This week something interesting happened in matters Brexit: farmers at the National Farmers’ Union conference booed environment minister George Eustice (FT story here (€)). This was connected to the news that direct payments to farmers will be reduced by 25% from 1 January 2021, as Farmers Weekly reports here. Why does this matter? Because a group that has been solidly pro-Brexit is starting to feel the pinch as to how it is going to be done by the government.
The problem is of course that as the next stage of the Brexit negotiations progress, more and more groups are going to start to feel the pinch. Automobile industries and their workers frustrated as the car type approvals process gets messy, and plants might have to close. Tech firms and their workers annoyed if data protection rules are not going to get sorted out. Airlines and their employees not content if the aviation safety regime is not aligned with the EU’s. Shipping industries and their people angry if customs controls are not handled adequately. Peter Foster lists more industrial sectors and their concerns in this excellent thread.
In one tweet Peter writes this: “I still don’t really understand why the Conservative, the alleged party of business, is so content to become the party of “f*ck business”“.
I had, until a few weeks ago, attributed this lack of clarity and absence of detail in this second phase – for which only 11 months are foreseen, and 1 of which has been used up – to the lack of administrative capacity on the UK side, and a lack of preparedness. In the end the government – with a majority of 80, and not facing an election until 2024 – will see sense and will seek more pragmatic outcomes I thought. Now I am not so sure.
I understand the political appeal of Hard Brexit – leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union – but even then there are lines where the price of taking back political control is too high, economically. If you doubt that ask the Swiss who – for the sake of their industry – are increasingly aligning their food law with the EU’s, even though they do not have to as a non-EU state.
The problem however is that for every group that line – where economic pragmatism wins out over the political gain of taking back control – is in a different place. Farmers might be fine with the EU adopting its own car type approvals system or aviation safety regime, but cheap imports of lower standard animal feed? No thanks! Meanwhile the car workers want alignment with the EU on type approvals but find the theoretical appeal of the farmers taking back control just fine. Or tech firms are happy for fishermen to regain control of UK waters, but the burden of not achieving data protection equivalence? Sorry that’s a step too far.
Putting this another way, if you give the farmers, the car industry, the aviation industry, the shipping industry, the tech industry and – more widely – students, holidaymakers, retired people, people who travel and need health insurance cards – all of what each of those groups want, you end up with a very soft Brexit indeed.
Yet if you do what just some of those groups want, you cut right into the central myth of Brexit: that the 52% who voted for it actually knew what they were voting for. They didn’t, because there was no agreed Brexit plan, which was the genius of how to win the referendum in the first place.
That is also why any of the purported benefits of Brexit – that it saves money for example – are seldom talked about any longer. Brexit is not to be done because it brings benefits, but it has to be done because 52% of those voting voted for it. They, the people, are the ones whose views have to be respected, even though there is no actual consensus on how to actually do it.
This is what makes me think that the UK Government does not actually want to engage seriously with business groups – even though not doing so leads to the “quiet, seething, livid rage” that Foster speaks about in his thread. To engage seriously with any of them, and any of their concerns, leads to the whole edifice being in danger of collapse. Because to be seen to concede to any of those groups is to concede that there are different interests within Brexit, and then it is not one complete, cohesive whole.
That is also the reason why chief negotiator David Frost’s plan to publish a draft deal was shelved – it would make sense in negotiation terms, but does not make sense when it comes to communicating Brexit in the UK, for the winners and losers would be laid out bare. Let the EU instead be blamed for that.
Thinking about it this way was further underlined for me when, via Sean Danaher, I came across this interview with Yale academic Jason Stanley who describes fascism as a method more than as ideology. Stanley says:
I think of fascism as a method of politics. It’s a rhetoric, a way of running for power. […] The key thing is that fascist politics is about identifying enemies, appealing to the in-group (usually the majority group), and smashing truth and replacing it with power. […] The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative.
Where Stanley says liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism, read “the EU” for the UK pro-Brexit case. The Great British people, now having escaped the shackles of the European Union, shall be free. Brexit is an end in itself, not the means to better political ends it was sold as at the referendum. And if that great political project is thwarted or stalled, it shall be the European Union that is responsible for that failure, and never the UK.
That is why – when viewed from Brussels or indeed any national capital – the UK approach looks ridiculous. But that assumes the UK is negotiating seriously and sensibly towards a deal. I think there is a good case that Johnson’s government does not actually care too much about a Deal or not, but more that it can retain its grip on power, even if the UK economy and hence its people suffer if no deal is struck. And – as Alexander Clarkson has repeatedly pointed out – having sought to make an abject mess at this stage, and having threatened No Deal, the UK Government carves out a space for itself to actually strike a deal at the last minute, so all the trade associations seething with anger now then breathe a sigh of relief when something is indeed agreed, even though the agreement will be – from their point of view – deeply sub optimal. That is what happened in November with the Withdrawal Agreement, and is what will likely what will happen again this autumn.
So, in conclusion, all of this looks to me to be Brexit strategy determined by fascist method. The 52%, indivisible, against the rest. The UK is never responsible, the EU is. That different groups are angry about the situation is priced in, because listening to any of them weakens the unity of the 52%, and all pro-Brexit voices shall be united. Brexit must be done because the people voted for it, not because it will bring them practical gains.
Look at it this way and it all makes some grim sort of sense.