Tuesday, July 17, 2018  

NICK CATER                   

On Brexit, Theresa May is seeking compromise where none
exists. Nothing great ever came from consensus.

One cannot but admire a newspaper that sticks by its convictions, even if those convictions are stark-staring bonkers. Take the Advent Herald, for example, an American weekly that steadfastly advised its readers of Christ’s imminent return on October 22, 1844. In its October 16 edition that year the newspaper announced: “We shall make no provision for issuing a paper for the week following.”

Oh, that The Guardian would follow the Advent Herald’s example in its serial forecasts of imminent ruin, misfortunes and distress. In June 2016, on the eve of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, The Guardian claimed that an exit vote would plunge the UK into recession and accelerate the nation’s decline.

Citing data from The Economist’s so-called Intelligence Unit, The Guardian predicted that the British economy would shrink by 1 per cent by mid-2017, that financial services companies would flee abroad, retail spending would decline and car sales would fall. Unemployment in Britain would have risen to 6 per cent by the middle of this year.

As things turned out, gross domestic product has risen for eight successive quarters and the financial services sector has grown by 10.6 per cent. Retail spending is up by 8 per cent and car sales by 9 per cent. Unemployment fell from 4.9 per cent in June 2016 to 4.2 per cent last month.

Any hope that a strengthening economy may ease so-called “Brexit anxiety” among the cultural middle class appears to be misplaced. In the months following the referendum, The Guardian reported that therapists’ waiting rooms were clogged with Europhiles suffering uncertainty, alienation and anxiety.

“Anything connected with borders brings with it an association to the body, and the boundary between inner and outer self,” psychologist Jay Watts counselled on the opinion pages. “This elicits primitive anxieties, the fears of both annihilation and colonisation.”

An alternative diagnosis might have been exasperation and simple bewilderment at a result they could not comprehend. Like Hillary Clinton’s voters in the US, they had been ill served by their preferred newspapers and broad­casters, who had made little attempt to examine the groundswell of support building for the politically incorrect option.

Few can recall a dispute other than Brexit that has generated such passion and bitterness in British politics. Debrett’s, the authority on etiquette and courtesy published since 1769, recently added a warning against discussing Brexit in its rules for hosting a modern dinner party. Brexit supporters in most professional occupations have learned to keep their mouths shut for fear of antagonising colleagues and friends.

The claim that Brexit was driven by racism is belied by the facts. Post-referendum polling found that only a third nominated immigration as their biggest issue, and it is doubtful that more than a tiny proportion of those could reasonably be called racist. As in Australia, most people who express anxiety about immigration simply want admission to be better controlled.

Almost half (49 per cent) of Leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”, suggesting an irreconcilable rift between Britain and its European neighbours. The mistake made by many of the EU’s defenders is to overcomplicate the issue. Like the European project itself, they are implacably opposed to common sense and averse to simplicity.

Having turned the EU into a centrally planned, undemocratic, too-clever-by-half technocracy, they are attempting to bring the same approach to the mechanism of Britain’s departure.

It was clear from the start that the hard-Brexit approach, in which Britain surrendered access to the single market and Customs union in return for full control over its borders and the ability to negotiate new trade deals, was the only practical way to approach separation. Britain could have relied on the World Trade Organisation to set the basic rules for trade with its former EU partners.

The business community was, for the most part, comfortable with that approach. As Markus Kerber of German industry body BDI told BBC radio listeners: “It’s better to have a hard Brexit that works than to have a fudge in the middle.”

Yet a fudge in the middle is likely to be where negotiators will land, barring a radical change in approach by the British government, backed by a different leader.

While Theresa May has more strengths than her critics appear to recognise, the British Prime Minister shares with other centre-right leaders the annoying habit of seeking compromise, even when no reasonable compromise exists. With Britain’s scheduled departure from Europe barely eight months away, the chance of a hard Brexit is receding quickly.

There is no reason much of the detail cannot be left until Britain’s official departure. A handful of practical, basic agreements — such as recognising British driving licences on continental Europe or the power-transmission agreements between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland — must be in place or Brexit day will end in chaos.

The idea that these matters should be left to the experts — as the experts self-servingly demand — is unthinkable. The experts’ record on EU matters, the Common Agricultural Policy, the common currency and the intrusion of European law into sovereign law, to name but a few, were steps towards a grotesque federal Europe in which the power of the bur­eaucracy took precedent over enfeebled national parliaments.

That is why May should be wary as she struggles to honour the British public’s wish to depart from this Kafkaesque world. The bottom line for Britain is that nothing in the final agreement should compromise the UK’s ability to strike fresh bilateral trade deals with the outside world.

As Margaret Thatcher once observed, consensus is “the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus’?”

 

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2019 by Menzies Research Centre