Tuesday 24 July 2018

Avoiding the argument

Being a fair-minded soul, I’ll accept that the MP for the 18th Century didn’t actually say, as he has been accused of doing, that we would have to wait 50 years for the benefits of Brexit to be realised.  What he did say was that it will take 50 years for the full economic consequences to be clear, which is not quite the same thing.  Either way, though, it’s a refreshingly honest statement from a Brexiteer, most of whom have been claiming all along that the economic benefits would be more or less immediate.
In strictly economic terms, Brexit, no matter how it’s dressed up, is the first instance in history of a country deliberately seeking to weaken trade ties with one group of countries, and there is an economic cost to doing that.  That cost might or might not be offset in due course by strengthened trade ties with other countries; for the true believers it’s an article of faith that it will, whereas the rest of us can only hope.  But those new deals will take many years to negotiate and agree, during which period the EU itself will also be negotiating stronger ties with the same countries – and they have rather more bargaining power at their disposal.  Any deals which the UK cuts need to be significantly better and/or operational for a very long time if they are to stand any chance of leaving the UK better off than it would otherwise be.  50 years sounds to me like a not unreasonable period over which to judge whether the gamble – for that’s what it is – will have been successful or not, and Rees-Mogg is making a fair point in saying so.
What he didn’t say, however, is that, for people who think like he does, it simply doesn’t matter how long it takes to arrive at a judgement, or whether the overall economic outcome at the end of that 50 years is favourable or not, because they start from a position of seeing Brexit as a good thing in itself for entirely non-economic reasons.  Those are partly about clinging to an outdated notion of absolute sovereignty and independence, partly about hankering after an idealised past where Britannia ruled the waves, and partly about Anglo-British nationalist exceptionalism which insists that ‘we’ are not like ‘them’ and are very special.  It’s about a world view, not economics.
The other thing he didn’t talk about was who in society would suffer the economic consequences as the economy adjusts over the next 50 years, because in any adjustment on such a scale there will inevitably be winners and losers.  There is, in short, a price to be paid, and the question is about who gets to pay it.  We can be certain that Rees-Mogg, and people like him, will not be among the losers.  Arguing that the price of taking this huge gamble is worth paying is easy enough if you’re not the one paying it, but the big dishonesty from the outset has been the failure of those taking that view to spell out that there is a price and to be clear about who will pay it.  Had they done that, they would have had to campaign for Brexit solely on the basis of the ideological rationale; that they did not do so underlines that they never thought that they would be able to persuade enough people to support their world view.
Even now, some of them are still arguing that there will be a Brexit dividend, despite the government’s own advisers having well and truly rubbished such an idea.  Their simplistic claim that if we’re no longer paying £x to Brussels (and we can argue about the value of x, but the precise sum is irrelevant here) we will be able to spend that £x on other things is easy to latch on to.  What’s missing of course is the unstated assumption that ‘nothing else changes’; and if that assumption were true, then of course there’d be a dividend.  But that’s a bit like assuming that if I stop spending money on food, I can spend it on other things, which simply assumes that the food keeps coming.  The point is that Brexit changes a whole host of other things; the assumption that it doesn’t is patently and obviously wrong and is being exposed as erroneous on a daily basis.
That leaves the Brexiteers in a desperate situation.  They ‘won’ the referendum but can see that victory slipping away from them as their lies and half-truths become increasingly clear, and as people come to realise who is going to be paying the cost of the Brexiteers’ dream.  Their only hope is to get on with it, to exit quickly before the process can be stopped or reversed, and deal with the consequences later.  Whether the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are complicit or merely useful idiots is open to debate, but ultimately irrelevant.  At the moment, the Brexit ideologues are winning the battle without ever needing to win the argument.

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