Professor Chris Grey’s latest Brexit analysis. As the damage they have caused quietly mounts, some leading Brexiters are saying “it’s not my Brexit” whilst others say that we must wait decades to judge – both are ways of avoiding accountability.
First published: December 2021.
The evidence that Brexit is causing mounting damage has been growing since the transition period ended, and has been catalogued in almost every piece on this column since then. It is also to be found on Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s Brexit Impact Tracker, Yorkshire Bylines’ Davis Downsides Dossier, the now closed ‘Keleman Archive’ of 1,000 examples, the Brexit database, and a newish substack blog I have only just come across, Nick Tyrone’s This Week in Brexitland. The latest dollop of evidence comes with an excellent new report on the impact of Brexit on services industries by Professor Sarah Hall and Matt Heneghan for the UK in a Changing Europe centre.
That damage isn’t just economic. Those who believed promises of a boost for Britain’s global stature have been rewarded with at best international bemusement and at worst a country deemed untrustworthy and liable to break international law and treaty obligations. Those expecting a revivified national democracy have instead seen an illegal prorogation of parliament and a spectacular and ongoing power grab by the Executive.
Yet, for reasons ranging from the Trappist vows both Tory and Labour politicians seem to have taken, through to media and public pre-occupation with Covid, relatively little is heard of this Brexit damage (though, just this morning, the Express seems to be catching on). Those politicians, journalists, and academic or other experts who do speak of it are ignored or traduced by Brexiters as ‘remoaners’. Brexiters themselves, perhaps unsurprisingly, are reticent to discuss what is happening and when they do the guiding theme is to evade responsibility for it. Astonishingly, the government itself, according to leaked documents, has no measure of whether Brexit has been a success or failure. For some, Brexit was simply ‘the right thing to do’ so the consequences are irrelevant. Others ignore or deny the evidence of Brexit damage. Still others just disown it on the basis that ‘this is not my Brexit’.
Businesses suffer in silence
Amongst those we might expect to be making a noise and to be heard are businesses. It is they that are bearing the brunt of the economic damage, especially those which trade with the EU. A new report this week showed that cross-Channel delays are actually worsening, and there is a lot more pain coming in just three weeks’ time when the UK begins to introduce full import controls. As with all the new trade barriers, it is small firms which will struggle to cope the most and a recent Federation of Small Businesses survey suggests that only a quarter of such firms that import from the EU are ready for what they will face. Beyond trade, almost all business sectors are suffering from labour and supply shortages.
If we hear relatively little public clamour from businesses, and where we do it is more likely to be from representative bodies rather individual companies, it is for good reason. The story of Brexit and business is a complicated one, well told by Iain Anderson, Chairman of Cicero Group, and also discussed in a Mile End Institute podcast featuring Nicole Sykes (then Head of EU negotiations for the CBI), me, and Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London. In brief, businesses have been reluctant to speak out for fear of attracting government reprisals in one form or another, and of alienating leave voting customers.
Meanwhile Brexiters have never forgiven the fact that most businesses and their representative bodies opposed, albeit not very vociferously, Brexit before the referendum, and often warned against hard Brexit and no-deal Brexit in the years thereafter. One consequence is that throughout the Brexit process businesses have tended to be excluded from government consultation unless very clearly pro-Brexit, reflecting the cult-like approach to Brexit taken by both the May and Johnson administrations. Even now, anything they say is likely to be dismissed as remainer ‘negativity’ or ‘fearmongering’ as happened over warnings about HGV driver shortages and fuel supplies. On that occasion, an anonymous “senior government source” also ominously threatened the Road Haulage Association that “we will deal with them when this is over”.
To the extent business is able to influence government Brexit policy it is very much behind the scenes, as seems to have happened in relation to this week’s news that the UK is likely to postpone introducing its independent chemicals industry regulatory system. It follows previous postponement of things like the UKCA quality mark after intensive lobbying from the manufacturing sector. Backtracking on such things is welcome, and it could even be a prelude to abandonment, but neither is cost-free. The problem is the disruption and uncertainty, as well as the lobbying effort, engendered by the original rushed timescales and the ideological symbolism of creating meaningless independence. In a similar way, a National Audit Office report this week suggested that in rushing to make trade deals the government is neglectful of consulting businesses and consumer groups and, hence, of their substantive needs.
Pro-Brexit business voices
Overall, it seems fair to say that whilst businesses may be resigned to the reality of Brexit, they continue to be critical of the way it is being done. It is certainly not ‘their Brexit’, and whilst the state is on some accounts supposed to be the executive committee of the bourgeoisie that doesn’t seem to apply to Johnson’s ‘f*** business’ Brexit regime.
But what of those business leaders who were pro-Brexit? One difficulty here is that, compared with politicians, journalists, academics and media commentators, the numbers involved are quite small. Repeated attempts to construct pro-Brexit business umbrella groups, the most sustained being the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs (ABE), have made little headway. It is hard to know who such groups speak for anyway – the ABE, for example, “does not offer formal membership”, and what little is known about it is, to say the least, underwhelming.
At all events, both before and since the referendum, whenever a pro-leave business person appeared in the media you could list on virtually the fingers of one hand which of the white, middle-aged and mainly titled men heroically taking on ‘the establishment’ it would most likely be. Tim Martin (66), Sir James Dyson (74) Lord (Anthony) Bamford (76), Lord (Simon) Wolfson (54), Sir Jim Ratcliffe (69) and Sir Rocco Forte (76) just about covered the main possibilities.
So far as I know neither Sir James nor Sir Anthony – both of whom have had extensive legal disputes with the EU (£) – have ever suggested that Brexit has had any downsides. In fact Dyson this week re-iterated (£) his opposition to the EU’s approach to regulation (though since in the example he uses, his own legal case, he won and the regulation was dropped, it isn’t a strong argument for Brexit unless he believes that British regulations are infallible). To the extent that he worries that the UK may continue to align with many EU regulations, which it probably will, it’s at least possible that he will come to think it was ‘not his Brexit’. As for Sir Jim, he too hasn’t recanted, although his decisions in 2020 to shift production of the Ineos Grenadier from Wales to France and his own tax domicile from the UK to Monaco were perhaps not exactly ringing endorsements for Brexit Britain.
Amongst the other high-profile figures, their most obvious criticism has been over the consequences of ending freedom of movement of people. Tim Martin of Wetherspoons spoke in June of the need to liberalise the immigration system, with special treatment for “countries geographically closer to the UK”. Lord Wolfson, CEO of Next, has also repeatedly called for more open immigration, especially given the labour and supply shortages which have emerged this year.
They were joined last weekend (£) by Sir Rocco, Chair of Rocco Forte Hotels, who also wants a relaxation of immigration controls which are too restrictive for his, and many other, businesses which face the fact that “it is obvious that there is no ready supply of labour available in the UK to fill vacancies”. Forte has the grace to note that “I am sure that some will say I should have been careful what I wished for in supporting Brexit. I would respond that the only issue determined in the referendum result was that the UK should decide its own immigration system. As a Brexit supporter, I wanted proper control over our borders, not their virtual closure”. It’s not his Brexit, it seems.
Yet this does not go so far as to take responsibility for the fact that he used his authority as a business leader to decry those warning of precisely what he is now bemoaning. For example, writing in the Daily Mail in July 2018, he said “concerns voiced by the big business lobby are little more than scaremongering, like the claim that any restriction on European freedom of movement will badly hurt recruitment by British firms. This is untrue. My family's hotel chain hired staff from all over the world, including Europe, long before the EU was even created. We will continue to do so after Brexit, especially because so many young people from Europe want to come here to learn English. Contrary to the hollow warnings from the pro-EU campaigners, migration controls will not mean an end to European migration.”
Wolfson, too, argues that Brexit only meant the UK setting its own immigration policy, rather than being anti-immigration per se. Yet before the referendum, when it would have counted more, his formulation that we must “place our trust in the collective intelligence and endeavour of Britain’s 30 million-strong workforce” did not, at the least, do anything to challenge the centrality being put upon immigration control during the campaign.
In fact, as I noted in my previous post, Brexiters on the free-market right were not, in general, especially bothered about immigration. But they chose to ‘ride the tiger’ of a project which had as one of its central selling points, if not the central point, profoundly anti-immigration sentiment. Within that same central narrative, softness on immigration, and opposition to Brexit, was associated with the self-interest of the “big business lobby” referenced by Forte. Moreover, in the post-referendum drive towards hard Brexit, it is undoubtedly the case that continuing freedom of movement was critical to the argument that soft Brexit would not honour the referendum result. Yet, far from questioning hard Brexit, both Forte and Martin made the case for an even harder ‘no-deal Brexit’, whilst Wolfson suggested that no-deal would cause only “mild disruption”.
The consequence of how Brexit was sold and then executed, whatever they may have wanted or expected, was to make it virtually impossible for the post-Brexit immigration regime to be a liberal one and, certainly, this government isn’t going to deliver it. So, in the absence of any suggestion that they now recognize they made a mistake in championing Brexit, the position of Forte, Wolfson and Martin would appear to be that of ‘this isn’t my Brexit’. It is a position shared by many of those, such as former Brexit Party MEP June Mummery, who regard what has been delivered by Brexit as a betrayal of the fishing industry. Indeed, following the complaint of one enthusiastic leaver about the airport queues he now experiences, “this isn’t the Brexit I voted for” has become shorthand to denote those who, whilst still supporting Brexit, rue some of its consequences.
Johnson and Frost: it’s not our Brexit, either
That some of the most committed Brexiters would regard what got delivered as, at best, unsatisfactory and, at worst, as betrayal was baked into Brexit from the beginning, of course, because what it would mean was never specified. So it’s not a surprise that they are now saying that it isn’t their Brexit or (which is slightly different, as it also suggests that their Brexit was real Brexit) that Brexit hasn’t been done properly.
What is far more surprising, not to say downright grotesque, is the fact that Boris Johnson and David Frost, whose Brexit it actually is, also consider that Brexit hasn’t been done properly, at least as regards the Northern Ireland Protocol. And they, too, suggest it is not their Brexit but, rather, the one forced on them by remainer MPs in 2019 and by the EU taking advantage of their temporary weakness (the golden rule for understanding Brexiters is that they are never responsible and are always the victims).
That has been their repeated complaint for months now, and it looks very much as if their attempts to negotiate a different Brexit to the one they agreed, signed and said was a triumph will now drag into the New Year. That may still bring a triggering of Article 16, although the fact that it has not yet been used, whereas in the summer the implication from Frost was that it would happen very quickly if UK demands weren’t met, suggests a degree of caution on the part of, presumably, Johnson. That may be as a result of the clear messages from the EU that it would make a robust response and/or because of US pressure, including the delayed removal of steel and aluminium tariffs. If that caution holds, and Article 16 isn’t used, we can expect years of being told that, yet again, the Brexiters didn’t get the Brexit they wanted because of EU bullying and US meddling.
History will judge?
This idea that Brexit hasn’t been ‘tried properly’ resembles, as I and many others have frequently remarked, the claims of some apologists for communism. It’s a slippery argument but at least has the merit of acknowledging that things haven’t gone as promised. But, again like some apologists for communism, they have a different trick in their book which is to say that it cannot be evaluated on present appearances or achievements but only in the (very) long-run. Be patient, comrades, our great cause will be proved right by the onward march of history.
It’s a trick that has already been deployed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who suggested it might be 50 years until the success or otherwise of Brexit is known. Lord (Digby) Jones, the buffoonish former head of the CBI who declared that “there’s not going to be any economic pain” from Brexit, subsequently suggested a timeframe of 100 years for judgment. This week it has surfaced again in an article on the Conservative Home website by Ryan Bourne of the CATO Institute (formerly Head of Policy at the Institute for Economic Affairs and, apparently, though all information about the group’s membership seems to have disappeared, at one time part of Patrick Minford’s Economists for Brexit).
Bourne argues that it is premature to gauge the economic effects of Brexit, and also wrong to conflate Brexit with whatever the Johnson government does or does not do, because the real issue is the possibility that British institutions will prove more economically liberal and more likely to create permissive regulatory regimes than those of the EU. Bourne believes this will be so, but suggests that whether it proves to be the case will only be known in the long-term, which he implies to mean something like 30 years.
Needless to say, this is sophistry of the highest order, arising solely because it has become impossible for any half-way serious person to argue that Brexit has been an economic success so far, or even that such success is imminent. So, conveniently, we are told to defer giving our verdict for a few decades. But Brexit was never proposed to the British people as something which might, perhaps, in many decades be a success but then again might not. Had it been, far fewer people would have voted for it than did – almost certainly too few to have won the referendum. Moreover, if Brexiters had really been serious about the long-term nature of their project, they would not have pushed so recklessly to ‘get it done’, treating all extensions, whether to the Article 50 process or the Transition Period, as treachery rather than careful preparation for an epochal change.
It may be that in 30, 50 or 100 years there will be a consensus view but, in the absence of some decisive ‘Berlin Wall’ moment, it’s equally likely that Brexit will continue to be contested. Indeed we can already see how Brexiters have created the conditions for never having their project judged at all.
For when forecasts are made of Brexit damage, they invariably dismiss them as ‘just predictions, no one can know for sure what will happen’. But as soon as there is actual data about Brexit damage they say ‘ah, but this cannot be proved to be the result of Brexit’ – most notably, so far, because of the pandemic, but 30 years on there will be any number of other reasons to give, and it will get ever-harder to disentangle Brexit from them. Meanwhile, any time that anything good happens to the UK, or on any occasion that the EU experiences difficulties, they will say that this ‘proves’ it was right to leave.
In this way Brexiters protect themselves in a hermetically sealed bubble where both prospective and retrospective scrutiny is ruled out. It will always be either too early to say or too late to know. It is this which is the real significance of the ‘history will judge’ test. For Brexiters, it at worst defers and at best avoids accountability for what they have done. If nothing else it ensures that those who advocated Brexit will be so old, and so distant from having had any power or influence, as to be totally unaccountable for what they promised and what they did.
Take the high-profile pro-Brexit business leaders mentioned above: in 30 years’ time the youngest of them will be 84 and the oldest 106. Amongst the political leaders, Johnson and Farage will both be 87 whilst veteran Eurosceptic Bill Cash will be 111 years old. If we apply the Digby Jones time frame of 100 years, they will all be long dead. And if, by chance, some of the more youthful Brexiters are still around, or some miracle – or horror-film nightmare – of cryogenic storage preserves, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg to face the music, well, they will always have the first and last-ditch evasion of responsibility available. Yes, they may conceivably admit, it was all a ghastly mistake, but only because what was done was ‘not my Brexit’.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Chris Grey, Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
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