Professor Chris Grey’s analysis on the recent spate of Brexiter anxiety about Brexit realities, the conundrum this poses for Boris Johnson, and why it matters so much to Brexiters – and to all of us.
First published: January 2022.
There is a line, attributed to the mathematician G.H. Hardy, that “if the Archbishop of Canterbury says he believes in God, that’s all in the way of business, but if he says he doesn’t, one can take it he means what he says”. What, then, of the claim that “the hopes of those who voted for Brexit in 2016 have not been realised”? Or that the introduction of the first substantive phase of UK controls on imports from the EU, which started on 1 January, “threaten to wreak havoc on Britain”?
Coming from remainers, such sentiments would no doubt be dismissed as business as usual, but in fact, the first is from an article in the Telegraph by Nigel Farage whilst the second is a headline from the Brexiters’ other house journal, the Daily Express. More generally, recent weeks have seen increasing numbers of Brexiters voicing disappointment or concern about the realities of Brexit, a trend given fresh impetus by David Frost’s resignation with its lament for the government’s failure to “deliver on the opportunities [Brexit] gives us”.
However, that certainly doesn’t mean that they have actually faced up to these realities, still less that they have recanted on their support for Brexit. These are not, in fact, Archbishops declaring their atheism. So what should we make of what they are saying? And why does it matter?
Denial and desperation
In general terms, that things should have reached this point was almost inevitable. On the one hand, much of the damage and failure of Brexit was predictable. On the other hand, as I’ve argued many times, the most committed Brexiters are so invested in the idea of being betrayed and of victimhood that no actual Brexit would have satisfied them. Taken together, this meant it was almost guaranteed that the idea that ‘Brexit would have worked but it wasn’t done properly’ would develop.
What was also almost inevitable was that some Brexiters would simply continue to deny the damage. So although many of them at least tacitly accept that UK-EU trade has by definition been permanently depressed by the introduction of new barriers, others still refuse to do so – an example this week being the high priest of Brexiter economists, Professor Patrick Minford. He makes the economically illiterate claim that “[civil servants] said that actually we’d be damaged because we’re making trade with Europe harder – which is not really true. Because there’s no reason for having a border with the EU making it much harder to trade with the EU; there are no tariffs because we’ve got a trade agreement”. It seems he has still not grasped the significance of non-tariff barriers to trade, nor spoken to the many businesses struggling with the new import controls, at least some of which will either go out of business or cease to import from the EU.
That, in turn, will impact upon prices and consumer choice, and that is more than a matter of the metropolitan middle-class being unable to find cheap chorizo (it being an article of Brexiter faith that working-class people only eat tripe and faggots, just as they never go abroad for their holidays and rarely visit, still less live in, London). To what extent remains to be seen, although the Express’s talk of “havoc” is likely to be alarmist. More likely, as with Brexit economic effects in general, the impact of import controls will be one of gradual degradation, with each year life in Britain getting a little worse and a little more constrained than it would otherwise have been.
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This will be compounded as the successive stages of import controls are rolled out over the coming months. However, when that gets mixed in with pandemic effects and energy price rises, it will mean that there is no great moment of revelation that Brexit has failed, just the steady accumulation of a realisation – as is already happening, including amongst a large minority of leave voters – that this is so.
One way that some Brexiters seek to head off such an assessment is not so much by denying as by downplaying the damage caused, principally by pointing to the aversion of worst-case scenarios (or of trumped-up, hyperbolic versions of such scenarios). Thus when border controls do not cause visible queues at borders, as has largely though not entirely been the case this week, the suggestion is that this means everything has ‘continued as normal’. But this ignores the invisible effects of goods not shipped because the necessary paperwork is not ready, or orders cancelled as the new costs and complexities become clear. It also ignores the way that where trade flows do ‘continue as normal’, they do so with the higher costs embedded within them, costs which are ongoing and which have wider impacts, whether that be in terms of higher prices, reduced competitiveness, reduced funds for investment, or less employment than would otherwise have been the case.
In this way, the old battle about Project Fear is still being fought, as if the case for Brexit were made by the avoidance of predicted damage rather than the need to show positive outcomes. A particularly egregious example this week was an attempt by Conservative journalist and commentator Harry Phibbs in Conservative Home to discredit various predictions, going back to the referendum, about this damage.
It is such a mish-mash of cherry-picked evidence, quotes and assertions that it would take literally hours, possibly days, to disentangle and evaluate the validity of the claims he makes about the warnings that were made and their context, and the validity of his claims about what has actually happened. I did consider doing it, but it is just not worth the effort. In any case, much of it rests on a simple misunderstanding of treating heuristic forecasts of what would happen ‘if everything else remained the same’ as if they were predictions of what would happen regardless of anything else that might change.
Yet, for all its inadequacies, it is of interest for two reasons. Firstly because it shows the desperation of the Brexiters, in the face of their increasingly discredited project, that they need to rely on the argument that it hasn’t been as bad as some said it might be. A similar desperation is shown by the continuing reliance on the now stock lie that Brexit enabled the early rollout of Covid vaccines, as implied by Phibbs and repeated this week by, amongst others, the former Chair of Vote Leave Matthew Elliott.
The other point of interest is how, with a couple of exceptions, Phibbs’ list is all about the economic costs (or not) of Brexit. This is important, because it once again falsifies the other Brexiter argument when those costs are pointed out, which is that their project was never about economics but simply about regaining sovereignty. As I discussed a few weeks ago, this is entirely untrue and their proposition was, rather, that the (supposed) regaining of sovereignty would yield economic benefits, or at least would have no economic costs.
The new critique, aka the same old promises
That latter point is an important one, because it is the key to understanding the present raft of alarmed commentaries amongst Brexiters about what has (not) been delivered. For these all entail a recognition of precisely the fact that sovereignty was promised not just as an end in itself but as something that would have benefits. Thus, with denial and downplaying of damage now being threadbare arguments, and forced to confront the lack of such benefits, Brexiters are now once again promising that great things are, or could be, just around the corner.
This bounty is, unsurprisingly, to be realised by a combination of global trade deals and a bonfire of regulatory red tape, as argued again last week by, amongst others, Iain Duncan Smith and Daniel Hannan. Alongside these promises and, again and significantly, in the ferociously pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph, articles by its Associate Editor and Chief City Commentator have warned, respectively, that the government is “squandering Brexit opportunities” and that “time is running out to prove that Brexit is not a historic failure”. Note, again, that all these supposed opportunities are economic, underlined by the way that Farage’s piece suggests that “supply-side reform could add 2 per cent to our GDP”. Whatever Brexiters – and, for that matter, some commentators on Brexit – sometimes say, their project has consistently made economic claims, relies in large part for its support upon those claims, and can legitimately be judged in terms of those claims.
Indeed, it is only a few months ago, at the time of the Tory Party conference, that Johnson made the claim that rising real wages was a key part of what the new post-Brexit model of the economy would deliver. In that regard, it is of note that the latest figures show that, even as he said this, real wages were static, and are set to continue to plateau or even fall in the coming years. It was in any case an opportunistic claim, designed to head off criticism of labour shortages, and little has been heard of it since. As always with Johnson, it was just a ruse to get through an awkward moment rather than a serious or sustained commitment.
However, this latest spate of commentary about the unfulfilled promises of Brexit does not mean that Brexiters have wised up to its realities. What the likes of Farage, Duncan Smith, and Hannan are engaged in is a rear-guard defence of their project which, whilst to a degree accepting that it hasn’t delivered, is also a doubling-down on the fantasies that it could, with one more push, be delivered. And, moreover, that if the government were sufficiently committed to Brexit then that final push would be forthcoming.
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A conundrum for Johnson
For Johnson and his government, this emergent criticism presents a conundrum. He can hardly admit that the Brexit that has been delivered is ‘disappointing’ since he is the one who delivered it and is thus reduced to bathetic claims about re-instating crown marks on beer glasses and the use of imperial measurements on market stalls, which even Brexiters can see are pretty lame achievements. And whilst the government may sing the same tune as its Brexiter critics about future miracles in trade and deregulation it is constrained both by its continuing failure to deliver them and by the fact that a good section of its voter base, notably in the ‘red wall’ but also amongst its traditional farming and business heartlands, don’t want them. Moreover, no one believes what Johnson says anyway, for the sound empirical reason that he never tells the truth.
It is perhaps for this reason that he has followed his earlier, failed, attempts in December 2019 and September 2020 to stop cabinet ministers using the word ‘Brexit’ with the new style guide for the civil service which advises a similar silence. For it would indeed be easier just not to mention the B-word. Although even when unspoken Brexit proves to be a lose-lose, because whilst remainers mock the national liberation that dare not speak its name, Brexiters are furious that their project is being treated as if it were offensive or embarrassing.
“No one believes what Johnson says anyway, for the sound empirical reason that he never tells the truth.”
If Johnson would rather not mention Brexit and the promises made for it, it is because he is now reaping the consequences of having been the most prominent person making those promises. From the very first, attempts to put Brexit into practice have revealed the falsity of the claims made for it. Only from outside of government can the fantasies be sustained and that is exactly what is happening again now. It’s already clear that trade deals will have no great positive effect, if any. Meanwhile, deregulation is not generally wanted by either businesses and consumers, and both what it will consist of and what benefits it will bring remain almost entirely vague.
Fundamentally, this is because the Brexiter fantasies are incompatible with the facts of economic geography: the UK sits within the economic orbit of the EU because it sits adjacent to it in space. That won’t change, because it can’t be changed. There may well be some minor ways in which divergence from the EU will be both possible and beneficial. It’s conceivable, though at this point far from clear, that this week’s announcement on the post-Brexit farm subsidies system will become one of the more significant examples. But any programme of major regulatory divergence – on data protection, say – is only achievable at such huge cost that it would require an even more reckless government than this one to undertake it.
In a somewhat similar way, the realities of immigration policy, whilst it is certainly now very different as regards EU countries as a result of Brexit, in practice reveal the limitations and contradictions of Brexiters’ magical thinking. For whereas Farage’s article criticises it for potentially allowing a net rise in migration and thus breaking the promise of Brexit, businesses find it too restrictive and, as with the new terms of trade, massively increasing rather than destroying ‘bureaucratic red tape’ and thus breaking a different promise of Brexit. Meanwhile some of those most enthusiastic about the freedom to make global trade deals are the most pant-wettingly furious when they learn that such deals may, as in the case of India, entail liberalisation of immigration. Again this illustrates the way that all kinds of contradictory promises can be, were, and still are made to make the case, and maximise support, for Brexit but are revealed as incompatible when put into practice.
So whilst Farage and Hannan and Smith and all the rest of them can, from outside government, rail about all the things that should be done – as Johnson would most certainly be doing as well, if he were outside – the government itself cannot deliver them and, at best, can only go on promising or pretending to have done so, exactly as it is doing. This is a dynamic which is built in to Brexit and will undoubtedly recur for years and probably decades. That is partly because the economic effects – actual, potential or counterfactual – of Brexit are so complex and diffuse as to be endlessly debatable. But that dynamic is rather different as regards the other main ongoing Brexit debate, that over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).
Northern Ireland: a different dynamic
The NIP debate is different because, although also complex and diffuse in some ways, it has a degree of specificity and precision: there is an actual legal text, with concrete institutional arrangements that flow from it, and a concrete set of negotiations underway about that text and those arrangements. Going back to Phibbs’ attempt to discredit ‘Project Fear’ warnings, it’s telling that his ‘debunk’ of the warning that Brexit would lead to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the utterly risible one that “the border remains open”. For, of course, this is the case solely because the UK government was forced, virtually at diplomatic gunpoint, to accept that this consequence of Brexit was totally unacceptable and to make some arrangement to avoid it. The Brexit Ultras have never accepted that any border was necessary at all, but that fantasy could not be sustained by the government, hence the NIP and the Irish Sea border.
Clearly, as the last year or more has shown, the government itself does not genuinely accept, and certainly has continually tried to wriggle out of, what it agreed. So far, that has allowed it, a bit as with promises of trade deals and deregulation, to pretend to the Ultras that a new and perfect Brexit, unsullied by realities, is just around the corner. Part of that pretence has been that Article 16 could, and would, be the ultimate route to this nirvana. However, unlike the promises about trade and deregulation, it cannot be endlessly deferred, or even to any great extent misrepresented by PR, simply because it is the subject of concrete agreement with the EU.
We are still in limbo as to how that will play out under Liz Truss’s oversight, but the negotiations can’t drag on forever and – not least because of US pressure – an invocation of Article 16 currently looks unlikely. It’s all but unthinkable that the outcome will remove the Irish Sea border and, at that point, all the denial and obfuscation will, for practical purposes, end. So whilst it can be expected that Brexiters, and especially the DUP Brexiters, will continue to regard the NIP as a betrayal, and whilst it may go on being a source of friction between the UK and the EU, it is different to the more open-ended and nebulous issues of trade and regulation.
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Why does this matter?
All of this matters for what happens in everyday politics and economics, but most profoundly because it is the latest stage in the political battle for the meaning of Brexit. The Telegraph headline about whether or not it will be proved an “historic failure” is an acute and revealing one. Whilst they still don’t understand why, the Brexiters do sense that their project has gone awry and they do care about the judgment of history – or at least the most ideologically committed of them do, because they genuinely believe that they initiated a ‘national liberation’.
That was always absurd, both in what it implies about EU membership and given the fact that almost half those who voted didn’t want it. Because of that absurdity, I think that remainers have never understood that the Brexiters (to emphasise, I mean the most ideologically committed, hardcore of them, not their camp followers or rank-and-file leave voters – the Ultra Ultras, so to speak) do believe it. They believed it in 2016 and they still believe that it will come to be seen as true.
No doubt the most committed of them will believe it forevermore, and will also forever insist that true Brexit is just one more heave away or, at least, that it would have been possible had it not been betrayed. However some, at least, realise that public opinion is beginning to settle permanently to the judgement that it was a mistake, in which case their life’s work will be forever discredited. The latest opinion poll finds that 52% think Brexit is ‘going badly’ and just 15% that it is going well. That has been the case for about three months now and, whilst it is still very early days with a lot of neutrals and don’t knows, if it persists for long, it will indeed coagulate into the judgment of history.
The Brexiters are right to think that this is what is currently at stake, and the rest of us should realise it as well. For if – and in my view when – that judgment pronounces Brexit not just a mistake or a disappointment but an abject failure and a disastrous folly, then new possibilities will flow.
— 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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