Given the ludicrously optimistic promises of the Leave side during the Brexit campaign and the delusional belief that the UK simply has to throw its toys out of the playpen, in threatening “no deal is better than a bad deal,” in order to get the EU to agree to a “cake and eat it solution” it was always possible that the negotiations would break down completely. Indeed I thought the likelihood that a “leave” result in the referendum would so embolden the “swivel eyed loons” on the extreme right of the party (the ironically named European Research Group) that I assigned a probability of this happening to be about 90% even before the Referendum result.
Living in Northumberland it seemed very likely in the closing weeks of the campaign that Leave would carry the day. After Jo Cox’s murder I had really no idea, but after the Sunderland result it was clear that my worst fears had been realised. The fact that a considerable fraction of the UK press has for years been propagandizing against the EU, often with completely distorted or even totally made up content has poisoned public opinion. Indeed even the Remain side seemed to make little positive case for the EU; we don’t like it but begrudgingly pay our membership as it is in our economic interest. Being Irish our greatest poet Yeats who wrote The Second Coming during the turbulent times of Irish Independence between 1916-1922 put it best:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The referendum campaign had up to that point been the nadir of my political experience in the UK since coming here in 1981; I found much of it infantile and repulsive. In terms of the Leave campaign two big lies stand out:
- We pay an extortionate amount into the EU and get less than nothing in return, just a shed load of red tape and ridiculous standards. Best typified by the “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead. Vote Leave” slogan. My wife who is one of the UKs leading Intensive Care/Anesthetic consultants (and is in 10 Downing St even as I write this) was incandescent with rage when she saw this slogan; the major benefits the UK gets in Medicine by being a member of the EU (one example is the European Medicines Agency) was ignored and she believes that without the help of her EU colleagues the NHS would fall apart. Of course it is also well known that the £350m figure is total fiction, and on this point Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave director and coiner of the slogan, later admitted they won because they lied to the public.
- We have no control over our Borders and will be swamped by migrants and illegal immigrants unless we leave the EU. There was no mention that there were ample controls on immigration under EU rules as carefully set out for example by Craig Mackay in his OutsideTheBubble blog. I suspect that the Home Office was deliberately starved of funds as Cameron and Osbourne put the economy first and knew how valuable foreign workers were, but couldn’t bear to say so in public as the official vote winning Tory line was, and still is, to reduce net immigration to the 10s of thousands. Even more disgraceful was the conflation of the refugees crisis and legal immigration from the EU. One blatant lie was that Turkey was imminently joining the EU. Even ignoring the fact that UK had a veto, Turkey under Erdoğan is moving the country in a direction that makes joining the EU next to impossible. (Ironically Boris Johnson was one of the major advocates of Turkey’s accession). This of course was the unofficial leave campaign led by Farage and the Breaking Point poster singularly vile.
One troubling aspect of both campaigns was the appeal to some of the worst forms of English/British nationalism which is a theme I will explore later.
Of course Leave campaigners accuse the dire Remain Campaign of lying in equal measure. The two most quoted lies are:
- That Osbourne would introduce an emergency budget if the vote were to leave. My feeling on this one is that if you are going to tell a lie then it should at least be credible. it was obvious that both Cameron and Osbourne would be gone within 24 hours should the result go against them.
- That the experts predicted an immediate recession should there be a leave vote and the economy in fact grew. There was indeed an immediate drop in the value of the pound but there was no recession. There is a difference of course between a bad prediction and a lie. Apologies for a little bit of mathematics but it is worth running through it. In the following equation Δ is change, GDP is Gross Domestic Product, G Government spending, I investment by Industry, C consumer spending and X net exports (exports-imports). If Δ is positive it means the economy is growing. In crude terms:
At present the government is trying to reduce G in an attempt to balance the books, industry is not investing so I stays stubbornly low (and UK productivity is stuck in a rut), consumer spending C however increased significantly in the second half of 2016 in a credit spending spree by many Leave voters, optimistic about the future. Net exports X have been disappointing (rather than using the lower pound to increase exports it seems that exporters have pocketed the extra improved exchange rate cash). It is true the economy grew in the second half of 2016, but this can’t sadly last forever. Indeed the Bank of England is already worried by the amount of consumer credit. In a successful economy industrial investment, I, should be growing sharply as indeed the Brexiteers dream of an export lead, X, growth spurt which we will all welcome. Almost all economists believe that Brexit will be a negative on the UK economy and did not expect consumer confidence to increase. In retrospect it is logical that if most people voted for Brexit they would have been happy that it happened and then optimistic about the future. Given the consumer spending accounts for around 60% of the UK economy it is not unsurprising that the economy grew (FT link here £) if the majority of people were feeling good about the future and had hope (however misguided) for the first time in years.
I would have hoped things had moved on rapidly since the referendum, however too often it seems that we are stuck in Groundhog Day with the Lancaster House Speech, the Florence Speech and this week’s speech in the House of Commons, being full of empty rhetoric and unrealistic promises which have been likened to a 5 year old on the 17 floor of an impoverished council tower block wanting a thoroughbred pony for Christmas. As Ivan Horricks said on Progressive Pulse a few days ago of the latest House of Commons Speech from May:
“Echoing Florence, she repeats that she wants a ‘dynamic, creative and unique’ partnership with the EU post Brexit. Not for her existing models of trade and international relations: EEA’s and what Canada enjoys. Oh, no! They may be fine for Norway, Iceland and co. But the UK requires – no, deserves – better. Indeed, we MUST be allowed to have our cake and eat it. In short, we’re leaving the EU, but it’s not us that has to change as a result, it’s the EU”.
Where does this entitlement come from? As a Dubliner who has live in the UK for many years there is very much I admire about the English, in the NHS, the BBC, the great scientists, artists. I could wax lyrical here but the article is getting overlong! The culture which enabled me as an Irishman to rise to the top of my profession and be judged on merit and ability. The 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony was a joy but just as in the transition between Obama and Trump it seems England has moved to a much darker place. There is a frightening form of English Nationalism which manifests itself in an unspoken superiority and manifested and reinforced by the overwhelmingly right wing press in the UK. There is an almost unconscious belief among some people (often those whom have least right to feel so) that they are the chosen people and have a God given right to rule. I have encountered this also amongst people in small nations: Israelis, White South Africans (during the apartheid era) and Northern Ireland Unionists. Amongst large nations in both England and the US, though France (FN) and Germany ( especially east of the Elbe AFD) are not immune and I understand the Han people in China believe in their superiority as indeed did the Japanese in the early half of the 20th century.
As an Irishman growing up in Dublin and missing being blown up by a Loyalist bomb by about 15 minutes in Parnell St in 1974 I am all too well acquainted with the destructive power of Nationalism and the degeneration into violence so clearly manifested by the Troubles in Northern Ireland with the Republican community on the Irish Nationalist side and Loyalist community on the British Nationalist side. There is however a positive side of Nationalism which celibates and draws people together. Grace Sutherland a Scottish Nationalist and an occasional contributor on PP draws a clear distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism and puts it very well:
“Ethnic nationalists, as far as I can see, emphasise exceptionalism, “born into” citizenship, common roots, blood inheritance and so on. Perhaps the emphasis is less on shared political rights and more on pre-existing ethnic characteristics. This would certainly fit the Brit nat mentality. And perhaps what could be said to unite people against others –as we saw during wartime – or recently with the culture of xenophobia that has taken root in the far right. Unfortunately this doesn’t help people overcome division such as race, gender, class or division of resources.
This is diametrically opposed to the ethos of SNP. The last thing the SNP are promoting is exclusivity. If the SNP are nationals, then they are civic nationals. Civic Nationalism emphasises rule by consent, democratic pluralism, liberty and strength in diversity. It provides the framework in law, legislative possibilities and political participation to reconcile differences.”
As many have observed including this year’s Orwell Prize Winner for Journalism Fintan O’Toole and Anthony Bartnett in the Lure of Greatness, Ethnic Nationalism has reared its ugly head in England channeled by the Brexit Referendum and the belief in English exceptionalism is on the rise.
What will post Brexit Britain look like especially if there is a Train Crash Brexit? For a serious analysis I would recommend Ian Dunt’s book Brexit, What the hell happens now. For a less serious prediction I very much liked Seaan Ui Neill’s comment on Slugger O’ Toole in response to someone who seemed to believe everything he reads in the Daily Mail and was certain that it would be paradise.
“ the hummin’ Of the bees in the cigarette trees, by the soda water fountain, near the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings….”
I’m confused, my own crystal ball is showing fire flood and famine following a petulant exit reverting to WTO terms. I’d negotiate what your own little voices are telling you more closely before stating all this as if it has already unquestionably happened. We are actually on uncharted sea……
The English are not used to defeat. As every English/British person knows they took on the might of the Germans in WWII and defeated them. There is acceptance that there was some help from the US, but the Eastern front is largely ignored apart from the Arctic Convoys. In no way wishing to degrade the heroic efforts of the English the narrative Dunkirk, the Blitz, El-Alamein, D-Day, Victory! ignores large chunks of the war. The reality is the vast majority of the fighting and casualties were on the Eastern Front. Without their Russian and US allies, Britain stood no chance whatsoever of winning the 2nd world war. The British ability to self aggrandise is extraordinary.
Should Britain exit the EU without a deal my view was that it would normally take the loss of a major war to be put in such a position. Whereas I could think of plenty of Scottish and Irish defeats (e.g Flodden Field and Aughrim) I could think of no similar English ones. However is a discussion of an analysis by the Eurocrat Chris Kendall Michael Reynolds suggested closest historical precedent is the loss of the American Colonies in 1776. Britain lost 30% of its trade overnight and it took more than a generation to recover good relations with the US.
Whereas Scottish Nationalism has gone a little quiet, a disastrous Brexit will likely tear the Union apart. In Northern Ireland also there is no longer a Unionist majority (there is not a Nationalist majority either) and whereas pre-Brexit, I thought I would not see a United Ireland in my lifetime, I’m now not so sure. England could well find itself not leaving one union but two.
The hope is that if Brexit proves to be a the disaster and defeat that it now likely seems, that the English will emerge a much better people and treat the other nationalities on these Islands, the Irish Scots and Welsh as equals as indeed other Europeans. Just as the Germans are a much better people after WWII the same hopefully will happen to the English. This theme is developed further in our October book of the Month.
Others have different views such as Prof Simon Wren-Lewis. The fact that a train crash Brexit will be a catastrophe may not be lost on the PM. Wren-Lewis argues that “No Deal” is a myth and by extension far from May being the most disastrous PM in the past 200 years she may be treated more kindly by history. I’m not so sure as an economist Wren-Lewis is trained to believe that people are rational. May has done nothing to indicate she would upset the increasingly sewer-like Daily Mail and even the Telegraph is attracting headlines such as Why has the once-great Daily Telegraph become Pravda for Boris Johnson? As Tobais Stone has speculated we may be entering entering another of those stupid seasons humans impose on themselves at fairly regular intervals.