Brexit is back, with all its old issues

Sunday National, 14th of June 2020.

Yes, it’s the B word. Covid or no Covid, I’m sorry, but the B word is back. Brexit may have seemed singularly inconsequential over the last three months, as the old polarities it engendered were superseded by the global pandemic – but there’s no avoiding it now.

The uncertain terms of the UK’s departure from the EU have never truly gone away. As the virus and lockdown crushed the economy, killed thousands, and sapped governmental resources – sand has been running through the hourglass faster and faster on Britain’s future relations with the European 27.

“No deal Brexit” may sound like a political slogan from another age now, but December threatens to give the idea a new and brutal salience. Yet again, the UK government is charging headlong into potential disaster and yet again, no matter how deep the devolved governments dig in their heels, however furiously they gesticulate, we find ourselves hauled along in the wake of the UK government’s decisions, however mad they may be.

In just over 200 days’ time, the “transition” or “implementation period” shepherding us out of the European Union will end. Although the UK formally left the EU at the beginning of this year, almost all of the cardinal principles of EU law still apply across the UK. If Brexit doesn’t seem to make much difference to your life and times – this is why. Food safety rules haven’t been downgraded. Trump’s rubber chicken isn’t on your plate. Environmental protections haven’t gone up in flames. Workers’ rights remain – for the moment – ungutted.  Goods, people, services and capital are still moving more or less freely across the invisible lines up the channel and bisecting the island of Ireland, as if nothing much changed on January the 31st.

But next year, this picture will change, perhaps change dramatically. When the Hogmanay bells toll for 2021, our trade rules with Europe will shift to whatever new terms Her Majesty’s government can cobble together in the next six months. Unless, that is, something is done to give the negotiators some much-needed breathing space.

This week, the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland wrote to their UK counterparts, urging them to seize the opportunity to extend the transition period till everyone can give the deal the attention it merits. Run to the wire, and the whole of the UK risks a second, voluntary economic shock caused by a needless “no deal Brexit” or a “bare bones” deal wich could shudder through the tender fibres of the British economy.

Within hours of this letter being published, Michael Gove announced that the Tory administration had formally advised the EU no extension would be requested. Deal or no deal, the Chancellor the Duchy of Lancaster says, “we will take back control and regain our political and economic independence” from Brussels. This is madness. There’s no other word for it. Gordon Brown’s slogan – that Scotland should be “leading Britain, not leaving it” – never sounded more preposterous.

There are no versions of Brexit with no social and economic consequences for Scotland, Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom, but Scotland’s lack of independence has been hugely consequential in the course Brexit has taken. This week shows – yet again – we’re stuck in a subordinate position, as a rule-taker, not a rule-maker in the United Kingdom.

Naturally, the Secretary of State for Scotland finds himself in complete concord with the mania which has overtaken his cabinet colleagues, commenting “I firmly believe it is the right thing to do, because Scottish businesses need certainty. They need to know what to plan for.” But of course, certainty is the last thing this crackpot decision generates for businesses, trying to find their feet in the post-Covid economy. At this stage, business can have no idea what to plan for. They know next to nothing about the detail of the trade agreements the UK might strike. They don’t know whether they’ll suddenly find themselves in a cold January, trading on World Trade Organisation terms, paying tariffs, facing additional hurdles, with costly delays getting their goods to market. What Alister Jack hails as British “certainty” is essentially a game of Russian roulette. “Either the gun I’ve put to my forehead has a bullet in it, or it doesn’t.” Click. 

Meanwhile, Europe has sounded all the sirens. We’re cutting it tight, Michel Barnier says. The pandemic represents a material change in circumstances for everyone. History has taught us that wide-ranging free trade agreements can be months in the drafting, months in the negotiating, and months in the finalising. Canada may have taken seven years to finalise its trade deal with Brussels, but with Boris Johnson recumbent half the working day, his ministers mired in the virus, governmental capacity stretched, now seems an excellent time to ensure the negotiation period is as compressed and dirty as possible.

“Getting Brexit done” has always been a slogan, not a policy. Although it may have seemed anything but straightforward at the time, getting dry ink on the Withdrawal Agreement was always going to be the easy bit of Brexit. On tariffs, on fishing, on standards – the future relationship was where the real trade-offs and choices must be made. If a modest delay is required to do that deal properly, given the three months we’ve all just come through – what rational person could object?

I don’t think this is a particularly ideological position, or remoaner talk to justify twenty more years under the EU yoke, or whatever weirdo formulation the sturdy English yeomen supporting the Prime Minister might prefer. As Nicola Sturgeon and the Welsh FM pointed out to Downing Street on Friday, “no-one could reproach the UK Government for changing its position in the light of the wholly unforeseeable COVID-19 crisis, particularly as the EU has made it clear it is open to an extension request.”

After all, the UK has already left the European Union in formal terms. Nigel Farage has had his “independence day.” The symbolism is banked. Pub quizzes up and down the land have already adjusted their answers on “how many countries make up the EU?” from 28 to 27. For much of the population, everything else sounds like accountancy and the kind of unsexy lawyering you never see on telly.

Indeed, if you were a worldly Brexiteer – keen to make a political success of this precarious endeavour, concerned to entrench Britain’s place outside Europe in the longer run with the demographics running against you – you might want embark on this most difficult phase of Britain’s disentanglement from the EU under the most favourable conditions possible, minimising the risk your project becomes tarnished and discredited by the losses it engendered.

You don’t need a Brains Trust to conclude that sending a new and nasty knock through the economic system, in middle of a pandemic, GDP having already contracted by over 20%, when governmental capacity is painfully stretched – might not be best idea. You don’t need to be an Einstein to realise finalising a complex and consequential accord with your nearest neighbours and trading partners in an orderly and rational way is hard to do when all hands are manning the pumps to keep the ship of state above the waterline. But as the last few months should have taught us, this Tory administration doesn’t seem terrifically interested in orderly or rational policy-making. So with reckless abandon – the UK government sails on, whatever consequences may follow from their carefree devotion to “getting Brexit done.”

One cynical reading of the UK government’s manoeuvres reckons things are actually proceeding Just As Planned. For a band of empty political opportunists, mired in a public health and economic crisis, credibility knocked, political capital leeching away, adopting a ramming speed position on Brexit may be one effective way for this government to disguise the economic fallout as secondary effects of Covid-19, trusting the public doesn’t read the small print or blame this Tory administration from the missing pounds in their pockets.

But I wonder if there isn’t something more basic in play. Political winners who unexpectedly fall on hard times can be a danger to themselves, and others. In politics as in life, success tends to build little resilience. Setbacks and failures: now those are the stuff real pluck is made of. After Theresa May frittered away her Tory majority and walled herself up in parliamentary deadlock, Boris Johnson’s landslide election with a copper-bottomed majority of 80 seats must have felt like golden days for Conservatives, relief and freedom.

Those days are passed. You can’t help but wonder if the Johnsons and Goves of this government – flighty newspapers columnists confronted with the unglamorous, sustained grind of administration – hanker for the happier days when it looked like their spell in power was going to be charmed, rather than haunted. To lose your governing vim so rapidly must be a disorientating experience for politicians who thought they were inheriting sunlit uplands, and find they spend their days sifting through ashes. The UK government can’t just waterboard the public with Pimms till morale improves. The idea that “if we can recapture the Brexit spirit, we’ll be home and dry” has all the hallmarks of political escapism, and a retreat into the fantasy of happier mornings, when the weight of political responsibility didn’t weigh so heavily, or seem so real.

This Tory administration doesn’t have challenges to seek on the constitution. If the UK government dig in and die on this hill, the integrity of this disunited Kingdom seems looser still.

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