Wednesday, 8 May 2019

The Brexit Party is fanciful escapism

If there is one theme on this blog of late it is generally how the Brexit debate has stalled, preferring instead to indulge in any and all displacement activity with some corners of the debate regressing, never resolving anything while the propagandists continue to pollute the debate with their wilful misrepresentation of the issues. Being that this is the new normal in politics there is nothing to take seriously until such a time as politicians get serious. That, it would appear, is not going to happen any time soon.

With the announcement that Euro-elections must now go ahead, politics is now consumed with the sideshow of Nigel Farage and his disciples whereupon the chattering classes will dust off their respective pet theories about populism and protest, recycling the usual array of hackneyed talking points about the state of the mainstream parties. It adds nothing.

But then what is interesting is that the populists in the Farage party are no longer making an intelligible case for Brexit. As a movement it is there to hold the government's feet to the fire, but has no objective other than leaving the EU for its own sake. It has fallen back on simplistic crowdpleasing mantras but has no intention of constructively engaging in the process.

Back in the real world, there are are complex and intractable dilemmas none of which return any wholly satisfactory answers. A great many have to come away from this process disappointed and there is no solution that will please everyone. The Brexit Party can massage the betrayal narrative but "the establishment" is no closer to ratifying the withdrawal agreement - which the Brexiters don't want anyway.

That works out well for Farage and his fellow travellers. Their careers would be dead and buried if we were actually on our way toward leaving the EU. One could be forgiven for suspecting these people do not actually want to leave at all. Even if Mrs May's deal were ideal they would invent a reason to oppose it. The goalposts will always shift.

This shows up the Brexiters as the cynical manipulators they are. Say what you like about the quality of the current crop of MPs and their woeful command of the issues, they are at least attempting to reconcile the demands of Brexit with the harsh realities of modern trade. There is no way for them to win when the benchmark for what constitutes "full Brexit" is defined by populists who skilfully edit the complexities out of the script. Since they don't have answers to the problems they simply deny the problems exist.

This is where we bump into the central contradiction of Brexitism, whereby eurosceptics have insisted that the EU is an all pervasive system of government with tentacles in every area of public life, yet somehow our departure is so inconsequential we do not need alternative arrangements to address the multiplicity of concerns.

There is also another dishonesty at work here. Or rather a conceit. They don't want to admit that the Brexit they promised is undeliverable. It was always fanciful to expect that a deal would be mutually palatable. The EU has agendas of its own and as the regional trade superpower with an economy a magnitude larger than our own, it was always going to be calling the shots on the terms of departure. This comes as a mortal shock to those who thought we held all the cards and that a deal could be hammered out in an afternoon over beer and sandwiches.

The problem for the Brexiters is that the game has changed in recent years. The Brexit they demand may well have been feasible twenty years ago (the last time they updated their scriptures) but in the modern age of global regulation and the expansion of global institutions and treaty frameworks, the mirage of sovereignty as envisaged by leavers is no longer attainable. We can certainly repatriate political authority but the exercise of it comes with consequences. You don't get to have your cake and eat it. Actions have consequences.

It is telling that Brexiters continually refer to an ages old Peter Shore speech at the Oxford Union where Shore confidently tells us that neither the Australians nor the Japanese would allow a foreign entity to decide their laws. As it happens, both are subscribed to many of the same international conventions and regulatory frameworks up to and including the Paris climate accords which influence a vast amount of even EU law.

The face of the matter is that the Brexiter vision is one that has stagnated. Long ago they decided they did not want to be a member of the EU and that has become their sole obsession while events have overtaken them. Independence as envisioned by leavers does not exist, the model is obsolete and there is no scenario where the UK has a fully autonomous trade policy. Every decision has economic and political ramifications for existing relationships and we will always have to coordinate our efforts with the nearest and largest trade superpower. Not only because the big economies call the shots, but also because it is in our interests to collaborate.

Here we find that divergence from the regional EU norms results in more of our goods being queried at the borders to the point where there is little or no commercial utility in divergence. We also find there is little scope for noticeable optimisation of third party trade agreements. The free trade ideologues have never fully understood the utility of regulatory harmonisation and have massaged the decoy of tariffs, not least because it provides the basis of a wealth of simplistic arguments for the consumption of leavers.

When the realities of global trade are taken into account the case for Brexit looks ever thinner. I'm still very much in the leave camp largely because the EU is an accumulator of political authority where power travels further away from the people without the necessary checks and balances to ensure such processes are democratic. I do not believe it can be reformed and it will resist all such attempts. But if we are going to leave then we will need to hit the ground running, and you can't do that when you exist in a state of denial about the basic facts of trade.

This is where the Brexiters do us a disservice. Not only are they in denial, they are actively promoting ideas they know to be false in order to achieve short term political objectives without taking into account the longer term consequences where a failure to acknowledge realities now will see us putting out brushfires from a far weaker position internationally.

Worryingly there is no line of defence against this kind of deception. When the media is incapable of adequately reporting the issues and has squandered its credibility through activism, and when rebutting the various misapprehensions requires first explaining a few facts of life beforehand, it becomes impossible to combat the populist canards that spread like a virus. We are, therefore, set to become victims of several institutional failings. Were Westminster politics in better health it should have no problem fending off these demagogues with ease. Sadly, though, the talent pool is exhausted and even those who do grasp the arguments are tainted by their previous loyalties to Brussels.

What is desperately needed is a longer term vision for Britain and Brexit, but it must be one informed by reality, taking into account that the UK outside the EU is only a midranking power and in broader terms, a trade irrelevance. The world will not stand to attention and come to the table on the whim of British politicians. Especially not this bunch. Our path out of the EU must recognise that the EU is still a power and can still weild considerable soft power over the UK in any event. We must therefore ensure the relationship is collaborate rather than confrontational. In any direct confrontation the UK will lose.

What Brexiters don't want to admit is that there is no optimal deal free of binding ties to the EU. Recognition of this fact in the early stages could have resulted in a better deal but the intransigence and wilful ignorance of Brexiters (making petulant and unrealisable demands) has taken us down this path. They have had every opportunity to engage in the process and shape it but instead have clung on to their obsolete notions from 1992. Now the window for a better deal is closed so it's now the deal on the table now or an even worse one further down the line when the fiction weaved by the no dealers is exposed to the cold light of day.

It is perhaps that harsh lesson that Britain needs in order to progress but one is left wondering at what cost and whether the UK is politically equipped to ever recover. For all that leavers presently wail about the relative chump change of £39bn, the costs could end up astronomically more; the true price we will pay for the institutional collapse of our politics that left us vulnerable to chancers and frauds like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

But then, of course, one is reminded that the Euro-elections are indeed a sideshow. It is MPs, not MEPs who need to make the call. The result of the euro-election may well send a message but reality is also sending messages of its own that politicians would do well to heed. This is about more than the transient whims of protest politics. This is about the UK's international standing for decades to come. If the Brexiters are not prepared to treat this process with the due sense of seriousness, then Westminster is well within its rights to tell Farage and Co where to shove it. Farage is using the euro-elections as a jamboree for his own self-gratification. He and his followers are owed nothing.

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