Well, it’s done. The greatest act of British stupidity in two generations has been carried out, by a woman holding an expensive fountain pen in front of an expensive fireplace. Our man in Brussels, who replaced our previous man in Brussels, who resigned because no-one in Westminster listened to him, has delivered the Letter personally to Donald Tusk.
It will be a month before anything else happens. I thought this would be a good time to glance again at the Government’s White Paper on Brexit.1 I had the impression there wasn’t much in it.
There isn’t. Moreover it’s a strange creation, and gets stranger. However, it sets off bizarrely enough. How’s this for the start of Chapter 2, “Taking Control of Our Own Laws”?
“Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that” (2.1) (my italics).
What? We thought the whole point of the opera about “sovereignty” during the referendum campaign was that we had lost it to the EU! 2 Are you saying that we didn’t? (So can we have a re-run of the referendum?) And if we didn’t, what does the title of this chapter mean? And what on earth does “it has not always felt like that” mean? It seems to have slipped in from The Archers.
It is a document that seems uncertain what it wants to be. Each chapter leads with a paragraph about Brexit that reads as if written by an advertising agency. In the main text, thickets of factual data are surrounded by clouds of pious hope, virtuous intentions and bluster. Here and there a soundbite whizzes in, like a meteorite (“No deal is better than a bad deal”). The whole thing resembles a soufflé with lumps. The overriding aim is reassurance, the general tone is anodyne. If you poke it, it collapses:
“After all the division and discord, the country is coming together” (foreword by the PM). Really?
“Work is underway (sic) to define the Government’s trade policy” (9.8). Oh, good.
The Government is “committed to ensuring we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it” (8.41). By abandoning the EU and embracing Trump?
And it assumes its readers are ignorant of facts:
The Government “has engaged a range of stakeholders, including expatriate groups, to ensure we understand the priorities of UK nationals living in EU countries” (6.3). But those groups say they have not been consulted.
The reassurance is so hollow a baby could stick its finger through it, but the Government is talking to grown-ups and hopes they will not be so unkind. Thus, scientists are told they can still apply for EU research funding for as long as Britain remains in the EU (10.9). How long does the Government think scientific research takes? And when it praises the contribution of overseas researchers to British projects, doesn’t it know that many of them are already leaving? And that British scientists are being sidelined in new European research? When it reassures existing EU students they will still be eligible for loans (10.11), does it know their numbers have fallen? Not a word. On leaving Euratom, which includes arrangements for nuclear safeguards and safety, it says soothingly, “We will ensure this continues by seeking alternative arrangements” (8.31). Head-first back into the soufflé.
The White Paper, in other words, does not address reality. What is it for, then? This is a Government White Paper! Well, it is a document wrenched out of a reluctant Theresa May in return for an undertaking by MPs that they would not vote against the Article 50 bill. Its underlying tenor is, “You’re forcing me to talk to you, so I’m talking to you, but I’m damned if I’m going to say anything.” Obliged to produce something or other, the Government has produced 72 pages of propaganda. Thus, it repeats unblushingly the often-made assertion that the EU exports more to Britain than Britain does to the EU (8.4), while omitting to explain that that is in cash terms: the percentage figures put quite a different complexion on the matter. Roughly 44% of Britain’s exports are to the EU; roughly 16% of the EU’s exports are to Britain. Who stands to lose from Brexit?
This mendacious flim-flam was not what MPs had asked for. They felt that the Government’s airy target of “the best possible deal for the British people” was unacceptable, that clearer targets needed to be defined, and that many would be difficult to accomplish because of the contradictions they would involve. They wanted these difficulties to be acknowledged. They wanted information and to know that the Government knew what it was doing.
Nothing like this was forthcoming. Acknowledge the difficulties? But that would cast doubt on the wisdom of the enterprise. Information? Oh yes, there is plenty of information, there are pages and pages of it, with lovely clear charts, but it is information about the wrong thing. It is information that everyone who has an interest in the EU already possesses – information about the flow of goods and services, about immigration numbers, workers’ rights, co-operation on policing and security, what the EU is and does, what we are leaving behind. At no point does it go up to a problem and grasp it.
For instance, on the huge question (Annex B) of how it is going to close the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (because if it doesn’t there will be no way of stopping EU migrants from entering the UK from Ireland), and at the same time keep it open (because, if it closes it, it could re-ignite the Troubles) it devotes three pages to saying only that it is “firmly committed” to everything. It then, incredibly, states that the present cooperation between justice and security agencies in Ireland and Northern Ireland “exemplifies the sort of relationship we want to have with the EU post-exit.” Post-exit, it will be lucky to have it with Ireland.
David Davis, from whose Cloud Cuckoo Land this document issues, would say, “We cannot give away the Government’s negotiating position.” No-one is asking him to. You presumably want your Government to do its best, even if you think it is a crew of chancers led by a zombie. But to state your goal is not to give away your negotiating position, nor is admitting that your goal lies in difficult-to-attain territory. To state your goal is only inadvisable if your goal is criminal or exceedingly devious. Or if you’re afraid of the press in the event that you fail to achieve it. Is Theresa May that craven?
This makes it clear, I think, that the White Paper is not the inert thing it seems: it does something. It throws sand in the eyes again. A bit more time is bought. We are all a bit more confused, and a bit more tired, and a bit more ready to accept whatever is coming.
And what is that?
One candidate is that, nine months in, the Government still does not know what it is doing. It is still saying, “I wonder what will happen if I pull this bit…” Let’s not forget that this White Paper comes from the office of the man who admitted to a Parliamentary Select Committee that he had no idea what would happen if the UK left Europe without a trade deal. He hadn’t done the figures. For some reason, they weren’t worth doing.
In that case, what is coming is the revelation of the Government’s utter ineptitude, and it is trying every trick in the book to put off the day.
The second possibility is that the Government knows exactly what it is doing, and what it is doing is very devious indeed. I shall come back to this at a later date.
A third possibility is that the entire Government is raving mad and thinks it is fighting the Second World War. This would account for the obsessive secrecy, the hostility displayed to all representatives of the EU, the ceaseless appeals to patriotic feeling, the routine use of propaganda, the equating of government negotiating tactics with national security, and the peculiar implacability of Theresa May’s countenance. She is trying to look like a bulldog.
In that case, what we have to look forward to is either that the Government comes to its senses before Europe loses patience and blows us out of the water, or that it doesn’t.
1 The truly awful news is that another White Paper is on the way.
2 Good analysis of sovereignty, and much else, in https://rationaldebateblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/29/a-dark-day-for-the-UK-and-for-europe/