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AC Grayling: Road hauliers have it in their gift to save our country

Lorries pass the Brexit-inspired mural by artist Banksy in Dover. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The road haulage companies have the power to influence Brexit and stop a ‘no deal’. Professor A C GRAYLING explains more.

Business is beginning to put pressure on the government to come to its senses over Brexit. The CEOs of Airbus and Ford have added their highly influential voices to the actions by hundreds of companies already moving or planning to move their operations to other EU countries, as Jacob Rees-Mogg has done, or to countries with free trade deals with the EU, as James Dyson has done.

It is good that business is at last getting involved in putting pressure on the government openly; but it is very late in the day for them to do so. You will hear senior representatives of business say that they are politically neutral, and that their task is to focus on whatever problems circumstances throw at them. But when the CEO of Airbus speaks out, you know what the private sentiments of almost all business leaders in the UK are.

The ‘political neutrality’ point is not altogether correct. The ‘invisible’ industries – financial services, the legal profession – have a major influence on politics, both corporately and in the form of individuals who advise or make political donations. It would seem that representatives of the visible sectors – manufacturing, transport, agriculture – are more hesitant about speaking out, though more likely to suffer from the consequences of Brexit. Threats by government to discriminate against businesses which are openly critical of its policy, and the imposition of Non Disclosure Agreements on businesses that the governments deal with, enforce the silencing of business opinion and expression of their anxieties.

The time has emphatically come, however, for business to get involved in the debate. Many firms are in danger of closing, and the livelihoods of many employees are threatened, not only by a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, but the blow that the economy as a whole will take if any form of Brexit occurs, even on a ‘best case’ model.

One of the most threatened of the UK’s industries is also one of its most vital: the road haulage industry. It is also therefore the industry with the most power to have an effect on government policy. Indeed it has a unique opportunity to influence government policy hugely. The reasons are as follows.

We are already familiar with the threats that Brexit poses to just-in-time supply chains with destinations all over the country, to food supplies, to the paralysing of capacity at ports both in physical handling of trucks and of customs procedures, and the very real danger of bankruptcy to many transport companies. Government offered a ‘lorry lottery’ of 4000 permits when 40,000 were needed; the time limit for applying for them ran out in mid-January. Already transport firms are staring down the barrel of the gun – and looking over their shoulder is the entire economy.

Transport is the artery that has to be kept clear for the various forms of material lifeblood of the economy to flow through. Block that artery, and the country dies. The transport industry is existential for the economy: and this is where its enormous power lies.

The trades unions representing lorry drivers are not at present the aspect of the transport industry that wields this power. They can lobby, but they cannot intervene with industrial action at this juncture, because they require a 40% minimum vote of their entire memberships for a strike (a terrible irony here, since the 2016 referendum was ‘won’ by a vote of merely 37% of the electorate for Leave) and in addition to the time it takes to arrange a ballot, many transport workers are members of unions which represent numerous other kinds of workers who may not wish to support strike action.

The road haulage companies, and the national Road Haulage Association, are however in a different position. Their power to influence affairs is huge. Imagine if they called a shut-down of services, even for a few days merely. That would bring the country to a halt: factories stopped, supermarkets empty, power and fuel supplies quickly exhausted. The mere threat of bringing the country to a halt would be enough to wake up both Parliament and government to the need for decisive action.

The most urgent need is to get ‘no deal’ off the table, and to extend Article 50 so that rationality might have a chance to prevail, either by having a People’s Vote on whether to continue with a Brexit process, or to make proper preparation for the difficult times that will result from pursuing one. These two actions are the essential, crucial next steps. In view of the brinkmanship of the government in trying to force either its own party members to buckle or the EU to abandon its commitment to Ireland to protect the Good Friday Agreement, and in view of the Labour Party leadership’s failure to act in the interests of the country (and in accordance with the views of the overwhelming majority of its own Party), an intervention by an actor with real heft is required. That actor is the road haulage industry.

If the road haulage industry, through the medium of the Road Haulage Association, were to say that it would protest the current course of Brexit policy either by shutting down for a period, or by taking direct action by blocking motorways (these courses of action have different merits but the same effect), it would have an enormous and highly salutary effect on the course of events. The country would applaud its demand for sanity and rational reflection on what is happening.

The mere threat, seriously intended, would almost certainly be enough. But if – given the fact that we do not have the most rational of political orders at present; it is one that seems content to hazard the well-being of the whole populace for its partisan ends – a stoppage were actually to occur, the period of hardship that the country would endure as a consequence would be as nothing compared to the years and years of problems that would follow any form of Brexit.

The message to road hauliers, therefore, is simple: you have it in your gift to save our country.

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