Mrs May’s Disastrous Deal
By Duncan Whitmore
Albeit for the wrong reasons, Theresa May never ceases to amaze. In spite of having first tabled an almost universally unpopular proposal for withdrawal from the EU at Chequers in July of this year, and then having done the equivalent of inject that proposal with steroids through the draft “Withdrawal Agreement” with the EU, she soldiers on in the face of all resistance.
Sean Gabb has summarised the contents of the draft agreement unveiled last week in an earlier post on this blog so there is no need to repeat that here. What we will do instead is to outline the combination of circumstances that have led to this situation and conclude with some thoughts as to what libertarians can make of this whole this debacle.
The first factor is the character of Mrs May herself and the kind of leadership she evokes. Ever since she became Prime Minister in the wake of David Cameron floating off into well deserved obscurity, she has been frustratingly impossible to work out. As I mentioned in a podcast on this blog with Andy Duncan earlier this year, I can never make up my mind as to whether she is, on the one hand, an easily manipulated weakling who lacks the guts to state any principled position on anything; or, on the other, a brilliant political strategist who has some grand scheme all worked out in her head (although if forced to choose I’d put money on the former). Indeed, the small part of myself that deals more with fantasy than reality hopes that she has, in fact, been a secret Brexiteer all along who is, quite deliberately, wasting everyone’s time by introducing a deal that she knows nobody will accept, causing us to default to a departure from the EU with no deal at all.
However, probably the best description of her is that she is, like a pane of glass, “hard, but brittle”. She somehow musters enough Thatcher-like strength to stay upright within her frame, yet by lacking the security of any strong, inner convictions she is always vulnerable to those who may throw stones. She supported Remain in the referendum, yet, as easy as it is to conclude that this latest agreement displays her credentials as a pure Remainer, it is worth remembering that she was hardly one of Remain’s most vociferous advocates. With equal half-heartedness she subsequently promised to “deliver” Brexit but has failed to provide any justification of why leaving the EU is a good thing independent of the fact that people voted for it. Her ability to say one thing while meaning and doing another – a characteristic she has displayed since she was Home Secretary – suggests that, instead of clinging to any deeply cherished principles, her overriding concern is to be able to wriggle her way into the fringes of any possible position and thus protect herself from anyone anywhere who may be prepared to lob those stones. Her press conference on the evening of Thursday 15th November – during which most of the room was expecting her to announce her resignation in the wake of half a dozen or so ministerial departures – was an embarrassing testament to this view. As usual, she read from a strongly worded, statesmanlike script, yet she was audibly nervous, shaken, even terrified in the subsequent Q&A, mixing up everybody’s names and cobbling together incoherent, improvisatory answers that make Sarah Palin look like Jordan Peterson.
Thus, it seems that this withdrawal agreement may in fact be a botched attempt at pleasing everyone while producing the result of satisfying no one (albeit with a heavy bias towards the Remain side, given the immediate environment in which Mrs May is operating). Most likely, she was calculating that she could, on the one hand, claim that “Brexit has been delivered” by asserting that there will be an end to free movement, while, on the other, the alleged problem of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland makes a handy excuse to maintain as close an economic/regulatory alignment with the EU as possible (and so Remainers would have nothing to complain about).
Needless to say, such hopes have been utterly mistaken. While it is true that free movement is a pressing concern for Leave voters, it was neither their only nor their main motivation in voting the way they did. According to Lord Ashcroft Polls, the single, most pressing reason for some 49% of Leave voters was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”, whereas only one third cited the problem of immigration control. (In fact, it is likely that immigration acted as much as a catalyst for a greater realisation of what the EU is all about in addition to being a factor in its own right). This draft agreement, of course, completely fails to deliver on the overriding concern of domestic decision making authority – and, in any case, free movement will continue throughout the “transition period”, and probably beyond in the absence of a later deal.
Remainers, on the other hand, see that there is no point in languishing under the EU’s control without having any say over that control, and that this agreement effectively cements Britain’s status as a vassal state. In fact, for Theresa May’s own political class, a seat at the table was probably one of the most attractive aspects of EU membership. One of their concerns with Brexit was that Britain would be relegated to an insignificant little island on the fringes of a great, unified power. This agreement, in their eyes, achieves just that while keeping Britain under the aegis of that power. They will now be shut out from all of the plush conferences and important summits (not to mention the prospect of being pensioned off to Europe) while having to swallow all of the EU’s edicts from on high.
It must have taken some curious kind of ingenuity on Mrs May’s part to cobble together a deal that has alienated her from both Remainers and Leavers. If we assume the intention of remaining as close as possible to the EU while giving the appearance of leaving, a stronger, more politically adept leader may have concluded that the only way to do this is to first make a formal withdrawal from everything – customs union, single market, etc. – and then, once the glare of publicity has faded, quietly introduce realignment with the EU as a new package under a new name – a new “customs partnership”, or whatever. But because Mrs May has packed everything into the main event it simply looks as though we aren’t leaving, but remaining on terms worse than we already have.
It’s possible, of course, that Mrs May’s end game is to align Leavers towards concluding that the best option, in any circumstance, is to cancel the whole show and simply remain in the EU outright. That, however, would only work if the government had been seen to be doing its level best at securing the most advantageous deal possible for Britain, which is visibly not the case. All that Mrs May has actually managed to do is to drive an even bigger wedge between Leavers and Remainers than there was before, pushing each of them further to their extremes as the former now press for a “no deal” (which Mrs May herself always said was better than a bad deal) while the latter rally round the demand for a so-called “People’s Vote” to reverse the result of the 2016 referendum.
This leads us onto the second factor which is the intransigence of the political class in its refusal to implement the result of the referendum – in other words, the thesis that the whole thing has been an establishment “stitch-up” that has stuck two fingers up to the ordinary voter.
On the one hand, the spectacle of political elites squirming and struggling to find their way forward in the aftermath of this “populist” backlash to the globalising, unifying, liberal-leftist paradigm that they previously took for granted has made somewhat satisfying viewing for the libertarian. On the other hand, we must surely lament the fact that nobody who was truly on the inside of these negotiations with the EU seems to have been particularly bothered about fighting for Britain, nor does there seem to have been any willpower to play our strongest cards (such as the money we will pay).
However, although most politicians may well believe that membership of the EU (or as close to it as possible) is best for Britain and, thus, could have been motivated to sabotage the withdrawal deliberately, a more convincing explanation for their capitulation is the fact that the political class as a whole no longer regards serving the interests of their own, sovereign nations – the very people who elected them – as their highest priority. Today’s politicians have been brainwashed by a generation or more of global communitarianism, multiculturalism and trans-national “co-operation” in which fighting for their own corner as an independent nation has been forgotten ahead of forging permanent, international consensus on absolutely everything. Indeed, just the idea of walking away from the table – the very threat of which will signal to the other side that you mean business – is probably an unthinkable anathema in a milieu of pervasive multilateralism, particularly if all of these Eurocrats have, hitherto, been friends and colleagues of British politicians rather than arms-length adversaries. This is not to say that states do not squabble over competing agendas; merely that this draft agreement may owe much of itself to simple incompetence and inexperience in the manner of negotiation which was required on this occasion, coupled with the lack of desire to contemplate treading a different path from everyone else.
Nationalism was, of course, supposed to be a thing of the past – a vile sentiment associated with Nazis and gassing “inferior” races. And yet the reason why nationalism is on the rise is precisely because politicians do not place their national interest at the top of the list. As is always the case in the affairs of man, the response to the emergence of one extreme is to bring about its complete opposite rather than settling in the middle. In this case, the dangerous, hyper-nationalism of the pre-1945 era has been replaced with pretending that there are no nations whatsoever and the desperate clamour to maintain the nirvana of “unity” lest we all incinerate each other in a third world war. It is this false dichotomy that was alluded to by French President Emmanuel Macron in a series of speeches during the World War I centenary events, just a few days before the draft withdrawal agreement was announced. The more sensible, middle ground of adopting friendly relations with other nations while looking after your own first has been overlooked. This draft agreement indicates that our politicians have been slow to learn that the pendulum is now swinging back towards this stable equilibrium and, hence, the perception that we have simply capitulated to the EU will pervade. Gabb is, therefore, spot on when he says that “the sole villain in these proceedings has been our own ruling class” – there was no need for us to get ourselves into this position.
The third factor is the struggle of the Conservative Party to maintain its internal integrity while having claimed ownership of the entire withdrawal process. Having been wounded by their losses in an unnecessary 2017 general election, the Tories are desperate to avoid anything that risks splintering the party and thus raising the prospect of a Corbyn-led government. This is probably the single biggest reason why Mrs May has lingered on for so long, in spite of tallying almost as many ministerial resignations in her premiership of two years as Tony Blair achieved in ten. Nobody wants to rock the boat, particularly over the very issue (Europe) that so plagued the party in the 1980s and 90s.
Unfortunately (for the Tories), the bigger political risk is unlikely to come from division over Brexit (which will probably happen whatever the outcome) but, rather, will come from a perceived failure to deliver the departure from the EU that 17.4 million people voted for. Of these 17.4 million, 40% of them were Conservative voters in the 2015 general election, and 58% of Conservative voters in that election voted to leave the EU. Both of those figures are higher than for any other major political party except for the latter where UKIP takes the crown. As has been made clear by the Remain side many times over, the majority of Leavers were of lower annual household income and less “educated” than Remainers. So in other words, a large chunk of Conservative support consists of the very voters who could be wooed to Labour in the event of Tory failure.
In this regard, the 2017 election should have served as a warning shot, and yet it’s likely that the Tories have taken home the wrong message. Another lesson that politicians have been slow to learn is that principle has begun to overtake party loyalty and pragmatism in political affairs – the age of the spin doctored, smooth talking, politically correct politician is coming to a close in favour of the blunt, brash and bold. In other words, it is probably better in the long run to have ministers resigning and/or toppling their leader in order to maintain fidelity to Brexit than it is to have a unified party of quislings and sell-outs. But even if this was not the case, the failure to implement the Leave vote concerns also the integrity of British democracy – the very thing that grants government legitimacy in the eyes of the people. There is no point in maintaining party cohesion if, to do so, you fail to honour the system that elects that party to power – something that finds only faint realisation in the continued lip service paid to fulfilling the will of the British people.
Therefore, it may have been far better for the Conservatives to have seized the day by ditching Mrs May when the “Chequers” proposal was announced back in July and the first round of ministerial resignations began. For that was the moment when Mrs May made a clear commitment to violating her manifesto pledges of a withdrawal from the single market, customs union and ECJ jurisdiction, and when it became obvious that No. 10 was circumventing its own Brexit department with a seemingly hidden agenda. Instead, because Mrs May has been allowed to drag on, doubts about her leadership have ground themselves down into a tired message, and the current draft agreement, being in the same ball park as “Chequers”, lacks any real shock value. Mrs May could well have greeted the second wave of ministerial resignations last week with the attitude of “been there, done that, got the t-shirt”, particularly as they lacked the loss of any real heavy hitter such as Boris Johnson, with the only individual of comparative stance – the weaselly homunculus that is Michael Gove – choosing to stay.
Thus, the current challenge to Mrs May’s leadership has, at the time of writing, lost momentum simply because it feels like a belated attempt at something that should have happened long ago. In his press conference to explain his decision to finally throw in the towel with the Prime Minister, the ever-diplomatic Jacob Rees-Mogg (pictured left) lamented that what Mrs May says and what she does “no longer match”. This is true, but to Mrs May’s critics it is something that has been obvious for quite some time, and something that has been perpetuated by Rees-Mogg’s hitherto insistence that the problem is with “the policy, not the person”.
Assuming there isn’t a “People’s Vote” (a.k.a. a second referendum), the task ahead for Mrs May is to try to get this awful agreement through Parliament, an endeavour which can only result in a handful of outcomes: rejection and no deal; rejection and replacement with a better deal; or acceptance. Either of the first two possibilities may “save” Brexit in the eyes of Leave voters – yet this outcome will be in spite of, rather than because of, anything to do with the Conservative Party, and the general impression will be that the whole fiasco could have been avoided from the start. If the last possibility materialises, then it is the Conservative Party that will take the lion’s share of the blame for having “ruined” Brexit while other parties may escape relatively unscathed. (Although the likely beneficiary of a complete Tory failure on Brexit may not be Labour, whose votes would probably be needed to push through this withdrawal agreement, and, in spite of the Corbyn veneer, still suffers from its perceived control by upper-middle class liberals; rather, it may end up being UKIP).
Thus, it seems as though we are in this mess as a result of the foibles and failings of the specific political players as much as a grand, establishment conspiracy to thwart Brexit. Indeed it is worth remembering that the state, far from being a monolithic edifice that speaks with one voice, is more like a hydra, each head of which has its own pre-occupations and priorities in conflict with the others. Thus, everything it does results from its internal calamities and clashes as much from the focussed firepower of a formidable fortress.
The reason I emphasise this interpretation – aside from being able to feel marginally better about the situation – is that the British state may now be approaching a point of extreme weakness at which the constitutional arrangements that have remained largely intact since 1688 could be brought into question. Thus, instead of speculating too much on the future of this particular agreement, it is more worth our while to try and see what libertarians can take away from all of this and what this whole debacle may mean for the future of the British state.
In the first place, the best outcome of Brexit (assuming the lack of any lingering obligations from our current EU membership) has always been to leave the EU with no deal and to follow it up with a unilateral declaration of free trade. Needless to say, it would have been best to have spent the last two years preparing for this rather than scrambling around for the possibility of it now. Even so, regardless of what they may achieve in the short term, agreements between states, unless the are needed to avoid active conflict, always provide the necessary framework for them to mulct their citizens and to increase tax and regulatory burdens for the benefit of themselves and of large, multinational corporations. Indeed, the fact that, as Gabb points out, “everyone important agrees that [no deal] would be a calamity to be avoided at all costs” is probably a good enough reason alone for believing this to be the best option. (In fact, those very same important people, prior to the referendum, were trying to underplay the extent to which the EU impacts directly upon our lives; it is only now that we actually have to leave that they confront us with the spectre of diabetics running out of insulin and planes dropping out of the sky). Moreover, the idea that “the economy” needs any kind of “transition”, “implementation”, or lingering period of whatever in order to “cope” is nonsense. Businesses are perfectly adept at meeting changing circumstances, even very suddenly, once it is clear what those circumstances are. This is because there is no better mechanism for ensuring adaptation than the simultaneous attraction of profits and the fear of losses. The best thing the state can do in all of this is simply to get out of the way. Given that economic prosperity requires long term capital investment, the one thing guaranteed to stall this prosperity is a decade or more of dealing, negotiating, and wrangling over what the eventual legal/regulatory framework should be. In the short term, therefore, libertarians should push for the “no-deal” scenario.
If this does not occur, however, there is now a very real risk to the integrity and perceived legitimacy of the system of government that we have in Westminster – i.e. that the fallout from a failure to deliver Brexit may cripple faith in the state itself rather than in any particular party. However awful any government prior to now has been, the system has remained relatively stable because the illusion of democratic legitimacy has been maintained. I whole heartedly agree with Gabb when he says that “we need a new system of government”, and we may well find that it will soon be demanded if this veneer of democratic legitimacy should sufficiently erode. For libertarians, the best government is always the smallest, and so the more that the left-wing, liberal, London-centric government paints itself as an impenetrable, unchangeable elite that will never serve the needs of the rest of the country, the more likely it is we will start to see calls for greater degrees of political power to be granted to more localised geographical areas – in other words, greater decentralisation.
Indeed, regardless of our EU membership, Britain is already one of the most ludicrously centralised states in the developed world, with only 5% of tax revenue sourced at the local level. The path to liberty has never been trying to “persuade” central government to enact freedom-friendly policies towards education, healthcare, policing or whatever – it has consisted instead of trying to scatter power over those things out to as many, smaller jurisdictions as possible. Libertarians need to be ready to respond to and encourage sentiments in this direction, and to prompt a constitutional realignment that wrestles power away from Westminster.
The final aspect to which we should turn our attention is the spectre of pan-European armed forces – something which Britain’s involvement in has received little attention but is summarised in the following, short documentary by young, Leave supporting journalist Steven Edgington:
It is surely no coincidence that the likes of Macron and Merkel have raised this issue now, ostensibly to bolster Europe’s defence against Russia and the US under the deplorable Trump. Yet anyone with half a brain should be able to see that its real purpose is to consolidate the internal power of the EU. In the first place, the spectre of “sending in the troops” would make the EU’s task a lot easier in disciplining un-cooperative states, such as in the current debacle with Italy. Worse, however, is the fact that enforceable sovereignty is always going to be where the guns are, and the only reason that Britain can “impose” its departure from the EU (if it wanted to) is because the EU does not, collectively, have those guns. In other words, if this pan-European army was to go ahead, we would very soon find out that an armed union is a compulsory union, and any civil unrest or separatist sentiment would simply be quashed by the European military. As we saw in Catalonia last year, this is precisely what happens already to separatist movements within individual states. The worst and most tragic (not to mention ironic) outcome would be if the institution that was supposedly set up to guarantee continental peace ended up igniting a European equivalent of the American Civil War.
In some ways, the threat of this pan-European army may be unrealistic. For one thing, it might be the very issue that is guaranteed to tip any anti-EU sentiment over the edge. It is also likely to be the case that troops themselves are unwilling to fight under a European banner. One of the pervasive weaknesses of the EU is that nobody, other than the most fanatical Europhile, has been prepared to call himself a European ahead of a Brit, German, Italian, etc. and if there is one area where patriotism matters it is in the armed forces. Thus, it would be likely that any continental-wide army would, at least, still be operated in divisions drawn along national lines.
Nevertheless, there is reason enough to mount opposition to this armed collectivisation now and to ensure that it fails to even get off the ground.
All in all, therefore, in spite of all the feelings of treachery and despair, let us at least take solace in the possibility that the British state, in its wrestle to get its own way, is helping us to sow the seeds of its own doom.