This is a tale of modern day witchcraft, but not one of witches, warlocks and wizards. It involves a powerful spell and a nation spellbound by it, and a promise of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Let me take you to small country, one you might know. It conquered the world and then had to let it go. And now, at least according to some of its government’s more delusional dreamers, it is about to embark on a new era of triumph and march alone, unburdened by red tape but wrapped up warm in the cosy embrace of its famous flag.
Almost like the invisibility cloak used by Harry Potter, this will allow it to seek out new friends around the world, hiding its flaws as it seeks to barter or beg for favours. If the plan works they will be impressed by its rediscovered spirit of independence, not seen since piracy and free trade were virtually one and the same. And this was a nation which perfected that blend.
But where is this magic kingdom, governed by different rules and realities to those humble humans dwelling beyond its borders? If you are reading this in Reading, Rochdale or Renfrewshire, you are part of it. You might be baffled, bored or bursting with Brexit rage by now, but you will have to live with the consequences of the wafer-thin majority decision to go boldly where the rest of Europe fears to tread – to lonely town.
Master of disaster
Taking back control sounds strong and independent and, well, in control. But what will the UK be taking control of and will it be worth having?
Both the recent OECD and OBR economic outlook figures suggest that the future of a nominally independent UK is not looking good, and as a friend in need is a friend indeed, it seems a bad time to be leaving old friends and looking for new ones.
The OECD comments that: “Economic growth will continue to weaken in 2018 and 2019. Private consumption is projected to remain subdued as higher inflation, pushed up by the past depreciation of sterling, holds back household purchasing power. The unemployment rate is at a record low, but with slower growth this is unlikely to persist.”
While the OBR outlook is similarly pessimistic: “The UK economy has slowed this year as households’ real incomes and spending have been squeezed by higher inflation. GDP growth has been a little weaker than we expected in March, but once again we have been more surprised by the strength of employment growth and the corresponding weakness of productivity growth. The persistence of weak productivity growth does not bode well for the UK’s growth potential in the years ahead.”
And now that only the bumbling bicyclist and international laughing stock Boris Johnson believes the side of the bus figure for extra NHS money, we can rule out extra funds returned from Brussels for public spending, particularly as the bill for a) monies owed, or b) bribing the EU to agree an attractive trade deal, seems to be rising rapidly.
Whatever the final figure turns out to be, it is unlikely to buy the deal Brexiteers told voters that the German car industry and a number of other European industries were desperate to do. They probably believed it when they said it, buoyed by over-confidence and a complete lack of understanding of why those cunning continentals will put principles first when holding the EU together is at stake.
The English FA might as well threaten to leave FIFA and expect world football to ask how much they want to (please, please) stay. Football having been going everywhere but “home” for so many years now, it would hardly matter.
Dish of the day: humble pie
The negotiations are of course, up to a point, about the money and not the principles, to borrow an expression from that very British comedian Tommy Cooper, but only up to a point. And so once the shouting is over and the sum has been agreed, the deal or no deal deal will be what it is – worse than the one before, to discourage far right foragers in the electoral opportunities bins across Europe from smelling blood and treasure. There cannot be a signal that cometh the next EU deserter, cometh the next all you can eat buffet from the EU trade deal menu.
Why this continues to elude the British “walk awayists” is a mystery. As they talk about calling bluffs, beneficial WTO rules, new horizons and new trade deals in Narnia and Never Never Land, the most important new deal partner across the Atlantic is led by a man who was recently busy insulting a Theresa May in Sussex who is not the prime minister of the UK. It should be funny, it would be funny, if it were not for the fact that it illustrates the difficulty of replacing an established customer base with new customers, to be achieved by UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox cold calling his way through the top autocracies/friendly dictatorships phone book.
The lack of understanding of what was to come was best illustrated by a Brexiteer interviewed in the street during the referendum campaign. “Well, we should leave, we gave the world the railways” he incoherently argued. Indeed we did, while on overseas business borrowing things here and there. But now much of the world has fast railways, punctual railways, companies building trains and railways……………and we have, delayed electrification from London to Swansea and other places. How half the world would weep, some perhaps with laugher, if they only knew.
Winter weather warning
The general synopsis is for a bleak economic outlook, continuing low productivity in coastal and non coastal regions, the hardly old perennial “a winter crisis in the NHS” (whisper it – not the envy of the world, funnily enough), stagnant wage growth, rising household debt, and a generally stormy front moving in from all directions. And, as the cherry on the cake, increased social division, as highlighted by Alan Milburn in his comments when resigning as chairman of the Social Mobility Commission.
All in all a gloomy outlook, and no doubt one which would be condemned as defeatist and pessimistic by hard-core leavers and austerity fetishists. But just as the fantasy figure on the magic bus was conjured from nowhere, these hard economic facts are not.
England, my country, for all thy faults I love thee still, but please wake up and smell the truth. We no longer “punch above our weight”, we are not top of any guest list because of nostalgia, the Queen, the war, the empire, marmalade or costume dramas about broken hearts in country houses.
Seen from where I live in Germany, a country which has prospered economically in the EU and taken in at least 800, 000 refugees recently, the UK taking back control seems to actually mean it losing control of a potentially great country’s future. People here are slightly saddened and confused but resigned to it. A bit like hearing that a recovering alcoholic has turned to drink again, they might want to help but know that it will be virtually impossible.
Out there in the harsh economic reality of global capitalism the UK will be swimming alone, no longer part of a protectionist club which, while far from perfect, does allow for a mutual back scratching environment and tries to help the drunken uncle as well as the family millionaire. (You know who they are.)
Fudge, foolishness and the final fiasco
Whatever the final result of the trade talks, which will follow the on-off deal before the deal pantomime in Brussels last week, it is likely to cost the UK more and deliver less than promised. It will be too painful for the last refuge of a scoundrel patriots like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, John Redwood and friends but not satisfactory for businesses and citizens hoping for business as usual. And as the struggle to reach the final fudge-covered framework agreement on the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border issue has shown, the current government is at the mercy of the DUP and its own hardliners to such an extent that it could well fall before or during the trade deal discussions.
The weak foundations of this squaring the circle compromise were highlighted by DUP leader Arlene Foster’s lukewarm comments after Theresa May’s rags to riches announcement last Friday:
The only surprise about the latest difficulties was that anyone, including parts of the more intelligent British media, was surprised, illustrating once again the fatal mix of fantasy and foolishness gripping those enchanted by the Brexit myth.
Once the final picture emerges in the coming months, the “slight” miscalculation about money for the NHS will seem like a minor misdemeanour. If the Brexiteers are not able to convince the 51% that Johnny Foreigner has stitched them up again, perhaps even an invisibility cloak is unlikely to save them as the sun sets on this new empire before it has even begun.