It could easily happen, again and again

End of the beginning

The Brexit trade deal settles little - the EU will haunt British politics for years to come, writes Paul Demarty

So, in the end, Brexit took place - apparently without a hitch.

The vast tailbacks at ports did not, in fact, materialise (perhaps because the Covid-19-related logjams had already spooked hauliers). For all the rumblings of discontent at the details of the deal secured by Boris Johnson with the European Union, parliament approved it by a crushing majority, thanks to surprisingly strong discipline in the Tory ranks - and Labour’s support, of course.

For Johnson, this is all supposedly a vindication. He knifed David Cameron in the back to become the most marketable Brexiteer back in 2016, plainly then with a view to the top job - principled political stands being as foreign to his constitution as straight bananas apparently are to red-blooded Britons. (Asked once if he had any convictions, Johnson famously quipped that he might have picked one up for speeding.) His ambitions put on hold by a taste of his own medicine, courtesy of Michael Gove, one further defenestration - of Theresa May - was necessary to give him a path to No10, and he ‘got that done’ - as he likes to say - by promising the negotiation strategy we got in the last year: one of relentless brinksmanship and assurance that a no-deal Brexit was on the table. But now he has his deal and we can march onwards to the sunlit uplands of Global Britain - or Britannia Unchained, or your chauvinist fable of choice.

The declarations of victory already ring hollow, however. Having used fishing allocations as a pretext for endless willy-waving over the negotiating table, Johnson failed to secure any more than the most token concessions. The ‘level playing field’ agreements forbid the government from getting rid of much of that notorious ‘Brussels red tape’, on pain of endless arbitration; meanwhile, the new customs borders, in the Channel and the Irish Sea, may well prove sufficiently complicated to strangle many smaller logistics firms (a sector with many small businesses of the sort that provided the bedrock of what capitalist Brexitism existed in 2016).

Perhaps the most telling moment in the whole sorry saga came at the very end: having secured the deal, and facing grumbles from the true believers of the European Research Group and the like, Johnson’s office urged them not to reject the deal on the basis that a no-deal Brexit would represent a total catastrophe. The bluff, sub-Churchillian bluster we knew so well was finally replaced by the schoolmarmish good sense that Brexit-bonkers backbenchers mocked in Theresa May.

We could say that ‘the mask slipped’ (or whatever cliché you like), except that the whole thing was obviously theatre all the way along. Years ago, James Marshall argued in this paper that the Brexit side of the referendum itself was engaged in a Kabuki dance, and that the geopolitical reality would conspire to overturn Brexit or else reduce it to an in-name-only affair.1 This assessment was wrong - the world’s geopolitical immune system was given a severe shock by the election of Donald Trump, and in the end we have had a fairly hard Brexit - except in one detail. The whole thing has been a Kabuki dance, if not quite the one comrade James thought we were getting: a distraction from the fact that, in this negotiation, the EU held all the cards, and had an interest in making Brexit as miserable as possible for Britain. The consequences are only beginning to unfold, but the result is likely to be Britain’s hitherto-managed decline spinning out of control.

Neuralgic spots

With immediate economic catastrophe forestalled, the next problems seem to be constitutional. Brexit bears on two neuralgic spots in the United Kingdom order - Six Counties politics and Scottish independence. Despite his brinksmanship under May, where a customs border within the UK was considered completely out of the question, the Kabuki dance principle turned out to apply - this is exactly what we have got. The underlying tendency of Six Counties politics to drift from the mainland is accelerated by all this: nobody is left in greater confusion than the late Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists, whose fanatical Brexitism coexisted somehow with the two red lines that no division within the Union was to be permitted, and nor was any interruption of trade with the Irish Republic acceptable. This flat logical contradiction being left predictably unresolved, Arlene Foster’s merry men are left grinding their teeth: and, as their grotesque founder famously assured his older parishioners, teeth will be provided.

On the other side of the national-sectarian divide, there is no less disquiet, but also a more determined sense of purpose. More and more Sinn Féin members feel emboldened to fly the flag for a unification referendum, to which they are entitled in principle under the Good Friday agreement. Though the numbers likely do not add up yet, the bet may be that a little more patience, as the consequences of Brexit unfold (and the Republic further untangles itself from the residues of mid-20th century Catholic theocracy), will do the trick before too long.

We will not likely have to wait quite so long for some kind of showdown in Scotland. As we have mentioned more than once recently, the Holyrood elections in a few months time are likely to hand a crushing victory to the Scottish National Party and its pro-independence allies. The objective of a second independence referendum is entirely out in the open, with Brexit - a quite genuinely English calamity - being wielded as the latest evidence that the Scots think that they would be better off alone. Opinion polls record historic levels of support for independence.

The peculiar irrealism of this perspective - that Scotland would somehow have more clout and protection from the vagaries of global politics than the UK as it stands - need not detain us here: it is merely worth noting that Brexit has lit the fire under separatism, and simultaneously pushed the Tories into stonewalling any such demands, making a new and possibly violent constitutional crisis all the more likely. If Brexit was supposed to ‘unchain’ Britain, it has certainly loosened the ties - or shackles, according to taste - between its component parts.

Domestic strife is likely to set off more fireworks, but in reality the difficulties posed to ‘unchained’ Britain by its restive internal populations pale in comparison to the external difficulties that have now arisen. The Brexit dream, insofar as it ever formed into anything more concrete than desperation and empire nostalgia, was of a swashbuckling island nation using its great traditions and established financial sector to play an outsized role in the global economy - a sort of Atlantic Singapore. The lesson is soon to be learned that a country may play that role only at the pleasure of the major world powers.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that these are the Franco-German-led European core powers, China and, above all, the United States. If we wanted our European ‘partners’ to sponsor (or tolerate) us as a low-regulation offshore operation, then surely we might have started by not engaging in four years (and counting … ) of rancorous divorce proceedings. It is just possible to imagine a strategic pivot to China - after all, before he and David Cameron conspired to give us this damned referendum in the first place, George Osborne started to warm up to closer ties with the Chinese - but seems vanishingly unlikely for many reasons. The most immediate obstacle is ‘subjective’: the decline in Sino-American relations looks likely to outlast the Trump administration, and most Tories are tendentially Atlanticist in outlook. Meanwhile, foreign office creeps will baulk at a shift from the orbit of a proven hegemon to an untested contender for global hegemony, whose capacity to displace the US is extremely doubtful.

Which brings us to Washington itself. In a certain sense, Brexit was a bet on US strategy. The Brexiteers with any kind of plan have connections in Washington; they knew that there was a faction of the global-strategy blob - hitherto a minority - that considers the structures built up to fight the cold war (including Nato and the EU) long past their sell-by date.

The re-election of Donald Trump would have cemented the power of that faction. Indeed, a single term for a ruthless president that was capable of holding firmly to that strategic line for more than five minutes, rather than the addled human mini-cheddar we actually got, might have helped clear out their ‘orthodox’ strategic opponents. In such a scenario, the US may have given discreet support and assistance to the UK in its transition to ‘freedom’, so as to undermine the efforts of the EU core powers to make Brexit painful pour encourager les autres, and thereby undermine Europe’s integrity further.

We did not, of course, get that result; it seems so far that Joe Biden’s administration will be staffed by a familiar breed of neoconservative and conservative-‘realist’ creep, dedicated to shoring up the global order led by the US after four incoherent years of strategic paralysis and - by recent standards - disappointingly sparse bloodshed. How will the new order in Washington view the insolence with which Britain has treated that order? Is it more important for America to sustain that ‘special relationship’ or to (let us say) mend fences with the EU powers in order to hold a common front against Russia and especially China? It is not guaranteed - and if the state department does turn against Britain for one reason or another, it is easy to imagine the invisible hand of American money, soft power and intelligence agencies tipping the scales in favour of the SNP, Sinn Féin and the like.

If the Brexit negotiations looked inglorious to anyone not being paid to say otherwise, let us watch the negotiations that are still to come. The UK can ill afford to be without a major-player ally, and every sinew will be strained - having ‘taken back control’ from Brussels - to hand it over to the US, so as to ensure the continued protection of the global Godfather. Chlorinated chickens will be the least of it.

  1. The in-out kabuki danceWeekly Worker April 14 2016.↩︎