It’s time to start talking about Brexit again. I hear you sigh. And don’t worry, I share your weariness. The reason we have to bring it up, put simply, is that the UK is barely any closer to leaving the European Union than it was in 2018, or even 2016. All changes up to this point have been symbolic, throwaway gestures. A hopelessly vague withdrawal agreement means that Britain is still under the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, and all of the regulations of the Customs Union remain in place on our shores.
This didn’t happen by accident, however. The Prime Minister, in classic fashion, came up with the headline and then proceeded not to write down anything else. The government’s plan was to bundle together the details of Brexit over the course of this year. Since January, however, the government and the Prime Minister have been preoccupied with the coronavirus. Our foreign office ministers, who might have been able to shrug off COVID-19 and focus on the detail of leaving the European institutions, are now engaging in a well-intended but futile dogfight with China over Hong Kong and Huawei.
Of course, the government could not have foreseen all that has happened in the last six months. It would be unfair to blame it for not giving the withdrawal agreement their full attention. But we can blame them, and we should, for giving the impression that they had finished the job in January when they had not. We should also blame the Tory Parliament for lining up behind an agreement that is no different to the one they rejected three times under Theresa May. These errors have done nothing but store up problems for the future. When you see Nigel Farage back on the BBC in the Autumn, foaming at the mouth as well at the pint glass, and barking that what we have is not Brexit, you know who to point the finger at.
This situation is bad enough as it is, but it leads us to a much more fundamental point; if our government isn’t fit to take us out of the European Union, then it isn’t fit to govern us afterwards either.
The government doesn’t just have a handle on Brexit now; it never has, and it probably never will. It has not grasped how fundamentally different our country would have to be if it were to be successful outside the European Union. The young and the poor would have to fill the low-paid jobs which they used to do, but which are currently done very well by incoming Poles and Romanians. The government would have to commit to a real industrial strategy which might give us a chance of improving our account balance. If the government has even realised these issues, it will never do anything about them, because the consequences of their actions would be too unpopular.
Much hay was made during the referendum about independence and sovereignty. This was an important debate, and it needed to happen. However, this discussion was mostly framed through the narrow lens of the Parliament, and whether Britain should be able to make its own laws. This is misguided because sovereignty and independence are multi-headed creatures. True independence means having control not only over the Parliament and the courts, but also over the economy, industrial capacity, energy supply and foreign policy decisions. What we risk to borrow from Adam Tooze’s description of Britain after the First World War is ending up with the trappings of sovereignty, but not the substance.
This may sound inoffensive enough, but it could be anything but. We risk immense economic difficulty if our low-skilled, low-export economy is exposed to the fury of the global market, especially in the midst of the US-China trade war. Without an independent economic clout of our own, we will probably remain closely aligned to the Europeans on issues of trade, but there is always the chance that the European Commission, lenient and reasonable in the negotiations up until this point (sorry, leave voters), makes this difficult to get.
All of this leads to the conclusion that Britain’s governing class lacks the resolve to create the sort of independence that people voted for in 2016. A country can’t just vote for sovereignty, it has to build it over many decades. The possibility of governing ourselves badly is implicit in the idea of governing ourselves. In this sense, the referendum result might turn out to be a good thing, because it gives our political class less wriggle room - no more blaming our problems on the low countries. We can more easily dispense off incompetent leaders, and replace them with people who run the country more sensibly. But, if this is to be the case, you would have to say that Britain’s current government isn’t up to the job.
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