Professor Chris Grey’s latest Brexit analysis on David Lammy’s speech that was maybe the first time since Brexit that a major politician challenged its central, flawed assumptions. A small but welcome first step to realism.
L ast week David Lammy, the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, gave a major and important speech at Chatham House. It wasn’t by any means all about Brexit, but, even where it was not, it could be read as the outlines of a serious post-Brexit foreign policy. That is something which, along with many others, I’ve been arguing has been needed for quite some time.
Some of the direct references to Brexit included the need for pragmatism rather than “the ideological purity of the ERG” and the need to find “a new, settled place in Europe”, with practical, though still rather vague, steps being in the improvement of trading relationship and a new security pact with the EU. It also recognized the damage the Brexit process has done to Britain’s reputation, especially for respecting the rule of law, making implicit and sometimes explicit references to what has happened over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Like any such speech, there was a lot of aspirational rhetoric and, for sure, the proposals for closer ties with the EU will be far too limited for many erstwhile remainers. But, without claiming more for it than was there, it would be quite absurd to suggest that there is no difference between Tories and Labour on post-Brexit policy.
In particular, the speech contained, if nothing else, a clear commitment to re-normalise UK-EU relations, and also a recognition that these relations are about more than being trading partners. That matters, both as a counter to the quite unwarranted antagonism that Brexit Britain has shown the EU and to the too often transactional terms in which, even when a member, the UK approached the EU.
The significance of Lammy’s speech
However, I think its larger significance was in articulating, under the general theme of ‘Reconnecting Britain’, two core principles. One is the necessity and desirability of the interdependence of nations, and the other is the inextricable linkage of, and therefore need for coherence between, foreign and domestic policy and politics.
Whilst these are both quite abstract, high-level notions, they do go to the heart of the collateral or contingent damage that Brexit has done. What I mean by that is that whilst the central damage of Brexit is Brexit itself, in the literal sense of leaving the EU, and can’t be significantly fixed without reversing Brexit, or at least hard Brexit, there are additional damages which came from the way Brexit was sold and enacted. Not only can these potentially be undone even without reversing (hard) Brexit but doing so is likely to be a necessary step if (hard) Brexit is ever to be reversed.
Those additional damages relate most obviously to the Brexiter incomprehension and, worse, outright denial of the complex realities of international interdependence. But they are also, albeit in quite convoluted ways, to do with the incoherent relationship between domestic and foreign politics that Brexit initiated. And, in the final and most toxic twist, the worst damage has been to treat domestic attempts to recognize the reality of international interdependence as anti-democratic and treacherous.
In this piece, I’ll try to tease out the different strands of this, and show how they relate to the whole Brexit process, including some of the most recent developments, in order to show why I think Lammy’s speech is an important and positive step.
The parochialism of Brexit
Many Brexiters react with outrage if it is suggested that their project is one of inward-looking ‘little Englandism’. On the contrary, they will insist, it is about recognizing horizons way beyond Europe, no longer being ‘shackled to the corpse’ of the EU, re-establishing Britain as a ‘sovereign equal’ amongst nations, ‘re-gaining our seat’ at the WTO, and reviving ‘Global Britain’. Their preferred self-description as ‘Brexiteers’, with its echoes of buccaneering exploration, is a testament to this supposedly outward-looking stance. Yet one of the most remarkable features of Brexit is how myopic, parochial, and domestically focussed it has been and continues to be. That’s partly characterised by ignoring the outside world but even more by assuming, and even insisting, that the outside world conforms to the falsities and fantasies of Brexit.
Thus throughout the Article 50 process, far more time and energy were expended on internal negotiations than on those with the EU, and these internal negotiations weren’t even amongst the huge variety of interested parties within the UK, but only the factions of the Tory Party. In particular, they were primarily about what the ERG wing of the party would accept. At the same time, whenever the EU made clear that, as was always obvious to anyone who knew anything about it, the Brexiters’ demands were unrealistic, this was denounced as ‘punishment’ for Brexit, as if ideas fermented within the Brexiter bubble about what the EU ‘ought’ to do (for example in the supposed interests of ‘German car makers’) had some kind of validity outside that bubble.
I mentioned in my last piece the new book about the Brexit negotiations, written by Stefaan de Rynck, one of Michel Barnier’s senior aides. I haven’t read the book yet, but its pre-released preface, by Peter Foster – now Public Policy Editor of the Financial Times but the Telegraph’s Europe Editor during the negotiations, and one of the finest journalists covering Brexit – is revealing in itself. It notes the British government’s failure “to level with the electorate on the realities of life” outside the EU, and indicates how, associated with that, there was a pervasive lack of realism on the part of the government itself shown, for example, by the presentation of absurd and unworkable proposals to the EU negotiating team. It was very much a break with the previous, pragmatic and often effective way that the UK foreign policy machine had operated. But “in the grip of Brexit fever, all that savvy and know-how [of British statecraft] somehow went out of the window”, Foster writes.
The ‘somehow’ is fairly easily explained. Politicians who believed in Brexit, or believed they had to act as if they did, had persuaded themselves of a series of fantasies, and dragooned civil servants into acting as if they could be made realities. Those civil servants who would not embrace the fantasies were side-lined or, effectively, forced out. The resignation, early on in the Brexit process, of Sir Ivan Rogers was both a key example and, as I suggested at the time, a harbinger of what was to come.
Those fantasies were multiple, but the principal ones were that it was possible to replicate or closely replicate the trading benefits of single market and customs union membership without being members of either, and that hard Brexit could be enacted without creating a border on one side or the other of Northern Ireland. From those were spawned multiple sub-fantasies about ‘technological solutions’ for the Irish border, the possibilities of GATT Article XXIV and numerous others.
Most damaging of all, having been sold to the leave-voting electorate, these fantasies became enshrined as the ‘will of the people’, as if, even if impossible in reality, anything ‘the people’ voted for must be turned into reality and, if it were not, democracy would have been betrayed. We are still living with the consequences of this. For our entire politics is still hamstrung by the implacable theology of a relatively small number of Brexit fanatics in politics and the media, and the diminishing but still very large section of the population that believes their fantasies and lies.
Thus, even now, entirely unsurprisingly, the ERG are sharpening their knives to attack the mooted “compromise”, which Sunak may do over the Northern Ireland Protocol as a ‘betrayal of Brexit’, with Boris Johnson lurking opportunistically in the background, ready to condemn it in pursuit of his own insatiable self-interest. At the same time, David Frost chunters malevolently from the sidelines about ‘no deal being better than a bad deal’ in the Protocol negotiations. Apparently, he is unaware that if no deal is done, there will still be a deal in place – which is surprising since it is the one he negotiated.
An indifferent world
Meanwhile, the outside world, far from being impressed, oscillates between being indifferent, bewildered and bemused, not just by Brexit itself but the political chaos and instability it has unleashed in Britain. Far from blazing a trail for ‘freedom’, support for leaving the EU amongst other member states has dropped significantly since, and surely as a result of, the UK’s decision to do so.
But the UK is not just alone in wanting to leave the EU, it is isolated as a result of doing so. As a British business leader at Davos last week is reported as saying “there was a real sense of a new reality dawning. We are not invited to the top table”. More generally, as former Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it in his own Chatham House speech last December, “our global influence and capability, not just reputation, has been seriously undermined by political chaos and economic weakness since 2016”.
Many leave voters will simply be unaware of this, and are gulled by endless paeans to the ‘world-leading’ status of Brexit Britain. But leading Brexiters, who are not so unaware, dismiss it as the chatter of the ‘global Establishment’ and, in so doing, reveal the myopia beneath their ‘Global Britain’ sloganizing since, if it means anything, and actually even if it doesn’t, Global Britain can’t avoid engaging with the ‘global Establishment’ in some way.
Saying this isn’t to imply uncritical support for economic globalization and its institutions, which are, in any case, under multiple strains. It’s to point to the strategic inadequacy of ignoring economic regionalization and the complex geopolitics that go with it, something recognized in Lammy’s speech, and the danger of viewing those developments through the parochial lens of Brexit populism, as if they were invented by ‘global elites’ abroad and ‘the metropolitan elite’ at home to thwart the simple yeoman honesty of ‘the people’. It’s an inadequacy illustrated just this week by David Frost’s latest foray into political philosophy where he propounds an idea of “nationhood” that, never mind being outdated, has never existed.
A cause and consequence of this parochialism is the way that the endless proliferation of pro-Brexit thinktanks and lobby groups invariably involve the same couple of dozen politicians, academics and commentators, a cult-like hall of echo chambers that is either oblivious to, or dismissive of, external realities. They have certainly wielded great influence, domestically, but, again, it is dangerous and ultimately doomed, because the world beyond is not just indifferent to Brexiter fantasies but, when at risk of being affected by them, bites back.
The realities of sovereignty
That was most starkly illustrated by the fiasco of the Brexit ‘mini-budget’, with Brexiters like Patrick Minford simply unable to understand why traders in international financial markets didn’t endorse the ‘new reality’ of Brexit economics, a reality defined by the crackpot theories Minford and his small group of maverick economists have cooked up. A very small but hugely telling illustration of the thinking, at once naïve and grandiose, underpinning this Brexit hubris came from Telegraph columnist and Brexiter Tim Stanley. Bemoaning the power of ‘the markets’ to make or break government policy he plaintively tweeted that this ran counter to what Brexit was all about, namely “Sovereignty. Democracy. Whatever the people want they get”.
This inability to understand that ‘sovereignty’ doesn’t bestow untrammelled freedom is creating multiple problems for Brexit Britain. It is one thing to talk about sovereignty in this naïve way for domestic political purposes, but quite another to operationalise it internationally. For example, as Gerhard Schnyder astutely observes in his latest Brexit Impact Tracker blog, “while the US and EU may not care how much damage the Brits decide to inflict on themselves, the situation is different regarding NI [Northern Ireland]. NI is thus at least partially protected from the full blow of Westminster madness”.
That is a reminder that, as happened so often during the original Brexit negotiations, the delusions of the ERG and their allies, whilst shaping so much of domestic politics, were never able to trump the realities of Brexit. Hence their enduring fantasy that there is no need for any form of Irish border couldn’t, and will never, prevail over the fact that it was the inevitable consequence of hard Brexit. Hence, too, that for all their bombast of ‘holding all the cards’ and for all their fantasies about a trade deal that would effectively replicate single market membership, the reality, in the end, was the thin ‘zero tariffs’ trade deal.
That arose partly because removing non-tariff barriers would entail the kinds of regulatory interdependence that was incompatible with Brexiters’ notion of national sovereignty, partly because many of them, such as David Frost, simply denied the significance of non-tariff barriers, especially for services trade where they are the only barriers, and partly because they also don’t understand international supply chains. Taken together, this created the delusion that trade occurs in the form of finished goods moving once between countries, inhibited only by tariffs, or at least acting as if that were the case.
Beneath all that lay the negotiating reality that the EU was utterly indifferent to Brexiters’ beliefs about what it should or would do. The world didn’t work the way they believed it to do, and no amount of belief or bluster could change that. So, far from the great deal which Brexiters promised was there for the taking, and which Johnson pretended to have delivered, what was created was the bare bones deal we actually have.
In a somewhat similar way, Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is currently playing to the domestic Brexiter gallery by insisting that there can be no significant liberalisation of immigration visas as part of a UK-India trade deal, falsely linking this with delivering Brexit by equating any liberalisation that might happen with freedom of movement. But the reality is that either she will backtrack on this or there will most likely be no trade deal, or a much more limited one. Either way, it is a further illustration of Brexiter myopia that trade policy, supposedly emblematic of Global Britain’s new Brexit freedoms, should be subordinated to the domestic politics of anti-immigration sentiment (it also, of course, illustrates the pervasive tensions of globalism and localism in the entire Brexit prospectus). Those same tensions are in evidence in the UK’s plan to join CPTPP.
It may seem as if, and as she claims it to be, Badenoch’s approach to trade deals marks a departure from that of doing quick deals on any terms, as happened with the Australia and New Zealand Free Trade Agreements that Liz Truss negotiated when Trade Secretary. But it is actually a variant of the same thing. Both are ways of using international trade policy not for international trade but for the domestic purpose of showing that Brexit is delivering ‘what the people voted for’ and, in the process, ignoring what has to be conceded, whether in terms of market access, product standards or immigration liberalisation, to obtain them.
In other words, they both maintain the Brexiter fantasy of sovereign independence by ignoring the realities of the limits and constraints to it. But the world doesn’t bend to Brexit, and can’t be monstered, as British politics has been, by the battering ram of ‘will of the people’ rhetoric. Hence, in trade policy as more generally, Brexit Britain exhibits the disconnect between domestic and international policy that Lammy identifies as needing rectification.
When truth becomes treachery
The last six years have been littered with examples of the same basic issue, but its ongoing salience can be illustrated by two news stories this week, both from Bloomberg. One discusses the recent collapse of Britishvolt, pointing to the way it illustrates the lack of realism of the Brexit “dream of independence in an interdependent world”. The other concerns the way that the UK is trapped between the two economic blocs of the EU and the US in their growing trade dispute over environmental subsidies. An outsider to both, all the British government can do is make representations that are unlikely to be heeded. Alone, and as in its Brexit negotiations with the EU, Britain is just too small to have much voice in what happens, for all that it may be deeply affected.
Again what is so dangerous for Britain is the internally-focused, cult-like quality that Brexiters have brought from their campaign to leave the EU and have now installed in government and political discourse. It’s not just that this has enfeebled Britain. It’s also that, reading the previous paragraph, they would undoubtedly sneer that these are just stories from Bloomberg, which ‘has always been part of the remain establishment’ (just as they would say of almost every media outlet save the Telegraph and GB News). No doubt, too, they would depict mentioning such stories as ‘talking the country down’. In other words, not only does Brexit do harm to Britain, it also renders discussion of that harm impossible. So whatever problems Brexit creates can’t be treated as problems to be solved, because even to identify them as problems is illegitimate.
In a similar way, the CBI, which this week pleaded with the government not to proceed with the “legislative chaos” of the widely criticised Retained EU Law Bill, is routinely dismissed by Brexiters as the remainer voice of the ‘big business elite’ (one peculiar byway of the Brexiter mindset is the ingrained fantasy that Brexit favours small businesses – in fact, they have been hardest hit by it). Iain Duncan Smith even linked the CBI to appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s. The same kind of treatment is meted out to businesses, thinktanks, academics, civil servants or anyone else who raises concerns about the impact of Brexit, let alone about the wisdom of the entire project.
So this is the nasty little knot that Brexiters have created. It consists of the linkage of a denial of the reality of international interdependencies in foreign policy with a narrative of treachery and betrayal about domestic voices who insist on this reality. The consequence of that linkage is not just to make domestic politics toxic, and international relations both fractious and ineffective, but to make any viable domestic economic or industrial strategy impossible. For no such strategy can be built on lies and fantasies about national independence, or about how trade, regulation, science, agriculture, fishing, climate change mitigation, migration, education etc. actually work in reality.
A first step in the right direction
It’s because Lammy’s speech can be read as an attempt – perhaps the first high-profile attempt from an active politician there has been since Brexit – to untie that knot that I think it is an important speech, and is a cause for a degree of optimism. It is also consistent with the gradually emerging public view that Brexit has been a mistake and consequent growing support for closer relationships with the EU. Of course, it still operates within the political constraints, both genuine and self-imposed, on Labour’s capacity to critique, let alone undo, Brexit. But, at the very least, it shows that within the Labour Party there is some serious thinking going on about post-Brexit Britain.
It’s a Gordian knot that has been tied so tightly and comprehensively around the throat of the body politic that it can’t be slashed at a stroke. As I’m probably becoming quite boring in repeatedly saying, undoing the damage of Brexit is going to be a very long haul, a marathon, not a sprint. But, by the same token, I don’t suppose many would accuse me of being prone to undue optimism. And I do think that the Lammy speech is a hopeful development. If it is still relatively timid in its critique of Brexit, that only shows how comprehensively Brexit has poisoned political discourse, making even timidity difficult, at least for those who aspire to govern. It’s certainly not the last step in the right direction, but it may well be the first and, as the saying goes, the longest journey starts with a single step.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Chris Grey, Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 2 February 2023, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Adobe Stock/villorejo.