“Contingency is the characteristic of what might not have been or could have been different” Emile Boutroux*
The biggest constitutional change in recent British history is upon us on 31 January, but the question “Cui Bono?” remains unanswered. Who actually gains from BREXIT? In the wealth of commentary and advocacy since 2016, there has never been a clear answer.
The consensus amongst reputable economists is that removing ourselves from the huge market provided by the EU has a multitude of negative consequences for our manufacturing, agricultural, fishing and financial sectors meaning significant GDP losses over the next few years measured in ten of billions Sterling. Already the big corporates and banks are opening up or looking at office space in Frankfurt, Dublin and Paris. Farmers are being offered compensatory payments, assured only for five years. Severed supply chains mean intense pressures on future production, most obviously in the car and chemical industries. Sajid Javaid’s announcement that Britain has every intention of diverging from EU regulations and standards should come as no surprise. What would be the point of leaving the Customs Union were this not the case? Whatever our Little England Chancellor says, car makers and other manufacturers must now plough their own furrow, and comply with European regulations if they wish to sell without losses into the European market.
A trade deal with the USA is dangled as the great prize from BREXIT. But trade experts, and common sense, indicate that any UK trade deal with the USA, given the gross disparity of power between the negotiating partners, will be predominantly in the US interests. We may have to accept future higher rates of food poisoning or drug prices, or other negative consequences, if any deal is to emerge in the short time available before our proclaimed – idiotic – deadline. And do we expect that other economically powerful countries such as India and China are going to agree terms with an isolated Britain better than those we already enjoyed as a member of a 27 country trading bloc?
Will Hutton, a notable and eloquent economist, described BREXIT in The Observer as taking Britain further into a “vortex of decline”. The decline is not only economic but also in our capacity to “punch above our weight” in international affairs. Torn between kowtowing to Mr. Trump and sharing an effective, peaceful policy towards Iran with our European allies, we adopt a fanciful role - as mediator - a pattern set to persist during UK-USA trade negotiations. Given the likelihood of a second term for Trump now the Democrats have cornered themselves in impeachment proceedings, so easily flipped by a Republican Senate into a Trump triumph appealing to his political base, do we really want to tie our wagon to this meandering US wagon-train? And we will have lost all influence over the future policy directions of the EU.
Meanwhile back home BREXIT will, and already has, opened up a Pandora’s box of destabilising rival nationalisms within our four nation-state. The SNP push for a second referendum on independence mishandled could result in Catalan levels of disruption. Ulster Unionism and Irish nationalism retain considerable potential for renewed violence generated by both material issues of border checks and their psychological impact on the different communities. Years of uncertainty lie ahead with little sign of future benefit.
So no winners so far except perhaps Mr. Putin who at little cost to Russia damaged both the UK and a EU. And certainly not the EU itself which openly laments Britain’s departure.
But couldn’t it be argued that democracy is the winner? Don’t “the people”, or at least the 52% of them who voted Leave, handed responsibility for the UK’s future in 2016, finally win? If you believe that a divided and damaged country is worth the price of honouring a narrow popular vote, partly influenced by systematic misinformation, thus weakening representative parliamentary democracy, yes.
There are some notable beneficiaries from Britain leaving the EU. A number of small to tiny blocs of elected parliamentarians and individuals, the ERG and the DUP, Farage, Rees-Mogg and Johnson drove the country to this point in the absence of an effective Opposition. The latter have in common that they represent the emergent global phenomenon of the Entertainer-Trickster politician. While we are laughing they are – Bolshevik fashion – riding the accidents of history and directing rising public anger and hatred of the Establishment - which they magically manage to dissociate themselves from - for their own personal advantage. The ERG and DUP simply got lucky on the electoral arithmetic and were able to swing government in their direction and lever advantage with a handful of votes, at least for a while. This does not correspond to any palatable idea of what a democratic culture looks like. A gain for democracy? I don’t think so.
Are the Entertainer-Trickster politicians witting and unwitting agents of transnational capital as Will Hutton suggests? So the only winner becomes transnational capital? Well maybe. But we should be suspicious of proposing abstract nouns as historical causes particularly of something as bizarre as national self-harm. It seems much more, as Harold Macmillan probably didn’t say, a matter of “events, dear boy, events”. In other words accidents and contingency: an arrogant Etonian believing he had the 2016 referendum in the bag, coinciding with the other Party leader, a hangover from the 1970s, who believed in belonging to a Socialist States of Europe rather than the EU, as a pamphlet at that time proclaimed. Then his Etonian nemesis, Mr. Johnson, at the 11th hour gambling correctly on Leave winning, espousing the cause that furthered his leadership ambitions. Alexander Hamilton’s question is pertinent: whether human societies can establish “good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”
Does anyone win from BREXIT? Except for a few, for example, currency speculators, investors in the tax-avoiding, data-hoarding IT companies, in other transnational enterprises, and in arms sales, nobody wins. So there we are. We just have to get on with it and take the self-inflicted punishment. No requiem for REMAIN. But fortunately, thanks to Harry and Megan, we have more important things to worry about.
*Quoted in Charles de Gaulle’s personal notebooks, taken from Julian Jackson A Certain Idea of France Penguin 2018
See also "Remain Lost but who Won? TheArticle 30/101/20