At the beginning of the year I did a course on The Other America, which was based around the book A People’s History of the United Sates written by Howard Zinn. I don’t know if Zinn is a name that’s easily recognised in the States, but our tutor (American, btw) told us that we would learn what Americans at school don’t learn. If you know the book you’ll get the gist of how our sessions went. One week we learnt about American exceptionalism and the quest to move ever westwards, so that the nation stretched from sea to shining sea. Another, how once that conquest was completed the move continued onwards across the world, and we were given a list of the 147 interventions made by America since the civil war. All of the sessions were fascinating and I feel I’ve got a slightly better understanding of the federal and state divide, and even the conundrum that is the Electoral College, which always puzzled me before.
It’s one of those courses where you learn a little, and realise you know nothing. America is a complex, complicated country, and, in my view, it is exceptional, perhaps not quite in the way that Americans would see it, nevertheless, it is a great (yes, great, there was no need to make it great again, it is great) enormous, juggernaut of a country. Note, I’m not saying it’s a good country nor that it is bad. That’s not the point.
And England? Can we do a comparison here? Not exactly, as exceptionalism in the American sense usually centres around the notion of America having a unique role in transforming the world in its own image, an image which is all about liberty, equality, individualism and, above all, democracy. And critically, being able to do that because of its vast wealth and power. Although that power might well shift to China – another story, another blog post there, I think!
So, let’s ask ourselves, is there such a thing as English exceptionalism? And yes, I am saying English and not Welsh, or Northern Irish (more about that soon) and certainly not Scottish. But English? And here I’m using the word in the sense that there is a belief that this country, this England, this fair and beautiful, ancient isle, can also deliver democracy and justice and wealth to its people. And critically, it can do all this alone, without others, because English sovereignty is everything. Become closer to Europe and their ways and legal systems – never!
Because, above all, this is an England that sees itself as a place unique in the world, a world that will welcome England’s experience and centuries of democracy and of course, will eagerly seek its trade. Yes, there are many people who believe so. Consequently, England is strangled by this view, which is a delusion. Just look at the mess we’re in. We have Boris Johnson, a blubbery, blundering embarrassing buffoon as Foreign Secretary, and David Davies, a seriously inadequate negotiator as Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, and don’t start me on that Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade who thinks many countries will be eagerly standing in line to trade with us and especially the Commonwealth countries.
Really? Think of New Zealand and Australia already in talks with the EU, which aims to secure an excellent trade deal with these two countries by late 2019. Meanwhile the UK cannot begin negotiations with Commonwealth countries until April 2019. I rather think that we will be at the end of the queue, isolated, with cap in hand while the EU forges ahead with far better trade deals than we can ever hope for.
I have been collecting articles by the dozen on the consequences of leaving the EU. Out of the corner of my eye I can see the pile. The angst within them seeps into my being and that’s partly why I haven’t written a post on the EU and Brexit for some time. Is it all awful? Am I, unusually for me, being too much of a cup half-empty person? Are there any positives? Let’s look at just two issues: the economy and our food.
Well, it is awful. A recent independent economic analysis commissioned by the Mayor of London concludes that, and I quote, “a no-deal Brexit could lead to a lost decade – or even longer – of significantly lower growth, with the country potentially having 500,000 fewer jobs in the worst-case scenario and nearly £50bn less investment by 2030 than predicted under the status quo.” As In, if we’d just stayed in the EU.
Can I remind you that a hard, no-deal Brexit means the UK will give up access to the EU’s single market in order to have control over its borders. It would also mean a withdrawal from the EU’s customs union. And that means every lorry bringing in goods from the EU, instead of driving through the port and on to its destination will queue up to go through customs, and likewise every lorry leaving the UK to go to Europe via Dover with food or whatever, would queue up for hours and hours in Kent. I feel for sorry for people living near these roads, and for the lorry drivers, and the farmers both in Europe and the UK bringing in perishable goods.
Can I also remind you that our government has to yet decided how we leave the EU. And as our present government is riven with dissent on this, Theresa May, bless her (being a bit sarky here) has divided her Cabinet into two sub-committees, where they will argue and disagree on staying in or out of the customs union and single market, then bring it to a full Cabinet where they will argue and disagree once again. You couldn’t make it up.
As an aside, and really it shouldn’t be an aside, there is the small matter of bringing back a hard border in Northern Ireland if we leave the customs union. How many in their voting booths thought about how a vote to Leave could sink the Good Friday agreement and jeopardise the peace that was so hard to secure? Did anyone think about Ireland? No, I don’t think so. Because sovereignty is all. And never mind Northern Ireland or the Scots, nor the Welsh.
It’s a very English thing this Brexit.
And our food. As we Brits should know, from either memories of the Second World War or the history books, the UK cannot feed itself. It has to import a lot of food, but it does have a substantial farming sector. Well, it does at the moment, but this year many farmers will leave plants rotting in the field because they cannot get the people to pick their crops, and they’re also saying they’re either going to reduce their crops or not going to plant at all next year. This is not entirely due to Brexit, as several things have come together to bring about this crisis. In 2013 the government abolished the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme because, ironically, they believed that there were sufficient EU workers available, predominantly from Romania and Bulgaria. But a Europe-wide shortage of these workers has occurred because more jobs are available to them in their own countries. Other EU countries are recruiting from as far away as Thailand and Korea while we in the UK, even more ironically, have a European worker only policy. Yet, despite many EU nationals working here (2.4 million) there is a shortage of seasonal agricultural labour because many EU workers would prefer to work nearer home, plus they are cautious now about working in the UK as their status after Brexit is uncertain and is still being negotiated.
Consequently, the UK farming industry wants the UK to go back to a similar seasonal workers scheme, but needless to say the government won’t commit to this, because quite obviously foreign seasonal workers are caught up in the UK’s abysmal attitude to immigration. Well, when we can’t get any English food anymore, just maybe people might think….
And another thing, with our agricultural production reducing exponentially we will need to import more food. And I’m very sorry if I offend but there’s been quite a lot in the UK press about the lower standards of US poultry production. At the moment farmers in the UK adhere to strict EU standards, with all poultry imports also under these guidelines. Without these EU standards we could be importing chlorinated chicken – and I won’t be eating that!
Brexit appears to be entirely driven by a few incompetent Conservatives. Are they deluded? Or, is this deliberate? What do our Tory Remainers really want? Cameron was a lightweight thinker who threw his country into this turmoil merely to satisfy the hard-right of his party and UKIP voters. And then he scarpered pretty quick when it didn’t turn out as he thought it might. But are there others on the right who have always held extreme views about state intervention – that there should be none. For them the free-market goes nowhere near to what they want while we have an NHS, a semblance of a welfare state and a public sector (I really must write that post on the death of our UK public sector, rung dry by austerity) and product standards emanating from the EU.
I would argue that you only have to trawl through any article or analysis of any of our leading Brexiters: including everything’s-a-joke Johnson; we-can-all-be-a-toff-if-we-work-harder Rees-Mogg; I’m-the-best-leader-you-once-had-but-haven’t-now-Duncan-Smith, you see that there are hints, not only of an imperial imaginary, but also of a Great Britain un-encumbered by social, environmental, energy, consumer and product standards, all of which will have to be regulated anew.
The thing is what did we know when we voted? I have written before that I knew very little about the EU – but I felt European. Equally, people who voted to leave must have felt being British and going it alone was more important than being in a collective endeavour. That’s not a good basis for making such a decision. Let us be adults here and see the referendum for what it was. Unlike the recent vote in Ireland (on the repeal of legislation limiting abortion – big hurrah there) this referendum led to a small margin for leave (52%-48%).
Ask us again but inform us this time. On the other hand, I have just realised something that we don’t hear from the campaigners for a second referendum, that actually we cannot reverse the process and go back to where we were before. As noted in a recent article in the London Review of Books electorates can change their minds quite easily but not nations. How do you think we’d look begging to be let back in? We’d have a very difficult time negotiating that one. I’m thinking that, perhaps, we might have to leave the EU before we get back in again.
So, if we are to leave, I think there should be a real effort to be a global nation (btw, that’s a phrase that Theresa May loves). And how will that be achieved? Well, this is about our schools and our media. Our attitude to history should be different – always, always we go on about the war and our days of empire. First and second world war, it doesn’t matter, we were the winners, we won the war. But what about a clear look at globalisation and our place in the world now? And let’s take the wool from eyes about empire, let’s understand what it was, then and now.
Some hope. Yes, I acknowledge, I’m constantly carping – because one should question everything. All the time. And especially with this decision – the worst political decision in my view that the UK has taken for decades.
But you know what might unravel Brexit? Time. What do you think will happen when the young who voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU grow older and become voters and legislators – what will happen when they have influence? What comes around, goes round. In my view, at some point, we’ll be back for sure. Therefore, I live in hope of a (probably quite distant) future with the UK a truly international, outward-looking, European nation. However, my last riposte is that I also live in hope that the United Kingdom will survive Brexit – as it may not. This is why the result of that referendum continues to unsettle me so – did any voter think where this might lead? No, they did not. Do our leaders know where we’re going? No, they do not.
Penny Kocher, 29thMay 2018
Davies William. What are they after? William Davies writes about the Tory Brexiteers. London Review of Books Vol 40 Number 5 8 March 2018
David Edgar. Jailbreak from the Old Order. London Review of Books Vol 40 Number 8 26 April 2018