The moral rot of Boris Johnson’s conduct is part and parcel of a deeper malaise in which Brexit and ‘Brexit COVID’ have created a country that is literally and metaphorically rotting away.


First published: April 2022.


The refusal of Boris Johnson to resign, despite being the first sitting Prime Minister ever to have broken the law and despite all the lies he has told about having done so, is shocking, but not surprising to even the tiniest degree. Nor is the spectacle of his ministers wheeling out embarrassingly feeble defences of this situation as if they have no shame or, more precisely, because they have no shame. Johnson may yet be unseated, perhaps by further penalties from the police showing he has been guilty of multiple breaches of the COVID laws, but he will cling on by his fingernails if he can.

If there are no surprises in this, it is partly because of Johnson’s complete lack of moral character but also because it is both symptomatic and symbolic of the condition of post-Brexit Britain. Increasingly, it’s necessary to speak of this as a ‘condition’ because as time goes by what is at stake is a diffuse and generalized climate rather than simply specific damages caused directly and wholly, or even indirectly and partly, by Brexit. The word ‘condition’ is also apposite since it carries connotations of prolonged and chronic illness: ‘long Brexit’, so to speak.

Thus the scandal of Johnson’s current conduct is inseparable from his conduct during the referendum campaign and in the ‘delivery’ of Brexit, making it ironic that, for some, his delivery of Brexit excuses his current conduct (the more so as the most committed Brexiters still insist that he delivered ‘Brexit in name only’). I have written at length before about how Partygate and Brexit are interconnected and, within that, the particular role of ‘anti-ruleism’ in explaining this. Without repeating all of that analysis, suffice to say that it connects events as disparate as the endless repetition of the ‘£350 million a week for the NHS’ lie despite being told by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that it was a clear misuse of statistics, the illegal prorogation of parliament, and the delay in and antipathy toward introducing COVID ‘restrictions’. And whilst Johnson is a key figure in this, it is not fundamentally about him. Its roots lie in the populism and libertarianism of the Brexit Ultras within and outside of the Conservative Party.

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Exploring the post-Brexit condition

From this point of view, separating Brexit from other political and public events, especially the pandemic, is complicated, and of course, this complication is used by Brexiters to deny or conceal the effects of Brexit. Typically, they deride discussion of these effects as ‘Brexit Derangement Syndrome’, and it’s worth reflecting on what that derision implies. Presumably, Brexiters believe that leaving the EU will make long-term differences to the UK. If not, then why bother to leave? But, if so, then why would it be deranged to discuss the effects? The obvious answer is because they have been so dire that they discredit the decision to leave.

Within this, there are two slightly different issues. The most obvious is that of recognizing that almost all events have more than one cause. The significant and still ongoing queues at Dover and disruption at airports are current examples. As discussed in last week’s piece, it’s justifiable to say that some of this is nothing to do with Brexit (e.g. Easter holidays), some of it is directly but only partly due to Brexit (e.g. staff shortages), some of it is indirectly and only partly to do with Brexit (e.g. P&O ferries not running), some of it is indirectly but wholly to do with Brexit (e.g. breakdown of the IT systems now needed), and some of it is directly and wholly due to Brexit (e.g. existence of new border processes). The Brexiter trick here – enabled by media quietude – is to ignore, deny or downplay the Brexit aspect and, in parallel, to dismiss attention to it by reference (sometimes, it has to be said, accurate reference) to those ‘remainers’ who wrongly ascribe the problems directly and entirely to Brexit.

The second, and perhaps less obvious, issue is that whilst most events have multiple causes it does not follow that those causes themselves are independent of each other. COVID is again the most important example. It arrived just as the UK left the EU and whilst the terms of future trade were just beginning to be negotiated. This means that, just as every country in the world had COVID in its own way, affected by its own particular circumstances, the way the UK had it was in the particular and unique circumstances of Brexit. Our COVID is ‘Brexit COVID’.

Brexit COVID

In practical terms, this had all sorts of effects. For example, COVID exacerbated the issue of staff shortages, as some EU nationals were leaving because of Brexit. It also meant that when EU nationals returned to their home countries because of COVID (as they very well might have done regardless of Brexit), it is now not possible for them to return if they don’t have settled status. It also meant that the lorry queues now, which are reported to be making EU drivers reluctant to take on journeys to the UK, come on top of the recent memory of the COVID-related lorry queues at the end of 2020 when drivers also spoke of not coming to the UK again.

Looked at from a different direction, the fact that the Brexit trade negotiations took place during the pandemic inflected them in particular ways, not least because at certain times key actors were ill, and because much of the negotiation had to take place virtually, which would not otherwise have been the case. Similarly, the hostility of the Brexiters, including Johnson, to any extension at all to the transition period, a hostility which pre-dated the pandemic, led to a refusal to do so despite the pandemic. With more time, a more comprehensive agreement might have been reached. Or, for that matter, had it not been for the pressure of COVID, perhaps the outcome would have been ‘no deal’. Then, when the deal was in place and the transition period ended, the economic punch of Brexit was immediate, landing on the bruise of the ongoing pandemic and reducing our economic resilience to its effects in a way no other country experienced.

By definition, we don’t know, certainly not completely, what difference it made that COVID arrived when Brexit was happening. My point is just that Brexit and COVID interacted, and for that reason cannot necessarily be treated as two independent factors. Certainly it is the case the UK’s response to COVID, up to and very much including the current policy of effectively pretending the pandemic is over, and not making any significant attempt to handle its ongoing impacts such as those of Long COVID, has been inextricably intertwined with Brexit politics. The crossover of membership between the influential Brexit Ultras’ ERG and the anti-restrictions, anti-lockdown COVID Recovery Group (CRG) of Tory MPs is a prime example. So is the more general relationship, well beyond the Tory Party, between anti-lockdown, and in some cases even anti-vaccination, sentiment and Brexiter populists like Nigel Farage and Laurence Fox.

It is in these senses that the UK has had ‘Brexit COVID’, which forms part of the post-Brexit condition of the country.



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A country going rotten

It is a country which is going metaphorically and literally rotten. Literally rotten, with crops lying unharvested in fields. That has been happening since at least 2019 because of labour shortages (which in this case are especially closely linked to Brexit), is still happening now, and risks permanent damage to UK farming. It is also happening because of the post-Brexit barrier to trade with the EU.  Meat and fish are becoming unsaleable as they sit for hours in traffic jams of lorries. Some of it doesn’t even get that far: at least 40,000 healthy pigs have been culled for lack of butchers and meat processors. These are not ‘teething troubles’: the transition period ended over a year ago.

Staff shortages, whether due to Brexit or COVID, are now endemic and are contributing to a metaphorical rottenness in which quite basic things are becoming difficult or impossible to do. They are part of the reason for the crisis in the NHS, to take the most high-profile example. But it is the same across the board. There aren’t enough border agency staff, there aren’t enough staff to run buses or to serve meals in restaurants or to construct buildings. Nor has the HGV driver shortage, so much in the news last year, gone away. It would be possible to provide any number of examples, but almost everyone is surely now beginning to notice how many of the things we used to take for granted just don’t work properly any more. Raising wages isn’t the answer: it may pull staff into one sector, but only at the expense of another, and in the absence of productivity increases it only creates inflation which more than negates the wages rises anyway.

It's perfectly true to say that this isn’t just happening in the UK. But it is happening in a particular way in the UK because Brexit is unique to the UK and because our COVID is Brexit COVID. It would be different if we hadn’t ended freedom of movement of people and hadn’t introduced new barriers to trade. It might have been different if we hadn’t, at least in England, dispensed too early with all COVID protections and scrapped COVID sick pay provisions. It would also be easier to deal with if we had a less restrictive post-Brexit immigration policy as regards the skill groups and earnings levels required, and did not treat those immigrants who are admitted in such inhumane ways. Indeed a combination of staff shortages and Brexity suspicion accounts for the deplorable slowness of the visa scheme for Ukrainian refugees.

It's also true to say that many of the UK’s problems, including labour shortages and the provision of core services, pre-date both Brexit and COVID. There are longstanding workforce issues arising from our ageing demographics and from the paucity of our education and training systems. There are also perennial problems of a public service model built upon outsourcing to a small number of scandal-ridden firms which persistently fail to deliver, and upon perpetual re-organizations of the public sector, such as the disastrous Lansley reforms to the NHS, often linked with failed IT projects.

But, again, the point is that Brexit and Brexit COVID come on top of, and exacerbate, these problems. So, now, there are widely reported delays in such things as driving licence renewals, passport renewals and the granting of probate on Wills. Most, if not all, such cases reflect a mix of pre-existing problems, Brexit and Brexit COVID. It’s the layering of one factor on top of the other – with Brexit, uniquely, the entirely self-inflicted and avoidable factor – which is rotting our country away.

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The great resignation

I am pretty sure that something like this is how we should understand the significant increases in economic inactivity over the last two years amongst the over-50s reported last week by the Resolution Foundation. This is partly driven by the increasing uptake of early retirement, itself an aspect of the more general phenomenon now widely called ‘the great resignation’. The rise in economic inactivity is reported as part of the ‘permanent scarring effect of the pandemic’, and is clearly driven in part by Long COVID although it started to be in evidence, according to ONS data, from the very beginning of the pandemic.

My purely personal impression is that ever since the referendum result there has been a significant shift in attitude amongst my peer group of – why not admit it? – those who Brexiters call the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’, which has exacerbated pre-existing problems of workplace stress and then been exacerbated by COVID and also by the post-Brexit culture wars waged against them. That shift has been to disengage from a country which has, effectively, ‘cancelled’ half its population for being remainers, with a special contempt reserved for ‘university-educated remainers’ (and indeed the university-educated were, at 57% of graduates rising to 64% of those with a higher degree, disproportionately remain voters).

I am convinced that as a result many of those who can do so are ‘giving up’ work because, especially if work is central to how they participate in society, they are ‘giving up on’ post-Brexit Britain, even if not necessarily emigrating. Why should you contribute to a country which despises you, whether by sneering at your ‘wokeness’ and doing almost everything possible to ‘trigger’ you, or saying ‘f*** business’ and doing almost everything possible to ensure it is happening? It obviously takes time for this to feed through into enacting early retirement decisions so my strong sense is that what we are seeing now grows to some degree from this sense of alienation.

I stress that this is far more impressionistic than the claims I usually make in this column but it is, at the least, compatible with the data on growing economic inactivity. I think it applies to people across the left-right political spectrum, and especially to professionals (in particular those in the public sector) and to small business owner-managers (in particular those which trade with the EU), if only because they are more likely to be able to afford to take early retirement than others who are alienated by the post-Brexit condition.

Again, it’s possible to see similar trends of early retirement (and the wider changes of the great resignation) in other countries, including the US, so Brexit isn’t the only factor, but, for the UK, it is an additional one. It is contributing to a stripping out of experience and expertise which can only, in turn, hasten the way in which the country is rotting away. For, even if Brexit is not in any part of the reason, it is a fact that, to take an important example, there are sharp rises in GPs taking early retirement and warnings of a “mass exodus” within the next five years. More generally, the Labour Force Survey shows that the largest numbers taking early retirement are “skilled professionals” and “associate professionals”. It’s worth recalling in this context that some 57% of social class AB (i.e. professionals and managers) voted remain in the 2016 referendum.



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The overall picture

Taken together, this picture of the post-Brexit condition is an alarming one. Some of what is happening is now pretty much beyond doubt, and it is also pretty much beyond doubt that it is happening because of Brexit. That applies to the decline in trade in goods and, it is increasingly clear, trade in services. In other cases, such as labour and skills shortages, Brexit is undeniably one factor. But as I have stressed in this piece, even where, as is often the case, COVID is the other main factor, the UK experience of COVID is itself inflected by Brexit to some degree.

Other things, such as the contribution of Brexit to rising levels of early retirement are, as I’ve acknowledged, far more speculative. However, in the context of labour shortages which are in part because of Brexit, the rises in economic inactivity, including early retirement, form part of the post-Brexit condition of the country even if it is denied that they are in any way caused by Brexit. In other words, it might not matter so much that so many skilled workers are taking early retirement if there were not also skill shortages because of Brexit.

Against this could be put the benefits of Brexit if there were any significant examples, but there aren’t. Those which have been claimed are either very limited, yet to materialize, or simply nothing to do with Brexit at all. The latter includes the main and most common claim of a Brexit benefit, namely the vaccine rollout and, more recently, the nonsensical suggestion that it has allowed Britain to ‘lead on Ukraine’ (nonsensical in that, even if it were true we have led, we’ve done nothing that required Brexit). In fact, most justifications of Brexit now just take the form of claiming that it has been less damaging than some of the most dire predictions, or that it will deliver its benefits at some vague point in the future.

This, coming on top of the many pre-existing problems the country had, ranging from things like the endless failures of public sector management through to perennially weak productivity, is leading to our country rotting away under our noses. Basic services no longer work properly, whole industries are in crisis. Even the long-term viability of the union of all four constituent countries is in doubt, whilst the Northern Ireland peace process has been seriously strained. And, entirely predictably, pre-referendum promises to match EU structural funds for regional development are being broken.

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The architects of the post-Brexit rot

Meanwhile, not additional to, but inseparable from, this malaise, our political institutions are in a parlous state. Scandals abound, whilst authoritarianism advances and democratic rights are being trimmed. Which brings us back to Johnson’s refusal to resign, aided and abetted by his party’s refusal to make him. This latest example of moral rot symbolizes a whole country going rotten, its entire national strategy now founded on the lies, delusions and fantasies of Brexit. Johnson is both the foremost and yet the least important manifestation of that rot.

For whilst it is a cliché that the ‘fish rots from the head’, Johnson’s departure would not in itself improve things. The rot has now gone too deeply into the body politic, because it doesn’t just come from Johnson’s opportunistic moral vacuum. It comes from Nigel Farage’s blokey racism, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s faux-patrician sanctimony, Gisela Stuart’s earnest spitefulness, Michael Gove’s oily sophistry. From the decades of screaming tabloid headlines about immigration, and the lachrymose self-pity of suburban curtain-twitchers who ‘aren’t allowed to say what we think’. From the belligerent nationalism of obese thugs and blue-blazered golf club bores who can’t forget the war they don’t actually remember. From contrarian would-be intellectuals who can’t forgive being ignored by real academics and from free-market think-tankers who have none of the knowledge of real business people. From dead-eyed Hedge Fund managers gloating over profits to be made and cold-eyed neo-Marxists dreaming of utopias to come.  

From the rot created by this diverse coalition – which diversity also means that those who confidently announce that ‘Brexit was always all about’ any one thing are always wrong – a foul miasma now emanates. Those who complain of the stench are denounced as deranged, or dismissed as obsessed. They are told they must ‘move on’ and ‘get behind Brexit’, and told it most loudly by those who equally loudly insist that Brexit has been betrayed. The rot will only have a chance of being stopped when enough people agree that Brexit has in fact failed, even if they continue to disagree about why. But, by then, there may not be much left untainted.

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— AUTHOR —

Professor Chris Grey, Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
@ChrisGreyBrexit


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