Brexit, British Government, Conservative Party, Customs Union, Single Market

3 years after the impossible promise of #Brexit: all you get is ‘True Britism’

This blogpost was written on Monday May 13th:

Brexit cartoon

Over the past week, as nothing much has been happening in the Brexit process, we have seen several outbreaks of a somewhat virulent disease known as “True Britism”. It is one of those viruses which can lie dormant for a long time, though there can be the occasional flareup. But it really becomes rampant when a Tory leadership election is in the offing. Once this happens, the political and environmental conditions are ideal for the virus to go, well, viral.

Once you are aware of the existence of this disease, it is easy to spot the sufferers. For a start, it is restricted to a particular demographic: Brexiteers, mostly of the “Hard Brexit” variety. The symptoms generally consist of a constant repetition of clichés such as: “we hold all the cards”; “we have all the money”; and the latest “we could have held Ireland hostage”.

For example, just last week the Tory MP, Chris Blunt, tweeted:

UK side had the money, the people, the huge trade deficit, amongst other advantages, including a hostage, the RoI, if EU behaved like this. We capitulated. Olly Robbins reported application for Belgian citizenship when it’s over helps explain the mindset of our negotiators.

“True Britism”, at its core, is a belief that if only a “True Brit” with “True Grit” had been in charge of the negotiations, the EU would have crumbled at first contact.

A “True Brit” would never have gone to Brussels to negotiate Brexit. He/she would have summoned those “Jonny Foreigners” to London, outlined the terms under which the EU could leave the UK, (yes, you read that right) and told the EU there and then that if it did not agree it could leave without a deal.

Being gracious, the UK, as David Davis once suggested, would have offered the EU a “transition period” to get its affairs in order. Thereafter, the UK would have been willing to listen to proposals from the EU for a free trade agreement.

From the get-go, the EU would have had to accept that the UK could continue to trade with the EU as it did when it was an EU member, but without any of those irksome obligations, such as free movement. Meanwhile, Liam Fox would have been busy signing trade deals across the globe.

Sufferers from “True Britism” believe that all of this is still possible, but only after Theresa May has been ousted and replaced by one of their own. It echoes the “Darkest Hour” legend of a heroic Churchill seizing the leadership of a despondent nation after the years of Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, giving it the courage to “stand alone”, no matter what the cost.

For ardent Brexiteers, any price is worth paying to win the “war of national liberation” from the European Union. Of course, the UK was never invaded by the EU in the same way as the British Empire invaded one or two countries back in the day. Unless I am mistaken, the UK voluntarily joined the EU because it thought its then moribund economy could do with some help.

The only thing that ever “invaded” the UK from the EU were EU laws, mostly concerned with economic matters, which the UK had a large hand in crafting. That oppressive “single market”, now regarded as so stifling of British initiative, was enthusiastically promoted by Margret Thatcher

But, somehow or other, Brexiteers have convinced themselves, and a good part of the population, that they are now a colony of the EU, little more than the “wretched of the earth”, to borrow Frantz Fanon’s phrase. The just need to find their Nelson Mandela to lead them on that “long walk to freedom”.

That this is no caricature of the way many UK voters view Brexit can be seen from the surge in support for the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage. Farage, who appears to have no policies other than pushing for an immediate departure from the EU, specialises in the “Brexit betrayed by the remainer elites” myth. The betrayal myth dovetails neatly with “True Britism” belief system.

Farage also majors in what the commentator, Roland Smith, has called “simplism”.

“Simplism” holds that leaving the EU would be easy and cost free. There would be no complications. After all, the UK would hold all the cards (see Blunt above) and could dictate terms. That it has turned out to be complicated and, potentially, extremely costly is the fault of devious Remainers, desperate to do anything to thwart the “will of the people”.

Beyond Brexit, no one can say what Farage and his Brexit Party stand for. At the recent launch of the party, Telegraph reporter Christopher Hope asked Farage: “Will we ever see a manifesto? You have only one single policy which is: Brexit.”

Farage responded: “As far as the manifesto is concerned, we are fighting the 23rd of May on the issue of democracy… Are we a democratic country or not? … Because right at the moment, it doesn’t feel like it and our friends around the world look at us and shake their heads.”

As for policies, he commented:

“We will talk about all those things after the 23rd of May.”

“But, right now… we are fighting and campaigning to make sure that we can be a free, independent, self-governing, democratic nation.”

So, “vote for me and only after you have voted will I tell you what my policies are”, appears to be Farage’s approach to policy. Would you go into a shop and hand over £100 at the demand of the shopkeeper and only after you have handed over the money would you find what you are going to get? “Do you think I’m nuts”, I suspect would be the answer.

Nevertheless, according to the Observer, some 34% of the electorate plan to vote for Farage and the Brexit Party in the coming European Parliament elections, with Labour on 21% and the Tories on just 11%. If we assume that half of the Tory 11% want to stay in the EU and two-thirds of the Labour vote do as well, then the combined “hard-Brexit at all costs” vote probably comes in somewhere around 45%. (It should be noted that other polls put the Brexit Party in the mid-twenties, but still a significant number).

To put that another way. As other polls have shown, the Remain/Leave split is now probably around 55/45 in favour of Remain. But, given the “winner take all” nature of UK politics, and the strongly pro-Brexit bias of much of the UK media, Farage’s 34% will be spun as him having “won” the European Parliament election.

British Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have no say within the UK’ political system on the Brexit issue. No matter who “wins” the EP elections, it will not impact the current arithmetic of the House of Commons. If anything, a Farage victory could harden current attitudes. Brexiteers will be confirmed in their position that Brexit must be delivered, while Remainers will toughen their stance that the politics of Brexit, as personified by Farage, must be resisted.

One way or another, UK politics appear to be deadlocked on the Brexit issue, as both Chris Grey here and Ian Dunt here have pointed out. For the moment, there does not appear to be any obvious way of breaking this deadlock.

As we have previously written, the Brexit referendum in 2016 was won on an impossible promise. Britain would be able to leave the European Union at absolutely no cost. In fact, the UK would be better off economically out of the EU than in it.

Now, the only conceivable way that this could be true would be if the EU was prepared to tear up its own legal order to facilitate the UK. If the EU was willing to let the UK have all the benefits of EU membership with none of the obligations then, of course, it would be better off.

Just as I would be better off if a local club of which I was a member agreed to let me continue to use all the facilities without having to pay the annual subscription, respect club rules or abide by decisions of the club committee. You know that my local club is not going to agree to that for two reasons: First, if I don’t have to pay the subscription and follow the rules, why should anyone else? Secondly, if everyone stops paying the subscription then soon there would be no club.

At its economic heart, the EU Customs Union and Single Market is build around the four freedoms of movement: goods, capital, services and people, as set out in the founding Treaty of Rome. It comes as a package. You can’t cherry-pick. But that’s what the UK wants to do. It wants free movement for goods, services and capital, but not for people. or, to be more exact, for EU citizens to have the right to come and work and live in the UK.

I have yet to see or hear any UK politician state clearly to the British people that ending free movement will mean ending the right of British people to go and work and live in Europe. Or to retire to live in the sun in Europe. Of course, British people will be able to move to the Spanish Costas after Brexit. It will just be an awful lot more costly and complicated than it is now.

In a way, moving to the Costa del Sol sums up where the UK is with Brexit. Today, you can wake up in the morning and decide to move there, always provided that you can support yourself when you are there. EU free movement rules do not entitle people to move to another EU country just to live off social security payments.

After Brexit, UK citizens will still be able to move to the Costa del Sol and live there. But they will probably have to apply for a visa, and all that that will involve, before they can move. Think of it this way. Look at the processes and procedures that you would have to go through to move to Australia if you were over sixty.

You have to provide proof of substantial financial resources and show that you have comprehensive health insurance, among other things. This is easy to do is you are wealthy and can afford to pay for professional advice to help you with your application. Probably not so easy if you are living on a modest pension and would struggle to buy private health insurance.

Just over a month’s time, June 23, will mark the third anniversary of the date on which the UK voted to leave the EU. It still hasn’t left. In the meantime, nothing appears to have changed, even if an invisible economic price has already been paid. But in politics the invisible doesn’t count. “They told us Brexit would hurt us, it hasn’t. It was all just Project Fear”.

That three years have passed and nothing has changed feeds the view that when the UK actually does leave everything will still stay the same. But of course, things won’t stay the same. But that realisation will come “dropping slow”, by which time it will be too late. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

Brexit will never be over because the UK simply cannot detach itself from the EU. There is no other Europe with which the UK can deal.

Does anyone seriously think that UK-based companies are going to stop trading with Europe or that UK citizens are going to stop travelling to, living in and holidaying in the countries that make up the EU?

Of course not. But these things don’t just happen. Trade and travel requires agreements between countries and agreements bring rules and regulations. Agreements take time.

The talks necessary to reach these agreements will suck all the oxygen out of UK politics. As Lord Peter Ricketts, a former senior civil servant, told a recent seminar organised by the Institute for Government:

“…the next phase of Brexit would be so complex and time consuming that it would make Theresa May’s current crisis look like “a relatively simple, straightforward affair”.

He predicted negotiations are likely to go on for years and “encompass pretty much the entire of Whitehall”, with detailed negotiations expected in everything from trade and financial services to data transfer, transport, fisheries and nuclear and gas supply.

Put it another way. The UK is going to spend years negotiating with the European Union to secure deals giving it less than it now has. The upside? You tell me.

Not even a “True Brit” with “True Grit” can change the fundamental fact that the UK is just a relatively small island off the coast of the Eurasian mainland.

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