One by one, Brexit’s ‘salvations’ are seen to be illusory – The Guardian
From Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in the Leave campaign, through to Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis today, they convinced 17 million or so voters that BMW would ensure we could have our cake and eat it too. “The first calling point of the UK’s negotiator immediately after #Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike a deal,” announced Davis in May 2016. German car manufacturers would want access to the British market. The German government would listen and grant us privileged access to the single market in return.
As it has turned out, economics has not trumped politics. And although I am instinctively a materialist, I have to admit it rarely does. Try to find an economic explanation for nationalism or religious fanaticism, or for middle-class professionals supporting left-wing parties or working-class voters support for rightwing parties, and your arguments rapidly lose conviction. Economics did not trump politics when Britain voted to leave the EU. It does not trump politics now that 27 countries are determined to preserve the union. And not only as a defence against a return of fascism and communism.
Other countries have their national interests too. The supposedly omnipotent German car manufacturers did not stop Angela Merkel imposing sanctions on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, even though sanctions hurt sales. Germany, like the rest of Europe, like Britain itself, had an interest in stopping the rebirth of Russian imperialism and that came first. In any case, defending the single market will have long-term economic benefits for every large company in Europe, their workers and the old, the sick and the young who rely on their tax revenues. As German industrialists make clear, they would rather lose British sales than see the world’s richest market undermined.
One Whitehall source sounded as weary as Cassandra as he described how ministers ignored the warnings of the civil service that EU countries meant it when they said we could not leave the single market and retain the benefits of being in the single market. “They think it’s just a negotiating tactic,” he told me. “They think they will buckle because EU countries export more to us than we export to them. They don’t understand or want to understand.” If the Tory right does not get it, there’s no reason for you to share their ignorance. However long we wait for the German car manufacturers, they won’t come. Nor will any of the replacement Godots the right promised us.
It’s embarrassing now to go back over foreign secretary Johnson’s statements on Brexit, although nowhere near as embarrassing as being a citizen of a country where Johnson is the foreign secretary. The Brexit campaign was built on racism and outright lies. But underlying it was a sincerely held belief in the potential for Britain greatness. Michael Gove and Vote Leave’s Dominic Cummings pour scorn on Whitehall. But paradoxically they assumed that, if not the German car industry, then the Rolls-Royce of a British civil service that had won two world wars would purr to our rescue once again.
Diplomats were meant to divide and conquer the EU. They couldn’t. They were meant to guarantee that the EU did not outsmart Britain by ensuring that Brussels did not dictate the agenda. They failed again. This is not the fault of civil servants. Ever since Theresa May effectively fired our ambassador to the EU for telling her uncomfortable truths, they have been cowed. The government has cut their numbers and put them through a time-wasting and pointless reorganisation. The result is plain to see: the civil service is no longer a Rolls-Royce but a battered Nissan Micra with a neurotically nervous driver.
We are heading for a smash-up in ways the majority of the public do not begin to understand. The Bar Council warned again last week that May’s dogmatic insistence on the European court of justice having no say in British affairs will blight tourists involved in accidents on European holidays, British companies with branches on the continent, British men and women whose European exes fail to meet child access or divorce agreements and British innovators who want to protect their trademarks and intellectual property. All have rights that ultimately depend on the European court of justice being the court of final appeal. The Bar Council’s Hugh Mercer told me that English law’s greater virtue was that the citizen could know where he or she stood. Soon, no one will know where they stand on laws that bear upon millions of people and businesses.
This ought to be the moment when the opposition exposes a chaotic and purblind government. If Corbyn’s decision to go absent without leave during the referendum campaign did not convince you he wanted out of the EU because it stood in the way of the creation of socialism in one country, surely the feebleness of Labour opposition’s will convince you that no fight back is coming. Labour pretends with true Johnsonian dishonesty it can have its EU cake and eat it. It refuses to support leaving the EU but staying in the single market, because the great anti-racist party wants to bar EU migrants. Like May, it is not telling its anti-immigrant supporters the truth that leaving the single market will hit manufacturing workers the hardest and crush the aspirations of the young.
Labour cannot even support without equivocation keeping Britain in the customs union. Bravery would bring the political benefit of splitting the Tory party, as Phillip Hammond and liberal Conservatives know that the bureaucracy leaving the customs union will impose will place an intolerable burden on business. Staying put would also bring the moral benefit of stopping the rebuilding of the border in Ireland. As Corbyn and John McDonnell convinced the gullible that they didn’t support the IRA but only wanted peace, they of all people should want to keep the Good Friday settlement working.
Maybe it’s just the summer weather, but I catch the scent of public attitudes shifting. But real change will require opposition politicians stepping forward and providing principled leadership. At present, there’s more chance of Godot apologising for keeping us waiting than that sight greeting us.