Nick Cohen

It’s time to challenge the Brexit Pollyannas

It's time to challenge the Brexit Pollyannas
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In his admirably brief and necessarily brutal, Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now, Ian Dunt tells how civil servants brief business leaders while they wait to meet David Davis.

For all his appearance as a tough guy with the strength to handle the most complicated diplomatic crisis the British have faced since the Second World War, Davis seems closer in spirit to a bubbly PR girl than a hard-headed statesman. He wants to hear only good news. He wants to see only smiling faces. Like Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union thinks we should all accentuate the positive.

On no account must businessmen and women say they are worried about Britain abandoning its membership of the single market, the civil servants warn. They needed to ‘go into the meeting saying that they were very excited by the possibilities of Brexit. Anyone who felt differently tended to be asked to leave in the first five minutes’. If he is thrown out of politics, Davis could make a new career as a happy-clappy vicar.

Readers of the right-wing papers will find Davis’s pig-headed refusal to listen to bad news familiar, as will any fair observer of the Tories and Ukip. The conservative political and media classes are in a nationalist hysteria that shuttles from denial to rage and back again.  They treat serious questions about our future as a kind of treason. Wonder where we are going and how we are going to make a living in the world, and you become an opponent of democracy and an enemy of the people.

Whatever your position during the referendum, you ought to read Dunt because he is willing to face uncomfortable facts. The only country in the world with absolute sovereignty is North Korea.  Everyone else must make compromises. The only question for us is how bad a compromise we must endure.

The most intriguing is the Norwegian model. (Now, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d have to write. But we live in times where we must become experts on customs unions and fish quotas.) Nearly everyone, myself included, dismissed it before the referendum. Norway’s policy - being outside the EU, but a member of the Single Market via the European Economic Area – seemed a pointless example to follow. We would still have to accept EU regulations, pay towards its costs, and allow freedom of movement. But we would lose our voice in Brussels,  and suffer ‘government by fax’. The EEA’s relationship with the EU is determined by national priorities, which in the case of Norway means fish. Regulations covering banking, insurance and security markets, which would bother Britain greatly, are not incorporated into its agreements with the EU, and we would have to negotiate new arrangements.

But that is not the whole truth. Norway only has to implement 21 per cent of EU law. It is exempt from EU controls of agriculture, fisheries, justice and home affairs, and it has to pay significantly less than a full EU member. The only person I talked to before the referendum who liked the idea was, tellingly enough, a Treasury official, who saw it as a compromise that might spare the economy the worst effects of Brexit. The latest legal attempt to make the government give some kind of account of itself to Parliament and the public shows how many people are now looking to Norway. I am not a lawyer, so I cannot judge the strength of the protestors’ argument that the UK will not leave the EEA automatically when it leaves the EU.

But I can see the attraction.  As Dunt says, ‘for many liberal Brexiteers, who dislike the EU but aren’t particularly motivated by immigration, the Norway model offers something historic – a chance to wrestle the single market from the EU.’

But then liberal Brexiteers are rather thin on the ground, are they not? Johnson, Gove, Hannan and all the rest of them who insisted that Brexit was not about race and immigration now talk as if race and immigration are all that should concern us. Maybe I am being unfair, but my reading of the right is that it will tolerate no compromises.

Let us be clear, however, where the 'no surrender' platform of the provo wing of the Tory party will lead us. A hard Brexit would mean massive delays, paperwork and 'red tape' for businesses exporting, not only to the EU, but to Australia, China, Israel, Japan, New Zealand and the US, with which the EU has mutual recognition agreements. It may well mean tariffs for goods that make it through the border controls.  The interests of the working class, which the now apparently pro-Brexit Labour party was founded to defend, and which right wingers have suddenly discovered to be the closest concern of their bleeding hearts, suffer most. For manufacturers and food producers have the most to lose. The City tries to buy passport rights to the EU by sacking working and middle-class workers in Britain and moving its back-office admin services to the continent.  All those Tories who said we could just fall back on World Trade Organisation rules find there are no rules that govern what Britain has done, and any one of its 163 members  - Argentina? Russia? -  can raise objections.

As for all the favours the right expects the US and Australia to give us, Dunt imagines, perfectly plausibly, the reality will be US trade officials telling our hastily assembled team of novice trade negotiators:

The UK is in a position of unique and historic vulnerability. Its economy is facing the most significant shock since the Second World War. It has no time. It has no negotiating capacity. But Washington wants to help. It is prepared to rush a trade deal through Congress. It could take less than two years. But for this to be achievable, the UK needs to accept all of its demands. The Americans slide a piece of paper across the desk. The British team read the demands: they are horrendous. But they have little option but to capitulate. The only way to protect what remains of the British economy is to sell off British sovereignty.

No wonder David Davis does not want to hear from the bearers of bad news.