Pete North, 25/11/2020  

Yesterday at Dover we have seen a taster of what happens when third country controls go into effect and it looks much like we anticipated. Various individuals writing in The Spectator, Telegraph and Spiked told us it could not happen, but here we are watching it all unfold the only way it could.

What we are looking at, however, is only the tip of the iceberg – the most visible symptom of our departure from the EU regulatory sphere. The true impact will not be known or fully understood until well into next year by which time it will be too late.

This, though, is not a function of Brexit. Through Efta EEA it was entirely possible to maintain frictionless trade and regulatory stability. Collectively, the nation, or rather its politicians, failed to recognise this.

There are various theories as to what killed "soft Brexit", but really it was a death by a thousand cuts. The sticking point for Brexiteers being that EEA would have entailed a variant of freedom of movement, and though we could have negotiated a fairer system under the EEA agreement, nobody was thinking that far ahead.

The issue, though, is a by-product of the central dilemma of Brexit. You can have trade or sovereignty, but not both. This is not the first or the last time this dilemma will cause shifts in geopolitics.

On this, there was very little the EU could have done being that any immediate concession would have created a situation where a country enjoys single market preferences without freedom of movement, which might well have made departure look more attractive to others.

Here, though, the EU should have recognised that freedom of movement was largely an asymmetric benefit and it was not without its problems. And no point did the EU show a willingness to contemplate reform. Thus, with nothing in between an EU style FTA and EEA membership, the weight of opinion on the winning side would always dictate that Brexit must end freedom of movement.

But that wasn't the only thing driving the push for "hard Brexit". The Tories have long been imbued with the idea of regulatory independence, failing to grasp the utility of regulation in trade, the gravity effect and the so-called Brussels effect, which really makes any idea of Britain as a global independent regulatory power thirty years late at least.

Thus Britain has chosen to freeze itself out of its closest and most important markets in the middle of a global pandemic and when the Brexiteers no longer have an ally in the White House. Though the UK has successfully rolled over many of its important trade agreements, we've left ourselves high and dry where it comes to nearly half of our trade, and even if a deal is secured by January, our trade in services seem to have been brushed aside as an irrelevance, believing the City to be infinitely resilient.

There are all manner of delusions underpinning Tory thinking; an overestimation of Britain's trading prowess and an underestimation of the EU’s regulatory influence. It perhaps isn't as bad as remainers would have it but it's still pretty bad. Come January, the government will be well outside of its comfort zone dealing with problems even the pessimists never anticipated.

One can take a more stoic point of view, believing it will all come right in the end, and that is a view I’ve maintained since voting to leave, but we have embarked upon a precarious venture with no plan, but more troublingly, a serious competence drought. A year into the pandemic and Johnson has lost his political authority while his party is up to its neck in allegations of sleaze. It may come right in the end but the end is a long way away and January is only the end of the beginning.

In recent months, the Brexit wars on Twitter and elsewhere have gone into deep hibernation – with catatonic boredom having set in and no new material to go on, but as the consequences gradually reveal themselves over the next year, the Brexit wars will take on a new lease of life, revitalising old disputes and re-energising the arguments. There may be no undoing what has been done, but nobody can claim ownership of what comes after. The Brexit mandate is spent.

Though Covid will undoubtedly cast a long shadow on our politics, the legacy of Brexit will last far longer. Though there is much grumbling about civil liberties and poorly drawn parallels with Orwell, having to wear a facemask round Tesco for ten minutes until sometime next year comes nowhere close to the deep and lasting consequences of a botched Brexit, particularly as the delusion of the Tory right collapse one by one.

In fact, nobody is going to be happy. Remainers won't be happy for obvious reasons, but Brexiteers won’t be either. They already consider the withdrawal agreement a betrayal and will say the same about any trade deal with the EU. Moreover the swamp will not be drained, immigration won’t be under control and the "green crap" will keep coming. It will soon become clear that the Brexit movement was not strictly to do with leaving the EU, rather a desire to reclaim government from centrist technocratic managerialism. Brexit alone was never going to do that.

Consequently, if anyone though the Brexit wars were over, and something we could simply sweep under the carpet as we attempt to rebuild our trade, they are sorely mistaken. Brexit has long since rolled up the culture wars which continue to rage unaffected by Covid. Those divisions exposed by the vote in 2016 are in no way on the mend nor has anything in particular been done with a view to reuniting the country.

Since 2016, we've seen an array of weak "levelling up" initiatives, but it does little more than replace the same ineffectual regional spending we saw from the EU. You don’t need political x-ray vision to see the green revolution as more of the same stimulus flimflam we’ve seen from every government since Mrs Thatcher. Moreover, it is not going to plug the holes created by our departure from the single market. The culture gap and the wealth gap will widen considerably.

It may be that we are about to enter a permanent state of political dysfunction. The ousting of Jeremy Corbyn seems to have done little to improve Labour’s fortunes. Labour has clawed its way back to party in the polls but only by way of a government bogged down by its incoherent Covid measures. Keir Starmer must still face down the far left or watch his party disintegrate. In the meantime, we stumble from one Tory coronation to the next as we suffer yet more rudderless liberalism.

Perhaps in a decade or so, the ground will be sufficiently fertile for a new political insurgency, but with the Brexiteers having squandered their credibility and their political capital, and Farage long having lost his vitality, it's hard to say where it will come from. Though the Brexit revolution may have hit the rocks, the same creaking, ossified establishment still clings on to its old habits and public attitudes to politics can only worsen as it refuses to learn the lessons.

At this point, though, the very worst thing that could happen is for things to stay the same. If, for all that we've been through over the last five years, and will endure in the next ten, politics doesn't change then we might well be forced to conclude that voting doesn’t work – and contemplate other means.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few