Brexit: The story with no end finally finishes
We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thing, 1st January 2021; The story with no end finally finishes
‘I’m afraid that’s been seriously hit by the past four years.
The Dutch have seen a country in a deep identity crisis; it’s been like watching a close friend go through a really, really difficult time.
Brexit is an exercise in emotion, not rationality; in choosing your own facts. And it’s not clear how it will end.’ (1)
And so, after 4½ years of negotiations, the prorogation of parliament, treaties, and the threat to repudiate them, it comes to an end. The EU and the UK have reached agreement there is be no ‘hard’ Brexit.
This column has been quick to rubbish Johnson, indeed there is much to rubbish, but here he played a bad hand as well as could be expected, although, it must be said it was he who dealt himself a bad hand.
The trade and cooperation agreement with the EU, is an exercise in limiting the damage, and agreed largely on the EU’s terms. We are still in EU’s orbit with a newly established partnership council to govern the agreement, ensuring they can launch trade sanctions against us should we undermine the single market and customs union or depart from its regulatory standards. We are to be a rule taker. But wasn’t Brexit about ‘taking back control’?
However, the legal advisory committee of the ERG, the so-called ‘star chamber’ declared that it ‘preserves the UK’s sovereignty’. The ERG, thought to number about 70 Tories, were a constant thorn in Theresa May’s side over Brexit during her turbulent time as PM.
In a statement on Tuesday, the ERG’s legal advisory committee said: ‘Our overall conclusion is that the agreement preserves the UK’s sovereignty as a matter of law and fully respects the norms of international sovereign-to-sovereign treaties. The ‘level playing field’ clauses go further than in comparable trade agreements, but their impact on the practical exercise of sovereignty is likely to be limited if addressed by a robust government. In any event they do not prevent the UK from changing its laws as it sees fit at a risk of tariff countermeasures, and if those were unacceptable the agreement could be terminated on 12 months’ notice.’
David Jones, the ERG’s deputy chairman, told the Guardian he would be voting for the deal, adding: ‘What this does is replaces the arrangements under the treaty on [the] European Union, which is what we were in before as a member state, with something that is a straightforward, clear, free trade agreement of a sort that Conservatives are supportive of.’
Johnson seems to have also satisfied Nigel Farage, who in typical Brexit parlance, declared: ‘The war is over.’ Cue air-raid sirens segueing into the ‘Dambuster’s March’, with an encore from Dame Vera Lynn, there wasn’t a dry-eye in the house. Personally, I think Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, commonly known as Sonata Pathétique, is more apt.
A more considered response came from the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who quoted TS Eliot, that in ‘every end there is a beginning’.
Of course, during all negotiations there are casualties, in this case British fishermen, who said that promises made by Leavers that they would regain control of all UK fishing waters by voting for Brexit had been broken. Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, claimed that, ‘In the endgame, the prime minister made the call and caved in on fish, despite the rhetoric and assurances that he would not do what Ted Heath did in 1973.’
Dear old Barry, surely, he didn’t believe what Johnson and ‘Leave’ said in 2016?
And what of ‘the war is over’, Farage, who in April 2018 joined Whitstable fisherman in an anti-EU protest? It was a good headline for him, but ‘chaps we have to move on, in war there are always casualties, it just happened to be you. Sorry, and all that’.
‘Boris Johnson has always been seen as a bit of a gambler, displaying a certain … flexibility with the truth.
But observing him as prime minister has only made that worse.’ (2)
In fact, at this point I can only wonder at the futility of it all. Was it worth all the pain and sacrifice just to be able to claim we have our sovereignty back?
Brexit was fuelled by the allure of destroying the present, reversing more than 40 years of cooperation for peace and prosperity the tragic result.
The Brexit deal itself is comme ci comme ca, making it much harder for Britain to sell services to EU countries, an area in which we excel.
We will lose our right to freely travel, work and settle in other European countries.
While there will be no tariffs or restrictions on the quantity of goods that can be sold, our exports will, for the first time in decades, face checks on their origins and compliance with EU regulations. Our exports will be painstakingly checked and controlled at EU borders, and VAT and excise duties paid immediately. More than 200m customs declarations will have to be filled in as lorries wait in new vast holding pens reducing parts of Kent to a car park.
Exporters will need to ensure compliance with local laws. Banks, insurance companies and investment house, most of which comprise our best export markets, will lose their rights to ‘passporting’ throughout the EU, instead they will have to deal with the regulator in each member state.
The economic cost will be huge, it effectively limits trade to a degree once unimaginable. The capacity of the British government to turn British regulations into EU regulations and, via the EU’s heft, then global regulations, as we have been able to achieve with specialist chemicals and mobile phone networks, has disappeared. While Vodafone was able to reach global pre-eminence other will now struggle.
Inward investment, which boomed under EU membership, has already fallen by four fifths since the referendum, a situation likely to continue.
The government fought hard for regulatory autonomy that it imagines will allow us to escape economic reality. It won’t. Britain’s producers will need to meet EU regulations to sell into their most important export market, no matter what bureaucrats in Whitehall may say. No serious economist would ever recommend trashing your trading arrangements with your biggest trade partner.
After nearly half a century of closer integration with Europe we have now needlessly erected barriers to trade with our closest neighbours. As the past few days has shown, the ports can quickly descend into chaos.
Even if implementation of the deal is smooth, which is a big if, it will prove costly to the economy, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates it will knock more than 2% off growth and see inflation climb to 3.5%, meaning fewer good jobs, lower incomes, and higher prices.
‘This outcome was a choice of Johnson and the Conservative government, not an inevitable consequence of the vote to leave in 2016. People voted not to terminate our economic cooperation but to put it on a new and different political basis, with sovereignty more explicitly and firmly rooted in Westminster rather than pooled in Brussels. Instead, Britain will have the same trading arrangements as far and distant countries.’
Whilst this is a situation of the Tories’ making Labour are no innocent bystanders. They have never had a coherent policy on Brexit, which has meant that parliamentary opposition has been fragmented. This is partly what voters rebelled against in 2019, and something which could haunt them in the future.
There is ‘absolutely nothing good about Brexit … which would never have happened had Conservative politicians not,
to a quite unprecedented degree, deceived and lied to their people’. (3)
A casualty of Brexit that is often overlooked: the dismantling of trade union power and workers’ rights. Since Thatcher came to office in 1979, trade union membership has halved, a collapse particularly marked in the private sector, where membership is now little over 13%.
Since the GFC workers had suffered the longest squeeze in wages since the Battle of Waterloo, as workers were stripped of bargaining power when it came to demanding higher wages.
As Tony Blair said in 1997, even after Labour’s planned reforms the country would still have ‘the most restrictive union laws in the western world’, and David Cameron’s 2016 Trade Union Act made strike action even harder.
Whilst most full-time and part-time workers voted to remain, as did a majority of those whom pollsters classify as working class under the age of 35, the fact that real wages had fallen or stagnated for so long fuelled the disillusionment that Brexit fed on.
This allowed right-wing Brexiteers to use the argument that migrants were undercutting wages, shifting the blame away from the weakening of unions and the so-called ‘flexible labour market’. In many ex-industrial areas, the replacement of jobs that had security and prestige with ones lacking both fed that disenchantment, making the disingenuous slogan ‘take back control’ more appealing still. The number of workers on zero-hours contracts has sharply increased, and the rising trend of agency and temporary workers with precarious terms and conditions has been accelerated by the pandemic.
As is always the case the right used those left behind as cannon fodder. Johnson’s Brexit deal may only accelerate the justified grievances that helped drive the referendum result in the first place. According to new research by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), workers’ rights, along with environmental protection, are at serious risk because of the trade deal. The agreement specifies that if Britain fails to keep to a ‘level playing field’ on social and environmental protections, the EU could respond with tariffs. The IPPR believes the burden of proof is so high that the government could easily water down protections, allowing unscrupulous bosses to take back control at the expense of their workers.
The ending of the pandemic offers the opportunity of a new normalisation, but the danger is that, as with the aftermath of 2008, it becomes an excuse for businesses to attack workers’ terms and conditions, and for the Conservatives to roll back the state, aided by a Brexit deal that permits the diluting of hard-won rights and protections.
The ‘sovereignty’ in whose name Brexit was done remained, essentially, a myth.
It is history, geography, culture, language and traditions that make up the identity of a people not their political organisation.’ (4)
As this column has written before a driver for Brexit was the rise of nationalism, but rather than focusing on the UK this is a very English nationalism. As a result, Johnson was happy to sell Scotland, Wales, and Norther Ireland (‘NI’) down the river. Therefore, it is no surprise that his deal was resoundingly rejected by the Scottish and NI parliaments, branding it ‘disastrous and damaging.’
Only the Labour-dominated Welsh Senedd backed the deal after Mark Drakeford, the first minister, said the ‘thin and disappointing’ agreement was at least ‘a platform on which better arrangements can be negotiated in the future’.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, told Holyrood the trade deal rode roughshod over the wishes of Scotland, which had repeatedly voted against leaving the EU and then called for the UK to remain inside the single market.
The deal betrayed Scotland’s fishing industry and was a ‘democratic, economic and social calamity’ and ‘disastrous’, she told MSPs. Signalling the Brexit agreement would fuel her party’s push for a second independence referendum in May’s Holyrood elections saying, ‘The Westminster system is beyond repair,’ she said. ‘We deserve the best deal of all, as an independent European country.’
In Stormont the chamber voted 49 to 38 in favour of an amendment sponsored by the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) that stated Stormont ‘rejects’ Brexit in line with Northern Ireland’s vote to remain inside the EU in 2016.
There was widespread relief that a no-deal crash out – and the spectre of tariffs – had been avoided but speakers voiced concern at the disappearance of EU funds and the costs to businesses of customs barriers between the region and the rest of the UK. Unionists also expressed anxiety at the constitutional implications of a de facto border down the Irish Sea.
Of course, the immediate reality of their dissent is that it is pointless, Johnson’s bill passed with a majority of 448, so that’s that. In the longer term what it means for the Union is unsettling; Scotland will push for a second independence referendum, which they deserve. I suspect they will vote for an independent Scotland. If so, I wish them every success.
And so, we come to end of the Brexit journey, and with it this column in it current form will retire. Rest assured that a new, improved version will rise phoenix like from the ashes at some point in 2021.
But, before our journey end’s I will share with you my conclusion.
Brexit was driven by a few, let’s say 20-25% of the electorate, who are narrow-minded revisionists, usually white, wealthy, and aged 50+. The balance that gave them their majority are the left behind who believed the propaganda that told them the EU was the cause of all their problems.
This is rubbish. 2021 will mark the 80th anniversary of George Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, his patriotic text about the English national character, and his belief that this country’s efforts in the early stages of the second world war were being compromised by the fact that he was still resident in ‘the most class-ridden country under the sun’.
Of the ruling-class politicians who had overseen Britain’s domestic problems between the wars and pursued the disastrous foreign policies that culminated in appeasement, he said this: ‘What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable.’
Nothing has changed, Johnson’s deal will see the poorest communities across Britain, such as north and the Midlands, hit hardest. These are the areas that are more reliant on manufacturing. For all the talk of ‘nothing to lose’, analysis by IPPR shows that a Brexit deal like this will cause the most harm to those least resilient to it.
I wish all of you a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2021.
To paraphrase the great David Bowie when retiring Ziggy Stardust in 1973, ‘this is the last gig we don’t need this fascist groove thing will ever play.’ Perhaps I will return as the Thin White Duke?
This week I have replaced lyrics with quotes, however there is to be a final flourish for all those feeling left behind.
‘Don’t be told what you want, you want
And don’t be told what you need
There’s no future, no future
No future for you’
- Rem Korteweg, of the Clingendael Institute thinktank in the Netherlands.
- Nicolai von Ondarza, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs
- Der Spiegel, Nikolaus Blome
- Jean-Dominique Giuliani, of the Robert Schuman Foundation in France
And then Boris ‘got it done’. As befitting of such a strange year the Brexit transition period fizzled out – nobody on the street, no fireworks; just a sense that it could have turned out worse, and that maybe it’s time to move on.
As Philip draws stumps on his excellent column, it is with little of the anger, fear and possibly even bile that have characterised it over the past four years (click here to see all archived articles).
Those left behind will remain so and the disadvantaged will soon come to realise that Boris’ headlines pledging to ‘level up’ are tomorrow’s chip paper – more likely to be smeared with gravy than mayonnaise (‘The Great British Chip Divide’ – YouGov).
The ERG is apparently content that sovereignty has been preserved, and whilst opinion will inevitably divide between those disappointed and those heartened by the agreement, aside from the interminably disgruntled fisherpeople, most will not stray far from a median line marked ‘indifferent’.
Philip has replaced the customary lyric challenge with quotes from a number of observers this week, and it is fair to say that none are massively supportive; however, in passing his bill with a majority of 448, Parliament has given Boris a mandate to at least start to ‘make Britain Great again’ – albeit that it is likely to further fan the flames of Scottish nationalism.
Few would have been surprised that Ursula von der Leyen eclipsed Boris in terms of eloquence, and it is perhaps the quote she selected from TS Eliot – ‘in every end there is a beginning’ – that should accompany us on the next stage of the journey.
We would like to sincerely thank Philip for his valued and pithy contributions over the past four years; often controversial, always well-researched and straight from the heart, Philip’s column has been a mainstay of DIY investor, and we hope that he will return as things unfold.
We began our journey on the premise that people would inevitably have to take personal financial control, and few are better qualified to assess how the UK’s evolving role in the world will impact all things financial than Philip; then there’s the rise and rise of China, our future relationship with ‘Sleepy’ Joe, and the pachyderm inhabiting increasing numbers of rooms – climate change.
Unable to resist one final lyric, Philip goes back to his roots – no points on offer, but three and a half minutes in which to savour those naughty boys the Sex Pistols and ‘God Save the Queen’. We mean it man.
Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s
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