Brexit: Britain will end up in the Customs Union

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

This blog has been wrong about a lot of things. Especially the Labour Party. But one area where my record has been very strong, in spite of standing outside the conventional wisdom, is Brexit. This is encouraging me to be recklessly brave in making my next prediction: Britain will stay in the EU Customs Union, even if it will take another two years or more before that becomes apparent.

Before the vote last year, I was always worried that the Leavers would win. I felt that my most persuasive argument for Remain was not that Britain would be better off in the long run outside the Union (though I did think that), but that the process of extraction would dominate British politics for so long that progress on any other of the county’s pressing issues would be halted. And thus it has proved. Poverty is growing, and Alan Milburn, the government’s (Labour) adviser blames it on the Brexit effect. The government may riposte that “absolute” poverty is still on the way down, but that claim looks very doubtful; “relative” poverty is clearly getting worse, after decades of progress. Poverty is a subject I will return to – I am working my way through a very challenging study from the Webb Foundation, which will require a degree of reflection. But Brexit is throwing up urgent problems in almost every area of government policy. And where it doesn’t, there is the indirect issue of distraction.

After the vote my first comment was that a long transitional period would be essential. A further prediction was that Northern Ireland would be the “surprise” issue that could derail the whole process, and it was the most important thing to get sorted out. This is now nearly consensus. , but at the time people were obsessing about whether Brexit would be soft or hard. The answer was in fact clear: soft in the short term, and then we’ll see once we’ve all understood it a bit better.

More recently there seemed to be an impasse between the British position that we should proceed to trade talks with the EU now, and the EU position that the “divorce” questions be settled first. I suggested that the British would win out in the end. And so it is proving. It suits the British commentariat to say that it is the British that are caving in, but in fact it is the EU side that has moved substantively; they are having to settle for some reassuring words. The mystery was why it took Britain so long get there; the answer to that was maybe that a bit of theatre suited both sides. There is a snag, though; just when it all looked settled, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists (the DUP) torpedoed it. That was my Irish caveat – and, I should add, I understand Irish politics, north and south, even less than the Labour Party. Still, this looks more like a glitch than a full stop – a result from the Prime Minister Theresa May’s debilitating introversion that had left the DUP out rather than talking them to death – which is now what she will have to do. All that is required for the moment is a dose of fudge. The DUP may well create some real trouble later on, but now does not look the right moment.

I had drafted a blog a month ago saying that I thought the talks were on track to succeed in moving to the next step, just when everybody was saying it looked hopeless. I didn’t post it because it was ended in a whimper. So what? Where was it all going? I now think I have the answer.

The firstly, I think Brexit will happen. Many Lib Dem friends hold on to the hope that the seeming chaos of the negotiating process, and the absence of any clear vision of the long term, means that the whole thing will collapse. But the negotiating machinery in Britain and the rest of the EU is in place, and officialdom has got used to the idea. It will happen, it may just not make as much difference, in the short run, as people thought. The way politicians deal with hard problems (I nearly wrote “modern politicians” but this is surely as old as the hills) is to string things out. The expression is “to kick the can down the road”. You decide as little as possible for now, so that reality has more time to sink in, and hardened positions can soften. The consequences of this approach are not well understood by the commentariat. They talk as though you negotiate treaties as if you were buying or selling a house, which is the biggest thing that most of these people have had to negotiate for themselves. We are for ever hearing about this or that strengthening a negotiating position, and in particular how threatening to walk out makes you stronger. But it is nothing like selling a house. It is infinitely more complex; you have to live with, and do more deals with, your counterparty afterwards; and you can’t simply choose to sell your house to somebody else. You have to keep the engine running, to switch the metaphor.

So complete collapse is unlikely, and Brexit nearly inevitable. Reversal would cause more problems (in the short term at least) than it would solve. Besides, the political conditions for it do not exist. There has been no seismic shift in British opinion, even if polling shows Remainers edging ahead. The Conservatives desperately want to hang on to power to keep Labour out, and keeping to the legal form of Brexit is essential to keep the party together. Labour would like to create trouble for the Conservatives, but do not want to be put on the spot. The desertion of Brexit supporting working class voters from Labour could torpedo their hopes of winning the next election. And power, for the Labour leadership, is much more important than Brexit.

But time is short. The priority now is to get that transitional deal up and running. Though the idea is to make as little difference as possible to current arrangements, beyond a few bits of carefully chosen and powerful symbolism, it will be hard enough. There will be no time to sort out the ultimate destination. Hard Brexiteers will continue to babble away about complete independence; the more pragmatic people will keep arguing for this or that aspect of the status quo. The truth is that the British governing class, and still less the public, have not understood the options properly, and not decided between them. And that is not surprising, given how big and complex it all is. We have to kick the can down the road. (Alas I had hoped to resist clichés in this blog, but I need to finish this piece).

So the process will drag on. Perhaps even the British people will be allowed a say in the process. Another referendum looks very unlikely – and probably not desirable. Trying to reduce everything down to “yes” or “no” has proved very unsatisfactory. But a general election during the transition process is another matter. An election is not due until 2022, which would be three years into the process, by which time many decisions will have been taken. But once the current government has delivered formal Brexit in 2019, it may find it hard to hang on. Brexiteers seem desperate to avoid any popular participation in the decision-making process, however – a role reversal from before the referendum. But the government’s minority status, and its lacklustre leadership, will make it hard to hang on.

But where will we end up? A divided nation will at some point be desperate for a compromise, and one that makes the Irish border more workable. It is in fact quite clear what that compromise is: membership of the Customs Union. If it is good enough for a prickly and independent Turkey, why can’t it be good enough for a prickly and independent United Kingdom? The government has ruled it out. But the whole process has been one of options being ruled out and then being ruled back in again. Brexiteers have a vision of Britain being a free-trading beacon, showing the rest of the world how it is done – and that would mean standing outside the Customs Union. But the British public are not interested in that vision; and, besides, the rest of the world has moved on. The massive expansion of world trade is coming to an end (except maybe within Asia and between Asia and Africa).

It may take a general election before before the British ruling elite reconciles itself to staying in the EU Customs Union. But I think that day will come.

Share

Brexit is drifting into stalemate

Transitions are always hard. Honest Brexiteers always knew that about the UK’s exit from the European Union. So it isn’t surprising that pessimism about Brexit is fashionable in the metropolitan classes. Until recently I had dismissed it as just chatter: Brexit has its own momentum. Now I am not so sure.

Recently the focus on Brexit has been about a transitional deal – part of a phased exit from the union. This is an entirely sensible idea, and, this blog has argued from the beginning, practically inevitable. The EU is a massively complex thing, and 45 years of acquired institutional integration takes a lot of unpicking. Surely it is sensible to do so at a measured pace with democratic consultation along the way? But there is something strange about all this talk. Nobody is talking about what happens after the transition. Salespeople for airline flights are urged to sell the beach, not the flight itself. And yet Brexiteers have stopped selling the beach. Instead they keep talking about the past – the referendum and its supposedly decisive mandate: selling the airport after you’ve already been through it.

This is the latest sign of insecurity amongst the advocates of Brexit. The fact that they were arguing for so long against the idea of a transition period was an early sign. Now they reserve their passion for keeping the transition period short – and the need to avoid having a general election in the middle of it. The trouble is that a transitional arrangement looks too comfortable a place to inhabit; we might never work up the courage for that next brave step. As Janan Ganesh points out in today’s FT, a country that cannot face down enough nimbys to expand Heathrow airport stands little chance of doing the brave things needed to make Brexit happen. “Leave now at the risk of economic chaos or leave late at the risk of never leaving. It is the Eurosceptic dilemma,” he writes.

The truth is that the various optimistic visions of Brexit are wilting. There was never consensus amongst Brexiteers amongst them anyway. In particular the Prime Minister’s idea of the oxymoronic “Global Britain” is collapsing. The emerging dispute between Britain and Canada and the USA over the aircraft producer Bombardier shows just how difficult that vision actually is. Just after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that he wanted to leave the European Single Market because of its state aid rules, Boeing is trying to close Bombardier’s factory in Northern Ireland on the grounds of excessive state aid. Boeing’s case is a weak one, but it is a big company in a big country, and such companies have no ethical compunction about bullying. They simply want to squash a potential future competitor by using principles designed to foster competition rather than suffocate it. The American government is happy enough to play along. The mechanisms of the World Trade Organisation (another transnational limit on sovereignty) look inadequate. Anybody who thinks that India or China will be any easier to deal with (or indeed the EU from outside) is not living in the world as it is. Small powers need a transnational order to thrive. But transnational order is going out of fashion amongst the world’s great powers.

Still, there are other visions for a post-Brexit Britain. They are of a more self-sufficient Britain. More complex manufacturing, such as the motor industry and aerospace, look doomed in the long-term outside the Single Market. But these are becoming less important to the whole economy. Modern technology is making smaller scale manufacturing easier. And the information economy is less bounded by the constraints of old-fashioned borders. A new meme on the political left (Jonathan Freedland in the weekend Guardian, repeated by Nick Clegg in today’s FT), that you can’t banish austerity outside the Single Market looks like nonsense to me. In the long term anyway. Britons might need to adjust their appetites on goods that are typically imported: cars and fossil fuels, for example, and things like foreign travel. But health care, social care, education, housing and employment support don’t require a major trading economy to support them, even if they need to be adjusted around the edges a bit. Except, of course, that “austerity” is code for any kind of disruptive change. Full Brexit will mean more disruption. But few politicians seem up for selling that to the British public.

And so we drift into a political stalemate. The country remains locked in a 50-50 split as to whether Brexit is right or wrong. The forces of remain look in no shape to launch a counterattack, and are content to obfuscate and delay. They have always been averse to selling the beach anyway. I cannot see that formal Brexit can be stopped. The purgatory of half-in and half-out seems a fitting verdict on a failing political system.

Share

The most important Brexit negotiation will be amongst the British people

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

There is very little decent media coverage of Brexit here in Britain. Mainly it is two groups of opinionated people trying to annoy each other, or at least to keep up their own side’s annoyance levels with the other side. Actually I have more time for the British negotiating effort than most Remainers, and more optimism that something sensible will emerge in the immediate aftermath. But Britain’s long-term destination remains unclear. And that is only right in the circumstances.

Right from the start I predicted that the key would be a transitional arrangement whereby elements of the Single Market and the Customs Union (not the same thing) would continue for long after the formal exit date of 29 March 2019. The British government is inching towards this conclusion, as a series of position papers published over the summer makes clear. Over the weekend Labour backed this idea too. The logic is overwhelming.

The British way is often said to favour gradual evolution over revolution. British democracy emerged step by step, without a revolution like France or Russia. Britain’s engagement with the European Union was similarly gradual. So gradual, in fact, that many Britons did not realise how much they had become attached to it until the Brexit referendum was lost. Of course this is exactly what opponents of Britain’s participation had predicted all along – the takeover would be incremental until a federal United States of Europe emerged by stealth. It follows that Britain’s disengagement is going to need to be equally gradual – or else we will have that destructive chaos that revolutions bring with them. The more so as there is no consensus vision on what a disengaged Britain should look like. Democracy takes time.

If Britons are coming to appreciate this, the other EU governments, and EU institutions, are being inscrutable. They insist that the arrangements for separation must be agreed before the terms of any future relationship are even discussed. The British government’s position papers were an attempt to get the conversation about the medium-term moving in spite of this arbitrary approach. They may well have succeeded. EU leaders may dismiss these position papers, and in some cases deride them – but the agenda has moved on. That was all that was intended.

The EU side will never admit it, but this is because logic is overwhelmingly with the British government on this. The exit negotiations are focusing on three critical subjects: financial obligations, EU citizens living in the UK, and the Northern Ireland border. In each of these Britain’s future relationship has an important bearing. This is most obvious in the case of Northern Ireland. This depends heavily on on future customs and migration arrangements. But the rights of EU citizens are tangled with the issue of the future role of the European Court of Justice and future arbitration arrangements. And even the financial obligations (the so-called “divorce bill”) can be finessed if some parts of British membership effectively continue beyond March 2019, along with the sort of financial contributions made by Norway and Switzerland for access to the EU market. The EU negotiators will be forced to talk about these things.

The EU needs a deal on Brexit for at least two reasons. First is that commercial disruption could threaten jobs within member states – thought the Brexiteer claim that the other EU countries need Britain more than the other way round is nonsense. Second is the situation of EU citizens who are living in Britain, and the status of Britons living in other EU countries. A legal limbo would be a major headache for everybody. On the other hand the EU governments do not want Britain to continue with all the rights of EU membership and not the obligations. That will make them wary of a transitional deal. But given the precedents set by Norway (in the Single Market and European Economic area), Switzerland (who have similar rights based on a number of separate agreements) and Turkey (in the Customs Union but not the Single Market), it should not be hard to finesse this. Indeed people may ask what the point of Brexit was, and that will suit the EU governments  – in fact the point of Brexit, if there is one, will take time to emerge.

And meanwhile Britain must slowly decide what it actually wants.  There are three main competing visions, which I will name after their role models: Singapore, Switzerland and Japan.

The Singapore idea is favoured by quite a few of the Brexit-supporting elite – those businessmen who came out in favour of Brexit, supported by a number Conservative MPs, and one or two theoretical economists, like Patrick Minford. This is that Britain becomes a global trading entrepot, with a regulatory light touch, and a strong national focus on competitiveness and low taxes. But this is a fantasy, partly because of Britain’s physical location and industrial hinterland – but mainly because there is no sign of democratic consent for this way forward. It would require an authoritarian state to implement (as it does in Singapore, after all) – and Britons do not like being dictated too – as the Brexit referendum showed very clearly.

Much of the rest of Britain’s elite favour something of a Swiss solution. This combines a strong tradition of independence and democracy with a free trading relationship with the Union, established on an issue by issue basis, and not by a bulk package arrangement like the EEA. The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is not a smooth one, but by and large it works, and Switzerland prospers. But the Swiss do have to abide a whole raft of EU rules, not least over freedom of movement. It would also be a platform from which the UK may re-enter the EU in future – which is why so many Leave supporters dislike it. Personally, this is what I favour.

But most British voters who supported Brexit probably have something in mind that is much more Japanese, as do many Conservatives, probably including the Prime Minister, Theresa May. Japan is fiercely independent and conservative in its outlook. It maintains a strong separation from the countries on its neighbouring continent – China and Korea, in particular, with whom it has tense relations (though Japanese imperial expansion in the 20th Century accounts for much of that). Controls over inward migration are tight, even in the face of challenging demographics, and social cohesion is highly prized. Multiculturalism is not an idea that they take to. Governing institutions are paternalistic, and democracy is flawed, though not as badly as in Singapore. The Japanese may grumble at this, but not enough to change the system. How very British.

Britain is not Japan, and any Japanese path will have to have some very British characteristics. The first is that Britons may grumble about it, but the country has a strong multicultural dimension. This is a legacy of its Empire, much more than the EU. There is no turning back – but immigration can be slowed, and assimilation of minorities might be more muscular – though this will hardly lead to community cohesion. A further issue is economic. Japan has built up national powerhouses of manufacturing industry, notably in cars and electronics. They have levered their way into export surpluses, notwithstanding reluctant attitudes to free trade. This is a very different approach to Britain’s, which has an open economy, even by European standards. Our manufacturing powerhouses have been sold off or run business models that are so globally integrated that the companies can hardly be called British (consider British Aerospace, at once part of European Airbus and trying to persuade the US armed forces that it is really American). Building something more closed and self-sufficient, in the style of Japan, will be slow and painful. Most people would not give much for Britain’s chances – but with technology rapidly changing the way economies work, that may be excessively pessimistic – in the long run anyway.

So should Britain continue to be a part of an integrated European economy, albeit keeping more of it at arms length than now? Or should Britain stand alone and focus more on social cohesion? In London we, by and large, favour the former. In many other parts of England, and Wales, there is strong preference for the latter. That is what we will have to negotiate amongst ourselves, piece by piece. It will be a long journey. Britain’s negotiation with the EU on Brexit is but a small part of it – and its main purpose is to buy us more time.

Share

Theresa May’s Brexit moves from tautology to oxymoron but makes the best of a bad job

An oxymoron replaces a tautology. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister is contemptuous of intellectuals that try to weave policies into a wider, coherent narrative. Instead she concentrates on a series of tasks, whose solutions may clash with one another. In her speech on Brexit last Tuesday Mrs May moved her defining slogan on from “Brexit means Brexit” to “Global Britain”. This last expression captures the essential idea that Britain can remain open to the world while being closed to it.

Predictably enough, the media coverage has been beside the point, lapping up the bait left for them left by the spin-doctors, without bothering to question the speech’s real meaning. Last week I said that the government’s strategy would be a hard Brexit via a soft one, with a General Election in between. That, more or less, is what this speech delivered.

The media has focused mainly on Mrs May’s stated destination after the exit process is complete. That was always going to be a very hard form of Brexit, given her insistance on two red lines: control over immigration of EU nationals, and escape from the jurisdiction of the European Court. This is a perfectly fair interpretation of last year’s vote. Some Brexit campaigners painted a picture of a “Norway option” of Britain staying in the Single Market while outside the political Union. But Remain campaigners, including me on many occasions, pointed out that this was nonsense. Mrs May is conceding to this obvious reality. A third red line is emerging: Britain wants to be free to negotiate separate trade deals with non-European countries, like the USA or China. So one of the main points interest of her speech was her hope that Britain could have a half-in/half-out relationship with the EU customs union. This looks very hard, but we can hardly fault it as an aspiration.

But, as I argued last week, the critical issue for Brexit is the transition, and Mrs May did have something to say about this. She talked of a “phased implementation” of Brexit: in other words, a transitional deal. She said very little about this, and nothing about how long the transitional period would be.  That is quite a big door she has left open.  This transition amounts to a soft Brexit for a limited period, and getting progressively harder over the years. This starts in 2019; there must be a General Election by May 2020, which will be quite early in the transition process. Politicians should be focusing on their stance in this election.

The strategy for Remainers who want to put off hard Brexit therefore becomes quite plain. The next parliament must prolong the transition process and renegotiate what comes afterwards. They will be caught in the same logical bind about membership of the Single Market, but they might be able to move the talk on to eventual re-entry.

But to reverse the tide of Brexit will require a shift in public opinion, with a large block of Leave supporters put off by the prospect of hard Brexit. At the moment, though, the acquiescence of Remain supporters looks more likely. This is helped by the behaviour of the UK economy since the vote. There is no sign of a serious economic impact, and forecasters are putting off their predictions of one. The chief economic effect of Brexit has been the lower pound, and this has been doing the job that advocates of floating currencies always maintained it would. Any loss of inward investment put off by Brexit has been made up for by other money tempted by the reduced price of British assets. It may be that property speculation is replacing business development and research, but in the short term what matters is the cash. And British consumers have seen no need to save more and spend less; consumer demand is robust. The balance of payments deficit may even be easing. My sense is that summer holidays in Cornwall are selling faster than usual. Britons may be worse off, but not enough for anybody to be seriously worried.

This is something of a Brexit honeymoon. When will it end? That will happen when, or if, the costs of exit become more concrete, with job losses and travel restrictions in particular. The government will, as it should, try to put these off. There will no doubt be a big focus on protecting the British motor and aerospace industries, which are particularly vulnerable. Skilful navigation of these pitfalls could head off any serious backlash – and if they do the Brexiteers will have won the economic argument, so far as most people are concerned. That may or may not happen, but for now the endless speculations of doom from the Remain camp aren’t helping; it will the fate of real businesses and jobs that will win the argument either way.

But for the time being the focus will probably move away from business. The immediate focus of negotiations will be the terms of Britain’s exit – the divorce settlement, and not the basis of the future relationship. Probably the most combustible part of this will be the status of Britons resident in other EU countries, and vice versa. So far such media attention has focused on people from EU countries living in Britain, who have become embedded in British society. Most Brexiteers feel that they should have full residency rights, but the ability of Britain’s bumbling Home Office to design a bureaucratic process that can deliver this is very much in doubt.

Actually the more politically important case is British retirees who have moved to other EU countries (Spain is especially popular) and dependent on access to local health services. The government hopes that people who moved before a cut-off date (such as the referendum date) can preserve their current status. But the situation is not symmetrical, especially when you look at individual EU members. A deal should be easy with Poland, but what has Britain to offer Spain in return for continuing to look after a community that pays few Spanish taxes and demands increasing care costs? The prospect of thousands of British retirees coming home to use an NHS struggling to recruit foreign staff cannot be inviting.

It is with such matters that the British government will become absorbed over the next two years. It will be a hard slog, but Mrs May’s plodding, practical, task-oriented, anti-intellectual approach may be just what is required. Expect many more tautologies and oxymorons.

 

Share

Brexit makes the Nortern Ireland crisis harder to solve. That should make us worried.

Major catastrophes often arise out the disproportionately small. The First World War arose from a conflict between a second-rate power and a third-rate power over a tiny Balkan province. Some time before Britain’s referendum last year, I and some friends were speculating on the impact of a Brexit vote. I suggested that the it would be so far-reaching that some unforeseen complication might derail the whole process. Somebody suggested that the unforeseen complication was quite likely to come from Northern Ireland. I worry that she may have been right. It is not that I see Brexit being derailed, but I do sense that most people will deeply regret it. And I hope I am wrong.

What put me in mind of this was a bit of long overdue catch-up TV viewing, last week,  of a programme broadcast way back in 2014: The Long Shadow. This was by Cambridge Historian David Reynolds, and it dealt with the legacy of the First World War on subsequent history. In this programme (the last of a series of three) he dealt with the unbottling of nationalism, and the attempt to create states based on a dominant nationality. By 1918 it was accepted that multi-national states, like the Austria-Hungary were doomed to failure, and, indeed, were undemocratic empires.  Austria Hungary was carved up into supposedly coherent nation-states, as was the Ottoman Empire, and much of the Russian empire. But this had dire consequences. The nationalities that the people of Europe identified with (primarily based on language) did not fit into neat boundaries; minorities were everywhere. At first the small states, like Czechoslovakia tried to impose their own nationality on the minorities within their borders, by force if necessary. And then the Germans tried to impose their own idea of nationalism on the whole continent. Perhaps 40 million people were killed.

The European Union was created as a reaction to this. The feeling amongst its founders was that the idea of a nation-state was fundamentally flawed, and that states should be set within a transnational framework that fostered beneficial cooperation. The dilution of national sovereignty was not seen as a regrettable cost, but as the whole point of the exercise. For all its flaws, that remains the founding principle of the EU.

But it is not understood by the English, who have underestimated the European project at every turn. Before the First World War the United Kingdom, the state that the English dominated, was under stress. A highly controversial Home Rule proposition was in progress in Ireland, and the British government was consumed by the growing probability of a civil war there, as the Irish organised themselves into armed camps. So much so that ministers barely notice the emerging crisis in central Europe that was to bring the house down. Home Rule was also proposed for Scotland, and many Welsh were pushing for the disestablishment of the Church. The war seemed to heal these rifts in a common cause, as the nationalities fought side by side. And in Britain that is how things worked out; a Welsh nationalist (David Lloyd-George) became Prime Minister and talk of Scottish Home rule vanished. But in Ireland matters played out in a similar way to the rest of Europe. A civil war broke out, first as Irish nationalists fought for independence, and then within the new Irish Free State. And in Ulster, the Unionists set about imposing their will on the Catholic minority, much as the Czechs had done to the Sudeten Germans. 50 years later this blew up into the Ulster Troubles, in which thousands more were killed. This was brought to an end in the Good Friday Agreement in 1997, in part by using EU institutions to fudge the question of nationality.

The English never understood what was happening in Ireland, which so often upset their plans and their self-image as a democratic, peaceful nation. They just wanted it all to go away. To them the virtues of a nation-state were self-evident. The English had forged their own nation in the Middle Ages as a fusion between the French Normans and the Germanic Anglo-Saxons. The incorporation of Cornish, Welsh and then Scots into the national structure did not pose a serious challenge to their view of nationhood. The English assumed that these nations were assimilating happily enough into a new fusion: the British nation. The EU was looked on as a transaction of convenience, and when it trampled on British sovereign institutions, it rankled. And a so a majority of the English rejected membership.

But by then there was already trouble with this complacent outlook. The Scots increasingly resented how their own sense of nationhood was trampled on by the English. Devolution did not change English attitudes, which was the root cause of the trouble (though the English still think it is about obstreperous Scots). The SNP rose to power and only narrowly lost an independence referendum in 2014. That referendum only enabled the SNP to consolidate its power, as the Labour Party collapsed. The Scots were always more sympathetic to the transnational idea of the EU, and did not see the sovereignty of the British parliament as a sacred gift from God, or the pinacle of democracy, as English conservatives did. No doubt continued membership of the EU was one of the things that persuaded many Scots to vote for the union – and they strongly supported membership in the referendum.

Actually Brexit does not improve the transactional case for Scots independence. It implies separation from critical markets in England without the EU safety net, and at least a transitional period in a distinctly parlous situation. But there’s trouble. The genie of English nationalism is out of the bottle, and it has taken over the Conservative government, whose political future seems assured. This is an us-against-them world view, one of whose dominant concepts is “bargaining position”. Relations with the rest of the EU are seen through this lens; and so is that between the UK and Scottish governments. The English attitude to the Scots is “lump it, you have no choice”; the British government, which contains virtually no Scots MPs, makes no concessions to Scots sensibilities. Even further devolution to the Scots government is probably seen as a way of forcing it to take ownership of austerity. This complacency is not unlike that formerly shown by EU Remainers on membership of the EU.

But at least nobody is killing each other. The worrying thing about Northern Ireland is just how little the politics has moved on since the killing ended. The Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster’s attitude to criticism over some rather dodgy financial goings on is to distract attention by upping the ante on sectarianism; her cohorts are happy to let her do it. The Ulster Protestant working classes are as entrenched in their anti-Catholic attitudes as ever, and this is putting pressure on the Irish Republicans to follow suit. Now the Northern Irish government has fallen – and attitudes are polarising.

The crisis in the province is not about Brexit. But Brexit is making it a much harder problem to solve. Irish Catholics are finding themselves in a country less tolerant of multiple identities, where community relations are seen in terms of bargaining position and multiculturalism is a dirty word. Could a return to violence improve that bargaining position? Meanwhile, most English people would probably welcome a reunification of Ireland as a solution to the many border issues thrown up by Brexit. That could easily push Protestant Loyalists to violence. It’s a combustible mix.

And what makes me gloomy is that I see no political leader in Westminster or Belfast with the vision, stature and charisma to move the nations of the United Kingdom onto a more constructive path. Especially when that constructive path almost certainly requires that the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union. But I hope I’m wrong.

Share

The shape of Brexit is becoming clearer. Don’t write Theresa May off.

I’ve given Brexit it a well-earned rest over the last month. It remains Britain’s leading political issue, but the commentary from all sides is completely unedifying. Remainers are mainly just whingeing, angry that we are were we are. I agree, but where next? This lets the Brexiteers off the hook: instead of being forced to be more specific about how to solve the many problems thrown up by Brexit, they can simply moan about the moaning and promote an unconsidered hard Brexit. And this is what most of them are doing, betraying a complete failure to understand the predicament that country finds itself in. Still, a little reflection shows us how things are likely to shape up.

Not that the government is giving us much clue. The Prime Minister, Theresa May is staying tight-lipped, though she has been offering hard-Brexit mood music. This is partly because that is the type of leader she is: she likes to weigh things up in private before committing herself, a characteristic that she shares with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That Mrs Merkel is one of the most successful politicians on our continent shows that many commentators are too quick to dismiss Mrs May. I think she could last.

The fact is that the government’s silence is not just a question of Mrs May’s style. There are sound political reasons for it. The Conservatives command but a narrow majority in the House of Commons, and the party is hopelessly muddled on the issue, as are Conservative voters. Any clear declaration of strategy will create a storm. When that time comes the government needs to be ready. Mrs May became prime minister by picking the right moment to attack after years of patient build-up in which her potential opponents each self-destructed. She no doubt hopes for something similar over Brexit.

The eventual strategy will be the product of an alliance of three critical minsters. Mrs May herself, the Brexit minister David Davis, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. The alliance between Mrs May and Mr Hammond goes back a long way; they operate in compatible ways. Mr Hammond is putting the soft Brexit side of the argument – about the need to prevent disruption to the economy and to protect inward investment. Mr Davis is an interesting character. He is an ideological Brexiteer, but he possesses an integrity that few of his fellow politicians can match, while remaining an intelligent man. So far these attributes have not helped his political career; he has been too much trouble, and easily outmanoeuvred by smooth operators like Mrs May’s predecessor, David Cameron. Mrs May showed good judgement in picking him as her minister for Brexit. He doesn’t give much away, but from what I have seen, he is steadily working through the different issues and options and weighing the pros and cons. Meanwhile other senior ministers involved with Brexit, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and the International Trade minister Liam Fox, are showing themselves up to be political lightweights not suited for these difficult times.

Given this background, we can divine what the government’s strategy is likely to be: a soft Brexit leading probably, but not inevitably, to a hard one. First of all the government will push to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, giving two years notice to formal exit. This needs to be done by March, because that’s what Mrs May has promised. There are sound political reasons for this: first it means that there will be no awkwardness over the European Parliament elections due in 2019; more substantively the formal exit will be completed in plenty of time for the General Election due in 2020. Incidentally, there is no evidence that Mrs May plans to expend precious political capital on trying to get round the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to hold an early election. The Labour Party is stewing nicely in its own juice and this mitigates much of the government’s problem with a small majority. It is highly unlikely that they will stage a recovery by 2020, rather than being completely hollowed out. An election now would be a distraction from the problem at hand.

The problem with an early invocation of Article 50 is that it leaves a cliff face on eventual exit – the so-called train-wreck Brexit. Actually delaying Article 50 may not help by much – the real problem is negotiating alternative trading arrangements, which formally can’t start until after exit. But there is an obvious solution to this: a transitional period after exit. In this period much of the current trading relationship would be preserved, and the UK would continue to make budget contributions. The spectrum of possible solutions runs from full membership of the EEA (European Economic Area – like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to simply membership of the customs union (like Turkey). The EEA option would be by some distance the simplest solution, but it would involve continued free movement of labour. That is surely a red line for Mrs May (though, I suspect, not for Mr Hammond). She has always taken a hard line on immigration, and seems immune to the economic arguments made for it. The Turkey solution would leave many markets not integrated, with high potential costs to some parts of the economy. She will aim for EEA market access with Turkey levels of free movement. She won’t get it, but that is what negotiation is about.

How long will the transitional period be? My guess is five years (i.e. up to 2024), though her initial bid might be just two. That puts the ball firmly in the court of the next parliament. The government will paint a picture of full exit from the customs union after 2024 in terms that will warm the heart of ideological Brexiteers. In that way Mrs May will paint herself as a hard Brexiteer. But there will be a general election before then, and if public opinion swings away from Brexit, the transitional deal can be made into something more permanent.

That’s what I think. It will remain formidably complicated – but it gives ground to both sides, and she can claim be implementing the mandate from the referendum, while giving everybody more time to think about how a standalone Britain should work. There will be meat for both factions in the Conservative Party – and Mrs May can present herself as a unifying figure. It might even work.

 

Share

Why did the dollar rise with Trump but the pound fall with Brexit?

If you are part of the conventional liberal “elite” like me, 2016 has been marked by two colossal acts of democratic self-harm: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. It is easy to understand why the pound sunk after Brexit. By why has the US dollar being doing so well after the election of Donald Trump as president? It is a useful lesson in macroeconomics.

The first thing to say, though, is that the way most of the media cover such market movements is unhelpful. They talk of sentiment and emotional judgements made by anthropomorphised “markets”. These may provide a satisfactory story line for a journalist, but they yield no real insight and no predictive power. They are simply projections onto past events. But very often, and this is no exception, far more satisfactory explanations are available, based on the way money flows through economies and financial markets.

Take Brexit. The obvious explanation is that markets (sticking with the anthropomorphism for now) take a dim view of Britain’s prospects amid the confusion and uncertainty thrown up by Brexit. But by itself that explanation is inadequate. The fall in Sterling was not matched by falls in stock markets (after an initial wobble) and other markets which also depend on future economic prospects. In fact there seems to be much more of a wait-and-see approach by the people and institutions who set market prices.

But wait-and-see is not so neutral. The UK runs a substantial current account deficit (5.7% of GDP according to the Economist, the highest of the 43 countries in its data table – and the second largest in money terms, at nearly $150bn in the last year). That means that the country is consuming much more than it is producing, which in turn means that the country is spending more pounds than it is getting back from exports, etc (or spending more foreign currency on imports than it is getting from exports). This deficit must be made up from the capital account – by investors buying UK assets of one sort or another (or Britons selling off foreign assets). Wait-and-see means that foreigners are more likely to defer making investments, which reduces the demand for Sterling on capital markets, causing its price to fall. This makes UK assets more attractive, UK exports more competitive and imports less attractive. All perfectly textbook.

So, what about the US? This country has a current account deficit too (2.6% of GDP which is $488bn in money terms, the largest current account balance in any direction by some margin, in the Economist table). Surely there is a lot of waiting and seeing to be done here, as Mr Trump’s policies, shall we say, lack clarity? But there are a number of differences with the UK. The first of these is that the US is an economic superpower, which dominates global financial markets, with the dollar used as the top reserve currency. It is much easier for the country to draw in investment that the aging middle-ranking country that is the UK. It has much more secure access to liquid, short-term funding. And with a huge domestic market the outlook for its businesses look less precarious than that for British ones.

But the most important difference is that, for all Mr Trump’s lack of clarity, what is known about him, and the Republicans who control Congress, points to a loosening of fiscal policy. This mainly takes the form of tax cuts. This increases the demand for dollars, because it will increase spending in the US domestic economy. Exactly how remains to be seen. On one version US corporations will repatriate foreign profits and invest in infrastructure. This is all uncertain – but Mr Trump and the Republicans in Congress certainly agree on tax cuts, especially for the wealthiest. And this happens at a time when most people are convinced that the US is running at close to capacity – so there is no question of fiscal laxity being complemented by monetary laxity, which would allow the increased demand for dollars to be met by extra supply. Indeed the Federal Reserve is in the process of tightening policy, and increased interest rates this month.

This economic dynamic is often not appreciated – that in a world of freely floating currencies and open capital markets, loose fiscal policy leads to an appreciation of the currency. But there are plenty of examples if you look for them. When Germany unified in the early 1990s, it involved a considerable relaxation of fiscal policy – which caused the Mark to appreciate, and a crisis in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 that forced Sterling to leave, shredding the credibility of John Major’s Conservative Government. My Economics lecturer at UCL used the British government of the mid-noughties as another example – the government ran a larger budget deficit than was warranted at that point in the economic cycle, at a time when banking laxity had already led to excess demand in the economy.

The effect of fiscal policy on a floating currency is part of what is known by economists as the Mundell-Fleming model, proposed independently by economists Robert Mundell and Marcus Fleming, leading theorists of floating currencies. It is one of the reasons that floating currencies are not quite the free lunch suggested by many Anglo-Saxon commentators. It means that a floating rate tends to neutralise fiscal policy (just as a fixed rate neutralises monetary policy). As a currency appreciates, the current account reduces (or deficit gets larger), and any increase in aggregate demand is lost across the world economy. Unless monetary policy operates in the same direction (including “printing money” to monetise the budget deficit), in which case you are in effect operating a managed exchange rate policy. This often ends in inflation or default.

This points to one of the tensions in Mr Trump’s economic policy. Fiscal laxity will lead to a widening trade deficit – exactly the opposite to what he promised on campaign. That will tend to force him into protectionist policies, which in turn could create a doom-loop of global proportions. Many believe that we have the makings of another global financial crisis, especially given developments in the Chinese economy – for example read this from Yanis Varoufakis.

But another tension could be that Mr Trump’s fiscal stimulus proves ineffective. The rich people and corporations that benefit from the tax cuts save most of their winnings; planned infrastructure spending is lost to political friction; and Congress insists on dismantling the social safety net, especially Medicare, sucking demand out of the system by hitting the less well-off. That would mean that growth is disappointing, breaching another Trump campaign promise.

But that’s in the future. For now participants in the financial markets are readying themselves for more demand for dollars, and weaker demand for pounds. They aren’t taking a view on the wisdom or otherwise of either Brexit or the new US regime.

Share

Competence, cosmopolitanism and change. And fewer experts needed forthe liberal fightback

Liberals are traumatised by the Brexit vote in Britain and Donald Trump’s victory in the USA. The margins were very fine in both cases, but that is little comfort. Things weren’t meant to be that close. And more shocks could be to come. It isn’t too late to fight back. But how?

And here there is a lot of confusion. Some want to coopt the tactics of the populists and fight dirtier (like the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland); others say that we should stick to the issues and avoid personal attacks (take this piece from Luigi Zingales, building on experience with Silvio Berlusconi); others again suggest that we follow a populist left agenda in the manner of Bernie Sanders; or perhaps stick with the centre right (such as France’s Francois Fillon or Britain’s Tony Blair). Or meet the populists half-way by conceding immigration controls and restrictions on trade.

All of these ideas are flawed. One striking feature of both the British and American situations is just how divided the public has become. Accommodating one side of the argument means creating resentment on the other. Bernie Sanders would surely have lost more votes from Hillary supporters than he would have picked up from Trump ones. Recent polling on Brexit voters show that very few on either side have changed their minds.

We should be careful about accepting the populist narrative: that they represent a rebellion by the public against an elite. Most of the people I meet are on the establishment side of the argument, and are passionately opposed to Brexit and Mr Trump. But they are very far from any elite establishment; we are as ordinary in our way as the rebels. And all any political process does is to exchange one elite for another. As Brexit and the Republicans take over, there are going to be just as many angry and resentful people as before – but they will be different people.

Two ironies strike me here. First is that Mrs Clinton was right when she accused half of Mr Trump’s supporters of being a “basket of deplorables”. Saying so was one of the biggest mistakes of her campaign, and it showed a complete lack of political judgement  because it reinforced the idea of a sneering elite. And yet it is hard to see that there will be any reconciliation with people who have convinced themselves that the problem with the US (and Britain) is that an essentially white heritage is being polluted by incomers, and that the country needs to return to the values of the past. But there is the other half of Mr Trump’s supporters, who simply lost confidence in the establishment and just want to shake things up.

The second irony comes from  a seminal moment in the Brexit campaign when leading Brexiteer Michael Gove said that people had had enough of experts – because so many experts were advising against change. And yet the liberal side of the argument was badly let down by experts – or those that were advising their campaigns.  In America those experts has parsed the 2008 and 2012 election campaigns in minute detail and thought they had cracked it. Poll analyst Nate Silver made his reputation by predicting the result with precision in 2012 long before polling day. And yet the expert strategies in 2016 amounted to picking up pennies from in front of a steamroller. They lost the wood for the trees.

What are the experts saying now? They are very quiet, but I think can I guess what they will be saying. Don’t panic. Use the confusion and resentment emanating from the new ruling elites to build up a protest vote. Normal service will be resumed.

Well the Trump administration and the Brexit-supporting Conservative government will offer plenty of ammunition to opponents. But it isn’t enough. The British Labour Party thought it had the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition on the ropes in the years up to 2015 – such was the popular anger against austerity policies. And yet they lacked a convincing alternative, and all they succeeded in doing was pushing Lib Dem voters into the arms of the Conservatives, while being unable to contain the popular backlash in Scotland. Labour are trying something different now, with a lurch to far left – and the signs are that this will be even less successful. The populists are absolute masters of blaming anybody and everybody else for their problems, and they know how to stir up their supporters and create doubts among the uncommitted.

So what to do? I think that three things need to be at the heart of any fightback: competence; cosmopolitanism and change. Competence because that is what people will soon be yearning for, especially in America as the Trump regime takes control. People like the idea of somebody that creates chaos more than the fact. So any alternative must look like a cool, safe pair of hands. And, I would add, because this goes alongside it, somebody that cares about truth, and can admit awkward facts.

Cosmopolitanism because that really is the only way forwards. The genie is out of the bottle. We are going have to get along with people of different nationalities, races and cultures. There is no future in harking back to cultural distinctiveness. We must grow more confident in our own cultures and learn more from others. Ironically even the populists are doing this amongst themselves. If there is anything that unites the half of the population that is resisting the populists, it is a belief, at some level, in cosmopolitanism. Rallying this group is critical.

Well, Hillary was competent (except at campaigning) and cosmopolitan; and that was not enough. We also need to show that we believe in change. We must accept that the establishment orthodoxy of the 2000s was wrong in many respects. The relentless quest for a narrow vision of economic growth and the crushing of human control in the name of productivity and modernisation must end. All they do is enrich a few lucky people. We need a new vision of modernisation that takes to heart that most successful of Brexit slogans: “take back control.” And our experts won’t be much help here: we need new vision.

So we need new leaders that stand for competence, continuity and change, and are able to see beyond the myopia of experts. Justin Trudeau has done it in Canada. Who will do it in Britain and America? Oh how I wish I knew the answer to that!

 

 

 

Share

The government has made an error by not condemning attacks on the rule of law

Last Thursday the British government suffered a shock defeat in the High Court. It ruled that the government could not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, launching the process of exit from the EU, without parliamentary approval. Reaction to this has split along partisan lines, depending on whether you think Brexit is a good idea. But the reaction of some Brexit supporters is pure hysteria. This posed a challenge to the government that it has handled badly.

The case itself arises because Britain lacks a written constitution – so constitutional principles evolve in a rather haphazard way. The government’s case was founded on a curious combination of a brand new constitutional principle, and an ancient one.

The new principle is that sovereignty rests with the people, and that the referendum result was a clear expression of the will of the people, to which the state executive may conform directly, bypassing parliament. This is a perfectly viable idea. But it is not one that has been established in British law – and, indeed, it did not form the basis of the government’s legal argument, though it served to give it moral authority. The current principle is that parliament is sovereign, not the people, though parliament is subject to popular election. I am no fan of parliamentary sovereignty, though it makes some people misty-eyed – ironically it was much invoked as a precious British institution by Brexit campaigners during the referendum. Actually I see the sovereignty of parliament as a potential threat to freedom, and it should be subject to constitutional constraint, like all other parts of government. These restraints include such things as the Human Rights Act, and, indeed, the country’s treaty obligations to the European Union, which I view as a helpful restraint against corruptible power, rather than a dilution of democracy. One of my fears for Brexit is that it reduces the checks and balances of our constitution.

Still, parliamentary sovereignty is the rule, and it should only be changed through a due democratic process via parliament itself. And parliament has been very careful not to subordinate itself to referendums, which are an increasingly important part of our democratic system. They are always described as “advisory” – an act of consultation rather than authority in themselves. There is an ancient debate here between the virtues of direct democracy (such as referendums) and representative democracy (where elected parliaments have primacy). We haven’t resolved that debate properly – or if we have, it is in favour of the representative sort of democracy.

The ancient constitutional principle invoked by the government is that sovereignty derives from God to the anointed King or Queen, and from them to the Cabinet, a committee of the Privy Council. Parliament, or the People, are mere subjects of the royal whim (and, revealingly, “subjects” is the word commonly used in place of “citizen” in government language). This constitutional principle was heavily compromised by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when parliament sacked King James II and passed the crown to William III and Mary II jointly; parliament further invoked its supremacy to secure the succession of Queen Anne in 1714 to George I. But the principle lives on under the Royal Prerogative, which is the basis of much executive power, including, relevant to this case, the making of treaties with foreign powers. The court decided that Article 50 would in fact involve a breach of Acts of Parliament rather than just the termination of foreign treaties, and so the government could not use the royal prerogative. Anybody who remembers the fraught parliamentary debates, from 1972 onwards, at each stage of the evolution of Britain’s membership of the EU, will not be surprised that it can’t just be unmade at the whim of the Queen’s representatives.

The court case isn’t over. There is an appeal to the Supreme Court, as is only proper in a case of such importance. But most think the judgement will be upheld. Talking to a senior lawyer when the case was brought originally, I was told that the High Court was likely to find for the government, but that the verdict stood a good chance of being overturned by the Supreme Court. So the government’s case looks weaker than it first appeared. You will gather than I am not particularly surprised.

So here we have a constitutional challenge being resolved in a civilised and proper way. That makes the reaction of some Brexit supporters very striking: they are saying that it is outrageous for unelected judges to intervene to thwart the clearly expressed will of the people. Suzanne Evans, a Ukip leader, has been particularly voluble, suggesting that the judges concerned should be sacked. But the Brexit newspapers, the Telegraph, the Express, the Daily Mail and the Sun in particular, are no better. The Mail sought to undermine the authority of the court by pointing out that one of the judges was openly gay.

This attitude reflects the views of much of the pro-Brexit public too, to judge by some vox-pops on the radio and social media comments. But it is in contrast to the equivalent populists in the US. These treat the US Constitution as holy writ, and nobody challenges the right of the Supreme Court to limit the actions of politicians or the state, or even to overturn the results of referendums, which happens frequently. Such is the difference that history makes.

What we have instead reminds me a lot of fascist attitudes in Europe before 1939, as practised by Hitler, Mussolini, and others, and advocated by a number of political groups in other European countries. The referendum was a favourite device of these dictators: a way of proving that they derived their authority from the will of the people. They saw the law as an instrument of executive power.

Of course we should not make the mistake of assuming that all Brexit supporters share such fascist tendencies, and we should remember that another key ingredient of fascism, the advocacy of a superman leader, is absent. Indeed pro-Brexit Tory MP Stephen Philips disagrees with the government on this, and has resigned in disgust at his party on this and other issues. But there seems to be a hard core, represented by Ukip, many Tory hardliners and a group of right-wing newspaper owners that are happy to undermine the independence of the judiciary. And that hard core holds the initiative, largely because the government lets them. The government response to the attack on judges has been limp; indeed one minister, Sajid Javid, actually joined in. Belatedly the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor affirmed their respect for the judgement, but failed to condemn the attacks made by their colleagues and the press, or create any kind of media splash.

This is a tactical error. The government’s best hope in pushing through Brexit is to take the heat out of it all. They had a major victory when Japanese carmaker Nissan was persuaded to keep investing in their British factory. This supported the general idea that the Remainers are stoking up a fuss about not much. Now the Remainers have something new to be angry about: the government’s complicity with an attack on the rule of law. Many liberals will be taking the Brexit slogan “We want our country back” for their own, so disgusted are they about the rise xenophobic and intolerant attitudes. Liberal Democrat campaigners trying to make the Richmond Park by-election about Brexit must be delighted.

Still, Remain supporters need to be careful. As yet there has been no major shift in public opinion. Most of the public will be unmoved by this rather abstract debate about the British constitution. That shift will only arise when there is a concrete threat to jobs, living standards and public services. Most voters assume the country will muddle through without too much damage. The government’s victory on Nissan was so important because it staved off one such concrete threat.

Incidentally that leads to an intriguing question. How was the government able to make the assurances it did to Nissan? It suggests that it is in fact aiming to achieve a version of “soft Brexit” with the UK staying in the EU customs union, and remaining subject to some EU jurisdiction – while the mood music is pointing to “hard Brexit”. This would explain why the government is so reluctant to say much about what it is trying to do.

But raising the political temperature on Brexit is a bad idea. The government needs to tread a middle course between the Brexit extremists and those that seek an opportunity to reverse the referendum result. A firm rebuke to those attacks on the judges would have been just that. And now it is too late.

 

Share

Leave and Remain liberals will need to heal their rifts or the conservatives will take over

If we ever imagined that June’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU would end the arguing, we would have been much mistaken. I have taken part in this arguing enthusiastically, but it is time to take a step back. Where are we heading?

Let’s start with the Remainers. A recent poll has shown that few people who voted to remain in the EU regret their vote. They mostly believe that the results of Brexit will be highly detrimental, and many continue to protest. But what for? The vote for Brexit was narrow, but decisive within Britain’s political system. Most English and Welsh MPs have seen significant majorities for Leave in their own seats. The Remain vote was inefficiently distributed, with majorities mainly in London and Scotland, which is now politically marginalised by the rise of the SNP, a process that is likely to lead to that country’s breakaway. The vote is widely seen as an English and Welsh revolt against London, and the bulk of MPs are minded to heed it, and no general election will change that. The chances of stopping Brexit look thin – and would entail an ugly fight with Leave supporters that would do nothing to heal a divided nation. Only if the cohesion of the Leave side starts to break could alternative possibilities emerge – and there is no sign of that. Some leave voters express regret or apprehension, but this is very soft and is not a political move of any significance.

So why can’t Remainers move on and make the best of it? Because so many of them regard it as a matter of values. Remainers really don’t like the values of the stereotypical Leave supporters, whom they see as being illiberal – though not all are, of course. They get the anger of white working class voters, but blame it on national government failure not EU membership, and do not find that it is an excuse for narrow-mindedness or, as they see it, stupidity. Real venom is reserved for the many middle class supporters of Brexit – seen as a combination of the awkward squad, who always criticise and never take responsibility, and people who can’t accept that the world moves on. The rise in hate crime since the vote only convinces Remain supporters that they should stand up for their values. One way of looking at this is the popular model of grief, which sees denial followed by anger, bargaining, depression and only then acceptance. Remainers are stuck somewhere between anger and bargainings. They know that moving on means depression, and we are scared of the abyss, so are stuck on anger and bargaining.

What of the Leave side? It is possible to have some sympathy for them. The boot is on the other foot now. They are the ruling elite, receiving all the brickbats instead of giving them. Much of what is said against them is spurious or speculative, with an intention to stir up trouble rather than anything constructive. They find that nearly half the population is angry about the cause they support, and they don’t know how to handle it.

What Brexit supporters need to understand are the dynamics of change management: any disruptive change is going to be stormy. On one model I was taught in management training, change in an organisation goes through four distinct phases (clearly related to the five phases of grief). First there is denial. People think that the change doesn’t really affect them – it is about other people. Inexperienced managers mistake this calm for acceptance and think things are going well. Then comes anger, as the effect of the change sinks in and people realise that their comfortable ways will be threatened. Management is often accused of being clueless by people who haven’t understood what the management is trying to do. The next phase is chaos. As the change moves into implementation, things start to go wrong; people feel lost in an unfamiliar environment. Management’s reputation remains low. Finally things settle down and we have renewal. You have to understand that this pattern is inevitable in any meaningful change. In a well managed change there is still anger and chaos, but they are short-lived. In a badly managed one the change can be derailed, even if it is ultimately a good idea.

This is what is happening over Brexit. Brexit was always going to be disruptive: if you supported Brexit, this is what you signed up for – there’s no point in being annoyed about it. We have moved on from denial to anger: that’s progress. But the next phase is chaos – this has to be embraced rather than deferred, because otherwise we will never move on. The chaos phase will probably start with the invocation of Article 50 of the EU Treaty, which makes departure all but inevitable. But how to minimise the downside? The process has not been well planned (or planned at all, some would say), so getting through it quickly will be impossible. Brexit supporters need to keep moving things on so that things can start to settle down in a new reality. This requires a relentless focus on problem-solving, and not arguing about why you are doing it. But Brexit politicians tend not be strong on problem-solving – they are the disruptive types who like to blame others for anything that goes wrong, rather than sort things out themselves.

But within this chaos, there is a clear threat to liberals. Liberalism does not command majority support, but neither does its antithesis. If liberals form the right coalitions they can be politically dominant, as they often are. But the Brexit coalition is dominated by conservatives. Liberalism has been split. Most are Remain supporters, but many supported Leave. Leave liberals see the EU as an institution whose flaws are so deep that they threaten its avowed liberal values. They seek to combine liberal values with stronger self-determination.

So the threat is that conservatives dominate the ruling coalition, while Remain liberals absent themselves in a sulk. The result will be illiberal measures such as: excessive immigration curbs, which in turn limit the opportunities for Britons in the rest of Europe; conservative social policies, such as selective school admissions; and, in all probability, increased austerity as government finances come under pressure. Worse than all this there will be a prevailing political culture of blaming outsiders for the country’s mounting problems, resulting in a rise in intolerance of ethnic and religious minorities. Liberals of all stripes must resist this.

In the short term the anger of the Remain side may serve a useful purpose for liberals. It will weaken the Brexit conservatives, many of whom vastly overestimated the ease of transition, and certainly played down the difficulties during the campaign. But at some point Remain liberals will surely have to admit defeat and team up with the Brexit liberals to define a liberal Britain (with or without Scotland) outside the EU, and appeal to Brexit voters sceptical of the conservative political establishment.

How will this come about? Not by refighting the referendum. The two sides will simply have to agree to differ on the wisdom of leaving the EU. But liberals should find common ground in political and economic solutions that will make the country a better place. Political reform; devolution; improved education for all; better public services; and better support for communities disrupted by changes to technology and trade. Reconciliation will be hard, but if liberals don’t the conservatives will set the agenda.

 

Share