Friday, 26 January 2018

Which wavelength is that, then?

Apparently, Theresa May and Donald Trump are “on the same wavelength, I think on every respect”.  Or so said Trump yesterday after their meeting, so it must be true, at least until he says the opposite.  I’m not sure that May will be quite so comfortable with the idea, even if finding someone on the same wavelength as her might be something of a novel experience.  It’s certainly not one to which she is accustomed closer to home – in the cabinet for example.
Having slapped down the Foreign Secretary earlier this week, yesterday it was the turn of the Chancellor to have his words disowned by the boss for daring to express an opinion different from her own, even if she has been unable to articulate what it is that she actually does believe.  I thought that the point which Hammond made – which has provoked such a furious reaction from the Brexiteers on his own side – was an entirely sensible one.  The salient part for me was this:
“So instead of doing what we're normally doing in the trade negotiations - taking two divergent economies with low levels of trade and trying to bring them closer together to enhance that trade - we are taking two completely interconnected and aligned economies with high levels of trade between them, and selectively, moving them, hopefully very modestly, apart.”
The words which seem most to have inflamed feelings on his own side are the ones which I have highlighted, namely:  ‘selectively’, and ‘hopefully very modestly’.  Without those words, I can see nothing to which the Brexiteers could possible object.  It would be a simple statement of fact.  It does, though, state the fact in a way which exposes one of the big lies at the heart of the Brexiteers’ claim that the UK will be able to improve its trading position as a result of Brexit.
As Hammond says, one of the keys to the most successful trading agreements is bringing divergent economies together; but at the heart of the Brexit project is a desire to move convergent economies apart.  It is true, of course, that being out of the EU will allow the UK to negotiate its own agreements with non-EU countries, although such negotiations will inevitably require a seeking of convergence with those countries instead; that’s what agreements are about.  And it also overlooks the little fact that the EU is already seeking to expand its range of trade agreements with non-EU countries in a way from which the UK would also benefit if it were to remain a member of the EU, and using its greater power and leverage to secure, probably, a better deal than the UK alone is likely to achieve, involving more convergence.  But pretending that introducing deliberate divergence between the EU and the UK is a route to improving trading relationships is flying in the face of experience and logic.
I can understand why some might feel that it doesn’t matter if trade suffers a little (or perhaps even a lot) as a result of Brexit; because the key thing is that the UK will no longer have to share any of its sovereignty, and will have the absolute right to set its own rules.  It’s an argument which values that separateness, that specialness, over and above mere economic benefit.  And whilst I might take an opposite view, it’s also an honest argument, setting one ‘good’ against another.  The problem is, though, that it wasn’t what they told us at the time of the referendum, and it isn’t what they’re saying now.  They’re still trying to tell us that having greater divergence will lead to more trade.  The sort of honest assessment of reality put forward by the Chancellor yesterday is just ‘fake news’ to them.  Perhaps May is closer to Trump's wavelength than I thought.

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