Brexit: Is There a British Strategy?
A Speech Given in Bratislava
on Tuesday the 6th August 2019
to the Institute of Economic and Social Studies
Introductory Note: I made this speech to an audience of Slovak journalists, politicians and diplomats. It was a view of the British situation that none had seen before. I hope it turns out to be a correct view of the situation. I hope this because I want it to be true, and because anything less than this will damage my reputation in Slovakia as an oracle for all things British. It probably is correct. However, we are dealing with a contest between human beings in which chance is at least as important as the grand forces. If I am wrong, it will show that the British ruling class is more fractured and unfit for government in the general sense than I presently believe it to be – and more unfit for government than is good for the future stability of the country. SIG
I will begin my speech by thanking Richard Durana and all my other friends at INESS for having invited me once again to give what is now my traditional “summer lecture.” This being done, I will make an important – indeed, an essential – reservation.
I have known Boris Johnson for twenty years. I know several of the other Ministers in the new British Government. But I am here this evening in no possible sense as either an official or an unofficial representative of the British Government. I have not discussed the content of my speech with anyone in that Government. My speech is, and must be seen in all respects, as a personal view. It is a view based on a close observation of British politics, and I hope it will be useful to anyone who wishes to understand what is happening at the moment in London. It is, I know, being covered by the Slovak media. It will be studied, I believe, by persons in the Slovak Foreign Ministry, The speech is, even so, a personal view.
Not a Government of Right-Wing Extremists
The subject of my speech is whether there is a British Strategy for Brexit – that is, for leaving the European Union. There is a clear strategy, but it is not the strategy you will read about in the British media, and that is now being analysed by the governments of the other member states of the European Union. This strategy – this misunderstood strategy – can be summarised in the words of a hostile British observer. Martin Fletcher writes for The New Statesman magazine in London, and is a former Foreign Editor for The Times. His view is that the Conservative Party, and therefore, the British Government, has been captured by a group of right-wing extremists. Their intention, he says, is to leave the European Union without any Withdrawal Agreement except one written on their own terms. They care nothing for the political and economic harm such an unagreed withdrawal will have on Britain. They are deaf to the voice of reason.
This is a dangerous misunderstanding of the new British strategy. It is dangerous because even political extremists can be made to hear “the voice of reason.” You may think that, if the European Union and its member governments continue to insist on the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with Theresa May, these people will eventually give in, just as Theresa May did. The result will then be a general election or another referendum, after which you will hear no more of Brexit. If that is what anyone in this room, or anyone following this speech, believes, let me assure him that it is very dangerous misunderstanding.
Europe: A Peripheral Issue in British Politics
Considered purely in itself, membership of the European Union has never been an important issue in British politics. The European Union is a free trade area with a customs and regulatory union. Except in terms of trade and some regulations, membership does not constrain any member state from doing what its ruling class really wants to do. The Hungarians and Poles do largely as they please in matters of immigration and what Western leftists call “human rights.” The French have never worried too much about the Maastricht Convergence Criteria in fiscal and monetary policy. The British are outside the Euro and outside the Schengen Area.
Of course, there has been a vocal opposition in Britain to membership ever since we first joined in 1973. But the number of people interested in theoretical matters of sovereignty has always been limited, and these people were generally ignored during the first twenty-five years of our membership. The gathering crisis over our membership that we can date perhaps to the election of the Blair Government in 1997 is best compared to the referred pain you see in a human body. You have a shooting pain in your left arm. You take it to a doctor. If he is any good, he will not tell you to rub cream on your arm. Instead, he will put a stethoscope to your chest. That is, I suggest, a good analogy for our debate over membership of the European Union.
Euroscepticism as Transferred Opposition
Ever since about 1997 – perhaps for some time before – the British ruling class has been engaged in a project of transformation. I will not bother to call these people bad. They believe they are supremely enlightened – so enlightened that they have the right, by whatever means they find convenient, to make us share the enlightenment. Many of my fellow countrymen, however, do not see this Transformation as enlightened in any reasonable meaning of the word. There will be the appearance of a multicultural love feast in which billionaires and Moslems and transsexuals join hands and dance. The reality will be a working and middle class destroyed by managed flows of global trade and services, and atomised and thereby made unable to resist by managed flows of migrants. The new world that many of my countrymen see waiting is one in which we look from the windows of our microscopic and rented high-rise flats, while they are driven about in bullet-proof cars, and armed police push other vehicles out of the way.
Because making our views plain on the Transformation is either illegal or unwise in Britain, we have complained instead about the European Union. That has remained an open issue, and has been used to its fullest extent. The UK Independence Party grew big by talking about the European Union, but whispering about the Transformation. At first, UKIP did well only in elections to the European Parliament, which is a body of no practical importance. Then, in the 2010 general election, UKIP won no seats, but gained enough otherwise Conservative votes to deny the Conservative Party an overall majority. Then UKIP won the 2014 European elections in Britain. By the 2015 general election, the Conservatives were frightened that UKIP would again deny them an overall majority. Therefore, David Cameron promised that a Conservative Government would offer a referendum on membership of the European Union. This promise was just enough for him to win a small overall majority. But 3.9 million people still voted UKIP, and UKIP came second in 120 constituencies.
I will pass over the mistakes that David Cameron made in the 2016 Referendum. What matters is the margin of victory for the leave side. You will have heard that the margin was small – 52-48 per cent to leave. The important truth is that around two thirds of the English voted to leave. The narrow overall margin is because of the Scottish and ethnic minority votes, and these are not important. Officially, the Referendum was about membership of the European Union. Unofficially, it was a vote of confidence in the Ruling Class and its project of Transformation, and the English voted that they had no confidence.
This is the background to the chaos that followed the Referendum. Just as for much of the population, membership of the European Union was a peripheral issue for the Ruling Class. The main agenda for this class is the Transformation that I have mentioned. The details of a customs and regulatory union are less important than control of education, the media and the criminal law. This being said, membership is useful so far as it blurs the lines of accountability. It is also an article of belief among some elements of the Ruling Class. For this reason, the verdict of the 2016 Referendum was unwelcome. It meant a diversion of effort from the main agenda. It upset various important people. The obvious solution was to give us a minimal departure that would satisfy us, but would keep in place those elements of the European Project that really are important to the Ruling Class.
Government by Conspiracy?
Here, I come to a digression on the nature of how Britain is governed. My country is not particularly democratic. At the same time, there is no cabal of evil persons directing all events and appointments from behind the scenes. This is generally not how ruling classes operate. A more realistic model can be taken from Ian Kershaw’s analysis of the National Socialist revolution in Germany. This proceeded with limited central direction. Before 1939, the leaders were concerned mostly with foreign policy, after that with fighting a big war. Instead, the revolution was decentralised. Reliable men were put in key positions and told to “work towards the Fuhrer” – that is, to act in any situation as they might imagine Hitler himself would act. The result was often administrative chaos. The benefit was that the leadership could concentrate on what it saw as the essentials, and more local knowledge could be used in the overall revolution than would otherwise have been possible.
This is largely how things work in Britain. Our own Transformation is not driven by detailed orders from the Shadowy-Ones-on-High, but by creating a bias within every useful institution to those who are broadly in favour of the Transformation. The benefit is a constrained diversity of approaches that can be presented as a genuine diversity of opinion. The disadvantage is that executive power lies in this country where it has since 1701 – that is, in the hands of the Ministers of the Crown, who are accountable to the House of Commons. If the Prime Minister turns out to be a fool, and the other ministers are too cowardly to stab him in the back, there is no easy way to remove him.
The New British Government: There to Rescue the System
I come at last to the Brexit strategy of the new Government. These people are not right-wing extremists who can eventually be forced to give in. Just like Theresa May, they see Brexit as a problem that needs to be solved. If they could wave a magic wand, they would roll back the calendar to 2016 and make sure that Remain won the Referendum. Or they would roll it back a little farther and make sure the Referendum was not called that year, or at all. But they cannot. Instead, they have to deal with the effects of leaving a political fool in charge for three years of the Brexit process.
Theresa May had one job after 2016. This was to produce the minimal departure I have mentioned. Instead, she negotiated a Withdrawal Agreement that caused a storm of outrage among the English. The details of what this Withdrawal Agreement contained are, again, unimportant. What does matter is that the Withdrawal Agreement was published in English on the European Commission website, and millions of us read its 585 pages. We may not have been that interested in the details of our membership. But the details of our “withdrawal” were unacceptable. She tried three times to force it through the House of Commons. Each time, a majority of some very trashy people were terrified to be seen supporting it. Anyone else less stupid would have tried something else. Instead, Theresa May treated us with open contempt. Whether or not we really cared about it, we had been asked if we wanted to remain in the European Union. Having voted “No!” we expected some show of respect for our clear instructions. We did not welcome a Brexit-in-Name-only.
At first, the damage was confined to the possibility of a Labour Government. Then, with the rise of the Brexit Party, the system as a whole moved towards a crisis of legitimacy. The European elections of the month before last were seen as the second Referendum the Remainers had demanded. It was won by the Leavers. The Conservative were crushed. Labour was humiliated. It seemed that a general election would, for the first time, produce a bloc in the House of Commons of Members opposed not only to the peripheral issue of the European Union, but also to the Transformation.
So Theresa May had to go, and she was replaced by Boris Johnson. His own inclination, I have no doubt, is to get a few cosmetic changes to the existing Withdrawal Agreement, and then tell us he is a diplomatic genius. His problem is that this will no longer do. Theresa May has left too much poison in those waters. Brexit must now be more meaningful than was at first projected. Last week, there was an election in Wales to fill a vacancy in the House of Commons – a bye-election. This should have been won by the Conservatives. Instead, the Brexit Party took enough Conservative votes to give the seat to one of the opposition parties – not the Labour Party, which did badly. The political arithmetic is that anything less than a No-Deal Brexit or a diplomatic triumph will mean a collapse of the Conservative vote at the next general election. And this will not mean a Labour Government, but political chaos and a crisis of legitimacy.
What the British Government Now Wants from Europe
Now to the British strategy on Brexit. The new Government must have a diplomatic triumph. That means something like the following:
We want to be outside the customs and regulatory union, and not subject to any of the European institutions. At the same time, we want privileged access to the Single Market and continued participation in those areas of the European project that suit our convenience. We are willing to pay money for this, but nothing more. In other words, we want most of the benefits of membership of the European Union and none of its costs.
You may think this a most unreasonable demand. You are probably right. But that is what the British Government has no choice but to demand. If it does not get this, it will walk away without any withdrawal agreement. Any economic consequences can be dealt with as and when they arise – and there may not be that many of these. This is not a government of right-wing extremists. But it is ready and willing to cut taxes and deregulate to offset any dislocations caused by withdrawing from nearly half a century of economic integration.
And this is not the whim of a group of right-wing extremists. It is now the settled opinion of much of the British Ruling Class. Anything less than I have said will bring on a political crisis in Britain. This is the only thing that now matters to these people. It is now a matter of saving their Transformation. Just as the Stalin Regime in 1941 suddenly revived Russian nationalism to save its Revolution, so our own rulers now will wrap themselves in a Union Flag that they have long despised, and tell us that they are our most devoted servants. Do not expect Brexit to be stopped by any coalition of Remainers. Do not hope for any “voice of reason.” The Ruling Class has made the political calculations, and it has decided that it must either give us Brexit and possibly lose the Transformation, or deny us Brexit and almost certainly lose the Transformation. This is what matters. As for Boris Johnson, all he wants is an easy life as Prime Minister. He is clever enough to know that there is only one path to getting his easy life.
A Closing Threat to Our European Partners
Following from this, do not expect Britain after leaving without any agreement to be a friendly partner. We are the only great military power in Europe. We have one of the main financial centres. We have a close relationship with the Americans, the Indians and the Chinese, among others. It we showed willing, we could have a close relationship with the Russians. For the past five hundred years, we have specialised in making life difficult for anyone who wanted a united Europe. If we choose, we can make like very difficult indeed for what is left of the European Union. This, I will add, is not some threat made by an observer without power to influence events. It is instead a prediction of how the British Ruling Class is likely to act now that its position is under domestic threat.
If you have followed me so far, I am not sure I have need of a conclusion. But I will give you one. You are not dealing with Boris Johnson and a group of right-wing extremists who have inexplicably gained supreme power in Britain, and who can be pushed out or brought to a different view of what they want. You are dealing with a British Ruling Class that no longer cares to frustrate the will of the people in the peripheral matter of the European Union. We want, I will repeat, most of the benefits of remaining in the European Union and none of the costs. The European Union has a choice. It can make the leaving process easy for us or hard for itself. For domestic reasons, the new British Government has no choice but to mean exactly what it says to the European Commission and, by extension, to the other member states of the European Union.