Richard North, 17/04/2019  

There are plenty of pundits who talk about trade, but what passes for debate is conducted at a wholly superficial level. And, when the MP collective seems permanently locked into "Brexit 101" - with its obsession with customs unions – there is little hope of improvement.

On that basis, there seems very little that we can expect of Brexit in the near future. We are not going to see a collective epiphany, with hundreds of MPs suddenly developing a profound understanding of what is needed to secure a stable and workable withdrawal.

Speaking in the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, Donald Tusk observed that the long extension, amongst other things, gave us the extra time to rethink Brexit, if that was "the wish of the British people".

There is more than simply a "rethink" on Brexit to consider though. As Tusk also said, all the options are still on the table – except, it would seem, devising an effective plan.

The strange thing about not having a plan, though, is that the need for one doesn't miraculously go away. With a complex thing such as Brexit, the process might have started, that doesn't mean we do not need one any more. If anything, as the process develops and the complexities multiply, the need for a plan intensifies and becomes more urgent.

But the political system with which we have been saddled not only seems incapable of planning, it seems unable to recognise that a plan is needed. And for that, there are many possible explanations but one which to shuffle to the top is the idea that a single way forward that any government proposed would simply make it a target.

As recent proceedings in parliament have shown, it is easier to be opposed to everything than it is to stand up for a single positive. Thus, for any government, a programme of constructive ambiguity is undoubtedly the safest course.

This, of course, has its historic parallels. The Eurosceptic movement, for as long as it has existed, has been united only by its hatred of the European Union and its predecessors. And the one assured way of fracturing that fragile unity would be to ask the various factions to support a single post-exit strategy.

By contrast, the "Europeans" have the easier run of it. All they have to do is favour the single, amorphous concept of a united Europe. They don't have to know anything about the entity which represents that promise and, as we have seen – even on these blog comments - there are huge variations in the understanding of what the EU actually is.

As the EU already exists, it doesn’t need anything from its acolytes except their blind support. No one in the Union is asking its supporters to devise a way forward. That way is pre-ordained, devised by Monnet and his colleague, Arthur Salter. Before that, there were any number of competing visions for uniting Europe, but with the single Monnet plan, these have all fallen away.

By contrast, for a complex state such as the United Kingdom, the very idea of a single vision is hardly a practical proposition. The last time there was a semblance of national unity was during the Second World War, and that lasted barely long enough to see the major protagonists vanquished.

Even then, the victor did not (immediately) get to enjoy the spoils. Winston Churchill was deposed in an electoral landslide, leaving a socialist government to offer its own vision of a brave new world, only for this to founder in a matter of years, its agenda to become a bone of contention over the decades.

Now, we are at the threshold of something which has some parallels to the situation in which we found ourselves before the 1945 general election. Without drawing too much from the analogy (no-one but the fanatical end of the Eurosceptic movement would equate the EU with any of the Axis powers), we have just vanquished a major "enemy" and must now find a new path in an uncertain world.

Looking at this rationally, it seems just as unrealistic expecting a sudden outbreak of national unity, with the nation rallying behind a single vision of the future. This is especially unlikely as - unlike 1945 – there are not even competing visions to fall behind, with one coming (temporarily) on top. Anyhow, of those dismal ideas on offer, I don't think that the call to join a "permanent customs union" is going to unite the nation.

One of the main sticking points between the Conservatives and Labour, back in 1945, was nationalisation and, while this was largely settled during the Thatcher regime, it still remains highly political, regaining a head of steam over the lacklustre performance of the railways.

Therefore, much as we need a plan for Brexit, with the nation uniting behind it, this is not going to happen. Even if the system was capable of generating a plan which had a scintilla of credibility, the majority would oppose it. In this nation of ours, the idea of a national plan is neither a practical nor political reality.

That, I suppose, leaves us to do what we always end up doing – muddling through. Based on a limited electoral cycle, buoyed by a legacy media with the memory span of a hamster in a coma, we have politicians who think and act for the present, following short-term solutions to get us past the current crisis, and safely on to the next.

Despite denials, it looks as if the May/Corbyn talks are breaking down, with accusations that all Labour is interested in doing is destroying the Tories - not that they need any help in that endeavour. The next "cunning plan" from Team May then seems to be another series of indicative votes, using a new formula that requires the MP collective to pick a single option instead of rejecting them all.

How this is to be tied into getting the Commons to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement – for the fourth time of asking – has yet to be specified, but if the miracle happens, the day afterwards, under the terms of the current extension, we are out of the EU and into the transition period.

This, of course, is not going to solve anything because any possible combination of a "comprehensive free trade agreement" is unlikely to stop the backstop kicking in. This means that we will not have seen the end of political turmoil. All we will have achieved is to kick the no-deal can a little further down the road.

In the more likely event that parliament once again refuses to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, we presumably go through the charade of the European elections, which will provide a tremendous distraction from the grown-up task of planning an escape route. And, with the advent of June, we begin to look towards a summer of indolence, drifting into autumn, with plenty of noise but nothing at all resolved.

What I expect to happen, though, is that the EU will step up its rhetoric, positioning itself as the innocent victim of Brexit, and focusing the leaving process as a decision to be made by the UK. Come October, in the absence of any other developments, one might imagine that the EU will make it very clear that there is no possibility of an extension. The choice will be to leave without a deal, or revoke.

Gone are the days when there was any possibility of venturing a prediction. So volatile are our politics at the moment that, by October, we cannot be assured that Mrs May will still be in office, or that there will even be a Conservative government. Our politicians are just mad – and selfish – enough to risk a general election which, on current poll results, would bring us a Labour government, but could just as easily bring us a hung parliament.

With that, there is any amount of self-delusion – both at a political and national level – that will allow us to convince ourselves that muddling through is the right way to go. After all, one favoured national myth is that the last politician who had a national plan ended up committing suicide in a bunker in Berlin.

Sadly, though, anyone who thinks that we can come out of such a process unharmed, and without suffering considerable political damage and reputational loss, is in the land of the fayries. This is truly magical thinking. And here, perhaps, lies our only chance of salvation. There could just be enough people around who realise the damage we're doing to ourselves, and force matters to a head.

The trouble is, under our current system, I don't see a mechanism where ordinary people can force the issue. Despite our politicians having elected to use Brexit as their party political plaything, there is no direct means, short of revolution, that enables us to intervene.

In that, there has to be a lesson. After a referendum that required decisive action from our government, we have been consigned to the role of unwilling spectators of a political process that has quite obviously ceased to function. And still there are those who believe that the answer to this is to create yet more political parties to add to the train wrecks that we already have.

Now that is truly magical thinking.

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