Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 1

With a sidebar about The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

I continue to care about Brexit for a number of reasons:

– It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck, but with some possibility that the wreck might still be averted, perhaps by getting the Conductor to stop sleepwalking or robot dancing.

– It’s very sad for the UK, the EU, the world at large, and all the people who are likely to be adversely affected.

– I want to see the UK thrive in the present and in the future, but Brexit looks to me like a retreat into the past. That never works. (Maybe it should be called brexosaurus rex.)

I take the subject of Brexit seriously, but often treat it with humour because that’s my approach to reality in general. Humour is not just entertainment, but also a way of stepping outside the system and looking at things in novel ways that the bureaucratic process (or a purely logical mindset) might filter out.

So much has been said about Brexit, and I’ll try to avoid stating the obvious or oft-repeated. Still, let me begin by discussing a couple of terms which have arisen during the Brexit debate:

Blindfold Brexit: This term suggests that by and large, people don’t really understand what Brexit is or how it will affect their daily lives. Before we can really understand the concept of leaving the EU, we need to understand what it has meant to be part of the EU for 45 years. This is, to some extent, specialist knowledge. One needs to examine all the ways in which the UK and EU are intertwined after nearly half a century of intense cooperation. It’s a study of complex systems, including how the two are joined economically, politically, legally, culturally, and even physically (via the Channel Tunnel) — taking into account things like frictionless trade, ready access to health care for the 300,000 British pensioners living in Spain, and the sense among the younger generation of Britons that they can easily live, work and study anywhere in Europe and greatly benefit from the experience.

Understanding what being in the EU has meant also entails fully valuing the peace dividend — that benefit conferred when European nations engage in a long-term strategy of cooperation. It means recognizing that the tide of history post-World War II is toward greater cooperation between nations, in order to avert further world wars and tackle global problems with global strategies. The UK can express its leadership qualities most effectively through participation, not isolation. Decisions are made by those who show up.

By contrast, the Leave campaign seemed to mischaracterize the nature of historic cooperation between the UK and EU, to frame issues deceptively, and to play on jingoistic passions which discourage fact-based inquiry and obscure the genuine issues at stake.

The concept of a “blindfold Brexit” gives rise to the terms “Brexit fantasy” and “Brexit reality.” Voters were arguably subjected to a marketing blitz which tried to hook them on Brexit fantasy. Three years later, as the data comes in from economists, industry leaders, and affected citizens, Brexit reality seems far harsher than the pleasant fantasy voters were spoon-fed. This naturally spurs interest in a second, fact-based referendum, or a super soft (Norway style) Brexit which does minimal harm.

Questions of national identity and how people feel about the EU are certainly important. It is a matter of balance. The trouble is, the Leave campaign seemed to stress nationalism and fear of foreigners, while making unrealistic promises about economic benefits, and downplaying the complex problems which might arise from Brexit.

It is not a simple matter, and may be likened to a difficult surgery about which expert advice is desperately needed. In this sense, it may be argued that Brexit was not an ideal question for a referendum in the first place. Suppose I have heart trouble. I know full well that the experts are often wrong. But should I put the question of my surgery to a footballer, a manicurist, and a pub crawler? On balance, I place more stock in the opinion of a heart specialist, even knowing he or she might be wrong.

There is also this to be said about large, complex systems: When making major changes that are untested, no one can be certain of the outcome. An outgrowth of this view is that those championing Brexit are not true conservatives, but rather reactionaries. (Nod to Anna Soubry*, who might agree.) They are steeped in foolish derring-do. “Full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes!” But if, as experts predict, Brexit will mean a poorer UK and at least some breakdown of existing systems, it is not Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, or Jacob Rees-Mogg who will feel the shock. Rather, it is those who are presently just getting by, but will go under should economic conditions worsen.

*I sometimes indulge in a stereotyped view of the Tories, but there are some like Anna Soubry whom I genuinely admire for their courage and integrity. (See below for exciting news about Soubry!)

Given that the existing relationship between the UK and EU has been built up over 45 years, it may be argued that the true conservative position would be to make any changes gradually, preserving as much as possible of what is beneficial, and avoiding any sudden shock. But what we appear to see is a reactionary approach gaining the upper hand. The choices presently being pushed by the ruling party are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse — between shooting ourselves in the foot, or both feet.

This brings us to two other terms: “blackmail Brexit” and “sleepwalking to no-deal Brexit.” The basic stance of the blackmailer is to say, “If you don’t do X, then I shall do Y.” As has been repeated ad nauseum, Theresa May’s strategy seems to be running down the clock to late March, then hitting MPs with a binary choice: either my deal or no deal. She is like some digitised rhinoceros ramming a shed, trying to get her deal through by sheer force and dint of repetition. But imagine if her deal should win the day! How excited can one get about writing home to say, “Good news! I only shot myself in one foot and not both feet”?

The position of the Tory party is that no-deal must be left on the table as a negotiating tactic with Brussels. But this is very dangerous due to the strong possibility of sleepwalking to a no-deal Brexit. To understand this danger, we need to recognize a fundamental problem with political bureaucracies. Far from being adroit and able to stop on a dime, they tend to be clumsy and subject to inertia. They are like huge ships whose course is quite difficult and time-consuming to correct, even where the will exists to do so. You can switch off the engine, but the vessel may continue in the same direction for several miles.

On an issue such as Brexit, positions tend to harden over time, rather than becoming more flexible. Just look at the history of warfare, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and the War in Iraq. One would have expected cooler heads to prevail, or deals to be reached at the last minute; but instead positions hardened and leaders found no way out. Perhaps some leaders wished to avoid or quickly end these wars; but neither they nor the institutions they represented possessed the necessary creativity and brinksmanship. In this vein, if we look to both the May government and the House of Commons, do we really have faith that they can come together at the eleventh hour and avoid a no-deal Brexit? This seems highly doubtful, especially since some in May’s own party are clamouring for no-deal — not as a negotiating tactic or empty threat, but as a consummation devoutly to be wished. Given the deceptive nature of the Leave campaign, Brexiteers are not much trusted outside their own circles.

A no-deal Brexit is like a gun which some moderate Tories claim Theresa May only needs for protection. Meanwhile, ERG members are saying, “Yes! Yes! Give us the gun! We want to shoot it off. If we run out of feet, we can always shoot our arms and legs!” This naturally puts non-certifiable MPs in mind of gun control. 😉

So the risk is high, but what is the reward? What crumb might Brussels throw at the last moment to justify the risk of a no-deal Brexit? Caving on the Irish backstop? Is that likely, and would it even be beneficial in the long run? A cost-benefit analysis suggests that the risks greatly outweigh the rewards, and that the right course for Parliament is to take no-deal off the table through binding legislation.

The nature of the political forces at work is that we are gradually being groomed to accept a choice between bad and worse. We need the insight and courage to step outside the system and return to fundamental questions about Brexit: What is it really (in the doing, not the selling), and will it really benefit the UK? If not, then by all means change course, rather than being carried along by the inertia of entrenched political interests, whether Conservative or Labour — both of which have grown increasingly strident and extreme. Quoting Tony Blair: “We’re not in a state of hypnosis to do this. We can assume consciousness. We have free will, and it’s past time to exercise it.”

brexit-may-corbyn-boat-throwing-up-bertrams

The Four Nations of the United Kingdom, The English Aristocracy, and Hubris

I love the English, and indeed the United Kingdom with all its complications. Most readers will know that the UK consists of four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But much of the power remains with the central government in Westminster. It rests with the English, even though the other nations have so-called “devolved governments” which allow them to make many decisions locally.

When you love someone, you get to know their best qualities, but also their worst qualities as well. The worst quality sometimes exhibited by the English aristocracy is a sense of superiority which can lead to arrogance, superciliousness, and hubris.

In hubris, one badly misreads a situation due to excessive pride or self-will. Now, truth be told, the Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish view Brexit as primarily an English invention. Some support it, some don’t. Of crucial importance, the majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Scots in particular are hopping mad about being dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU by the English, and are threatening to secede from the Kingdom.

But out of hubris, some Brexiteers wrongly assume that the thread which weaves together the four nations is so strong that nothing they could do would rend or tear it. Whatever the English aristocracy decides (their thinking goes), the other nations will have to go along with in the end. This way of thinking is wrong. The alliance between the four nations is a fragile one, and if the English forcibly pursue a major policy initiative (e.g. Brexit) which the Scots and Northern Irish oppose, this may have the long-term effect of tearing the Kingdom apart. The same nationalist sentiment which Brexiteers have unleashed to justify leaving the EU can easily arise within individual nations, so that they too vote Leave: Leaving the UK.

Peace in Northern Island is also fragile. The legendary “troubles” can easily start up again. The opposing forces which fought bitterly for three decades have not gone away, and the Good Friday Agreement was not a permanent solution, but rather a long-lasting truce which has (thankfully) held until the present time, with passions still running high beneath the surface.

“Zombie” Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg seems oblivious to the human suffering which could ensue in the event Brexit leads to a hard border:

As ERG members like Rees-Mogg have pulled the Conservative party farther to the right, Theresa May has responded by pandering to their demand that the Irish backstop be removed, weakened, or replaced by unspecified “alternative arrangements” which critics claim don’t currently exist.

Do not doubt that Northern Ireland is still like a vial of nitroglycerin. Don’t even think about a hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland, or you may set off an explosion. This is why the EU 27 remain strongly opposed to any compromise on the Irish backstop.

The Germany+ Option

If you follow Brexit, you may have heard of options like Norway+ or Canada++. James O’Brien, a broadcaster with LBC (Leading Britains’s Conversation), has come up with something he calls Germany+:

Whether as a thought experiment or an experiment in framing, it’s a valuable addition to the debate. You can read more about it in this Twitter thread:

In case you missed the reveal, or the penny hasn’t dropped, O’Brien is actually describing Remain, i.e. the deal which the UK presently enjoys with the EU. He’s calling it Germany+ to see who bites. Very clever!

This helps us focus on the underlying question behind Brexit: Can the UK get a better deal than it already has with the EU? If not, what would be the point of Brexit? Unless (as was sometimes said of fancy handkerchiefs), Brexit is for “showing, not blowing” — an attitude (of defiance) toward the EU, rather than a substantive policy proposal which (if implemented) would actually benefit the UK.

This way of framing things highlights the oddness of voting Leave based on sentiment, when most of the practical questions surrounding Brexit involve trade, borders, health care, employment/unemployment, appreciation/devaluation of the pound, and attracting or discouraging business investment.

Here’s a thought: Is it possible that some Brexiteers who are wedded to Brexit for purely sentimental reasons (e.g. nationalism, racism, or belief in the natural superiority of the English aristocracy) might be shading the facts in order to boost the popularity of Leave? Could they be deceiving the fellows at working men’s clubs into thinking that in addition to being some sort of patriotic revival movement, Brexit will also make them richer and improve their quality of life? Don’t the facts suggest the very opposite?

As regards Brexit fantasy versus Brexit reality, this leads back to the oft-posed question, “Did people really vote Leave knowing it would make them poorer?”

Increasingly, businesses are shouting right out loud, “We’re closing this plant because of Brexit. We’re shuttering this airline because of Brexit. We’re moving our facilities to Amsterdam because of Brexit.” Here, the evidence that Brexiteers are sentiment-based rather than fact-based is this: As the data comes in from businesses saying point blank that they’re closing or leaving because of Brexit, the argument from Brexiteers is: “Oh, these were just badly run companies in highly competitive fields. They say they’re folding because of Brexit, but we shouldn’t believe them. They’re only using Brexit as an excuse.”

So, the party of business no longer trusts businesses to give honest feedback about why they’re leaving. Blame has to be relocated away from Brexit at all cost. Media spinners must come up with “alternative facts” to explain away the frank complaints from business owners that Brexit is already costing them millions.

brexit-uk-closed-for-business_v2Another way of deflecting these complaints is to blame it all on Remainers, or even on those Leavers who don’t agree with the Prime Minister’s withdrawal plan. According to this manner of spinning, Brexit would have gone swimmingly well if only everyone had gotten on board. Brexit isn’t bad for business, only uncertainty is bad for business. Therefore, don’t you dare put the brakes on Brexit, or rethink the wisdom of the policy. Just conform, conform, conform. If you won’t vote for May’s deal, we’ll strap you down and inject no-deal intravenously. Belt up and eat your Brexit! But in truth,

1. Brexit was always flawed policy.
2. That Brexit would be highly contentious was entirely forseeable.
3. Even at this late date, the emphasis should still be on getting the best deal possible for the British people, even if that turns out to be Remain.

Even the most wackadoo Brexiteers aren’t suggesting that the UK should have no trade with the EU, that travel to EU countries should be banned, or that all security arrangements should be scrapped. These things will always continue in some form, and that form will always constitute a “deal.” The Leave/Remain dichotomy tends to obscure this essential fact.

I would rephrase the question asked in the initial referendum thusly:

If the UK can get a better deal and improve its standard of living by leaving the EU, would you support that decision?

The key word is “if.” It would then have been up to experts in diverse fields to study the problem exhaustively and reach a consensus not based primarily on sentiment, unicorn worship, magic beans, or EU hatred, but on what genuine benefits can be achieved, and at what risk or cost. This would include the long-term benefit of the peace dividend which comes from EU membership, and the long-term risk that leaving the EU might fracture the Kingdom.

Some data from experts is flowing in now, in the final days before the March 29 deadline. But unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between the real world data and the sentiment-driven political momentum for Leave. The experts are increasingly telling us that Brexit is (to use the technical term) “bad mojo.” But Leavers are swinging the lamp and spinning the tale, claiming the experts are wrong and businesses who say they’re leaving because of Brexit are just fibbing.

The facts are moving in one direction, but the political demand for Leave is moving in the opposite direction. This is very bad, and does suggest that UK politics is currently broken. Yet, there are exciting developments!


Sidebar: The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

Call me a terrible UK politics geek, but I’m genuinely excited that the self-proclaimed “three amigos” — Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, and Heidi Allen — have defected from the Conservative Party and joined the new Independent Group alongside several former Labour MPs who likewise defected. It’s a sort of Amazing Mrs Pritchard moment:

The sun seems to be shining on these new independents.

One senses their joy in breaking away from the rigidity and extremism of their respective parties, and trying to create something new based on shared human values, not the old party machine. May their efforts be crowned with success, and may many more join them!

I don’t want to go completely bendy bananas over them, or fall victim to “any port in a storm” syndrome. It remains to be seen whether they can keep their movement relatively pure, when much of the political system revolves around money and entrenched interests, and treats anyone who tries to change that as a threat to be put down.

Calling it an Amazing Mrs Pritchard moment actually implies this dual nature of new political movements. They may begin with great hope and promise, but are sometimes brought down by money matters or internal strife. It takes a lot of love and shared human values for refugees from both the Tory and Labour parties to form a lasting coalition which works. That being said, I do see in them genuine idealism and a real longing to change things for the better. We shall see!

Here, my identity as a spiritual seeker overlaps with my occasional role as a political commentator. I know that if you try to change things for the better, you may be subjected to hatred and harassment. At least three members of the new Independent Group — Luciana Berger, Anna Soubry, and Sarah Wollaston — know this all too well. The threats they’ve received in the past can’t be brushed aside so easily, given that MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered in 2016 by a political extremist. Three years later, Twitter abuse hurled at politicians is often punctuated with the hashtag #JoCox as a grim reminder.

Politics in the UK, the US, and many other nations has become toxic. We seem to be going through a cosmic period in which people are driven to extremes of difference or polarity. As in Yeats’ immortal poem “The Second Coming,” the centre cannot hold, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

I’m tempted to switch poets in midstream and say: “Well, what can a poorboy do/ ‘Cept to sing for a rock n’ roll band?” But I’ll quietly resist the urge. Better to quote the immortal Sri Chinmoy:

No more am I the foolish customer
Of a dry, sterile, intellectual breeze.
I shall buy only
The weaving visions of the emerald-Beyond.

–Sri Chinmoy, “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon (we hope).

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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3 comments on “Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 2 | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker: Last Tango The Video | Ethics and Spirituality

  3. Pingback: UK Politics Update #1 | Ethics and Spirituality

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