Friday, 23 June 2017

Celebrating the first anniversary of Britain's latest foot-shooting incident

It was fun being in Sweden at the beginning of this week. Friday was going to be a big day there: the midsummer celebration when everyone eats, drinks and makes merry. Those with the energy, the legs and the sense of rhythm will even go dancing around something like a maypole. An entertaining tradition.

Swedish midsummer dance. They have something to celebrate
In Britain, the same Friday represented something completely different. It’s the first anniversary of the latest occasion when Brits indulged their enthusiasm for another, equally longstanding but far less entertaining tradition: shooting themselves in the foot. That’s as in going all intransigent over the American colonies and losing them, deciding that the best thing to do with soldiers in world War One was charge them at machine guns (OK, I know we weren’t alone in indulging that particular folly) or, more recently, invading Iraq. There are plenty more examples.

The anniversary we’re celebrating today is for the decision that people like the Swedes are just too foreign for us and the best thing we could do is separate from them, by leaving the European Union. It’s becoming clear each passing day how bad that decision was. Many passing days, though: one of the great delusions of the debate over Brexit was the shortsighted view of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, that even to vote to leave the EU would precipitate disaster.

It was always difficult with Cameron to know whether he was primarily clueless or mostly lazy. Personally, I’ve always wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and regard him as indolent, but I don’t disrespect the view of others who, less generously, see him as plain incompetent. He has, incidentally, had a worthy successor: I can’t quite work out whether Theresa May is completely out of her depth, or just completely out of touch with humanity.

The Cameron line that merely to vote for Brexit would be catastrophic was always nonsense. It was a shortcut to avoid having to explain the more complex truth of what Brexit would mean and, like so many shortcuts, it took us to the wrong place. The reality is that, like most economic phenomena, the effects of Brexit will take a long time to work their way through the system.

The quickest was the loss in value of the pound. At the time earnest Brexiters assured me that this would have no impact on inflation, since retailers would absorb the increase in prices. Sadly, inflation has gone ticking upwards, month by month, gradually but inexorably.

There was a lot of talk of how the EU needed Britain more than Britain needed the EU, and we would therefore have the whiphand in negotiations. But now that negotiations have finally started, itr’s Britain that’s making concessions.

The first concerned the principle that all matters would be negotiated as a package, so that, say, payments to the EU would be agreed at the same time as a trade deal for Britain. Now the sums to be paid will be discussed first and separately.

The second concession was on the fate of EU citizens resident in Britain. Theresa May is proposing that anyone who has lived here for five years will be granted the right to remain.

Don’t get me wrong. I welcome any move towards guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights. Indeed, I agree with the EU that Britain must go further. In the end, Britain will make further concessions because, contrary to Brexiter illusion, we are not in the driving seat.

That will disappoint the large numbers of Brexiters whose real motivation was that they simply didn’t like foreigners. They wanted to reduce immigration.

That’s a growing problem. The numbers of Central and Eastern European seasonal workers who come to pick British fruit and vegetables are seriously down. Some of our crops will rot in the fields. Why aren’t they coming? Britain is increasingly perceived as xenophobic, even racist. And indeed racist rhetoric was inflamed by the Brexit vote and, with terrorism adding fuel to the fire, hate crimes are on the rise. Besides, the falling pound makes it less interesting financially to work here.

Now this is how I expected Brexit to go. Not an explosion of disaster but a slow decline as departure from the trading bloc on our doorstep starts to strangle our economy. The knot is slowly tightening, and we haven’t even left the EU yet.

The Danish Finance Minister, Kristian Jensen, got it right. There are small nations, like Denmark, that know they’re small. And then there are small nations that haven’t realised yet. Too many Brits think the country is still a global player.

They’re in for an unpleasant shock. They think the US will come to our rescue? Hey, the US needs rescuing itself, with a President who makes foreign policy pronouncements only to see them contradicted by his own State Department.

They think Brexit will give them control back? It will give control over their lives back to the kind of government – Cameron’s – that got us into this mess and the kind – May’s – that seems intent on making it worse.

They think that left to our own devices we can attain a new prosperity? As Emmanuel Macron pointed out, it was Britain that was most intent on pursuing a brutal model of “liberal” economics. That means de-regulation for the super-wealthy, and erosion of wages for everyone else. Just what Brexit will deliver, continuing the seven years of Tory rule we’ve already had.

No, Britain isn’t destined to become a lion renewed, roaring on the world stage. Instead it’s chosen to be a classic third-world economy: a low-tax, low-pay, low-service marginalised economy. Self-shot in the foot, we stumble into the destiny to which May is leading us.

Ah, well. I’ll raise a glass tonight to my friends in Sweden. At least they’ll be having a good time, with something cheerful to celebrate.

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