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The People Will Speak

October 23rd, 2019

There are, broadly, two groups supporting Brexit. First: people who feel that globalisation has gone too far, the cards stacked for far too long in favour of the rich, the well-connected, the mobile, the “citizens of the world”. They want more attention paid to those valuing home, the local, the familiar, the traditional, the markers of belonging: a flag, anthem, a shared history, a sense of “us” and “our story”. Conservative – in the sense of not wanting too much disruptive change too fast – but not necessarily Tory. They distrust an economic view which sees people as “human resources” to be exploited, moved around and made redundant when no longer needed, one which makes it harder to get a permanent reliable job, buy a home, create a secure future. They want governments to focus on their needs first, rather than those of international investors or foreigners. They want control over those who are let into the country, control often meaning a reduction in immigration, especially for some from far away countries They want control over how they are governed and by whom, more than they feel they have.

Second: those who see the EU as a an old-fashioned, lumbering, statist, top-down organisation with federalist ambitions, too willing to erase national boundaries, too wedded to a “one size fits all” quasi-social democratic agenda, insufficiently keen on free markets, over-fond of heavy-handed burdensome regulation, with a superficial attachment to democracy, a tin ear for Britain’s interests and concerns, an organisation resistant to reforms, which will gradually absorb Britain’s distinctiveness into a gigantic Euro super-state. This group too wants to take back control but for very different purposes than the first group. Trade deals and “smart” (less?) regulation are their hearts’ desires.

There is some crossover between the two. More importantly, there are many voting Remain who share some of these views and criticisms. Perhaps some post-referendum bitterness might have been avoided if both sides had realised they had more views in common than the binary nature of a referendum allowed, that the argument was what sort of Brexit would deal with Leavers’ concerns, would make the price paid for Brexit worth it.

We were closer to getting Brexit over the line. Possibly. Until the government stopped any further scrutiny. If opinion polls are right, the Tories expect an electoral reward. But the time during which they will get the credit will be much shorter than they expect. Fury with those seeking to delay or stop Brexit will only take them so far. Pretty soon voters will expect Brexit’s benefits.

What sort of Brexit?

You’d expect to know this by now. No? So will it be well canvassed during Parliamentary debates on the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill? It’s 115 pages long with 320 pages of additional documents; it amends the 2018 Withdrawal Act, itself complex, the 1972 European Communities Act and other legislation; it has innumerable cross-references and interactions with other laws and cases; it creates new bodies whose membership and powers remain to be determined but whose influence will be critical to many voters – for instance, the Independent Monitoring Authority, keeping an eye on the Home Office to ensure no ill-treatment of 3 million EU citizens, their British spouses and children; it determines what rights the devolved Welsh and Scottish governments will have – and much much more. And that’s before we get onto what happens at the end of the transition period.

But JFDI in 3 days seemed to be the government’s policy. Until Parliament asked for more time. Now – who knows. There will be no further scrutiny while the Bill is “paused”.

It would be fine if those MPs rushing to vote for this would have been happy to say in future to voters when something came to light which they really didn’t like: “Well, you wanted to Get Brexit Done so I did. You didn’t expect me to read and check on this stuff so I didn’t. You can’t now complain about it.” And be confident that the voters will still vote for them. What are the chances of that, do you think?

Which Leavers?

This is where the irreconcilable interests in the Leave coalition have the potential to cause the Tories no end of trouble. If you want a Britain open to the world, no longer bound by EU trade rules, what will that mean for the “stay at home” brigade? Will domestic industries be protected from competition? Is an open Britain also a high tariff Britain? If not, why would any country need an FTA? Or will politicians be more concerned with consumers wanting lower prices? There are, after all, rather a lot of the latter. The larger a majority a government has, the easier it is to ignore the bleatings of those few MPs representing farming or fishing areas. Tossing some money at policemen and hospitals, even if targeted at those areas which have borne the brunt of Tory austerity, has a whiff of Marie Antoinette insouciance about it. Will it be enough to get – and keep – those voters? Or will they feel patronised by the brass neck of those taking money away then expecting gratitude for giving a little back? Areas which were the biggest recipients of EU funds had some of the biggest Leave votes. A warning for the Tories there.

And what of immigration? Will it be reduced as some Leavers want? Or will the replacement of Romanians by Rwandans – under the fabled new points system – be enough? Will those enraged by FoM for Turks or Syrians with German nationality be happy when India demands more freedom for Indians to move here in return for more trade?

The Tory party has been able in the past to satisfy a wide range of groups. Thatcher sold council houses to the aspiring working class and cut taxes for those made rich by the City. That coalition (inherited by Blair’s New Labour) lasted until the damage caused by the City’s excesses led to austerity borne by everyone else. For all the admiration of Thatcher by today’s Tories they overlook that her governments and party encompassed a much wider range of views, that many of her most successful policies were implemented by those who were not born again Thatcherites. There is not much evidence of a similar generosity of understanding in today’s Tory party. Reaching out is done on sufferance. How will the Tories keep a coalition together when it comes to making hard choices between groups of Leave voters?

Take Back Control

Easy enough to criticise how the EU reaches its decisions, how it is prone to capture by those best at lobbying, how QMV can result in rules being imposed contrary to a country’s wishes, how hard it is to change or remove bad laws, how it removes accountability from national politicians. All well said. But what will replace this? The minute Britain starts trade talks with any country, most especially the EU but the US as well, it will find its ability to make and change laws in many areas even more constrained.

But not by membership rules. By hard bargaining behind closed doors, where the stronger party will prevail, where British negotiators will have to trade off different British interests. How much accountability will there be to local politicians during this process? How much transparency? How much attention will be paid to those without the resources and contacts to lobby? Once a treaty is agreed what chance of changing those agreements? What chance of change once it is passed into law, even if Parliament later votes for this?

The reality is that Britain will be taking back control from an imperfect system as a member of an organisation and giving it up for the rigidity and permanence of treaty obligations, with the added bonus of being subject to foreign courts, some of them with little interest in transparency (ISDS tribunals anyone?)

Brexit has, so far, had all the best slogans: from “Brexit Means Brexit” to “Get Brexit Done”. Even the “Clean Brexit” so beloved of the Andrea Jenkyns’ of this world sounds like a Marie Kondo Brexit: neat, tidy and without all the complications Remainers insist on raising.

But the next step: working out what Brexit means in reality – who benefits, who loses, who pays – is much more important and not amenable to simple sloganising. If this scrutiny doesn’t happen in Parliament, the Tories had better hope that, when it does, the reality matches up to their promises. And that voters have not turned into ungrateful bastards by then.

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