Monday, 15 February 2021

Johnson and Thatcher aren't so different


It has often been said that Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher are very different, and in some of the things Johnson says (albeit not necessarily in what he does) there is certainly a difference of tone. There is, however, one important similarity, and Brexit is highlighting that. It’s not that Thatcher would have agreed with his policy over Brexit – for all her scepticism about the European political project, there is little doubt that she saw the single market as a huge achievement, and one which she pushed as much as anyone. I doubt that she would be over-impressed by the way in which her successors have thrown her baby out with the bathwater. But it isn’t that which makes them similar – it is, rather, the way in which both set out to make changes which would become ‘permanent’ (or as permanent as possible) and their willingness to sacrifice anyone and everything in the pursuit of that aim.

No objective observer can really believe that the Brexit which is being delivered is the one which the Brexiteers promised; the more time has passed since they achieved the referendum ‘victory’ the more extreme has become their interpretation of what Brexit meant. And no-one can really deny that the ‘deal’ which was delivered is having a severe impact on businesses, communities and individuals; we are seeing reports like this one and this one on a daily basis. Some Remainers seem to believe that all we need to do is reverse Brexit and all will be well again, but it won’t. Those who have invested in moving all or part of their business to the EU, those who have redesigned their supply chains, companies which have found alternative routes from Ireland to the European mainland – none of these are going to reverse their decisions just because the UK changes its mind. They are long-term decisions, not just responses to a temporary problem. So, when the Foreign Secretary declares that we need to allow ten years to see the effects, he knows exactly what he is saying. In ten years, the changes will have become so great and so well-established that anyone campaigning against re-entry to the EU will be wholly justified in arguing that it will not be a simple solution to the economic malaise which Brexit created. All they need to do is lie and bluster their way through the next ten years and the changes which they are pushing through will be as ‘permanent’ as any of Thatcher’s. They’re quite willing to ignore and deny all the negative impacts in the meantime.

The big question, of course, is whether the opportunities which they said existed outside the EU actually exist in the real world, or, rather, whether they exist to such an extent that they will make up for the economic damage caused by Brexit. There can be little doubt that there will be some opportunities, even if what they are is currently less than clear. But many of the opportunities that the Brexiteers believed would exist depend on assumptions which they have made all along about the willingness of trading partners to accept goods and services from a country which deliberately sets out to undercut them on price by undercutting them on standards such as environmental protection, workers’ rights and so on. That assumed willingness, combined with an unshakeable belief in the special and unique nature of the UK, was the basis of the wild – and now provably inaccurate – claims about the wonderful deal that the EU would give the UK. There is little evidence to date that it’s going to be any more reliable a basis for dealing with other countries than it was for dealing with the EU.

It doesn’t matter, though. Ultimately, Brexit was an ideological project for its most zealous fans; those who bought into the idea that it would bring economic advantages were merely fellow-travellers or what Lenin would have called ‘useful idiots’. Charging ahead regardless of the damage caused is what ideologues do; expecting mere facts to change their opinion is wholly unrealistic. In ten years, the economic position of the UK will be almost unrecognisable – and there will be no easy way back. It’s easy to criticise the lies and bluster, but they’re achieving their objective of making Brexit a decision which is difficult to reverse. Jobs, businesses, and communities are just so much collateral damage. Johnson’s Conservatives aren’t as different from Thatcher’s as many seem to think.


Anonymous said...

That's why so many voted for him ... and doubtless will do again next time around.

CapM said...

I agree with what you say regarding the permanence of the environment of the UK post Thatcher and post Brexit. The 'no going back' as new arrangements and ways of doing things are implemented by design or by necessity.

I think there is a difference in that there was no parallel UK society that the pros and cons of Thatcher's UK to be measured against. With Brexit the EU very much continues to exist and the UK has no option other hat to recognize and interact with it.

That means that I think that Johnson's Brexit will get a rougher ride from the electorate than Thatcherism did. Accepting that one of the UK's rocky islands or coral atoll's isn't invaded.

John Dixon said...

"Johnson's Brexit will get a rougher ride from the electorate" I'd really like to believe that, but at the moment I'm not seeing the evidence...

CapM said...

"I'd really like to believe that, but at the moment I'm not seeing the evidence..."

Neither am I. I think it will be a slow burn but the sum of economic and social downturn across the board, older more likely to be pro Brexit voter die off and replacement with more likely to be pissed off with Brexit voter recruitment will cause a metaphorical fire. I'm not saying that will bring about the UK or whatever's left of it rejoining the EU (as if they'd have us) but a closer relationship than Johnson's raw deal develops.