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Fisking Andrew Marr’s delusional view of Brexit

Friday, February 24, 2017 13:29
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Perhaps already too filled with mince pies and and excessive alcohol, or maybe just clutching at some sort of good news amongst the doom of Brexit, many commentators who should otherwise know better have been gushing in their praise for Andrew Marr’s “An optimist’s guide to Brexit” in the Christmas edition of The New Statesman. I tweeted that the piece is piffle, but I think it deserves a more comprehensive breaking down as the piece seems to have ignited so much false hope.

First of all, most generally, the vast majority of what Marr hopes for could be achieved without Brexit actually happening – and indeed would actually be easier to do without having to cope with the economic consequences and resource implications of Brexit. Second – like so much UK journalism about Brexit – it ignores that what happens in this process is not entirely up to the British. Third, many of the opportunities Marr thinks Brexit might offer are good for the left or for the right, but not for both sides of British politics. With the Tories in government, and miles ahead of Labour in the opinion polls, I hence think any lefty advantages of Brexit are rather unlikely to come to pass.

But anyway, to the piece. I am going to take it apart as a typical fisking – point by point, and reproducing parts of the original text here. I’m not reproducing all the original text here as the piece is so long. If you quibble with what I left out, by all means comment below.

“Brexit will not happen.” It cannot actually happen. Parliament, we are told, will force the deluded people to come to their senses, aided by the judiciary and big business.

I have little doubt that Parliament will continue the Brexit process, but the words about the judiciary sail very close to ignoring the Rule of Law, and imply that the judges in the Supreme Court are acting politically. If the Supreme Court, for example, rules that Stormont has to give its assent to Brexit, that is not forcing people to come to their senses. Instead it says that the legislators who passed the original Referendum Bill were so lax that they did not think of the legal consequences of what they were doing.

if, after exhaustive and exhausting debate, [the people] made their decision, by a clear majority; and if they were then told that it wasn’t going to happen, or at least not without a second vote, the glossy fabric of British democracy would be ripped to shreds.

Yes, the debate was exhausting, but it most definitely was not exhaustive – because if it were exhaustive we would not be needing the current arguments about the role of Stormont, or indeed the Scottish Parliament, in the Brexit issue – as these matters would have been amicably solved before the referendum. Even whether Britain should stay in the Single Market (or not) or the Customs Union (or not) were not solved before the referendum (see this if you think that was solved before the referendum – it wasn’t) – and leaving the latter would turn Kent into a truck park. Pretty sure that wasn’t exhaustively debated. One of the main reasons the referendum debate was not exhaustive was that the country’s major broadcast journalists did not understand the issues and did not push the leaders of the Leave camp about those. But I am not pointing fingers, oh no.

Brexit is coming, and relatively soon. We have to assume that the UK will be outside the EU within two and a bit years. An entirely new chapter in our politics will then begin. Yet most of the British political class is so battered and demoralised by the Brexit decision that they cannot take what is likely at face value, and start to chart how they intend to reshape a country that has much more power over its own governance.

This takes the Article 50 exit process at face value, and assumes that Britain will be out of the EU at the end of that process. Yes, formally the UK will be out – but as Ivan Rogers, someone with a lot more detailed info on the process than Andrew Marr, has said – the full process will likely take a decade. Plus as Theresa May has now even begun to acknowledge, the only thing the UK is likely to be able to get in two years is a transition deal. While that is in place, Britain will have the very opposite of what Marr demands, namely no say in the EU institutions, but no gain of control whatsoever – because the UK will still be in the Single Market and Customs Union during the transition, will have to accept the Four Freedoms if that is so, and will probably still be subject to the ECJ and pay into the EU budget. If there are sunlit uplands, they will not be reached in two and a bit years.

This is odd; and it is a dangerous wasted opportunity. Parliamentary power, expan­ded and reinforced, gives new opportunities to both the left and the right to change Britain. Rather than being paralysed by fear, we ought to be on the lip of a great invigoration of our democracy.

Perhaps Marr has not seen May’s efforts to keep Parliament out of the Brexit process by refusing a vote on when to trigger Article 50? Or that May has said there will be no vote at the end of the process for Parliament either? Or that May infuriated the Liaison Committee and even the Queen with her lack of precision on Brexit? Maybe Marr would like more from May on this, but at the moment the prospects in this area do not look good.

It’s unlikely that we will veer enthusiastically back to the distant pre-European-migration past, or cast aside liberal and environmental ways of thinking that have become valuable to us in recent decades. For left and right alike, this is going to be a time of fresh, vivid and urgent debate.

I am not so sure. Brexit was at least in part driven by nostalgia. And with a Tory party so predominant in UK politics, and Theresa May as Prime Minister – not known for her liberal values as Home Secretary – I am far from convinced. And fresh and vivid debate seems like pie in the sky just now. Maybe Andrew Marr might like to reply to this blog entry as a start?

We have to start, of course, with trade. Through the thick miasma of official waffling, some things are already becoming clearer. We will be out of the single market and will be out of a customs union – because if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to negotiate our own trade agreements around the world. Theresa May would hardly have created a new Department for International Trade if she intended it to have no purpose.

This is among the weirdest and most deluded parts of Marr’s piece. Firstly it implies what sort of Brexit will happen is in Theresa May’s hands. As Marr himself argues, Brexit is supposed to rejuvenate British democracy – should choice over the variant of Brexit hence not lie with Parliament? Second, the Department for International Trade was set up on 14th July, a time when the government had no idea whatsoever what its Brexit strategy was (it has little idea even now, and I’m writing on Christmas Eve). And – perhaps cynically – Theresa May had to stick Liam Fox somewhere. Marr also does not say whether exiting either Single Market or Customs Union is desirable or not.

Yet the pressure from business and industry for access to European markets […] The logical conclusion is that we will see sector-by-sector agreements […] This is the kind of thing that might allow EU leaders to grant low-tariff or tariff-free access to some markets, and stave off a downward economic lurch.

Yes, might is the most important word here regarding the sector by sector approach. Perhaps almost certainly not would be better – because the EU will see it as further cherry picking by the UK, as Christopher Grey argues here. And as the Switzerland case (that operates this way) shows, it’s hellish time consuming and complex to do – and no way possible within two years.

What it will also involve, obviously, is a higher level of continued movement from the EU into the UK than many Brexit voters expect. But the government will honourably be able to claim that it has “taken back control”.

So it’s deceit then? It has taken back control, but actually there will be no change? And that is considered progress? Come on. That’s the worst sort of spin.

As was hinted at with the early deal with Nissan, the change could prompt a move towards more physical manufacturing, at the expense of the service sector.

No. Nissan’s position was under no threat without Brexit. In fact Brexit puts manufacturing in greater danger – as moving physical goods requires more geographical proximity in trade than services do. So the Nissan deal – if indeed it is actually more than vague reassurance – actually seemed to show the opposite of what Marr thinks it did.

We have been arguing, increasingly bitterly, about some of the consequences [of deindustrialisation]: the huge rewards for a small minority of bankers; the lack of German-style support for industrial manufacturing and the consequent lack of jobs for people who want to work with their hands; and the increasing imbalance in wealth and power between the metropolis and the Midlands.

Last time I checked Germany was in the EU. What, dear Andrew, prevents the UK pursuing a German-style industrial policy now? The problem outlined here is a very real one, but what does Brexit have to do with it actually?

Some of the measures the left would like to take to support and protect the steel industry, or engineering, or to enhance our growing advantage in robotics, are made impossible not by British Conservatives, but by EU regulations on competitiveness and state funding. Make no mistake: an awful lot is back in play. Rail renationalisation, for one, despite the announcement this month about franchising of train tracks.

This is horribly poor. For a start Port Talbot is threatened by Chinese steel dumping. Which country prevented the EU acting to prevent the dumping? Yes, the UK. Under a Tory government. The EU has actually now found a way forward on this matter, against UK opposition. I have no idea how the EU is damaging engineering, not least because the rest of the EU has a more solid engineering base than the UK does. On robotics many top scientists fear the impact of Brexit on scientific research (see this interview with Anne Glover for example), and the UK’s participation in EU-funded research programmes after the current Horizon 2020 programme is not known. If anything Brexit will simply mean UK firms have to automate more as they cannot get workers – with farms and delivery firms leading the way.

As for rail, this is an old chestnut – all the EU requires is the separation of network from operations, but both of these can be in the hands of the state. So the EU does not stop the renationalisation of the UK’s railways. Indeed Transport Secretary Chris Grayling wants a fully private integrated railway, which is even further from what Marr advocates here.

So no, an awful lot is not back in play. Indeed there seems to be an awful lack of precision from Andrew Marr here.

It is true that a Brexit deal that secured the interests of British carmakers while failing to secure the City’s “passporting rights” – so leading to a haemorrhage of financial institutions to Frankfurt, Dublin or Paris – would be extremely painful for the Treasury and the British state.

Very true. But as Marr argues, the UK ought to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union, and as sector by sector deals will be hard or impossible, under his suggested way forward this is exactly what will happen. Remember Lloyd’s are already drawing up contingency plans.

Indeed, whether or not Brexit can be made to work financially will depend to a large extent on our ability to strike an early UK-US trade agreement that allows Britain to sell its service sector into the American market. Otherwise, the loss of tax revenues would be something the rest of us would have to make up, and austerity would be extended to cover a screeching handbrake-turn for the economy.

OK. So Britain needs an urgent deal with the USA. With Trump in the White House. Trump who is notoriously anti-Free Trade and has been anti-TTIP, and no-one really knows how to deal with him? OK, Marr said he wanted an optimistic vision of Brexit, and if the economic case is based on dealing with Trump then Marr sure is that! Plus the USA accounts for 17% of UK exports, while the EU accounts for 44% of UK exports – more than 2.5x as much. I cannot find a study that seems to make Marr’s case economically plausible – that a UK-US free trade deal could somehow replace UK-EU lost trade. TTIP was meant to benefit EU GDP by 0.5%, while Hard Brexit is predicted to negatively impact UK GDP by 5.4% to 9.5% – these stats are not really fair to compare, but Marr provides no statistical backing for his assertion whatsoever.

Leading Tories see deals with poorer countries leading to cheaper clothing and food imports than we have now. Many EU trade deals with developing countries don’t include services because they don’t matter so much to other EU member states; they can now be extended to benefit us.

Yes, that might be true. And British farmers will complain when their subsidies are cut and their livelihoods suffer. Plus a lot of them vote Tory, as Andrea Leadsom knows – she’s promised a subsidy regime will continue. Oh and the weaker value of the pound means imports of food from the rest of the world are driving food costs up at the moment. On the developing countries issue, look at the example of India – it refused to open its services market to the EU, so why would it to the UK? Plus India demanded more visas to the UK from May – that she refused. Trade deals need to be mutually beneficial if they are to work. Oh, and why does Marr keep coming back to services? Other parts of the piece say the UK should return to manufacturing instead – which is it?

Labour’s Brexit committee has been looking at how the left might develop a critique of global­ism. Part of this could involve the trade treaties to come so that they include environmental and worker protection clauses (and, indeed, human rights provisions) alongside agreements on tariffs.

Aside from the issue that Labour would have to be in power to try this, and that the UK’s own worker protection is among the lowest in developed countries, and that the UK has long argued against this sort of protection within the EU, and that yes, things like the EU-Vietnam trade deal contain environmental and worker protection clauses, YES, by all means try this. Did Marr do any actual research for this piece?

Defence is another significant area that will change. We remain, of course, in Nato and we should stop trying to hector the remaining EU countries about their own defence arrangements […] we ought to be having a big debate about what kind of defence we need and where our deeper interests lie […] We have had a deep-frozen defence debate for years; it’s time for that to change.

Really, seriously, what does Brexit actually have to do with that? I agree that the UK debate about defence ought to change, and deeper reflection is needed, but that can happen anyway – Brexit happening is not a precursor for it.

The same kind of profound changes will be available in foreign policy. Able to act independently, Britain can forge a different policy for the Middle East; we can make our own policy on human rights in China, too. After Brexit, we should see a return to something like health for the ignored and enfeebled Foreign Office.

This is utter codswallop. The FCO has been enfeebled by UK government budget cuts and, more recently, by the most ridiculous Foreign Secretary in recent times. Put those things right first. Second, does the EU really have a unified position on the Middle East? And if it does, does the UK actually disagree with it? And if the UK wanted the EU to forge a different policy on the Middle East, would the rest of the EU object? I think not. As for China, the UK has pussy-footed around the human rights issue for years, but being in the EU has not been the reason for that – the UK’s own weakness vis à vis China has. So yes, UK, sort out your foreign policy – but do not begin to blame Brexit for your current weedy stance or lack of determination in the Foreign Office.

The range of domestic policies that can now be thoroughly altered is breathtaking, covering everything from the funding of schools to forestry to employment rights.

Funding of schools? The EU has nothing to do with the funding of schools – education is a national competence. Forestry? What does the UK want to do to its forests that the EU is preventing? The UK was even the driving force behind the EU’s forestry management legislation. If there is some opportunity there that I am missing, do enlighten me. Employment rights could indeed change – the EU sets minimum standards here, but employment rights law varies enormously across Europe, so the UK has some flexibility here already – especially regarding the improvement of standards for workers.

One area with scope for change is agriculture, which has been deeply enmeshed in EU lawmaking policy covering everything from the size of hedgerows and gates to inspection regimes for various kinds of farm, all tied to the doling out of subsidies from urban voters. Whatever version of Brexit is finally agreed, it seems inconceivable that farmers won’t want the best possible access to European markets for their meat, cereals and even wine. Consequently, any new inspection and hygiene regime will have to be at least as good (and therefore as intrusive) as the one we have now.

I can’t find any law on the size of hedgerows, but the EU does stipulate when they can be cut – so as to protect nesting birds. There is EU law on gates, but more to do with their manufacture and safety as far as I can tell. But essentially yes, this is largely true – there could be quite some changes to agriculture. Which, just before you get carried away, accounts for less than 1% of the people employed in the UK – before we even get to the robots mentioned above.

A different subsidy regime could tilt away from the largest landowners, who are already wealthy, to give extra support to struggling family farms and hill farmers – the kind the urban public most often admires and supports.

Oh, which country has argued against this very thing happening in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy? Oh, yes, the UK.

We could have new laws to encourage the replanting of hedgerows and coppices, to protect our endangered birdlife […] Our island ecosystem is European but also subtly different, and we can handcraft legislation to reflect that.

So that EU hedgerows legislation mentioned above… is actually to protect bird life. So Marr bemoans the EU, and then advocates the UK do exactly what the EU is already doing shortly afterwards. Meanwhile the EU funds planting of hedgerows in Denmark, so I presume can do so in the UK too. Further, the UK’s main finance for planting hedgerows – the Countryside Stewardship Grants – are currently in danger of being axed because of… you guessed it… Brexit, says the NFU. Looks to me like that sort of detailed crafting is actually already happening – without Brexit.

Some interesting work on forestry futures has been done by the government’s natural capital committee. Across the UK, only 6 per cent of our economy is low-carbon, but that has produced 30 per cent of growth over the past three years.

And why does Brexit impact this?

Or, if we choose to accept that we are now an essentially urban country, a future government could tear up restrictions on housebuilding and urban sprawl and give the green light for widespread planting of genetically modified crops.

The EU is not responsible for planning law, but some related fields – notably environment and waste – do impact this (more here). But for example if the UK wanted to build on the green belt around London then the EU is not going to stop it. The UK does indeed have a problem with the EU’s GM crops regime, but the UK’s proximity to the EU, and trade with the EU (especially if the UK did not leave the Customs Union) would mean the UK would not be immune from the EU’s regime on this anyway.

Environmental policy could be another area of change, though we are highly unlikely to follow Donald Trump’s lead and ditch all our green commitments. The big choices on energy policy will be the same outside the EU as inside: carbon emissions are now dealt with by a global treaty.

It is hard to see a future government loosening laws on restricting airborne pollution from industrial plants, or on the disposal of chemical and electrical goods. […]

Are we likely to want to reverse the effects of the EU’s Birds Directive? On the contrary, after Brexit, I would expect great British organisations such as the RSPB and the National Trust to become bigger voices in the national debate. In most of these areas, the freedom for manoeuvre will enable us to bring in better and tighter regulations, based on the needs of our own wildlife and landscape.

On energy the UK – like it or not – has gas and electricity interconnectors with EU countries, so cannot separate itself from EU energy markets even if it wants to. Marr also misses that many environmental issues are not constrained by the boundaries of counties – even some species of birds migrate. The RSPB sees the importance of international action and the EU, and with more than a million members is not exactly quiet in UK politics just now. Waste from the UK ends up in the North Sea and on someone else’s beach, while metal and plastic waste are commodities traded in the Single Market. And the UK has argued against better EU vehicle emissions rules, has been taken to the European Court of Justice for poor waste water practices, and the UK has opposed stricter renewable energy targets in the EU. So probably the UK outside the EU would have the opposite of what Marr demands – the UK would end up with weaker standards.

Coastal communities could be transformed by our leaving the EU. Old fishing towns have lost out to the growth in big corporate fleets, often owned by non-British companies, scooping up and processing the fish offshore. Gutting, smoking and the rest of preparation is no longer done around the ports and much of the “under ten” (smaller boats less than ten metres long) has vanished. All of this can be reversed.

How that is going to work? Is Britain going to miraculously stop buying fish caught or processed elsewhere? (UK imports just under 50% of its fish) Doing this would either mean a return of proactive industrial policy, or UK consumers being ready to pay more for fish landed this way.

So unless we decided to overfish our own waters brutally, a quickly self-defeating policy – or unless we don’t care about exporting seafood – the space for expansion would seem limited.

So having in the previous paragraph talked up how coastal communities could be transformed, now the opportunities are limited in the next paragraph? I’m lost.

We could, however, go in entirely the other direction and introduce more stringent safety and hygiene rules, so that our exports would be particularly valued. Thinking bigger, there is now nothing to stop us creating our own extensive undersea conservation areas. Environmentalists are worried about the effects of bottom trawling on the North Sea. We could fish less, not more.

The UK is the country that dreamt up the Euromyth that fishermen had to wear hairnets – and then the UK would go beyond EU standards? Do customers even worry about the safety and hygiene of their fish? And 10 UK fish and mollusc products have EU protected status – precisely the sort of thing designed to defend high quality, locally produced goods.

As for fishing less, sure. But the UK cannot do that alone – as fish too cross into someone else’s water. Better do that through the EU. And the person who has done that the best? Yes, UK television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with his Fish Fight campaign.

Those are just a few thoughts. There are probably many other areas where we will see a revived policy debate. Once we have control over VAT rates, and indeed the ability to create our own purchase tax, we can do away with absurdities such as taxes on tampons, and craft a tax system to encourage and discourage different kinds of spending – say, differential rates for high-sugar products, or special tariffs on electronic products that are hard to recycle. Why not?

Yes, indeed, a few thoughts. Thought enough to list them, but not thought enough to check how they work, or what the EU is doing in those areas already.

Yes, there are EU rules on VAT – so as to prevent cross border distortions – but the EU is already giving Member States much more discretion in this area. Plus a deal was struck in March 2016 to remove VAT on sanitary products. Sweden can adapt its tax rates to favour repair over purchase – and do that within the EU. And what is a purchase tax if not VAT? The EU’s WEEE rules mean electrical goods should not be complex to recycle, and Belgium’s Recupel system (and yes, Belgium is in the EU) offers a model to add an extra recycling charge – the UK could do just that. And the line on sugar is most ridiculous of all – Hungary (also in the EU) does that already, and Denmark introduced a fat-tax (although they withdrew it because it did not work). One wonders whether Andrew Marr even bothered to Google any of the ideas he was writing in this piece?

There’s going to be a vigorous argument about all of that. But that is exactly my point. Almost without notice or comment, British politics has developed its own dependency culture, losing self-confidence about important changes of direction. Because of “Brussels”, politicians and civil servants have become a bit “computer says no”, taking it as the first principle that we can’t do this, we can’t do that. We can’t protect industries. We can’t really change economic direction. We can’t create new industrial hubs. We can’t change policy for the countryside. Well, now we can.

The defeated centre has spent a lot of time since the referendum asking whether the Great Disaster was “really” all about ingrained racism, fear of the modern world or media manipulation. Wouldn’t it be healthier to decide that the Leave side’s victory was about what it said on the tin – reclaiming political control – and then ask ourselves what we can now do with that extra freedom?

For all of us who believe in British democratic culture, there can be exciting times ahead. The winds of change can be invigorating, not simply bloody cold.

I hope there is not going to be a vigorous argument about all of the points Marr raises, as some of them – as I have pointed out – are either ridiculous or being done already. But for some issues Marr is perhaps right – maybe the UK does lack self confidence over many of these things. But I hope that this fisking has demonstrated that most of the valid ideas could be done while remaining in the EU. The idea that industries cannot be protected, economic direction cannot be changed, industrial hubs cannot be created, and countryside policy cannot be changed due to the EU are all misnomers. The UK could go about changing all of these things if it so wished, anyway.

The sad thing of course is that actually all of these things Marr wants are going to be made harder thanks to Brexit – because leaving the EU will occupy all the government’s time, and will take an economic toll, issues that he speedily skirts over.


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