It has been a year since I last wrote about Brexit. My reason was simple; there was no longer anything to discuss. Despite having written extensively about the process between 2015 and 2019, Boris Johnson’s massive election victory a year ago brought the process to an end. In short order, the new Johnson government secured Brexit. Britain formally left the European Union at 11.00pm on 31 January 2020. There would be a transition period ending on 31 December 2020. Although the UK government had an option to extend this until 2022 so long as they applied before the end of June 2020; they didn’t.
Prior to 13 December 2020, the nature of Brexit had yet to be agreed. Between them, the British political class could have settled upon any potential Brexit from the very softest arrangement – in which the UK remained within the customs union and the single market – through to the hardest “no deal” Brexit in which the UK reverts to trading on World Trade Organisation terms with huge disruptions to trade.
At the time of writing, last minute – extended – negotiations are continuing. Nevertheless, the outcome will either be no deal or a very loose agreement over trade in goods. Three of the EU’s “four freedoms” – free movement of people, services and capital – will have been curtailed. Only those goods set out in the final trade deal will still move freely. And, of course, even that freedom will be lost if the last ditch negotiations fail.
On the European side of the table though, very little has changed since the referendum result. After initial talks between the remaining 27 member states, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier produced a summary document which included the UK’s position as set out by the new Prime Minister Theresa May:
Unless the UK government was prepared to compromise on at least some of its “red lines,” the best they could hope for was a deal over the trade in goods similar to that secured by Canada and South Korea – better than no deal, but far from ideal for a major importing country whose main export is banking and financial services.
At least with a deal Britain won’t starve. Our farmers will still be able to export food to Europe and our supermarkets will still be able to stock the shelves with European produce. But a Canada-type trade agreement still means a massive restructuring of the UK economy to account for the new conditions.
It could have been very different. But Brexit has always been something of a mental aberration for the Tory Party. Margaret Thatcher became highly Eurosceptic in the years following her removal from office. Concerned – correctly as it turned out – about the negative impacts of the euro currency, and hostile to the idea of ever closer political union, Thatcher helped polarise the debate within the Tory establishment as it grappled with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. But even Thatcher was not so deranged as to favour an in-out referendum. Rather, Thatcher saw the threat of a referendum as a potential negotiating ploy to win concessions from the other member states. Actually calling a referendum would be a “nuclear option” – only to be deployed if the UK’s relationship with the other member states had broken down entirely.
Cameron was more blasé – using the nuclear option not as a last ditch defence against a hostile Europe, but as a means of preventing former Tory voters from switching to UKIP. No doubt Cameron expected the 2015 electoral arithmetic to result in another coalition with the maniacally pro-EU LibDems; who would insist that he drop the referendum promise as part of a new coalition deal. But the LibDems were reduced to a rump in 2015 even as Cameron secured a surprise majority. And so Cameron was forced to try to use the referendum in the way Thatcher had suggested; as a negotiating ploy.
Cameron went to Brussels with a fairly weak package of reforms which a more forward-looking EU technocracy might have acceded to in other circumstances. But with the EU grappling with problems of its own – including an attempt to consolidate various EU treaties – they gave Cameron short shrift. Any hope of being able to claim that a referendum was no longer necessary was dashed when Cameron failed to secure a deal. And so the referendum was called.
Foolishly – and no doubt seeking to avoid the fate of John Major, whose 1992-97 government floundered over Europe, paving the way for Blair’s New Labour – Cameron sought an early referendum. Rather than – as had been the case over Scottish independence – allow several years for each side to make their case and for the public to be fully informed of the issues, Cameron set the date of 23 June 2016.
The fact of Brexit then, is very much a Tory choice. As conservative commentator Matthew d’Ancona pointed out last year:
“Yes, Jeremy Corbyn’s vacillation has been pathetic. But he is the leader of the opposition. It was a Conservative government that called the referendum, and a Conservative prime minister who – having squandered her party’s majority in the 2017 general election – bought the support of the Democratic Unionist party with taxpayers’ money so she could stay in power and finish the job. Brexit is a Tory gig.”
The type of Brexit we eventually end up with is a completely different matter. It is notable that even now, with the 31 December deadline less than three weeks away, the opponents of Brexit are still relitigating the 2016 referendum. It is as though we are stuck in some peculiar time warp in which around a fifth of the UK population are still living in early June 2016. And so they keep repeating the failed slogans of the Remain campaign – that Brexit will cripple the economy, that immigration is good, that cessation threatens the post 1945 peace in Europe, etc. – as if those claims are somehow going to make the referendum result go away.
Of interest, woke commentator Owen Jones and libertarian Sunday Mail columnist Peter Hitchens arrived at the same criticism of the hard remainers last week. According to Jones:
“There are now only two certainties when it comes to Brexit: either Britain and the EU will sign off the hardest possible mutually agreed rupture, or the self-inflicted disaster of no deal will become a reality. None of this was inevitable. Don’t listen to me; heed the words of Peter Mandelson instead, who has declared that this is ‘the price the rest of us in the pro-EU camp will pay for trying, in the years following 2016, to reverse the referendum decision rather than achieve the least damaging form of Brexit’. Much too late. The price that will be paid over a generation or more due to a failure to unite around a compromise is steep indeed…
“When Brexiteers criticised the Norway option as the worst of all worlds – leading to Britain languishing under EU rules without having a say – remainers agreed with them. In indicative votes in early 2019, MPs who backed the Norway option voted for a second referendum, too; but many People’s Vote-supporting MPs refused to return the favour.”
Hitchens – who opposed the referendum from the start – is more scathing; asking whether today’s politicians had to take a stupidity exam before taking their seats:
“Anyone who knew anything about the EU issue said years ago (as I did) that our best way out of Brussels rule was to copy Norway – stay in the Single Market and get rid of all the political and legal baggage…
“What interests me about this, as a powerless spectator, is that – as with the Covid crisis – there has never been any opportunity for sensible thinking to find its way into Westminster and Whitehall. The debate has always been between hard-leavers and hard-remainers. The whole idea of intelligent compromise has been drowned by militant, angry passion…”
One of the defining features of the neoliberal project has been the division of the population into a series of binary tribal identities whose identity matters far more than the issues at hand. Signalling one’s opposition to Brexit became the means by which one demonstrated being on the side of all that is right and good – not like the racists, fascists and swivel-eyed lunatics on the other side of the aisle. But this did nothing to resolve the real question before us: how do we honour the outcome of the biggest vote in our history without turning the UK into a smouldering ruin?
By falling for the “myth of the 48 percent” – the belief that every one of the people who voted to remain was in favour of overturning the result – the hardcore remainers convinced themselves that compromise was unnecessary and that their efforts should be thrown into reversing the result. The irony was that this led their parliamentary representatives to line up in the same voting lobbies as the no-deal Brexiteers.
The Norway deal – which both Jones and Hitchens supported – would have meant life for most Britons going on pretty much as it has done since the single market was formed in 1992. But Theresa May’s deal which was resoundingly defeated last January offered something even more valuable to the remainers if only they had been prepared to face reality. In the wording agreed between May and Barnier, that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” May offered a mirror image of Switzerland’s ongoing attempts to join the EU – a “Brexit in name only.” Every now and again, someone in Switzerland remembers that they had once decided to join the EU. Each time, a Swiss negotiator will point out that there are still disagreements about the dairy content of Swiss chocolate or the market for cuckoo clocks, and that until these have been resolved, further integration cannot proceed. And life goes on.
The reason the Brexiteers voted against it was that it created an unlimited withdrawal period which, with the proposed Northern Ireland backstop, might never come to an end. Brexit would happen – in the sense that Britain would no longer send Ministers to the Council, appoint commissioners or elect members of the Parliament, but the final trading arrangements would be open to negotiation. And nothing else would change until those negotiations had ended. Given enough time, Britons would have become like their Swiss counterparts; periodically reminded that we were supposed to negotiate a final trade deal, but lulled to sleep again by the details of lamb quotas or left-hand drive road safety specifications.
It wasn’t to be. The remainers voted with the hard Brexiteers to ensure that the final choice would be between the hardest of Brexits – a deal less favourable than those enjoyed by Turkey and Ukraine – or no deal at all. Even when the chance arose to form a Labour-led coalition government which would have held a second referendum, the hard remainers couldn’t bring themselves to back the pro-leave Corbyn; preferring instead to join Johnson in engineering a general election. The result – a year ago – was all too predictable. Johnson won a resounding 80 seat majority and in the process confined the Labour Party to the dustbin of history.
As I explain in my book – Decline and Fall: the Brexit years – for all the passion and angst, the Brexit process was just the latest in a long line of crises stemming from the economic collapse of the world’s first industrial civilisation. Indeed, by the time Brexit actually happens, the impact of the response to the Covid pandemic will have eclipsed it anyway (although no doubt the establishment media will try to blame everything on Brexit while ignoring the fact that the crisis is global).
My US readers might also notice the parallels between the divisions over Brexit and those over Trump; both are examples of what David Graeber referred to as “extreme centrism” in which the crisis matters less than the team one chooses to identify with. The similarity is due to the fact that the fundamentals of the collapse of the current US Empire – energy shortages in the non-energy sectors of the economy, debt-overstretch and currency weakness, growing inequality and declining consumer spending power – are the same as those which brought about the collapse of the British Empire nearly a century ago.
Both sides in the current and highly heated debate are delusional. The side that thinks it can revive the Empire’s past glory ignore the crippling material conditions that have brought it to its knees. The side which thinks the Empire is already great sit in their rarefied gated communities, oblivious to the plight of the majority of their respective populations. Only those who grasp the full horror of a collapsing economy, depleted energy stocks and a decaying environment stand aside from the fray; understanding that nothing can now stop the process of collapse.
The only thing which separates Britain from the fate of the remainder of the western world is the speed with which our crises are developing. To paraphrase John Michael Greer, we Brits are merely getting our collapse in early to avoid the rush!
As you made it to the end…
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