britain will be radically different

For those who don't know, John Harris of The Guardian is a Brexitland Louis Theroux style anthropologist. This week he writes about the apparent contradiction of the Brexit vote. "May hasn’t delivered on her pledge to rebalance the country. In fact with austerity cuts, economic revival in leave-voting areas seems more unlikely than ever" says the byline.

He looks back to Theresa May’s Conservative conference speech from October 2016, which promised to reunite the country and drive us forward into a fairer new Brexit world. Seems an age ago now. The wheels have long since fallen off.

"Now", says Harris, "as her government decays, most of her words read like the founding statement of a project that never was. Clearly, even if most of the people who voted for Brexit still seem convinced that it was the right thing to do, there are few signs of any changes to the places where they live. Quite the reverse, in fact. Though the creation of the capital’s beloved £15bn Crossrail continues apace, plans to modernise railway lines in Wales, Yorkshire, the Midlands and Cumbria have all been shelved. Philip Hammond has promised train services in the north a derisory extra £300m (by way of comparison, the cost of HS2 is put at £400m per mile)".

Whether or not Brexit was behind that decision I don't know. I certainly wouldn't discount it. But then by the same token we have heard the same mantras about northern regeneration time and again. Northern Powerhouse as a concept has its roots in the Thatcher era, spearheaded by Heseltine, which did not come to pass. Ultimately, what London wants, London gets - and that is a large part of he problem. It should not come as a surprise that the regions voted to leave.  

"Meanwhile", says Harris, "the austerity imposed on city and local government carries on, and the loudest sound coming from the most neglected parts of the country is the great howl of pain arising from the government’s cruel changes to the benefits system. The Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil became something of a byword for Brexit, and it seems just as symbolic of what has happened since: universal credit will arrive there next March, and the local council is facing at least another two years of cuts. Not that far away in Newport, Gwent, where 56% of people voted to leave the EU, the council leader also happens to be the head of the Welsh Local Government Association.

“Services are wearing down to the point of collapse, and the public are rightly growing frustrated in terms of paying council tax and yet seeing key community functions cut or closed,” Debbie Wilcox says. “The whole position is unsustainable.”

"At the heart of all this is the political irony that defines our times: that the very thing so many places voted for makes any attempt at their area’s revival even less likely. The only economic rebalancing that looks set to arise from Brexit will be London becoming a bit less rich thanks to the downsizing of the City. The Herculean effort needed to even begin meaningful negotiations is so consuming to the machinery of government that it clearly has no capacity for anything else".

But then this is an indicator into the mindset Harris and his ilk. Everywhere you look you see similar articles in which the subtext is if we leave the EU we can't fire-hose the plebs with freebies. There is also an inherent assumption that big ticket infrastructure is regenerative in nature. It isn't. At best it is maintenance to keep pace with the ever increasing pressure on infrastructure. 

Then Harris urges us to look at this week’s Brexit headlines: "news that £500m has already been spent on preparing to leave the EU, that next year’s outlays will be about £1m a day, and that the number of extra civil servants who will be needed to deal with our departure is now put at 8,000. Imagine if all that money and effort were devoted to a policy aimed at reversing the country’s long decline and thinking creatively about the future".

Well yes, let's imagine that. Because imagination is the only place in which it was ever going to happen. But we should also note that Harris calls the £300m earmarked for northern train service "derisory" yet somehow £500m is transformative. Go figure.

I take the view that Theresa May's 2016 speech was more in touch with Brexit Britain than the media response to it. The virtue signalling left utterly hated "citizens of nowhere" and the libertarian right absolutely hated her more interventionist measures. Were she to deliver such a programme, however, (with certain refinements), in normal times she would go down in history as a fairly decent PM. 

These, however, are not normal times. Everything has gone all to hell and government simply does not have the coherence or energy to deliver anything radical. This is not the fault of Brexit either. In 2013 Filton Airfield in Bristol finally closed after an illustrious hundred years of producing world beating aircraft. The housing developers rushed out with heavy machinery the day after it closed to destroy the runway to ensure the decision would not be reversed - but as yet, not a sausage has been built on it.

This is pretty typical of our managerial age. There simply isn't the courage, leadership or vision to get things done. Promises of a marginally improved trans-pennine rail service is the height of their ambition. Ultimately there is a complete lack of radicalism and urgency. There is no drive and that which exists comes in the form of Corbyn who is still unable to command a convincing lead even with a government in this current state of disarray. It would seem that even Harris understands this.
Whenever I spend time in Brexit-supporting areas, a few questions usually rattle through my mind. In the 17 months since the vote, has the coalition of forces – Labour and Tory remainers, Liberal Democrats, Greens – that now demands it is nullified given any serious thought to why so much of the country failed to heed its warnings, and continues to ignore them, even as promises go unmet, and Brexit grows dangerous and ever more complex? Do they have any kind of offer to leave voters in neglected places, beyond a second referendum and a return to the pre-2016 status quo? And hand on heart: if you are one of those people for whom a remain vote is now a matter of deep personal identity, has your view of the average Brexit supporter progressed much beyond a lazy caricature of Little Englander nastiness?
Exactly this. All the warnings were there. Ukip was your canary down the mine. Prior to Ukip there was a surge for the BNP. The establishment wrote this off as petty xenophobia when in fact it was a growing protest vote. Even the Brexit vote itself has not shaken the establishment out of its self-indulgent navel gazing.

We are coasting toward one of the biggest economic emergencies since WW2 - and we might normally consider that to be urgent - but since someone brushed past a female MP in a corridor in 1987 we must take at least a month to obsessively discuss it to the exclusion of all else. If Brexit is mishandled there will be no bread, loo-roll or tampons on the shelves and airlines will be grounded, but at least we can say Julia Hartley Brewer's knees were fully debated.

What this tells us is that we cannot look to London for leadership nor will anything ever shake it out of its complacency. The opposition to Brexit from within Westminster is still to safeguard the 2016 status quo - the very settlement that was utterly failing to deliver.

The only thing likely to get things moving is when we actually start to see consequences of the Brexit vote. Harris says "the only economic rebalancing that looks set to arise from Brexit will be London becoming a bit less rich thanks to the downsizing of the City". That, however, is the optimistic view. There will be far reaching consequences.

For starters it is likely to prick the London housing bubble. I can't see many tears of sympathy being shed there. As to those Welsh valley towns, they will be forced to make yet more cutbacks. Councils will have to make some tough choices. Top of my list would be to ask why we are paying upper rates of housing benefit to the tune of £900 a month.

Since the exchange rate will likely deter much EU immigration which will likely free up space so that workers can be pushed toward the cities and forced to take those jobs we are told that "Brits don't want to do". It's really going to depend on how ruthless the cuts are.

I can only really speculate as to what the full effects might be. Economists tend to look at primary effects but completely ignore the cultural aspect which might hold some clues as to our flat-lining productivity. That is something to which few have any answers. What we do know is that the disruptive potential of Brexit is likely to engender new habits.

As we discussed over the weekend, universities will have to completely re-examine their entire model and the wider implication of that is that we will have to finally put or money where our mouths are and restore the status of apprenticeships. Certainly if business wants new talent then it will have to start training it instead of treating people as a commodity.

Politically things are looking uncertain. It could well be that minds start to focus and we see a more serious attempt at securing a workable deal. Or not. We just don't know. What we can say is that Britain is going to change radically. That is where the opportunities will present themselves.

Presently our media scoffs at the bloating of the civil service to handle Brexit and the costs therein, but actually a thorough going over of the statute book is one of the things I voted for. There will be areas where we can deregulate in order to remove the excuses for not moving forward with housing projects etc. Possibly fewer than I might have hoped but at least those questions will be asked.

For the first time in my life there is a wealth of political possibilities and opportunities for change. There is a real chance to break with stagnant policies that have underpinned and entrenched welfarism. There is a real chance to clear away some of the rules that have utterly destroyed labour market fluidity. We'll be pruning away the council non jobs and the public will be expected to participate. 

The best thing about Brexit is that it forces the issue. It presents a number of tough questions that politicians can no longer evade. It will mean making adult choices and the consequences are sure to enrage a lot of people. That is no bad thing. The passivity and indifference of the public is as much to blame for the low grade politicians we have. What we are talking about is a full audit of Britain's laws, overturning the entrenched orthodoxies, upsetting the various blobs and re-enaging the public in the politics they have neglected.

Of course at this point the remainers will whine that the public never voted for any of this. The thick racist plebs voted for £350m a week for the NHS as advertised on the side of a bus. As much as this is a slanderous contempt for the working class, it doesn't really matter. This was an adult decision, taken by adults with adult consequences. Whatever people did vote for, I think it was understood that the vote was a vote to overturn the current order. We did so knowingly and we are braced for it.

Ultimately remainers will have to come to terms with the fact that the status quo was not delivering and patience had run out. It wasn't going to deliver and there is nothing compelling to suggest there were any other ways of making it happen. I am both pleased and proud that my fellow Brits have chosen to brave a different path. Whatever happens, it is we who will make it work, not our politicians.

There is the possibility that it may not work - but ultimately ultra-remainers didn't have a better offer - and there was no basis on which to trust them. The scramble to overturn the vote at any cost gives you some indication of the contempt for democracy. It never occurs to them that the public might dare to imagine a radically different life to the subsistence managerialism of the post-war settlement. Moreover they resent the fact that it takes the power out of their hands. And that is what worries them. We are not taking back control from Brussels. We are taking it back from them.

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