Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Diminishing hopes

Owing to Theresa May's extension of Brexit negotiations the UK has just undergone fresh elections to the European parliament. Unsurprisingly the clear winner in terms of seats gained was the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage. Though I am very much in favour of leaving the EU I didn't vote for that party.

I have long held the view that the European Parliament was a fake parliament where members have no meaningful powers and it serves largely as a veneer of democracy thus voting in European elections would lend legitimacy to a fraud. But then I am no fan of Nigel Farage either.

There are two ways to leave the EU. Either we have a negotiated departure or we leave without a deal. The latter involves unplugging from a complex system of governance established over forty years and to do so would have a volatile fallout. No responsible government should even consider it. That, though, is precisely what Farage is campaigning for.

Though I voted to leave the European Union I did not vote for the termination of all formal relations with the EU and very much wish to maintain amicable relations and a comprehensive trade relationship. The Brexit Party, however, takes the view that with so much parliamentary resistance to leaving the EU, the only way to leave is to leave without a deal.

They may well be right in the end, with parliament having refused three times to ratify a withdrawal agreement, but leaving without a deal really is a last resort and every diplomatic effort must be made to avoid such a calamity if possible. But then for Farage and co this is no longer about Brexit or securing a successful outcome to these events. This is now a full blown culture war where outcomes no longer matter. All that matters is that the other side loses. A zero sum game.

I have to admit that I would take some momentary enjoyment seeing the British establishment facing up to its own worst nightmare, but that kind of nihilism is shortsighted. The reality of the situation is that the UK does about half of its trade with the EU and very soon after leaving without a deal, it will become apparent that the contingency measures in place in no way replace a formal trade treaty, Soon we would be grovelling back to Brussels whereupon they will demand much of what they have already demanded in Article 50 talks.

Being that there is no combination of free trade deals with the rest of the world that could possibly replace or even mitigate the loss of the European single market, Britain's choices would be few and though leaving without a deal on paper means greater sovereignty, that's no use if your leverage is significantly depleted. The Brexiters would have their day of celebration but it would soon be followed by a major humiliation.

There is one other thing that bothers me. Were we to take such a bold move, assuming it were a viable prospect, you would need a ruthlessly competent government with an idea of what it wants and a realistic plan to accomplish it. This we do not have. We have a threadbare government with no coherent agenda, massively split with no moral authority and no mandate to speak of. We would be facing a moment of national crisis with nobody at the wheel.

Soon after we would then be looking at a general election, and as soon as the job losses start to mount we would then be looking at a Corbyn led government. Here we would be no better off because the Labour party is similarly divided, and in a similar state of intellectual meltdown over Brexit. To even begin to put the pieces back together you need to have a working idea of what is broken and on recent performance, there is nothing to suggest that Labour MPs have grasped the issues any better than their Conservative counterparts.

Ultimately the UK has never faced a crisis quite like this. Certainly not in peacetime. Much of the day to day running of the country seems to happen without much in the way of political interference, but when you rip away the regulatory and legal foundation, it all starts falling to pieces in ways that are impossible to anticipate - which would soon overwhelm the government's capacity to respond whoever was in charge.

Pretty soon much of the apparatus of government would be turned over to Whitehall civil servants who would be forced to take whatever action was necessary just to keep things working, with very little political oversight. We'd have gone from being run by unelected officials in Brussels to unelected officials in London, which is not a net gain in the democracy stakes and there is no reason to believe London would make a better job of it than Brussels.

It very well could be that the UK enters a near permanent state of administrative and political dysfunction that it never fully recovers from, and politicians would descend into displacement activity, lavishing their energies on any passing triviality rather than addressing the more urgent concerns. This is how a once great nation enters a cycle of decline. Arguably it has already begun.

The issue here is that our political apparatus simply isn't equipped for a change of this magnitude. There needs to be fundamental reforms in the structure of government, locally and nationally and we are not going to get anywhere near those radical changes until Westminster can comes to terms with the fact that Westminster and its political culture is very much central to the problem. This is will not do. Any suggestion of reform tends to produced hackneyed ideas lacking imagination and radicalism.

Should we leave without a deal the UK is looking at decades of political dysfunction, with all the economic harm that goes with it. The lack of political coherence may even spawn a popular movement to rejoin the EU whereupon we would be a far less powerful member and more subject to the diktats of Brussels than ever. The great Brexit revolution would then be erased from memory.

As it happens, I think we probably will leave without a deal in that politicians are unable to break from their entrenched positions. Those MPs who do not want to leave will never vote for a withdrawal agreement, nor will those MPs who favoured a more extreme departure. Yet again we will drift toward the deadline and parliament will fail to ratify the withdrawal treaty and then the executive is faced with a binary choice of leaving without a deal or cancelling Brexit entirely. Both sides are playing double or quits so this will go right to the wire.

Which way this goes is now entirely contingent on who replaces Theresa May which may well be influenced by Farage's victory at the euro-elections. Parliament can do little to stop a Tory prime minister determined to leave without a deal and the EU may very well be glad to see the back of us. Only time will tell. Between now and then the UK hangs in a state of Brexit limbo, hemorrhaging political authority and credibility.

My hope is that sanity will prevail and a withdrawal agreement is secured but that now seems too much to hope for. Only a freak of circumstances that sees us remaining in the EU seems likely to stop a no deal outcome. I do not discount the possibility but that has political risks of its own that could see a populist party replacing the Conservative Party where we would soon find ourselves back here again. One way or another, Brexit fever will have to burn itself about before we can see what the new normal looks like.

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