A few years ago I read a piece that looked at one’s attitude towards the world and how that corresponded to your political allegiance. Generally the more optimistic you were, the more likely you were to vote for left-wing parties, and the more pessimistic you were, the more likely you were to vote for right-wing ones. (Note – I don’t think the linked piece is what I read, but it says a similar thing.)
One thing that has repeatedly struck me since the EU referendum in June 2016 is how much that assumption has been undermined. Those who voted Leave now tend to be optimistic about the future that Britain may have outside the EU, while those who voted Remain tend to be pessimistic. While this doesn’t reflect directly onto the left-right political spectrum, those who voted Remain tended to be more left-wing than those who voted Leave.
It has also struck me how this optimism (or, possibly more accurately, naivety) is expressed from the leaders of the Leave campaign. For example, the issues over the Irish border.
Ireland is remaining within the EU and, therefore, the single market and the Customs Union. This makes the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland a border between the UK and the rest of the EU.
The UK Government accepted in December that there wouldn’t be a “hard border” because of the effects on the relevant communities. Implicitly that means that some level of free movement is expected, required even, across that border. For the UK that means that some acceptance of free movement of people (ie. immigration) is expected, and the EU will need assurance that what is being brought into Ireland (ie. the EU) meets their standards.
The logical endpoint is that Northern Ireland will remain in some kind of customs union and single market with the rest of the EU. The UK Government has committed to treating Northern Ireland in the same way as the rest of the UK – so, by extension, this will apply to the rest of the UK as well. This would suggest very strongly that the UK submits itself to EU rules and regulations but leave the institutions that helps define them.
Except that the Leave leaders resist this inexorable logical flow. There are technological solutions, they insist, which means that goods and people will be able to freely flow across the border. The Irish Senator Neale Richmond said on Sunday’s Peston show that the Irish Government weren’t aware of any such technological solutions.
My view is that the solutions which have been described (although I don’t know whether any of these actually exist) rely on a form of pre-registration. But any system will need to cope with what happens if someone didn’t pre-register, and that suggests some kind of border control (a hard border), as you will need to check those crossing the border without pre-registration. Also, how would you detect fraudulent pre-registration, where someone says they’re bringing something in yet actually brings something else in?
Leave campaigners have pointed to the Norway / Sweden border as an example – yet there are border posts there, and people are subjected to delays when crossing that border. The same happens when crossing between the USA and Canada. Having driven from Northern Ireland into Ireland at 60mph on the main road between Belfast and Dublin a couple of years ago, I can vouch that there is no more a hard border there than there is between, say, France and Belgium – one of a number of EU Single Market internal borders I have also crossed without stopping. Putting border checks in will incur delays and queues, which starts to create more of a target for terrorists.
The EU is not an unknown set of ministers, governments or civil servants. We have been their close partners for many, many years. We know how the EU works and what it expects. The UK is the one choosing to leave – so it’s not unreasonable for the rest of the EU to ask the UK what it wants, as it clearly doesn’t want what’s currently on offer. The Government’s response has been vague and shifty.
I’ve coined the term Schrodinger’s Brexit because there seem to be so many areas where a contradictory set of expectations is being set – the Irish border is one such example.
Schrodinger was a quantum physicist who popularised a thought experiment about the indeterminate nature of an object until it was directly observed – Schrodinger’s cat (in a box with a decaying radioactive element) could not be said to be either dead or alive until the box was open and the cat could be observed. Between those observation points, it could be considered to be simultaneously both alive and dead – in the same way that the Leave leaders seem to be treating a future border in Ireland as both there and not there.
Another is how forecasts are treated. Yesterday’s Peston on Sunday noted that Leave leaders were bigging up the Bank of England’s forecasts of wage growth against inflation, even though the civil service’s modelling showing a substantial decline in some parts of the British economy had been dismissed by the same people the previous week. Confirmation bias writ large. The economy will both not be harmed and be harmed at the same time. Trade will be both free and restricted at the same time.
I understand that trade and the economy is only one of the factors that people decided on in June 2016. I am aware that sovereignty (whatever that actually is) is another big factor – one which overrode the economy for many Leave voters. It was the driving force behind Lord Lawson’s campaign in 2016 as noted in this Guardian interview a few months before the referendum. Note again his vagueness about the specifics on how any of this would actually work.
Trade negotiations don’t close hoping that some solutions will be found. They deal with the here-and-now, the nitty-gritty. Vague and optimistic answers to problems will be dismissed in favour of concrete, feasible solutions every time.
We somehow want to trade freely with the EU but not be subject to their standards (the single market, which guarantees the quality of a pint of milk or a section of copper wire across the continent). We want to be able to travel and work freely across the EU but restrict the ability of EU nationals to travel and work freely in the UK. We want to be able to import what we want from the rest of the world while having a free-trade area with the EU – again, potentially breaking the known EU standards. You can imagine what the EU would think about a food processor who had imported chlorinated chicken from the US and who then tried to export food products to the EU. Essentially Leave leaders want all the benefits of being in the EU without any of the costs. Wouldn’t anybody? Understandably the EU is not positioning this as an option – yet this stance is being dismissed as “spite”.
Yet, all the time the Leave leaders promote this belief that somehow, somewhere, someone will find a solution to these intractable problems. The idea that choices need to be made and that those choices may penalise people and businesses is being dismissed. It’s been infantilising our politics for months now – with the knock-on effect on the UK’s reputation abroad.
I voted Remain partly because I couldn’t see how leaving the EU would actually work. I wasn’t immune to the charms of the Leave campaign. At the time I agreed with some (but not, by any stretch of the imagination, all) of the arguments about sovereignty – but saw they could also be applied to how our UK Government worked (or didn’t). I could see that an argument could be made that uncontrolled immigration from the other EU countries could be harming a few parts of our economy, a few regions of our country, even though it seemed that our own Government could take some legitimate steps to minimise these effects, but hadn’t. There were no specifics and plenty of inconsistencies.
Nearly 20 months later, and just over 12 months to the leave date, I still can’t see how leaving will actually work – other than by penalising British citizens and British businesses. Twenty months for Leave leaders (and the UK’s Government) to come up with precisely no answers to any of the questions that were around before the referendum is an appalling indictment.
I started this piece talking about optimism and pessimism, and how it affects peoples’ political alignment. It may be just my social media bubbles, but I am starting to sense that the mood in the country has shifted slightly – as the negotiations rumble on and the Leave leaders still can’t answer any questions directly. There are certainly indications that more people now feel pessimistic about a Brexit future than optimistic. Whether that gap will be big enough before the crunch date (which I think has to be September this year), and whether enough people will think that the process needs to be stopped by then, is unknown. But the chance it will is what is giving me a thin sliver of optimism.