53. When Project Fear Became Project Reality

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

11 January 2021

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“In a single generation we should have renounced an imperial past and rejected a European future. Our friends everywhere would be dismayed. They would rightly be as uncertain as ourselves about our future role and place in the world… Our power to influence the [European] Communities would steadily diminish, while the Communities’ power to affect our future would as steadily increase.”
From a government White Paper of 1971, discussing the likely consequences of staying outside the EEC. Quoted by Fintan O’Toole

It is truly astonishing to reflect how much more common sense the conservative party of 50 years ago had than that of today.

You may have seen the Prime Minister’s car crash interview on Andrew Marr recently. He was asked the obvious question, “what are the benefits of Brexit for the ordinary man in the street?”. You would’ve expected that this was an open goal to the king of boosterism, who must surely have spent the last four years thinking about this very question. People like you and me certainly have. What could he come up with? Saved membership contributions, freeports, borders and fishing. That was it. Savings are dwarfed by the costs of Brexit, based on the government’s own estimates. All the other quoted benefits would have been possible within the European Union.

In a word, Boris Johnson was unable to name one single benefit to members of the public. Even the fishing industry itself is feeling betrayed, it is telling us that it is actually far worse placed than it was when we were members of the EU.

‘No downside’?

As against this, the downside of Brexit is all too apparent and becoming more so every day. We knew before 24th December that the deal would be a thin one. Yet it is only now that the full horror is sinking in. I will not repeat all of what we have learned in the past 2 weeks: You just need to look on the European Movement Website, or at the Davis Downside Dossier. But I will mention a few aspects.

We did not know for sure that we would lose Erasmus or mutual recognition of qualifications or short term work permits for musicians and other creatives. The latter, even without coronavirus, could make several UK orchestras unviable. All these things, taken in conjunction with the loss of freedom of movement and with the Immigration Act, seem calculated almost deliberately to stifle cultural and professional exchanges between the UK and the EU.

Now we are learning also that the barriers to trade are even greater than we thought. We were promised tariff free trade. This is not the case. Rules of origin dictate that where products contain a significant proportion of third country ingredients, tariffs are still chargeable, sometimes at a significant rate. Furthermore, non-tariff barriers are greater than expected. Delays in transit have led to perishable foods having to be discarded. And yes, the queues so far have been small but only because throughput is down. The UK government’s requirements for EU exporters to register for VAT has led many of them to wash their hands of UK trade. In many parts of the UK, and more particularly in Northern Ireland, supermarket shelves are starting to look empty, especially of perishables. Rising food prices are already being noticed, and they are not going to fall again. The UK as an export hub for Europe has no future under these conditions. And many EU businesses have decided to give up on exporting to the UK. UK haulage companies are becoming unviable, while their EU opposite numbers are avoiding coming here for fear of problems getting home.

Empty shelves. A temporary glitch?

All the government can say to all this is that these are temporary glitches and that it is working hard to resolve them. Essentially it is telling us that it is in damage limitation mode.  This is so unnecessary. As to whether this is a teething problem or is really the new normal, I think we have to decide whether to listen to a government with a known track record of pathological optimism or whether to listen to the trade experts and the hauliers, who tell a very different story.

Certainly the £5bn of euro share dealing trade lost to the City in one day last Monday, apparently against expectations, is not coming back.

We have a prime minister who was elected to office despite a stated policy of “fuck business” (his words, not mine).   I do not think even his worst enemy ever thought that he would implement this policy quite as effectively as he has.

‘Pull together’

The prevailing Brexiter fantasy is still that Brexit is good for you, or at least will be at some unspecified time in the future, or, if not, then it is somebody else’s fault, eg the EU27 for driving a hard bargain and not doing the UK any favours. The same EU27, of course, have acted from the start as they said they would.

A further fantasy is that, five years on, the time to talk about Brexit is over and we should move on.

In accord with these fantasies, many politicians, for example recently Rishi Sunak, are now calling for both sides of the Brexit debate to come together in the national interest. In response, once we have calmed down, what we say has to be quite nuanced. I think all of us do need to play a part – though not necessarily on their terms – in the damage limitation process. After all, almost everyone who has had to do the heavy lifting in this process, including the civil service and diplomatic corps, would very reasonably have preferred to remain. Without their hard work the country would go to hell in a handcart. And of course it is right to make the effort to understand and support those who voted leave in good faith.

It’s OK to feel angry

But does that mean we have to bury the hatchet with those who led the Leave campaign? This would be to forgive and forget several important facts. We have been taken into an infinitely harder Brexit than ever appeared on the ballot paper in 2016. When given the opportunity to request an extension and avoid the double crisis we’re living through right now, this government refused to do so, on purely ideological grounds, and against emphatic advice from countless stakeholders. The Erasmus programme has been dropped, in defiance of repeated promises. The services sector (80% of the economy) has been left in the cold and is waiting to find out what crumbs it will be granted by the EU, after the UK government has used up all its negotiating capital. The UK has made rivals and possibly enemies of all its nearest neighbours.

All these things were done in the name of the oft-quoted ‘17.4 million’, and with no effort at compromise, as if the 16.1 million on the other side did not exist.

We cannot forget the harms which have been done, and I would argue that this is not the time to forgive them either. Forgiveness is only possible when the perpetrator acknowledges that there is something to forgive and makes at least a token effort towards restitution. Yet we are talking here about people who pretend not to understand those basic facts, and who would never even think of using the word ‘forgiveness’.

Far from any display of goodwill or contrition the incessant lying continues. Please remember the prime minister’s repeated declaration that the deal involves no non-tariff barriers, something which the dogs in the street know to be untrue. Brandon Lewis, who should know better, has continued to claim that there is no border in the Irish Sea. And, perhaps on a more minor but nonetheless significant level, remember the repeated fraudulent claims from government ministers that such things as the early roll out of coronavirus vaccine,  the abolition of the tampon tax and the ban on pulse fishing would not have been possible while we were EU members. Spoiler alert: yes they would.

This government is doing all it can to stifle discussion. It chose this moment to end the work of the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, so there is no parliamentary forum for scrutiny. And remember all of this is being done – ironically – in the name of greater sovereignty for the UK parliament.  Accountability? Not for this government.

One more word to those who say we should move on. This is precisely the moment when many people who voted leave are starting to realise what a profound mistake they have made. How can this be the right time to make them feel guilty about saying so? If there were a statute of limitations applied to the crime of taking the UK out of the European Union, the clock should not start ticking until the harms are apparent, ie now.

Yes, why would we not feel angry? It is OK to do so. But the difficult bit is to channel that anger.

In the words of our next OfE speaker, Ian Dunt, ‘We have to keep in our minds that better vision of what Britain is: open, fair, diverse, moderate and engaged with the world. We have to fight for it. There’s no point getting downcast or self-pitying. We have to defend our convictions, no matter how bad things look.’

Yes, accountability matters

So far, thank goodness, we do not live in the world of Orwell’s 1984, and we are under no obligation to deny that two and two make four just because the leader tells us to. This week, for the first time, ordinary voters will start to feel how Brexit has diminished the quality of their lives. We should not rejoice in that fact, nor should we simply say ‘I told you so’ But we most certainly should not allow the blame to be placed anywhere other than where it belongs.

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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