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The Disaster that Dare Not Speak Its Name

From the October print edition of Byline Times, Jonathan Lis explains how Brexit has distorted British politics to such an extent that its untruths will now keep everyone trapped in its chaos

The Disaster That Dare Not Speak Its Name

From the October print edition of Byline Times, Jonathan Lis explains how Brexit has distorted British politics to such an extent that its untruths will now keep everyone trapped in its chaos

Britain’s voters have witnessed more turbulence and mismanagement in the past five years than in the preceding 70, but it is sometimes only possible to focus on one thing at a time.

A few weeks ago, it was a shortage of essential goods in supermarkets and blood-testing vials in the NHS. Then it was rocketing gas prices. Then a fuel crisis that saw motorists queue for hours for petrol, if they could secure any at all.

Of course there has been a pandemic and pressure on global supply chains. And yet, the rest of the world is not experiencing this level of instability. The root cause is something unique to Britain – something we knew about and consciously enacted: Brexit.

A Succession of Failures

The reasons for the chaos are, by now, well rehearsed. 

A shortage of essential workers has placed critical pressure on services. Many of the EU migrants who kept the British economy afloat have gone, both because of Brexit and the Coronavirus crisis, and for some reason now prefer to remain in countries that grant them better working conditions and accord them the full rights of citizens. The UK’s offer of 5,000 temporary visas for HGV drivers simply highlights the UK’s treatment of migrants as a resource to be exploited and then dispatched. 

But the trouble around us is, curiously, not being balanced out by any discernible benefits. The only demonstrable Brexit ‘win’ so far has been the tentative announcement of a trade deal with Australia – yet to be finalised – and which would add under a tenth of 1% to the UK’s economy.

The country is injured enough not to need insult, but recent weeks delivered a further blow. On his trip to the US, the Prime Minister conceded that a trade deal with America would not, after all, be imminent. Ministers freely concede that such a deal will not happen in President Joe Biden’s first term and few expect it to take place any time soon after that. This is not just a matter of the UK’s weak global position and leverage when negotiating with larger partners. It is not even about the tiny advantages of a US deal (0.2% added to the UK’s GDP by the Government’s own estimates) compared to the loss from leaving the EU (5%). It is that a US deal was trailed as Brexit’s great prize: a like-for-like replacement for the EU and the sign of Britain’s buccaneering entrance to freedom. Now, at the moment of truth, the Brexiters shrug and say that it doesn’t even matter.

Britain appears doomed to endure a succession of economic convulsions – not through involuntary global movements, but by a direct failure to tell the truth

Old problems, too, have not gone away. The fishing industry has called for the Government to renegotiate its EU deal in order to improve quotas and market access; while the agricultural sector, still reeling from new veterinary checks, is bracing itself to be undercut by producers in Australia and New Zealand. In the meantime, a post-Brexit lack of butchers threatens an imminent and unprecedented cull of 150,000 healthy pigs.

And more trouble is brewing. Reports indicate that the Government is now certain to trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, upending its already fraught relationship with the EU and discarding the last crumbs of trust. It will prove yet another exercise in futility. Not only is article 16 designed to provide temporary relief for mediation, rather than an emergency exit from obligations, but the move will trigger a package of retaliatory measures from the EU – all the while further destabilising the political equilibrium in Northern Ireland. Its only purpose seems to be to provide nationalist red meat to the British tabloids and distract the public from Brexit’s failures. It is unlikely that the sense of triumph will last long. In the end, the Government is likely to be humiliated into another climbdown, because it is not strong enough to prevent it.

The Impossible Problem

The fundamental issue is, in effect, unchanged from 2016: Brexit cannot present opportunities that do not exist and the Government cannot invent benefits it does not have. 

No number of slogans or press releases about ‘Global Britain’ or ‘taking back control’ can eliminate new trade barriers, bureaucracy, or costs to business and consumers. No amount of boosterism from Boris Johnson can replace the EU workforce that has left, or magic up Britons to replace them. Nor will it trump the evidence of people’s eyes and ears. The public will see for themselves whether essentials are getting more or less plentiful and whether goods and services are getting more or less expensive; whether, in short, life is getting easier or harder.

But here lies the main challenge. In contrast to the world’s seemingly insurmountable problems, the economic catastrophe of Brexit would be relatively easy to resolve. The UK could quite smoothly negotiate membership of the EU’s single market, provided it was willing to join the European Free Trade Association, harmonise regulations, and accept the free movement of people. But it cannot. Like Theresa May before him, Johnson will not countenance any move to participate in the single market, because he places ideology above the economy. In practical terms, he and his ministers refuse even to acknowledge the single market’s existence.

The moment we begin a conversation about solving the problem we have to identify what the problem actually is. In the current political climate, that is unacceptable. According to the Government’s narrative, Brexit has happened successfully and is now ‘done’ – except in Northern Ireland, where it must be overturned – and other than that it must scarcely be mentioned.

Temporary fixes, such as short-term visas, can only skirt around the problem, because they fail to address what has actually happened. A departure from the single market necessitated permanent trade barriers with our largest partner and neighbour, and a permanent problem cannot be mitigated by answers which are both temporary and inadequate. Consequently, Britain appears doomed to endure a succession of economic convulsions – not through involuntary global movements, but by a direct failure to tell the truth.


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The Government cannot be honest about why we are facing economic difficulty or about the trade-offs of sovereignty. Ministers emphasise the importance of other factors, such as the Coronavirus, and of course that is an important consideration. But the pandemic makes the Government’s position even less defensible. Downing Street knew about the crisis last year and, against every piece of expert advice, pursued a hard Brexit to the original timetable. Indeed, it rebuffed every EU offer to extend the Brexit transition period, even though the EU was ready and the UK was not. In other words, the Government saw the disaster that was coming and deliberately chose to aggravate it.

Brexit’s cheerleaders are divided about how to proceed. Some, like the Government, deny the importance of Brexit. Others, like Nigel Farage on GB News, pretend that the crisis is Europe-wide. For the most part, a right-wing media which would gleefully report on trouble elsewhere remains silent, and resolutely fails to attack the Government for the policies which have brought chaos here. The Labour Party also cannot land any kind of attack because it, too, appears to have joined the conspiracy. Although Keir Starmer has begun, tentatively, to discuss Brexit, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge the disaster of leaving the single market or call to rejoin it. Labour’s calculation seems to be that basic economic pragmatism carries too great a political risk; the Opposition cannot offer to help the electorate in case it offends them.

Telling the Truth

The truth is that Brexit has infantilised British discourse and the British people. Political leaders refuse to tell voters what has happened and why for fear of upsetting or disappointing them. The Conservatives gaslight voters and Labour is scared of them.

Brexit is, in effect, the disease that dare not speak its name: its effects are toxifying the body politic but no doctor is brave enough to diagnose it. As a result, the Government cannot be held to account and the illness must simply spread.

This is not about relitigating the past or arguing about whether or not Brexit should have happened. It has. But someone in power now needs the courage to admit what it meant so that we can be honest about the cure.

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