Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Editorial: Removing the Brexit lynchpin

The Brexiteers’ ‘promised land’ of global trade deals will not materialise

One of the failures of ‘Remain’ campaigners – Progress included – during the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and since, has been the inability to prise apart the two very different parts of the Brexit coalition: the imperialists and the nativists. The former – almost exclusively rightwing career politicians – envisage a Singapore-style economy of deregulation and minimal standards; the latter want to close the border and embrace a better yesterday. The Vote Leave campaign, run by the imperialists, started out with a ‘go global’ strapline, but abandoned it because the potential Brexit voters did not share their Thatcherite vision and its consequences. The Brexit elites then hid their true intentions in favour of the more voter-friendly ‘take back control’ message. However, those who ran Vote Leave now assert it was their ‘global Britain’ vision that won the day – like in the referendum campaign, they press on regardless of the facts.

The Brexit they actually offered will not materialise. Theresa May’s deal will be significantly short of what voters were promised and risks prosperity, peace in Ireland and leaving Britain’s standing in the world diminished. On the most part, the voters know it. When asked, ‘Leavers’ and Remainers seem to have accepted that Britain will still pay money to the EU for a long time to come, that no new money will go the National Health Service, that those trading with the continent will still have to abide by EU rules and be subject to EU courts. Many, however, still think Britain should go ahead with Brexit and ‘it will be worth it in the end’.

The issue doing the heavy lifting for this ‘sunny uplands of Brexit’ good faith is trade – in particular new trade deals. Britain as a trading nation plays into old ideas of British exceptionalism – it invokes misplaced nostalgia for empire and conquest. The idea – devoid of consequences, and almost seen as a one-way street for Britain – acts as the emotional tie between the imperialists and nativists. Furthermore, research for the People’s Vote campaign has consistently shown that Leave wins on the trade argument, even among soft Remainers. This one issue acts as the lynchpin holding in place the two Leave camps and the ‘get on with it’ Remainers. The longer those three groups are connected, the more a hard Brexit becomes inevitable.  

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But belief in those new deals is misguided. For starters, the basic rules of trade matter more post-Brexit: that proximity is paramount, increased trade into established markets requires a lowering of standards and access to new markets is gained in return for a generous number of visas for their citizens. 

Emma Reynolds makes the geography point. Trade is really about neighbourhoods of countries not one state broadcasting to the world. She says what has become known as ‘globalisation’ is really a global ‘regionalisation’. When international trade secretary Liam Fox comes back from his spurious jaunts with the promise of better trade links, his words are not going to amount to much – unless he has found a way to move Argentina, Indonesia or New Zealand nearer. 

To create growth, new trade deals made by an independent Britain will require a lot of change. With established markets that means lowering standards – namely of workers’ rights, consumer regulations and environmental safeguards. Polling for consumer advocates Which? shows that the British public are not keen on what that would entail. A United States trade deal without our EU partners could decimate our NHS. For emerging markets – including India and Australia – that means considerably more visas. The farce of carrying out Brexit in order to end free movement will be exposed. Jonathan Lis and Francis Grove-White pose a dilemma here: ‘Imagine if a UK government freed up movement for Australians and not Indians – there would be both political and community cohesion implications.’

Even if Fox’s best case scenario were to come about, the gross domestic product benefits from the six primary deals barely amount to half of one per cent. David Henig, in the latest issue of the magazine, highlights the biggest flaw in Fox’s approach: ‘Ceta [the Canada-EU deal] guarantees the parties will not give any other country a better deal’. This means that a UK deal with Canada cannot be improved upon but also means limited options for a UK‑EU deal if the prime minister is hell bent on being outside the European Economic Area.

It is welcome that the frontbench have U-turned on the customs union, but that change in policy alone is not enough. There needs to be a change in gear from the frontbench making these important arguments. Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer should be touring every corner of the country exposing these Tories’ lies and false promises on trade.

Rather than upset the Labour coalition, this focus could unite it. The frontbench getting serious about its ‘jobs‑first Brexit’ policy would be an ideal platform for telling voters that a national investment bank and infrastructure funding will increase exports, not phantom trade deals.

It can reflect the best of our international instincts, too. As Alison McGovern and Catherine McKinnell show, only as a trade bloc can we reflect our values in the world, whether than be support for developing countries or improving human rights abroad.

If these apocryphal new trade deals are the lynchpin which holds Brexit together, it is it incumbent on everyone in Labour to pull together and dislodge this vital part of the Tory Brexit locomotive. Not only will this create a chasm between Remainers-turned-‘get on with it’ voters and the Breixteers, but also between the nativists and their imperialist hoodwinkers.

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Photo: licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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