Friday, 14 December 2018

Brexit: big, bold and definitely not boring

Almost every week there's a dreary article about how Britain is an irrelevant old soak, pining for the days of empire, populated by hapless dupes who fell for the siren calls of populists promising to make Britain great again. Last time it was Fintan O'Toole, this week it's Ryan Heath of Politico Europe.
Brexit is the story of a proud former imperial power undergoing a mid-life crisis. The rest of the world is left listening to Britain’s therapy session as they drone on about their ex-spouse, the EU: When will they stop talking and just move on?
The promise of Brexit at the time it narrowly passed in a national referendum in June of 2016 was that it was a way for Britain to feel big again — no longer hectored by the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, no longer treated as just one of 28 members in an unwieldy confederacy. "Britain is special," the Brexiteers assured British voters, who cast their ballots accordingly.
This is apparently cutting edge analysis - or at least he thinks so. The thing, though, about this achingly unoriginal analysis is that's very much the view from within the bubble. Heath goes on to postulate why Britain's attempts to negotiate Brexit have hit the rocks. He puts it down to a sense of self-importance and exceptionalism. Central to this analysis is a sneer at Britain. It has little to do with diagnosing the issues, rather it is a tribal song to signal virtue to other self-styled liberal internationalists.

What we are seeing though is the fundamental incompatibility between British and European politics. You actually have to go further down the chain to the lesser intellectually endowed specimens within the Tory party. Just a few days ago we say Esther McVey confidently asserting that we could get tough with Brussels, threaten to withhold our £39bn and demand a free trade deal. 

Throughout the Brexit talks we have seen British politicians talking about the process as though we were haggling for a carpet in an Arabian souk. There is no inherent understanding of the EU and it systems, and though everyone wags the finger at the Brexiters, this ignorance is universal throughout the entire politico-media bubble. Mrs May's attempt was not much more advanced, seeking to sweep the process aside and make a grandiose offer in her Florence speech. May simply didn't know what she was dealing with. 

Part of the reason for this is that the EU simply does not feature in the the British political debate. Anything remotely technical is cleaved off and pushed through to Brussels. The last time the EU featured heavily in parliamentary discourse was at the time of the Lisbon treaty ratification. Our politics simply isn't involved in the running of the EU so there is no collective knowledge and little in the way of institutional experience. Nobody knows how any of it works or why we even did it this way to begin with. 

Consequently it have never been truly understood that a deal with the EU has to fit in with a system of regional and international rules - many of which are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. The situation is not helped by having possibly one of the worst crops of politicians in living memory. Theresa May is only PM because she's the closest the Tories have to a heavy hitter. Consequently we have a collection of intellectual pygmies going up against the EU Commission which is ruthlessly organised and experienced in these such negotiations. Lambs to the slaughter.

What we see from this is that the EU prioritises its own system of rules and principles over and above all other concerns. Britain just doesn't see why the EU cannot flex or why the EU shows little in the way of pragmatism. The EU is a rigid technocracy whereas on the UK side, what we are seeing is pure politics. This is partly to do with the fact that the EU was designed to contain and replace politics. We have amateurs up against some of the best thinkers in the business.

It also goes off the rails because Brexit is something our establishment really does not want to do. They are attempting to triangulate - to do what they can to minimise the damage while ensuring they get re-elected. Nobody in the EU has to worry about that. Being that immigration featured prominently in the referendum campaign, on the worst possible advice, May ruled out the EEA option, leaving her with little to play with in order to reconcile the issues. 

Not only was May obliged to take the themes of the referendum into account, she also had a clan of Brextremists with a gun to her head throughout. Ideologues with poorly defined notions of free trade and a razor sharp propaganda division working on their behalf. Not at any point has there been a unity of purpose and parliament has been fragmented and atomised every which way so that no one idea commands anything approaching a majority. Again, this is not a problem for the EU. 

In hindsight it is difficult to see how it could have panned out any other way. I had expected, with parliament being overwhelmingly remain inclined, they would eventually coalesce around the EEA option, but Labour's own internal conflicts have resulted in a similar incoherence. The parties no longer adequately represent the divides in the country. How can a largely metropolitan London party serve its own liberal interests while also representing the white working class of Rotherham? Simply, it can't. This is made all the more acute by the fact that the political class is not trusted and actively despised.

And therein lies the fundamental flaw in the analysis of Ryan Heath. The electorate aren't dupes suckered in by Boris Johnson and his bus. Britain's relationship with the EU has always been one of resigned necessity. It has never enjoyed enthusiastic support in the country, yet our political elites continue to use that lukewarm consent as free licence to take us ever deeper in. But there was always at least a third of the population who would have voted to leave in a heartbeat.

What won it for leave in the end was a wave of revulsion at the condescension, hectoring and snobbery of our political class. The vote was not an endorsement of the Brexiter rhetoric, rather it was an opinion poll on politics as a whole. Though a significant feature in the debate, the EU was as incidental to the Brexit verdict as it generally is in British politics.

The self-serving narrative that we are pining for the days of empire presupposes that the majority are even old enough to do so. Most of the colonial blazer wearing Ukippers died off through the nineties. If anyone has an over-inflated view of Britain's significance, it's the bloodthirsty centrists who are always first in the queue to drop bombs on Arabs.

Ultimately the perception that the EU is an unresponsive, remote, technocratic behemoth is one that has panned out to be entirely justified. As much as Cameron barely asked for EU reform, he came away from Brussels with nothing worth having. Now, with May conceding as far as she can, we find Brussels unwilling to lift a finger to get the deal over the line. Their reasoning may be sound and they have some justification, but ultimately the EU is willing to harm its own trade to prove a point. A world apart from the florid partnership rhetoric of the EU.

Far from being in the midst of a national identity crisis, this is primarily a revolt against politics as a whole and Brexit is very much the timely kick up the backside. Too much as been neglected for too long while a narcissistic and self-involved political class parade their virtues on the world stage, involving us in ever more wars and signing us up to yet more expensive obligations and binding commitments, Meanwhile our concerns ignored and our voices overruled. The EU is totemic of that as Labour connived to ram through the Lisbon treaty without a referendum and opened up our borders without a national debate.

For some time now our politics has been an ideas-free morass, devoid of vision and easily distracted by trivia and all the while the culture of our politics has become so estranged it dare not even debate contentious issues. Now that same hollowed out politics is tasked with a serious undertaking like Brexit, it has proved beyond their abilities.

If there is any whiff of exceptionalism and revivalism it is a consequence of our politicians having no fundamental connection to voters, and a similarly low regard for them as Heath, so their hamfisted attempts to relate to us borrow from Trump's revivalist rhetoric.

Were it that the UK were negotiating bilateral relations with another country we could expect that our flexibility and pragamistism would be an asset. But that's not what we are dealing with here. The deal itself is a technical adaptor into a hard coded regime designed from inception to keep goods and services out. It was never capable of respecting our sovereign decision and politically it doesn't want to by way of being wedded to its own dogma.

This is less to do with English exceptionalism as it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the EU is. That is as much to do with our political class and the EU itself operating in the margins of ambiguity. Eurosceptic in 1975 warned that should we become enmeshed in their apparatus our political institutions would be hollowed out and robbed of their vitality - and how right they were. 

Now that we are leaving we find we have dismantled our trade and diplomatic expertise, and the committee system shows how parliamentary evidence gathering has withered now that our own political machinery no longer concerns itself with technical governance. It is so long since our politics was tasked with policy of consequence we have lost the capacity to do it at all.

This is ultimately what Brexit has exposed. The Brexit vote was the storm that blew down the tree that had rotted from the inside. And it's probably not even exceptional. Member states have delegated the entire Brexit process to the Commission, largely because they take no interest in it. They are similarly insular for the same reasons. Were any other member to leave it would expose a similar state of decay. 

This to me points out why Brexit is so very necessary. Taking back control is not just a matter of repatriating lawmaking. It is about restoring responsibility over trade for external affairs to Parliament - and though we presently lack the skills and the knowledge, it is something we will have to rebuild over time. In respect of that it is better to be a mid ranking power in command of our own affairs than a disengaged province of a technocratic hegemon unable to decide who and what comes into the country.

It is not exceptionalism to believe that the UK can be a self-respecting and respected independent nation, nor is nostalgic to believe that Britain has a role to play globally in the myriad of international forums, both as a knowledge leader and a military power. It is not "inward looking" to have horizons beyond Brussels and it isn't xenophobic to respect that Britain is a home rather than a business park open to all comers.

It has long been by view that the EU has been a crutch for the British political establishment and a life support machine for our stagnating economic model. Breaking free of the EU and correcting the error of 1975 was always going to come at a price - and we pay a far higher price because of what our forty year long stasis has done to our politics. It is better, though, that we do this rather than wait for it all to fold in on itself.

Ryan Heath writes Britain off as "small, boring and stupid". There is a distinction though between Britain and our political class (of which he is a part). "I’m thoroughly bored by it all" says Heath. This says more about him than Britain. Britain has decided to undergo a massive transformative undertaking in defiance of its own rulers, to carve out a new future outside of the European groupthink. It's a big idea, it is anything but boring, and probably the most intelligent move we've made for decades.

No comments:

Post a Comment