Brexit Begins

March 29, 2017

by Martin Odoni

It’s Brexit Day!
Yes, it’s Brexit Day!
It’s Br-br-br-br-br-br-br-br-Brexit Day!

(If you have no idea what the reference is, watch this.)

I was genuinely open to the idea of Britain leaving European Union, you know. The EU does have some truly ugly qualities to it, including revolving around a Friedmanite Central Bank that clearly wants to turn the whole continent into a neoliberalism club. Less so for the red herrings about ‘bureaucracy’, which is mainly a codeword Big Business uses when it means it wants to be allowed to do absolutely anything it feels like, without being accountable. But even there, it has to be said that some of the mechanisms in the EU are rather too Teutonic for the good of humanity.

So I have never been against the idea of ‘Brexit’ in principle.

But for me to support the idea of withdrawal, I needed to see a coherent and plausible plan for what the UK would do to reform once it had left. Even up to today, the day we hand in notice of our departure, no such plan has ever been presented. No plan as to how British markets would adjust to the loss of priority trade access to the continent. No plan for resolving the issue of having to renew the Northern Ireland border with Eire. No plan for how to police the borders of the UK as a whole when surrendering the co-ordinating advantages the EU gives with police forces in other countries. No plan even for how to carry out the withdrawal process.

My EU referendum ballot paper from summer 2016, minus a couple of details I have scored out for security reasons.

Hence, when the referendum came round last June, I voted to remain. There was, and is, bound to be so much disruption and so many lost advantages, it could only be worth making such a move if we had a clear idea of what we were going to do to adjust, and to this day, still nobody seems quite sure. I simply could not support such a crazed leap into the darkness.

On that note, I still think the Leave campaigns were as shocked as anybody about the result of the referendum, and once it happened, their most prominent members were visibly flapping around awkwardly. You could almost hear them wondering to themselves, “Oh no! What the hell do we do now?

My own position since last summer has not really changed. If someone who matters can actually come up with a workable, cohesive plan – and they would have to do so in a big hurry – I would be willing to give ‘Brexit’ the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. But the sad reality is that I see no sign of that happening. None at all. All that we are really getting from Theresa May’s Government are descriptions of what will happen by default instead.

Voting to leave was not stupid in itself, but voting for it, when it was totally unclear what shape the process or outcome would take, was an incredibly high risk for little gain, and therefore reckless. But many Leave voters still seem startlingly over-confident that ‘Brexit’ is going to be the best news that the country ever had. They treat every development as confirmation of the onset of paradise, even when the opposite reality is grossly obvious. For instance, I have seen Brexiteers on social media happily telling all-and-sundry it is absolutely fine that David Davis MP, the ‘Brexit Secretary’, has not even assessed the likely impact of Britain leaving the EU without securing a new trade deal. This ‘oversight’ (a little like calling the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki “an unusually hot summer”) is one of the reasons why negotiations are failing to take any coherent shape, as presently, British representatives are not sure exactly what sort of deal to work for.

What causes this ‘Brexit-at-any-cost-has-to-be-better-than-what-we-have’ attitude?

Part of the problem is just flat-out xenophobia, the instinctive unease of knowing that your country is part of something far larger. It can be forgiveable for seeing this relationship as one of a colony controlled by a conqueror, even though Britain has in practise been allowed considerable leeway over which EU rules it must follow – not compelled to join the Eurozone or the Schengen Area for instance (those who voted to leave because they wanted stronger control on immigration never seem to realise that our borders remain regulated) – and has also exercised a strong influence on EU legislation.

The other part of the problem is the ‘Good-ole’-days’ delusion that many, especially in ‘Little England’, have that Britain was a better place before joining the European Economic Community in 1973, and that this move was what ended the country’s old status as a ‘great’ nation.

The truth is very different. In world terms, Britain had been in an inevitable decline since early in the Twentieth Century, having been stagnant since late in the Nineteenth. Two World Wars in the space of thirty years exhausted the country militarily and economically, and left it almost powerless to retain most of the colonies it had accumulated over the previous two centuries. As it struggled to adjust to the dismantling of the British Empire, the UK could no longer obtain vast resources without the inconvenience of having to give something back in return for them. Dependence on legalised theft was replaced with dependence on trade, especially imports, all of which were subject to tariffs and customs bureaucracy.

Indeed, given the troubles of losing an Empire, it is a remarkable testament to the ingenuity of the social democratic consensus of the post-war era that, at the very least, the economy of Britain managed to remain unprecedentedly stable.

Recessions happen more in a free market than in a regulated one

You think regulation is what causes economic downturns? Think again.

But this stability simply softened the pain of lost prestige and power, and these losses inevitably made Britain more vulnerable to prevailing international conditions. So in fact, joining the EEC gave Britain a useful boost, as it gave the country cheap, relatively tariff-free access to a very large foreign market. What is more, given 1973 was also the year of the First OPEC Oil Shock, it arguably happened in the nick of time.

Whether that is precisely true or not, the inescapable reality is that joining the EEC had no bearing on Britain’s decline; it began long before the Community had even been thought of. If anything, joining the EEC helped arrest the slide; the discovery of North Sea Oil did the rest. And there is no way the British are going to get the old Empire back, or become a great power of the type it was before the World Wars. People looking back to the largely-fictitious ‘good-ole’-days’ are pining for something that is simply never going to happen. Irrespective of whether it would be morally right or not to re-establish the British Empire (and of course it would not), it just is not a possibility. Britain’s military in the modern era, while still significant, is completely dwarfed by some of the world powers of today, and those other powers will not allow Britain to embark on a fresh campaign of conquest and colonisation. The booming industrial powers of India and China, for instance, are former victims of the British Empire, albeit in different ways, and remain permanently against it ever coming back.

No, Britain is going to have find its way in the wider world without the violent old short-cut of taking-without-asking. The sad aspect is, in joining the EEC/EU, it had already found a pathway to doing so. But now it has decided to step off that path without firstly making sure the ground around it is solid enough to take its weight.

None of this is to say that doom is a certainty. We might yet make the best of this if someone can come up with a workable plan in a hurry, instead of scaremongering about foreign bureaucrats, or making jingoistic false promises about ‘more money for the NHS’. Perhaps, in the very long term, leaving might even prove to be better than sticking with the EU, if the departure is guided correctly.

But if the process of withdrawal continues on its present, erratic, thrashing heading instead, we are going to be in for some very, very hard times in the coming months. With the unguided action it takes today, Britain is committing itself to a perilous course into the unknown.

Without either an Empire or the EU, Britain needs something else abroad to prop it up, and so far, no one has suggested anything likely to do the job.