Sunday, March 12, 2017
Leaving the EU is only half the job
Speaking with The Devil last night, he asked me to pen five basic points as to how we make a success of Brexit. And that is half the problem with Brexit. Everyone concerned wants the inherently complicated made easy. We have a political class which not only doesn't want to be troubled with detail, they will actively avoid any new information that complicates or disturbs narratives.
I could list five broad principles or the five most pressing objectives but that would not do justice to it. Broad principles would likely be motherhood and apple pie stuff we can all agree on but where does that get us? And though there clearly are priority objectives such as the free movement of goods across borders, that doesn't even begin to touch on the wider issues.
More to the point, it's a little late to try and steer the process. Before the end of this month we will likely see Article 50 invoked and the balloon goes up. It's out of our hands. The process is now entirely in the hands of the Tories who think it's a simple case of hammering out an agreement on tariffs and giving the French a swift handbagging over the final bill.
The intel I'm getting is that ministers really do believe their own rhetoric. What you see is what you get, compounded by the most extraordinary ignorance. They will go to Brussels imbued with the idea that "they need us more than we need them" and completely screw it up.
You can't tell these people anything. The only way to be heard inside the bubble is to tell them exactly what they want to hear. Had I spent the last three years making the case that we don't need to pay anything and that WTO rules were perfectly viable and that we can have a bonfire of regulations I expect I would be very popular in the Brexit bubble. Now, with the debate now being so hopelessly polarised, anybody contesting that woefully simplistic view is written off as a remoaner.
But then there is something very familiar about all this isn't there? This is the exact mirror image of the hubris that took us into the EU in the first place. A government so intoxicated with its own rehtoric it will steam ahead, listening to nobody and disregarding any and all words of caution.
Richard Dawkins on Newsnight this week said: "We have no right to condemn future generations to abide, irrevocably, to the transient whims of the present". I quite agree. This is exactly why Lisbon should never have been ratified. But in they went, conniving to dodge democracy and signed us up to this booby trap.
This to me suggests that as much as the EU is a problem, it is only half of the problem and Brexit alone doesn't get close to resolving anything. At the heart of this is a Westminster establishment, which, no matter who is in charge, is accountable to nobody.
And herein lies the hypocrisy of Brexiteers who have been vocal in denouncing "the establishment" only to roll over when that same establishment is singing their tune. Unless we are serious about pressing home meaningful democratic reform then we haven't resolved anything. As soon as the left inevitably take their turn to rule they will abuse the levers of power in exactly the same way.
From Brexiteers we have heard much about "returning powers to Westminster" but it should not be forgotten who it was who handed over powers to Brussels to begin with. More to the point, many of those powers were confiscated from local authorities by Westminster. Consequently the return of powers to Westminster will mean all of the power is in the hands of an entitled born-to-rule political class.
I've been around the block a few times now and I have seen how the system works. If you want influence you need to play the game and suck up to the right people, telling them what they want to hear - and even if you go into Westminster with the best of intentions, the system soon turns you native.
The system is festooned with PPE Oxbridge graduates, fast-tracked know-nothings and LSE policy wonks having done the right unpaid internship, none of whom have any exposure to real life and have never worked what you are I would call a real job. The same dynamic extends to the media where hacks are interchangeable between the Guardian and the Telegraph, each climbing the greasy pole, learning nothing as they go.
The politico-media bubble is an oral culture whereby information is traded over dinner in the form of factoids, where MPs have ever more stresses on their attention to the point where they agree with whoever it was they last spoke to. Trying to affect change at this level is pointless.
It is a culture that prizes conformity over knowledge and loyalty over substance. The system rewards obedience with money and prestige. It's a time honoured means of silencing dissent. The incorruptible, however, are simply unpersoned, bullied and skilfully marginalised.
This is how we end up with a disconnect between the politicians and the people and it is how politics becomes deeply London-centric, self-absorbed and insular - and consequently incapable of engaging in serious politics. Their feeble grasp of Brexit issues is all the proof you need.
And it is so telling that the referendum result was an inchoate howl of rage. Look where it comes from. It's the regions giving London the two fingered salute. Economically, culturally, politically, London is divergent in every conceivable way.
This is ultimately why Brexit needs to happen. The referendum has not divided the country. The country is already fractured. All Brexit has done has exposed the fault lines. And so when it comes to Brexit, we just have to let them get on and make a pig's ear of it because that is all we can do. It is the reckoning that comes after that should concern us.
My own studies lead me to believe that, thanks to the Tory approach to leaving the EU, we are going to be considerably worse off and we will lose a substantial amount of trade with the EU and, by proxy, with the rest of the world as well. This will not be EU obstinacy. This will purely be an act of self-harm, going into talks with unrealistic demands with no functioning knowledge of the EU.
When that happens there is an opportunity afoot. Free of the EU there are no longer any excuses. The buck stops with Westminster. The establishment must now take responsibility for its own failings. If we collectively roll over and make excuses for the Tories (by blaming the EU) then we will squander a once in a generation opportunity to correct a long standing problem. Brexit is a chance to dismantle the ossified structure of Westminster; a system designed before the internet and when MPs faced several days on horseback to meet in the Commons.
The task before is to heal the many rifts that make the UK so fundamentally divided. To that end, Brexit could very well be a window of revolutionary opportunity - to revise, modernise and decentralise government - and break it away from the sordid den of virtue signalling prostitutes in Westminster.
I had hoped to avoid Brexitgeddon, but my hopes fade with every utterance from David Davis and the Brexiteer back-benchers. Success seems unlikely because the ingredients for success are not there. Sceptical voices have been silenced and purged and replaced by soothsaying charlatans seeking consultancy fees, aided and abetted by dogmatic zealots. I think we have lost the capacity to make a success of it.
If however, the outcome of Brexit is a serious examination of how and why Westminster is failing so badly then it is more than just a mere consolation prize. I would value a reunited Britain and a rejuvenated politics over this buccaneering free trade paradise we are promised.
To bring that about we must start a national debate about how we want government to be shaped in the wake of Brexit. We must ensure that the Tories are exposed and brought to account for their hubris and we must mobilise to present new ideas. Unless we make good of this opportunity then we will have wasted the once chance we had for lasting reform. Brexit will have been a total waste of time.
The EU is not so much the cause of our problems. Rather it is a symptom of a deeper malaise, where government wants all of the power but is happy to deflect the responsibility and the blame to the EU. Our EU membership underpins that dynamic - and that is why nothing was ever going to change unless we voted to leave. Now that we have, it would be a travesty to leave the job unfinished. Brexit is a starter for ten, but the real work is only just beginning.