By Jake Lynch*
“The UK government spokesperson did not state any advantages from Brexit, in response to a direct question”. So reports the Sheffield Star, in an account of trading impediments now costing orders and jobs at metal-working firms in its patch of northern England.
John Shirley Ltd, an award-winning international freight forwarding company with 25 years’ experience, based in Dover, has taken to airing frustrations, on behalf of its clients, on Twitter:
“A big exporter of cream is finding that Rees-Mogg red tape means it has gone off before reaching EU customers”, it reported dolefully. “Phytosanitary certificates are hard to obtain. An exporter in Yorkshire has been waiting over a fortnight as there is a backlog”.
Others are struggling to get the required transit documents, which must be backed by financial guarantees, as agents rapidly use up their allocations.
According to its sole prominent backer in the ranks of professional economists, the Cardiff University professor, Patrick Minford, leaving the EU might finish off British farming and manufacturing, but would therefore see the country well placed to concentrate on its true strengths of buying and selling. How’s that going? Countless importers and exporters are now ensnared in new bureaucracy, among them the fashion business of Samantha Cameron, whose husband David, as Prime Minister, called the fateful referendum of 2016.
Such difficulties might, as Mrs Cameron told an interviewer this week, be mere “teething problems”. Of more lasting consequence could be the threat to the car industry, a major employer dependent on just-in-time supply chains, with components criss-crossing EU borders. The iconic Nissan assembly plant in Leave-voting Sunderland is safe for the moment, it seems – though the company has already announced plans to make its new vehicle, the Ariya, elsewhere. And without their own supply of batteries, UK car-makers, now cut off from the European Single Market, are likely to fall foul of rules-of-origin requirements as petrol engines are phased out.
The EU-UK free trade agreement, agreed last Christmas, has lost its shine as the wrappings have come off. The likelihood is that it will propel Britain further down its path of gradual relative decline and long-term shrinkage; especially as services – an area of strength – are not covered. Meanwhile, consumers are becoming acquainted with the new reality, as parcels arrive on their doorstep with demands to pay customs duty and value added tax, and gaps open up on supermarket shelves.
UK opinion polling shows no appreciable dip in support for the ministry of Boris Johnson, however. Maybe voters really are inured to economic hardship, if that is the price of disentangling themselves from a union with the French and Germans. They apparently overlook the Prime Minister’s barefaced lies over the agreement itself: that there would be no extra paperwork for trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, and “no non-tariff barriers” for exports to or imports from the EU. Even the government’s error-strewn response to coronavirus – with a per-capita death toll that is, to adopt Johnson’s favoured terminology, “world-leading” – seemingly leaves them unmoved.
The truth is, Brexit has already ‘delivered’, not as a practical programme of reform but as a means of exerting political control. It has succeeded in activating a distinctively white English mix of self-pity, thwarted entitlement and misplaced victimhood into a permanent sense of unresolved grievance. Policy-making has undergone a white-nativist turn, with every new initiative viewed through filters of race and nation before being unveiled to the public.
So, EU citizens are being paid to leave, regardless of their important contributions as workers and taxpayers (not to mention friends and neighbours). Covid vaccinations are being allocated to frontline health service staff – but not those born overseas. The international aid budget is facing deep cuts. Even a deal to allow musicians to tour EU countries, without having to apply for a separate visa to enter each one, was rejected because extending reciprocal rights would let in foreigners.
Meanwhile, structural discrimination against black and minority-ethnic Britons is worsening. An official report last week showed they account for more than half of all young people in custody, a proportion nearly doubled in a decade; and big data from a survey of well over a million NHS patients showed the health outcomes of non-whites are dramatically worse.
Prime cases, one might think, for the official watchdog, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, to investigate – except its ranks have now been packed with denialists and even, in one case, a supporter of the racist Home Office ‘Hostile Environment’ policy of deportations. For good measure, a prominent Islamophobe has been appointed to review the Prevent programme designed to ‘counter extremism’ in schools and universities, which has been blamed for denying free speech to Muslim students.
It’s all very Trumpian, and – as Noam Chomsky said of Trump – the continual rows, outrage and insults distract attention to the front of stage, while behind the scenes the beneficiaries rub their hands and count the proceeds. Plans are being hatched for the further deregulation of finance, insulating bankers and speculators against the consequences of risk. Proposals for a bonfire of workers’ rights have been disavowed for now, but no informed observer believes they will remain off the agenda for long. And bee-killing pesticides, outlawed by the EU, have already been approved for use on British fields.
What is to be done? A rare frisson unsettled the Westminster political class when Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times newspaper (which retains an important agenda-setting role) marshalled, for its front page, evidence of growing support for more referenda, this time on whether Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should keep the union with England, or opt to break away.
The next big test is due in May, when the Scottish National Party (SNP) is expected to poll strongly in elections for the devolved parliament at Holyrood. Leader Nicola Sturgeon has already made it clear that victory would be interpreted as a mandate to hold an independence vote. The last one, in 2014, was lost, in what was billed a “once-in-a-generation” event – provided no substantive changes occurred in the meantime. With Scots having voted strongly to Remain in the EU (and, polls show, hostile to Johnson), Brexit, it is widely felt, represents just such a change.
The Conservative and Unionist Party – to use its full name – is set on denying them that chance. The settlement now in place is decaying, with the UK government taking back powers from Europe that were previously exercised by the devolved authorities in conjunction with Brussels. The Welsh Senedd, for instance, will now have no input whatsoever into the spending of public money labelled as replacing EU structural funds – whereas before, it could allocate the cash according to its own analysis of where it was most needed. And senior Tories have given out plenty of signals that they would undo devolution altogether if they got the chance. The choice is becoming increasingly clear: independence, or re-assimilation into a British state that is irremediably London-centric and, for all practical purposes, impervious to meaningful reform.
There is a growing argument that ‘losing’ the other nations could, in the long term, do the English good. For Britain to break up as a consequence of the Brexit vote would be a novel experience: an unwanted consequence of their own folly and bad faith. England needs to undergo a process denoted by one of the many compound words in German for which there is no precise equivalent, namely Vergangenheitsbewältigung. In a new book, John Kampfner translates it as “coming to terms with history”, and links it with German success in building a prosperous modern economy.
In Britain, by contrast, distorted (and racialized) notions of “greatness”, derived from an imperial legacy that feels very different to those peoples of the world who found themselves on the receiving end of it, are endlessly invoked to support both the delusions of Brexit, and the denial of inequity and injustice at home. Those need to be put beyond use through a process of critical scrutiny and properly informed public debate, as Germany eventually did with Nazism.
It could, as the SNP’s Kenny MacAskill put it, enable a “national re-appraisement” of the kind that “normally… follows either defeat in war or revolution”. Instead, the much-needed “shock to the psyche” could be delivered by the Scots breaking away. It might enable the English to shake their heads clear, and realise what is being done to them, why and by whom:
“Those who peddle that myth and glory in British exceptionalism are the same elite who are impoverishing the English people”, he continues. “The gap between rich and poor is widening, and the consequences of Brexit threaten the gains of recent generations. Breaking that mythology is essential for England to go forward”.
Wales voted Leave but, given the chance, would reverse its decision, polls show. The emerging all-party (and no-party) YesCymru movement is now the fastest growing in Britain. What happens to Wales, it asks, when Scotland leaves the UK? Northern Ireland avoided a hard border with the Irish Republic only at the cost of a customs border in the Irish Sea. Brought to choose between the two unions, it opted to go with Europe, not Britain – at least for trading purposes.
These upheavals could expose reassuring falsehoods, and make space to confront uncomfortable truths. And, as the Germans have shown, that is an essential step towards renewal and recovery.
*Jake Lynch is based at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Sydney, after completing a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship at Coventry University, in the UK, in 2020. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone: An Oxford Detective Story of the 17th Century, is published by Unbound Books. Jake has spent 20 years developing and researching Peace Journalism, in theory and practice. He is the author of seven books and over 50 refereed articles and book chapters.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)