Friday, 23 June 2017

Nostalgia, aesthetics, ideology, emotions - Brexit one year on

I'll never forget the gut-wrenching shock of waking up at 4am on 24 June last year and seeing that Sunderland voted Leave, upturning the forecasts from the night before that Remain would narrowly win. It hit me like a punch in the face. What have these people done? WHY have they done it?


How would have my favourite poet, Sir John Betjeman (1906-84) voted had he still been alive? Would that part of him which yearned for the past have prompted him to vote Leave? One of the recurring themes in his poetry was the sense of loss that progress brings with it. The sprawling suburbs, industrial estates, shopping arcades and dual carriageways that encroached his Home County haunts made him mourn for the lost Edwardian era of his childhood.
Where are the wains with garlanded swathes a-swaying?
Where are the swains to wend through the lanes a-maying?
Where are the blythe and jocund to ted the hay?
Where are the free folk of England? Where are they? 
Ask of the Abingdon bus with full load creeping
Down into denser suburbs.
Ask of the cinema manager. Night airs die
Ask at the fish and chips at the Market Square.
[from The Old Liberals, 1954]

I suspect many older British voters would have voted to leave the EU on the basis of emotion. No longer recognising the land where they were born, not really understanding the economic and legal ramifications of exiting the EU, a cross on the ballot paper to leave was an act of defiance against the march of time. An almost aesthetic decision
Good-bye high hopes and over confidence -
In fact it's probably good-bye England
[from Metro-land, 1973]

I can understand this form of nostalgia-based emotion, but life moves on. In the 1930s, Betjeman railed against the architectural modernism that by the 1970s he was keen to see preserved. And the 'free folk of England' of Betjeman's childhood had no hot water, no free healthcare, poor sanitation and very little by way of consumer goods or leisure time.

The rich and the powerful who militated for Brexit - press barons who aren't tax-resident in the UK; wealthy scions of wealthy families; entrepreneurs with off-shore treasures - convinced the intellectually less-gifted that it is indeed the rich and the powerful that are doing them down - by keeping them in the EU.

Then there's the alt-right, a pernicious mental aberration that affects men in their 20s and 30s (the peak age for indoctrination by dangerous ideologies), who are kicking out against order, political correctness, regulation, health and safety, libtards, feminazis and other distractions. To them, Brussels and its 'unelected bureaucrats' and its Directives are merely a re-run of the Soviet Union. [I get very annoyed when I hear such people talk of 'EUSSR'. Where are the EU's Gulags? Where's the EU's Holodomor? Where's the EU's NKVD? Where's the EU's Great Terror? Where's the EU's Katyń? My mother experienced what 'USSR' meant. If you equate 'EU' and 'USSR' in my earshot, I will fucking slap you.]

And then there's the less-well educated English and Welsh person, the tabloid reader with poor spelling and punctuation skills, who sees uncontrolled migration from poorer EU countries to the UK as a threat. They see skilled, motivated, hard-working migrants coming over, speaking foreign in the streets, dropping their empty tins of Zywiec and Tyskie beer, mostly young males coming over at first - who then bring their girlfriends and children and in-laws over and start making demands on council housing, local schools and the NHS.

Whereas there is the Sports Direct argument - that unscrupulous employers know they can get low-skilled labour from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria for less than what the locals would work for. Yet in many cases, without such labour, the UK economy would not have bounced back so strongly from recession. If you are an employer in the agriculture, horticulture  or food-processing sectors out in East Anglia, where local unemployment can be less than 2%, you will simply not be able to recruit natives to do the work.

Migration could have been managed much better, within the framework of EU law, by Home Secretary Theresa May (five years, two months in the job). The UK could have made it harder for low-skilled, long-term migration from the EU.

The subsequent 12 months have left Britain - and the EU - none the wiser. On Twitter, the brave Brexiteers have all but skulked away. There's been no coherent, plausible vision presented of just how the UK can become this great, open (yet closed to EU migrants), free-trading (except with the EU) nation. All those seductive arguments have fizzled out when confronted with reality. Example: "The Commonwealth has 51 members!" Yes, but the smaller 25 members' combined population is around that of Greater London.

Do Brexiteers have a clue as to how bilateral trade deals have to be negotiated? How big a staff is required? How long it takes? The Canadians, with 500 trade negotiators, analysts, sector specialists and ancillary staff on the case, took seven years to hammer out their Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU. The UK will need one with the EU, the US, China, India, Japan, Brazil, as well as Nauru, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu. Who will do that work?

The kind of detail overlooked by Brexit proponents during the referendum debate - on leaving the EU, London will no longer host the European Medicines Agency. The EMA will have to leave its offices in Canary Wharf. The cost of getting out early from a 39-year lease is said to be £300m. The EMA will not pay - it's not its fault that it must leave to set up in another country that's still in the EU. So the British government will pay end up paying the landlord. Funded by the British taxpayer. That's £4.60 per every man, woman and child in the UK. For this one example.

If a transitional arrangement isn't reached, and Britain leaves the EU by 29 March 2019, by default, WTO tariffs will kick in. These range from tiny to huge. Beef, for example, is 59%. The UK imports half of its food, a half of that coming from the EU. Britain imports beef from Ireland in large quantities. As prices of imported beef go up - what will British farmers do? Keep their prices at current levels? Or see an opportunity to raise them?

If a transitional arrangement is reached, and Britain ends up (somehow) clinging on to some form of preferred access to the single European market, and remains in the customs union, still allowing in high-skilled and short-term EU migrant labour, but without any say in Brussels as to the rules - what was it all for?

The whole thing is as bloody a mess as it was on that God-awful morning of 24 June 2016. I can only hope that Brexit won't happen, that sense will dawn on a majority of Britons that it really isn't worth it. Especially the young. A hard Brexit has the potential to harm them economically, to curtail their freedom of movement, their ability to study and work across other EU nations. It will lead to an economic slowdown if not recession, inflation will rear up from next to zero, and the pain endured during the Great Recession will linger on for several years. Several crucial years for Britain's young.

Over a quarter of a million Leave voters have died since the referendum, it is estimated (based on the polling preference of the older age groups), while the number of Remain voters who've died in the past 12 months is around 60,000. Meanwhile, the number of young people who are likely to vote Leave who have reached voting age in the past year is around 90,000 - outnumbered by likely Remain voters who've had their 18th birthdays since then, which is over 260,000. So in the UK today, there are around 190,000 fewer Leave voters and 170,000 more Remain voters - and that's just the demographics. There are also far more Leave voters regretting their decision than Remain voters who now say they should have voted Leave. Should the government be forced to put the results of its negotiations to another referendum - who knows.

Give it a while, it may all blow over... Or it may not. Uncertainty. Not good for business, for investment decisions, for trade, for supply chains. I was right to feel sick on the morning of 24 June 2016. And then there's the personal hit - my UK pension (in pounds), is now worth in zloty terms (how I intend spending it) around 15% less than it was before the referendum.

This time two years ago:
Civilisation and barbarism - how the former deals with the latter

This time three years ago:
Ahead of the opening of Jeziorki's Biedronka

This time four years ago:
New views of Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Motorway finally links (the outskirts of) Łódź and (the outskirts of) Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
Kraków Air Museum

This time nine years ago:
Quintessential Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Little boxes, Mysiadło


White Horse Pilgrim said...

Of course if Britain had even France's level of productivity - we're something like 20% below that level - we'd be in a quite different position economically. A net exporter, wealthier, and not dependent on unskilled low-wage labour on low wages. A nation that doesn't need to throw a tantrum over its dwindling success.

Jacek Koba said...

Long after time has taken the edge off the lie, or an unpalatable truth, the management of said lie or truth continues to gall. It’s like the famous ‘it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up’ that did for him. I am now much exercised by the lines that Brexiteers trot out to put a brave face on Brexit after sneering at Remainers with “Get over it.” So far, the sore winners have duly come out with all the classic defences.

First, blame others when you’ve screwed up: the reason Brexit is not working is that the Remainers have so little faith in it. They just keep doing it down, and it’s not helping. Secondly, and closely linked to the first , the hostile propaganda: the Remainers are making the Leavers look nasty. Thirdly, blame others for not stopping you when they saw you heading for a crash: the Remainers (often equated with Labour or left wingers) failed to put up credible opposition when they knew in their hearts it would all come to naught. Fourthly, blame the lack of zeal among fellow Leave supporters: the opposition have argued a better case (the devil has the best lines, etc). Finally, and this one is yet to come, we’ve been misunderstood: the Remainers never really got the hang of what we meant by Brexit.

On the face of it, there may be no analogy to anything we’ve seen before but similar techniques have been deployed to manage unwelcome truths in the past. Darwinism was first denied, then ignored, then subordinated to a wider divine plan and fully incorporated - fiercely denying any prior opposition - to avoid embarrassment.

One last thing, I remember around this time last year how in a certain magazine the columnists carefully distinguished between ‘Brexiter’ and ‘Brexiteer’, choosing the latter name for themselves as it was evocative of ‘buccaneer’, ‘privateer’, etc., the moniker which better reflected their bravery, a certain cavalier attitude, then considered a positive attribute, especially when set against ‘project fear’.