Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Cultivated ignorance

`Fintan O'Toole is quite jaunty today
When future historians try to understand how Britain ended up with a choice between chaos and becoming a satellite of the European Union, one question will stump them. Were these people telling deliberate lies or were they merely staggeringly ignorant? Where does mendacity stop and idiocy begin? Historians generally have to assume that people in power have a basic grasp of what they are doing, that their actions are intentional. They may use deception as a tactic and they may be deluded in what they think they can achieve. But they must, at least at the beginning, have some grasp on reality – otherwise they would not have achieved power. Yet, for the poor historians trying to make sense of Brexit, this assumption will be mistaken.
He goes on to write a who's who of Brexitmongery which I could easily expand upon because the list is extensive. I would make special mention of Suzanne Evans, Andrea Leadsom, Kate Hoey, Gisela Stuart, John Redwood, Peter Lilley and Steve Baker. These are not by any estimation clever people. But being thick is not really the issue here. What we are looking at here is a cultivated ignorance. 

There are two prevailing factors in Brexit ignorance. When it comes to the technicalities they are both complex and boring. You are doing quite well if you've you've managed to work out what rules of origin are and if you've managed to work our exactly how they work then in Brexitology you walk among the gods. As to working out what forms and certifications are needed for the transport of goods, why would anyone know that unless they did it for a living? Nobody sane would want to know and this is all far beyond the ken of your average politician.

But then nobody else really knows how it all works either. I have a better grasp than most but there is still more to learn. There are no experts on trade simply because the field is too big for any one person to grasp it all. The way we imagine it works is not the way it does work and unless you understand the rationale the logical can seem distinctly illogical and even irrational. 

Typically the ultra Brexiter likes to bleat on about "mutual recognition of standards". That's not how it works but it is entirely reasonable to assume that's how it should work and it seems unreasonable that two western powers with a discerning consumer base would not agree to recognise each other's standards. Moreover, if it could be made to work like that then it's nice and simple. Half the problem with the EU is its lack of legitimacy not least because even its own advocates have no idea how it functions in practice. 

Here it is somewhat unfair to pick on Brexiters in that the remainers are not on the spot. They don't need to explain how it works. They just know that it continues to work if we stay in the EU. Were they pressed they would have similar comprehension issues. The Brexiters, though, are the ones pressing for change so it is for them to explain how and why Brexit is an improvement. 

Here you bump into all kinds of problems if you've made Brexit an economic argument. Which the Brexiters have. They now have to prove it when none of the evidence is in their favour. There is no economic utility in deregulation, there is no "Brexit dividend" from saved financial contributions and there are no "bumper trade deals" that will in any way compensate for the loss of the single market. CANZUK is a non-starter, there is no restarting the Commonwealth and a US/UK deal does not look promising. 

For two years now, the Tory Brexit philosophy has been under a barrage of relentless criticism and not a single trade professional thinks they have credible ideas. Not one. All they have is a self-referential claque of toryboy "free market" thinks tanks creating a smokescreen of jargon and bluster. It was intellectually bankrupt from the beginning and it's certainly hitting the rocks now.

What's worse. They have no fallback position. They've made their promises of sunlit uplands and told us that getting a deal will be a walk in the park. They are not in a position to change tack and if they do the whole enterprise comes crashing in on them. All that's left to do is to hold the line just long enough to see it through to the bitter end. 

For sure, the Nadine Dorries's and Hoeys of this world are thick as a box of hammers and they will continue to believe that Brexit is a miracle cure but Johnson, Baker and Davis et al know full well the cupboard is bare when it comes to economic arguments. All they can do is lie. This is now a full blown propaganda war and the Tory Brexit apparatus is using tribalism to its full advantage. 

Here, though, O'Toole is only look in at a piece of the picture. Talent on the other side of the house isn't exactly brimming either. Emily Thornberry can no more describe the function of a customs union any more than I can tell you how the Large Hadron Collider works. Institutional knowledge of the EU throughout is minimal. 

The question for future historians, therefore, is how can our parliament have transferred so much political authority to a remote entity it does not scrutinise, does not understand and does not engage with in any meaningful way. Partly there is a domestic political atrophy but a large part of it is that politicians are only too happy to offload anything complicated to Brussels. 

For years our politicians have been telling us that the influence of the EU is benign and barely a factor in domestic affairs and they believe it because the extent is obscured by way of domestic law bringing EU law into effect. This is a whole tier of invisible governance they are barely aware exists. Only now that we are leaving with so much at risk has it become apparent just how much the EU does have directive control over.

Being that neither our politicians or our media are keeping tabs on the EU or in any way holding it to account, and lacking the knowledge to adequately interrogate it, there is no possible way that this pillar of our government can possibly be legitimate. The institutional ignorance of the EU makes its own case for leaving it.

This blog has long remarked that Brexit is far from the cause of our political dysfunction - rather it has exposed it. It has pulled back the curtain to reveal a political class devoid of knowledge, vitality, curiosity and gravitas. How we got here will be the real puzzle for historians and somehow I doubt that EU membership is incidental to this hollowing out of our politics.

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