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Michael White: UK on a road to nowhere

PUBLISHED: 07:00 24 November 2017

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MICHAEL WHITE on how a brief moment of common sense was engulfed by intransigence of the leavers

It must have been a coincidence. But on near-adjacent pages last Saturday’s Times carried high-minded visions of the Brexit process from two cerebral Conservatives who ought to have much in common, but currently don’t. As such their views read like upmarket position papers submitted to Theresa May’s divided cabinet.

When ‘small c’ Conservatives like the philosopher and telly don, Professor Sir Roger Scruton, and former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, can sound so similar in their fervent but soft-spoken patriotism, yet so different in their assessment of Brexit, what hope could there possibly be implementing Frank Field MP’s peace plan?

Peace plan? Yes. It was Birkenhead’s thoughtful Labour MP who suggested during one of last week’s committee stage session on the EU (Withdrawal) bill that the challenge facing Brexit Britain is now so great – Field speaks as a “Reluctant Leaver” – that Theresa May should emulate Winston Churchill in Britain’s last such existential crisis. As France crumbled in May 1940 the new prime minister formed a cross-party unity coalition with an inner war cabinet.

It’s a thought that occasionally surfaces in 2017, only to disappear again below the stormy seas of bitter Brexit partisanship. If modern Germany’s consensus-minded parties can’t manage to form a new coalition under the wise and emollient Angela Merkel, it is unlikely that so uncharismatic a leader as May could bring in Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable in the way Churchill did – or for more than five minutes.

As briefings after this Monday’s cabinet underlined, it is hard enough to generate the appearance of mutual trust and unity of purpose even within the Tory party without adding external complications.

The Labour party which encompasses John McDonnell and Keir Starmer, Kensington’s chippy Emma Dent Coad and Normanton’s Yvette Cooper, is in no better shape. At least Sir Vince is a one-man band.

Monday’s cabinet seems briefly to have re-established support for May’s ever-evolving position. Despite the shrieks of backbench Brexiters (why does anyone still listen to the vacuous Nigel Evans, or to Peter Bonehead?), the cabinet’s ‘go whistle’ hard men have agreed to No 10 doubling May’s Florence offer to around 40 billion euros net. She will discuss the divorce bill with Donald Tusk on Friday. No whistling.

That’s progress, it splits the difference between May’s initial 20bn (never publicly stated) and the 60bn proposed by Brussels – all admirably explained in last Friday’s FT. The Boris-ites say we will need ‘something for something’ so that the money cannot be unconditional – nothing ever is in EU horse-trading – because we need to know more about the final trade deal on offer to Brexit Britain.

Actually we already know more, it’s somewhere between Canada’s deal and Norway’s ‘pay, but no say’ deal, but too many Brits are still in denial about the weakness of our bargaining position or just want to wake up and find its’s all sorted. Otherwise it’s a fair point.

Alas, common sense was quickly abandoned when fantasists like ‘Jake’ (the people’s friend) Rees-Mogg suggested that Merkel’s weakness at home is to Britain’s advantage. Rather than risk German taxpayers contributing even more to the EU’s budget and losing its UK export market, Berlin will need to keep May sweet at this fragile moment in its post-war history.

Mogg seems to overlook the fact that Merkel’s problems arise from being outflanked from the right by Free Democrats as well as by the populist AfD, over both immigration and Europe. In other words, outflanked by zero-sum game nationalist politicians like himself. They have angry voters too.

Even Gisela Stuart – whose Leave campaign has its own budget problems, fresh investigation over possible referendum fraud – tactfully called Jake’s pitch a ‘misunderstanding’ of her fellow-countrymen’s position.

It should be obvious to all but nihilists of the Julian Assange/ Steve Bannon school that a rudderless Germany – probably a post-Merkel one if it goes to another election – is bad for everyone except the revanchist ‘Hacker’ Putin.

But it isn’t. Somewhere in their DNA best friends forever, Boris and Govey, have some faulty ‘creative destruction’ mitochondria which science can’t yet fix. They imagine that, if a paralysed Brussels is forced to lock Team Barnier even more tightly on autopilot, this will help their cause.

So the Scruton-Grieve chasm in the Times speaks to wider differences of outlook and temperament across all parties and interest groups as the Davis-Barnier negotiation stagger on. Professor Scruton asserts “identity and sovereignty” over mere economics, as well-off people often do. He extols a nation’s rediscovered pride in self-government, its reaffirmation of shared values and sense of belonging which unite the four home nations, embracing too the immigrant groups whom stability, democracy and the rule of law have drawn to these islands.

It is high-flown romantic stuff, a cosmopolitan version of Enoch Powell’s AE Housman phase without the added racist tinge.

Scruton cites Orwell’s famous 1940 essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, which condemns the selfish stupidity of the rich and the sneering anti-patriotism of the liberal intelligentsia for getting Britain into its Dunkirk mess by appeasing the Nazis. Alas, we can acknowledge his jibe in some Remain attitudes.

Yet Scruton’s vision is close enough to Grieve’s invocation of his (ex-MP) dead father’s “very Conservative love of country – monarchy, parliament, religious tolerance, our sense of justice,” feelings young Dominic still shares, along with dad’s conviction that Britain’s “uniqueness” can survive and prosper inside the EU.

Isn’t that what pragmatic Tories are there to do? To adapt to changed circumstances without getting starry-eyed or over-enthusiastic about grand projets like the euro? To compromise without losing sight of the bigger picture?

Scruton too believes that people can have several identities and loyalties. He just believes that national, territorial sovereignty can better command allegiance and affection than a supra-national body like the EU, first devised in the 1950s by what he calls the “vanguard myth” of progress promoted via cabals of experts and intellectuals determined to prevent another war.

Scruton prefers the “Magna Carta myth”. In Britain authority is not top-down and elitist, but bottom-up and accountable, rooted in the organic nature of English common law. It is a comforting vision that not all would share, certainly not fake anti-elitists like Nigel Farage or the elite-minded Marxists at Jeremy Corbyn’s elbow.

Besides, it is Grieve QC who is the lawyer, moreover one more grounded than a philosopher in life’s less grandiose generalities, in its compromise too. Grieve told the Times what he has been telling MPs in those rolling committee stage debates, that he and his allies – Anna Soubry to the fore – are not trying to reverse the referendum verdict.

It is the charge which even nice Gisela Stuart repeatedly levelled against Alastair Campbell on Sunday sofa TV, in a clip unwisely promoted by the Brexit Central website.

What Grieve sees his many amendments to the withdrawal bill as doing is trying to make sense of them. Brexit, he says, is “a painful process of national self-mutilation which I am required to facilitate.” Ouch.

Calling such a mild-mannered man as Grieve a ‘mutineer’ or ‘traitor’ is distressing to him, as well as unhealthy for public debate.

So we can assume Professor Scruton looked the other way when the Daily Telegraph did just that all over page one; this from a patriotic newspaper which virtually ignored the Paradise Papers expose of mass tax avoidance for reasons its readers may not understand (but we do, Professor, don’t we?).

The gulf yawns between the romantic rhetoric of Tory Brexiteers and humdrum reality. Labour’s equivalent faction, left-wing ‘siege economy’ romantics, are keeping their heads down for tactical reasons, not all associated with the implosion of Venezuela.

But Brexit Tory MPs routinely accuse Remainers, not of concentrating on making the best of Brexit, but of disloyalty to Britain and sabotage.

So righteous are they that some of them are the same people – cabinet ministers included – who spent the run-up to Wednesday’s budget undermining their own chancellor, Spreadsheet Phil, as a car crash in the making. Why? Chiefly because Hammond refuses to drink the economic Kool Aid about the country’s brilliant post-Brexit prospects.

Yes, UK employment, including that of EU citizens, is at record levels, though wages are not.

Yes, the BBC and Guardian were among those assailed by the Daily Mail – rightly, I fear – for exaggerating the Brexit loss of EU workers to the NHS and not acknowledging sufficiently that new stringent English language tests might be a factor. But no, productivity and investment are still in poor shape – as Philip Hammond has been reminding us again this week.

As I never tire of saying here, the big picture is mixed. Entrepreneur James Dyson roots for a Hard Brexit and the UK’s happiness index is up. But Grimbarians didn’t seem very happy about losing 90% of their raw fish imports – for turning into fish fingers – when Anthony Clavane visited pro-Brexit (70:30%) Grimsby for last week’s New European.

Grimsby is now campaigning for a special deal. So is my native Cornwall which also voted Brexit, but wants its fruit picked. And Wales and the North East, which want a ‘take back control’ Whitehall to keep up those subsidies.

Business leaders are very twitchy about passporting rights for financial services (don’t get your hopes up on that either, says Barnier) while the European Medicines Agency leaves London for Amsterdam and the Banking Authority (no more “red carpet for French business” jokes, Dave) for Paris. The EU deludes itself if it thinks London will lose its banking primacy – but so do we if we think it won’t be hurt badly.

Merkel may be down, but France’s Emmanuel Macron is keen to seize the mantle of EU reform if he can. Last week ‘open for business’ Macron leveraged a face-saving rescue for Lebanon’s ex-PM, under house arrest in Saudi Arabia, while the FCO stayed pretty shtum. Zimbabwe? Shrinking, insular Britain hasn’t had much to say on that crisis either, has it Boris? As feeble as the EU response to Spain’s crisis, you might even say.

And for what? Veteran Brexit MP, Bill Cash, was lyrical in the EU debate over our restored self-governing democracy. He even managed to stick one – rare indeed – on Ken Clarke when the Rumpole of the Remains asked to name a single EU directive (12,000 are being repatriated) which had done them much harm. Ports, said Cash, both bosses and unions hate the EU ports regime.

Attacks usually bounce off the pugnacious Clarke who reminded MPs that it is national governments – including ours – which usually block Brussels campaigns to deregulate.

All treaties infringe on sovereignty, including NATO, he explained. NATO does not really represent ‘pooled sovereignty’ because countries can withdraw from it, countered Cash, a nice man but politically daft.

This from the MP who also said – without embarrassment – that the 2016 referendum reflected a “sovereign act of parliament”. Precisely, Bill. If we were not still sovereign we couldn’t have voted to leave. Lawyer Cash, by the way, is obsessed with escaping the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 2019 and proposes a bilateral arbitration panel to resolve future trade disputes. Its rulings would not be based on ECJ rulings – but it would be run by retired ECJ judges. Yeah, right.

Yet only by testing the arguments – in Grimsby pubs as well as parliament – can their merits be properly evaluated, not by shouting them down with Dacre-ish cries of ‘Traitor’ or even the curled lips of Remain stalwarts in Hampstead. In that spirit, I concede that Roger Scruton’s Brexit essay made what was for me one very telling point.

He contrasted the reality of the EU’s free movement as applied in porous Britain to the world of ID cards, house searches and other practical or bureaucratic barriers to employment so visible-once-you-look in other EU states.

Even without the evidence of Calais’s migrant camps we know this from the experience of colleagues, friends and family.

So when Michel Barnier warns against a low-skill, low-regulation UK economy – as he did again on Monday – and demands fair competition, he might bear that in mind (he won’t) and that the single market in financial services, so favourable to Britain, has never been fully developed.

A British government in more coherent and cohesive shape than ours could make a better job of its Brexit strategy if it knew more clearly where it wanted to end up. Grimsby would like to know what Michael Gove means when he promises a better future for his old dad’s industry.

The sooner they realise it won’t be a quota-free regime whose catches can easily be sold inside the EU, the better.

In the process those pesky foreigners might learn something too. As things stand May and her Brexit Bulldog, David Davis, seem to have concluded that this month’s concession to the Dominic Grieve wing of their party – a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal – needed to be matched by one cooked up to appease the Boris Tendency. It was the insertion of a precise date for leaving the EU at 11 pm (midnight in what the Mail calls ‘Berlin Time’) on March 29, 2019.

Thoughtful MPs on all sides – there have been good Labour, Lib Dem and SNP contributions too – have derided that folly. It only makes sense to those Tories (you too, Jez?) who not-so-secretly want to crash out of Europe with no deal. This is the “creative destruction” illusion which will not keep even Professor Scruton’s children in shoes for very long.

Ministers quickly realised they might lose the vote to cross-party mutineers and traitors. As I type they are in full retreat. If they think they can exploit Germany’s relatively gentle government disorder, what do they imagine Barnier and his masters think they can exploit from ours?

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