Understanding where we are with Brexit, by examining where we’ve been. We also ask the question: How do you plant a flag somewhere between Wigan and Wonderland? What sort of creature is half unicorn, half lipstick-besmirched pig?
Boris Johnson’s new Brexit plan has been dubbed “two borders for four years.” Pardon me, but wasn’t that the basic setup for Rising Damp?
Of the many possible scenarios describing where Brexit is headed, in this post I’m concerned with one particular scenario which sports these features:
– The UK doesn’t leave the EU on October 31st.
– Boris Johnson or another government official is forced by the Benn Act to request an extension.
– The EU grants an extension of a couple of months.
– A general election ensues in the UK.
– The election returns either a hung Parliament, or a very slender, unconvincing Tory majority.
Some would call this the “back where we started” scenario, since it’s more or less where we stood after Theresa May called a snap election in 2017. But it’s also an example of a strange loop. The main feature of strange loops is that after traveling a considerable distance and expending a lot of energy, you find yourself (inexplicably) back where you started. I first read about strange loops in Doug Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach. One of several examples he cites is a Bach piece which modulates into different keys, seemingly getting farther and farther away from the starting point, but (surprisingly) arriving back at the “home” key by the final bar (though an octave higher). Such is the endlessly-rising canon from Bach’s Musical Offering.
One type of strange loop often explored in sci-fi and fantasy is the time loop, of which a popular example is “Cause and Effect,” an episode of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. (The film Groundhog Day is another example.) You can read more about the TNG episode here. (I leave it to Whovians to enumerate all the relevant Doctor Who episodes.)
When characters are caught in a time loop, they keep re-experiencing the same set of actions or circumstances (sometimes with minor variations). They may gradually become aware that they’re caught in a time loop, and evolve a strategy for breaking out of it. This might consist of tying a string around one’s finger (metaphorically speaking), so that when one heads back into the next iteration of the loop, one has some inkling of what to do or not to do — what to change in order to not keep getting the same result. As this applies to Brexit, we need to understand what mistakes Theresa May made in nearly identical circumstances, and resolve not to make them again.
After the snap election of 2017, Theresa May lost her majority in Parliament, and had to enter into a so-called “confidence and supply agreement” with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland in order to have even a slender working majority. Under those circumstances, passing legislation (especially if it’s controversial) requires working across the house to reach a compromise. So, a Conservative prime minister would need to compromise with Labour on an issue like Brexit.
However, Theresa May insisted on acting as if she had carte blanche to push through her preferred Brexit deal, regardless of what opposition parties thought about it. She kept bringing the same deal back again and again, trying to force Parliament to vote for it by threatening that it was either her deal or no deal. This brute force strategy went over like the proverbial lead balloon. It exasperated and infuriated Parliament; but May didn’t begin to change it until the end of her tenure, by which time it was too late.
What May had mostly done was to throw scraps of meat to her right flank, i.e., to the European Research Group (ERG), the most ardent Brexiters. Those scraps of meat failed to satisfy them, and they ended up eating her instead, then installing Boris Johnson, whom they regarded as more Brexity. (Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss…)
Under our specified scenario, Johnson may find himself in much the same pickle as Mrs. May, with little room to negotiate. Still, Johnson (or whoever is PM) should not repeat the mistakes of the previous loop, by trying to force through a hard Brexit that Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Scottish Nationalists can’t sign onto. Rather, the next PM should negotiate in good faith across the house in order to arrive at a deal which can both gain a majority in Parliament, and also satisfy the core concerns of the EU regarding the Irish backstop.
This would probably result in a softer Brexit than the ERG would like; but what’s lost in ERG votes would ideally be made up with more votes garnered from opposition parties. Compromise may or may not be possible (or even desirable), but that’s probably what genuine compromise would look like. That’s a way out of the dreaded time loop.
A soft Brexit is still inferior to the deal which the UK currently enjoys with the EU, but a soft Brexit would at least be less damaging than a hard Brexit or no-deal Brexit. How remarkable that a policy originally sold as bringing sunlit uplands and windfalls for the NHS should, in the cold light of morning, be revealed as a policy requiring us to minimize the damage. If I hear one more person say, “We made it through the Blitz, we can make it through this,” I’ll seriously freak!
A footnote on compromise: It requires trust, but Johnson is considered untrustworthy, especially after he tried to prorogue Parliament for five weeks and pretend that was normal. (The Supreme Court decided it wasn’t.) At the time, I had this recurring image of a young and foolish lad taking a cricket bat to a hive of bees: “Take that, you dratted bees!” — not thinking what would happen if the bees survived. And indeed, when Parliament returned on September 25, their marathon session was filled with rancour.
Some female Labour MPs were basically telling Johnson: Don’t call the Benn Act the Surrender Act, because we get death threats quoting that language, and one of our number (Jo Cox) was murdered by a right-wing extremist. To which Johnson replied “Humbug!” and continued to repeat “Surrender Act” about 12 times, allegedly because it tested well with his base. Perhaps both sides were responsible for the breakdown in civility, but on this occasion I can’t help feeling that the Tories were the worse provocateurs.
Latest Brexit Gripes
Just now I heard a fellow from the Brexit Party, Julian Malins Q.C., describing a no-deal Brexit as a “clean break.” It is anything but. After 45 years of intense cooperation between the UK and EU, there are many, many helpful structures which connect the two, covering multiple areas: everything from food, medicine, finance, education, travel, security arrangements, and shared commitments to continuing peace in Europe. It may help you to picture these structures as a great expanse of skyscrapers filled with offices where people have spent decades learning to cooperate on all the issues which together comprise the minutiae of daily life. Their successes greatly outnumber their failures.
A no-deal Brexit means that most of those structures are demolished overnight, leaving only rubble. It is not a “clean break.” Rather, on November 1 you’re faced with the daunting task of cleaning up that rubble, and starting to build new structures to replace the ones you destroyed with a no-deal Brexit. You are now outside the EU, so the terms you can negotiate are less favourable than before. Plus, you’re likely, at the very outset, to face the same issues you failed to resolve during prior negotiations, as this BBC article astutely points out.
Another of my gripes is the claim: “Parliament can only say what they’re against, but not what they’re for.” Here, it helps to put aside the Leave/Remain dichotomy for a moment, and concentrate solely on getting the best deal possible from the EU. The Brexit which was advertised in 2016 has proved undeliverable. After years of research and discussion, it’s become apparent that the Brexit which is deliverable is not much liked by either Leavers or Remainers. Its benefits fall far short of what was promised, and far short of what the UK currently enjoys through EU membership. At the same time, the problems created by Brexit are manifold. Some may even be insuperable.
Parliament has been voting fairly consistently for the best deal the UK can get from the EU, which on careful inspection turns out to be the deal the UK already has. It helps to get over this polarization around Remain and Leave. Remain is a label for one kind of deal with the EU, while Leave is a label for a different kind of deal. Those who compare them carefully and objectively tend to find that Remain is the better deal.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the general public is majority Leave, while Parliament is majority Remain. It pains me to say this, but one possible explanation for the divergence is that Brexit is a specialist subject which requires thoughtful analysis by persons with some background in the relevant fields, or a general ability (as well as the time and interest) to educate themselves. Based on my informal survey (through media ingestion) of man-or-woman-in-the-street opinions about Brexit, the general public largely lacks these qualifications, while many people in Parliament possess them.
The problem is complicated by the ways in which propaganda and money were used to turn public opinion against the EU. Parliamentarians, being politicians themselves, tend to be more aware of how propaganda and money can distort reality; they can (potentially) see through the conjuring tricks, and plot a course which is more sane and rational. That’s one of the benefits of representative democracy over direct democracy.
If the general public were to develop a mad posh for putting arsenic in their tea, one hopes that Parliament would be proactive in passing legislation which makes arsenic difficult to obtain, in order to reduce the number of deaths. Populists might call that Parliament thwarting the will of the people. I would call it Parliament acting responsibly to protect the interests of the people — Parliament doing its constitutional duty while receiving precious little thanks.
What we find in the present period is that populist strongmen want to bypass (or prorogue) democratic institutions set up as safeguards — safeguards intended to prevent mad poshes from leading the country into ruin. Like the madness for tulip bulbs in the early seventeenth century, or Internet stocks in the late twentieth, Brexit is such a mad posh. There are a few people — very shrewd and wealthy — who may benefit from it (e.g. financial speculators, disaster capitalists, Russian oligarchs), but for most people it is likely to lead to a reduced standard of living, particularly in the short term. And while the quote from Keynes that “in the long run, we are all dead” is often taken out of context, it does have its broader application to the ethics of Brexit. Short-term displacements will hit the poor hardest, especially women in their role as caregivers. Baroness Bull waxes eloquent on this point:
Perhaps the biggest threat to women is dependent on what happens to our economy if — and after — we leave the EU. Any negative impacts of an orderly Brexit, or, in the worst case, of leaving without a deal, will hit women — specifically, the most vulnerable women in our society — hardest. Reductions in public spending have a higher impact on women, as the primary users of public services. Cuts in public sector employment or pay disproportionately affect women because of their greater concentration in this sector. Strains on social care increase pressures on women because they are more likely to care for elderly or disabled family members.
—Baroness Bull of Aldwych
In what I may be so bold as to call the “consciousness” of Brexit, there is a certain hard-heartedness or lack of empathy. Perhaps this is why those women who speak up for the poor and downtrodden, and oppose Brexit because they know it will most harm those least able to cope with scarcity, are targeted for abuse and accused of being traitors. For in the consciousness of Brexit, there is also some misplaced relic of World War II thinking, as if the EU were an enemy which must be vanquished, and those who favour Remain are somehow collaborators. So, in addition to many logical reasons for opposing Brexit, one can oppose it because one recognizes that it does not proceed from a good consciousness, but rather from a distorted picture of reality which seems to bring out people’s hatred and misogyny.
The dove has torn her wing, so no more songs of love…
Expanding on Zanny Minton Beddoes’ Analysis of Brexit
Another person who’s influenced my thinking on Brexit is Zanny Minton Beddoes, who edits The Economist. She’s smart, poised, and a terrific explainer of things Brexit and UK politics, as here:
She suggests that the reason the Brexit referendum succeeded is because it was a coalition between “red trousers” and “blue collars.” The “blue collars” are obviously blue-collar workers. The “red trousers” are the wing of the Conservative Party which have historically been Eurosceptics and have (for decades) clamoured and harrumphed for the UK to leave the EU. It may be argued that prior to 2016, they were largely dismissed as nutters.
Similarly, before 2016 few “average” Britons thought much about the EU. Leaving it was not high on their list of priorities, and doing so certainly had no aura of a universal panacea about it. They did not believe the EU had robbed them of their sovereignty or depressed their wages until they were heavily propagandized to believe so. Realistically, the financial crisis of 2008 followed by years of austerity were major factors leading to deplorable conditions for the poor. As the joke about Tory austerity goes, “There are too many libraries in Wolverhampton. We must shut them down!”
What I want to focus on is exactly how did this “coalition” between red trousers and blue collars develop? Was it spontaneous combustion, or something more akin to arson? Did either the red trousers or blue collars possess both the means and willingness to pour millions of pounds into the Leave campaign? If not, where did those millions come from? Is there a third group which we might call “rich uncles” who are largely distinguishable from both red trousers and blue collars, and who funded Leave for their own self-interested reasons?
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but based on my reading it’s possible that some such “rich uncles” included:
– Financial speculators who thought that Brexit presented an opportunity to make a killing by (for example) shorting the pound.
– Corporate actors who believed that long-term, getting the UK out of the EU could lead to a rollback of workers’ rights and environmental protection regs, which would boost corporate profits.
– Russians, or third parties representing Russian interests, who believed that both the UK and EU would be weaker after Brexit, and that Russia would be a net beneficiary.
If this list is accurate, then some of the rich uncles’ support for Leave would necessarily have been covert.
The “just get it done” Meme
If you’ve ever seen nature footage of a cheetah taking down an impala, you know that once the cheetah sinks its teeth in, it hangs on until its prey is all tuckered out and no longer has the will to fight. The Tory strategy with Brexit strikes me as similar. Long live the bulldog breed!
In the modern political era, it’s common to take a poll, find out what the public are thinking, then simply feed that back to them during an election campaign. Johnson et al. have obviously found that the average voter is thinking:
– Brexit: Just get it done
– More police on the streets
– More money for the NHS, and for education
So that’s what the Tories are promising. However, “just get it done” is a fairly nonsensical slogan regarding Brexit. At the populist level, it’s as if Brexit were a TV series which has gone on for too many years, so people are sick of it and want to see it cancelled. But Brexit more properly admits of karmic explanation: While Brexit is truly a mess, it’s a mess which was painstakingly constructed over a number of years. There is no push-button solution. The sad truth is that the mess must be painstakingly cleaned up, dismantled. Regardless of which scenario eventually prevails, fixing Brexit will take time. Again referencing the Beeb: “For anyone who has had enough of Brexit, the uncomfortable fact is that — whatever the outcome — many years of technical talks and political drama lie ahead.”
Brexit was marketed as a push-button solution to underlying problems which were not, in the main, caused by EU membership. Now “just get it done” is the new push-button solution to the slew of problems spawned by Brexit. This inane solution is being marketed by the same old “peesome threesome” — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Dominic Cummings — that brought us Brexit in the first place. And if Brexit is not handled with great diplomacy, there will be no more “awesome foursome.” The Scots may be the first to leave.
When it comes to just getting it done, how about harvesting those fantastic British crops? Sadly, the raspberries are rotting on the vine, because not many seasonal workers from the EU are willing to come and pick them anymore. This ITV report explains:
To Compromise or Not?
There are certain types of compromise which strike us as inherently reasonable. To take a hypothetical example: Education advocates say the schools need an infusion of one hundred million pounds. Government ministers say there is no money available. Eventually, a compromise is reached at fifty million pounds.
Brexit is a more difficult issue on which to compromise. One reason is that it was marketed under false pretenses. Brexit reality differs so markedly from Brexit fantasy that it feels odd to try and interpolate between the two, to find centre ground. How do you plant a flag somewhere between Wigan and Wonderland? What sort of creature is half unicorn, half lipstick-besmirched pig?
I respect people who want to vote for a compromise deal, but I tend to be more of a Remain purist. My feeling is: Get the policy right, and over time the politics can be fixed. The mad posh for Brexit cannot last forever; but once you’re out of the EU, you’re out of the EU. It’s not like a magazine subscription which you can simply renew when the mood strikes you. The fruit which has rotted can never be reclaimed, and this may apply to the next generation of young people, who may find their options for education and enlightenment severely curtailed by Brexit.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
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