Saturday, 3 December 2016
Brexit: a question of visions
Whether or Brits knew what they were voting for really depends which prism you look through. On the more superficial level voters knew they were voting to leave the EU. For the most part they were voting to end the EUs supremacy over the UK and to restore full sovereignty. This we take to mean control of our laws, borders and budgets.
Based on the information in the public domain; that put forth by the media and that which both campaigns specified, this included leaving the single market. I'm not going to pretend for a moment it is any other way. I could, with a degree of sophistry make a convincing case to the contrary, but there is plenty on record, in terms of what both campaigns said, and in terms of what the public understands the single market to be, that leaving the single market was part of the deal.
That was not, however, any mention of a timescale. The government has a mandate to leave the EU and the single market. In the first instance there can be no dispute that, as a matter of fact, the majority voted to leave. Since I am not playing silly buggers, I do not accept the inclusion of those who could not be bothered to vote in any estimation. Such is the domain of bigots like AC Grayling.
And while you could make the case that a vote to leave is a vote to leave and that largely implies as soon as possible, the feasibility of full separation in a single bound is somewhere around nil.
The hard Brexiteer position is that because we would transpose European law onto our own statute book, it is only a matter of forging a conformity agreement and a deal on tariffs, without addressing the multitude of other issues which are equal in stature. The mistake is the belief that the sundries are merely an after thought and not an essential component of a sophisticated trade system. When confronted with the complexities they offer up simplistic solutions based on half understood notions, in a field which already confounds some of the best expertise in the land.
I am now of the view that no single individual short of a superhuman can have a comprehensive grasp of every area of concern. There are trade negotiators who will have an in depth insight into patent law and those who will have a deep understanding of banking regulation but each of these specialists will have little idea how that relates to customs systems and the free movement of goods, nor will a constitutional expert have much insight into how the day to day application of regulation works.
Then there are economists who can bore for Britain on the subject of tariffs and trade imbalances but theirs is a narrow field which seldom ever crosses over into the political and the practical and it seems uniformly that economists have a blind spot for the practical purpose of regulation. This is not solely an affliction of those on the leave side.
So that then brings about a deeply technical and political question of how we leave the EU. In that, what people didn't vote for is every but as important as what they did vote for. What I am pretty certain most did not vote for is the entire trade system grinding to a halt and airliners being refused boarding permission. So straight off the bat we can discount any unilateral moves.
And though people might have voted to control immigration they did not vote for measures that would necessarily restrict their freedom to travel. I would also imagine that people voted with the idea that food prices would come down and not go up. So we are now very much into the realm of guesswork where it becomes deeply political, with claim and counterclaim over what each course of action is likely to achieve. The only legitimate arbiter of this can be the elected government.
That puts the government in the unenviable position of having to reconcile a number of impractical and in some cases unreasonable demands with political and economic reality. While Mrs May would find it very easy to placate the lunatic fringe of her party she would enrage the house of commons and at least half of the population. Though it would be popular with the most vocal of Brexiteers, the actual real world consequences would be popular with no-one at all.
Similarly, were Mrs May to take the path of least resistance, staying in the customs union she would quickly find herself looking for another job. It is therefore an absolute certainty that Mrs May must make a deeply unpopular choice that will please neither extreme. As it happens, that's usually a sign that you are doing the right thing. The media may howl and moan, but they will highlight the deficiencies of any deal on the table and will take great pleasure in stoking up protest.
The majority though, are those who are going about their business and getting on with it and expect Mrs May to do the same. The most vocal in this are those most keen on impressing their narrow ideology on all of us and those are the people best ignored. What we can take as read is that most reasonable people want an orderly transition out of the EU without interrupting normal business too much and not in a fashion that could threaten their jobs.
In this we have started to see a softened line from the remainers, with even Chuka Umunna calling for an end to calls for a second referendum. That is indeed progress. If the very worst of the worst can agree that we must move forward on the verdict without further delay then we can now begin to seek out a consensus.
And that really has to be how we must play it. We cannot airbrush remainers out of this equation since they make up roughly half the country. Had Vote Leave produced a plan and not run such an odious campaing based on a number of falsehoods and fabrications they would have more of a say but as every effort was made to avoid having a plan, it follows that Vote Leave Ltd don't get a say.
The short of it is that none of us ever gets all that we voted for. That is a facet of any democracy and it is unrealistic to expect that every demand can be met. We can only take a particular step if there is a clear and obvious rationale for doing so, and thus far, the case made for leaving the single market is shockingly thin and is unlikely to deliver the outcomes expected of it.
As much as Brexit is a process, so is democracy. By leaving the EU we are in the very first instance ending the supremacy of the EU and terminating political union. That is the very essence of eurosceptic demands - which will be met at the end of the Article 50 process. That is the political aim we have all shared for many years. The economic agenda though is far less clear cut.
The economic visions have yet to be defined and that is a national debate we must have not only before Article 50 is triggered, but also for a long time afterward. In this the hard Brexiteers have some soul searching to do. They tell us that they seek a global Britain based on free trade and openness, yet their first demand is that we erect extensive non-tariff barriers with our nearest and most valuable trading partner. This combined with substantially closing off freedom of movement is entirely incompatible with their own rhetoric.
Further to this we hear more and more talk of protecting our own industries from competition, subsiding businesses to stay in the UK and a number of other measures that are antithetical to economic liberalism. Though this can be expected of Ukip, which is drifting ever more to the old left, the Tory right, supposedly economic liberals, seem to be undergoing a metamorphosis to something else entirely.
Of course we know the real answer to this question. The eurosceptic narrative has not reformed in more than twenty years and the arguments are determinedly bogged down in the matter of tariffs which are no longer central to the debate. We are dealing with dinosaurs in every respect. Throwbacks to the Thatcher era.
There was a time when I fully supported this agenda but really one has to change when the facts do. Since much of eurosceptic thinking is founded on articles of faith, they are unable to slaughter their sacred cows even if that endangers the entire Brexit enterprise.
In the modern era, being truly open and economically liberal requires continued regulatory harmonisation which is more essential to the proper functioning of trade than eliminating tariffs. To that end our ambition should be to equalise all other relationships and bring them up to single market standard. We can already do this with a number of developed nations who are already operating to the global standard, but we can also use our economic development budget to bring developing countries up to single market standard and in so doing challenge the EUs dominance of the single market.
That is what our mission must be and for a time that requires that we stay in the single market so that we can evolve it and make it so that leaving it is entirely unnecessary. That is the global leadership Britain has always shown and that is what I voted for. Instead, the old school eurosceptics are effectively offering up a dismal introverted vision of Britain which doesn't cooperate on regulations or standards and lives in a closed and claustrophobic world of its own. As a Brexiteer I most certainly did not vote for that. That is an even narrower vision than the European Union.