As we run into the second half of a damp and windy July, I’m in the happy position of working on Chapter 21 of The Great Deception. By the time I’ve finished this chapter, I will have shaved about 50,000 words from the text. And, despite the initial misgivings of some, I think the result is better for the extra editing.
Apart from anything else, this exercise has certainly reaffirmed my Euroscepticism and, when the completed book is re-issued, I defy anyone to read it and come away with the idea that the UK’s membership of the EU was a good idea – or even sustainable.
And it’s all very well bitching about the 2016 referendum, as many still do, but the fact of the matter is that, if it hadn’t have been then, we would have confronted it later. The process of European political integration isn’t over, and the next treaty is overdue.
Had we still been in the EU when the next treaty came along, it is almost certain that the UK would have had a referendum on it, with the most probably result being a “no” vote. The inevitable result of that would be pressure from the other Member States to leave the EU, so that they could get on with implementing their treaty.
This recognises an underlying truth, that the UK was not at home in the EU and was never going to function as a willing, wholehearted member. This should have been acknowledged with Maastricht, when Margaret Thatcher called for a referendum. My bet is, if we’d had a referendum then, the resultant vote would have had us leave then.
The next point when we should have had a referendum was in 2004, with the European Constitution – as then promised by Tony Blair. This is the period I’m revisiting at the moment. What stopped that happening were the French and Dutch referendums, which ended the ratification process without Blair having to put it to Parliament.
But when the Constitution was reinvented as the Lisbon Treaty, there most certainly should have been a referendum. First Blair, then Brown and then Cameron ducked the issue but, by 2010, an EU referendum was firmly on the UK political agenda. It was made very clear to Cameron that, unless he promised a referendum, he would never win a majority in a general election.
Thus, when we had the 2016 referendum, it didn’t come out of the blue. There was a sense of inevitability about it. The “establishment” owed us one since Maastricht and the electorate was just collecting an overdue marker.
As such, it was never about economics. Vote Leave’s slogan on the side of its bus was never the issue and many of us resented the way London Tory money had hijacked the campaign.
That Brexit was never an economic issue is at least acknowledged in the latest, tendentious piece in The Financial Times. headed: ” Harsh reality punctures Britain’s Brexit balloon”.
The trouble is that the paper goes on to claim that it (Brexit) was about “political sovereignty”, without bothering to define this nebulous term, or telling us how that relates to Brexit. Sovereignty was something I was extremely loathe to invoke in the campaign.
But this “political sovereignty”, according to the FT will deliver for those who wanted a new immigration system controlled by the British government. It may even, it says – though this is far less certain – deliver for the fishing communities that were promised a new settlement outside the Common Fisheries Policy.
But while these “political gains, for those who see them as such”, may be realised, the FT adds, “the government has so far failed to come even close to demonstrating how Brexit will bolster the nation’s economy”.
Any honest writer at this juncture – and one could never accuse the FT of being honest – would have written this differently, referring not to Brexit as a generic issue, but to the government’s version of Brexit. There were many different views of how Brexit could be executed and this government seems to have gone out of its way to engineer the most clumsy and inadequate version imaginable.
Thus, we would not begin to disagree with the FT’s assertion that the latest initiatives “demonstrate that the Brexit envisaged by Boris Johnson’s government will add costs and bureaucracy to British business”.
In fact, the key words are “the Brexit envisaged by Boris Johnson’s government”. This needs repeating. It is not Brexit, per se which is causing the problem. It is “the Brexit envisaged by Boris Johnson’s government”.
To that extent, the paper is preaching to the converted when it asserts that anyone wading through the latest 206-page document on preparations will find details of new paperwork and extra infrastructure, while the supposed economic upside looks more fanciful than ever.
Officials, the paper says, acknowledge that it will lead to 215 million extra customs declarations and £7 billion in extra costs – costs to be borne by businesses already struggling to recover from the coronavirus shutdown. An extra 50,000 customs agents are likely to be needed to handle the rise in regulation.
Neither would we disagree with the assertions that much has been made of the UK’s new freedom to strike trade deals but these will do little to raise gross domestic product while the inevitable restrictions on trade with the EU can only reduce British exports to its largest market.
While a US trade deal is predicted to add 0.16 percent to the nation’s GDP and free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand will have an even more negligible impact, exit from the EU’s single market and customs union will, according to Treasury forecasts, knock 5 percent from GDP over the next 15 years.
Even assuming the UK and EU do finally manage to secure the minimal zero tariff, zero quotas, the FT tells us something about which we’ve been warning for years: “businesses will not escape the need for checks on product standards and rules of origin requirements. This does not begin to cover other crucial deals still required around areas such as data services and finance”.
Interestingly, Downing Street believes Brexit will force UK exporters to become more productive and competitive. This benefit, the FT says, “is theoretical and not best served by loading businesses with extra burdens”.
Those with longer memories will recall that one of the much-touted advantages of joining the Common Market was that it would “force UK exporters to become more productive and competitive”. No one listened at the time to warnings that this aim was “not best served by loading businesses with extra burdens”. Yet here we have the Financial Times disputing the same point.
Nevertheless, we don’t disagree with the reservations about the much-vaunted freeports championed by Rishi Sunak. They are indeed already possible within the EU, but they are also yesterday’s concept. There are better ways of doing things, which will avoid the obvious disadvantage that they are less likely to boost UK GDP than displace jobs and investment from one region to another.
And yes, it is the case that, the more the government talks of economic benefits, the more apparent it becomes that these opportunities are conceptual while the disadvantages are all too apparent.
But, at this point, we most fundamentally disagree with what the paper has to say. “The economic case for Brexit was tacked on relatively late to counter the arguments of the Remain side”, it argues. “It did the job but its hollowness is now being exposed”.
This dirty little game it plays of turning the “Remain side” into a single, homogeneous group really is quite dishonest. They, < i=””>as much as anyone, know exactly what Flexcit was about yet, like the rest of the media, to “no platformed” both the concept and our organisation, Leave HQ, which supported it.
I remarked yesterday that, throughout the referendum campaign, I was never contacted by a single media organisation. Not one featured or even quoted from Flexcit. When we launched Leave HQ in a press conference in London, not a single journalist turned up, and no one reported it. None of that happened by accident.
Now the Financial Times has the nerve to say that “Britain is about to discover the hard way that while Leavers were sincere in many of their political beliefs about Brexit, their economic arguments were, and are still, a costly and damaging sham”.
It is simply not the case that “Leavers” had a uniform view of the economic arguments, and nor is it the case that any but the most extreme, minority voices came anything close to what the government is now implementing.
Thus, if you want “a costly and damaging sham”, it is the pretence that the British media is in any way competent, effective, or even honest. If it had done its job halfway decently, there is a chance we wouldn’t be in the mess that the FT so glibly attributes to “Leavers”.
Also published on Turbulent Times.