Have we “got Brexit done”?

When what seemed the last possible deadline for agreement of a new trading relationship with the EU had expired, I wrote a somewhat despairing post. Hindsight now reveals that, as I indicated to start that, I might be writing too soon. There is a deal (agreed on Christmas Eve and voted on by the House of Commons yesterday), and it has avoided some of the more awful consequences of “no deal”. Lord Adonis calls it the “Trade Reduction Deal”, and that seems fair to me.

Has it “got Brexit done”, as Boris Johnson pledged to do (and by doing so got himself an unassailable majority in parliament for the next four years)? Not by a huge margin. As Chris Grey comments in his excellent review of the current situation, this is not the end of negotiations – he calls it “never-ending Brexit”, and not for the reasons I gave in a 2019 post “This will never end”. Those reasons still, I think, hold good, but we need to add to them the fact that this is only a partial agreement – most significantly it doesn’t include services, and services constitute an unreasonable amount of our foreign earnings (and the only area in which we run a balance of trade surplus). In particular, it is a temporary deal – it is scheduled for complete review in 5 years, which among other things means that Keir Starmer may say that Brexit will not be an issue in the next Labour Party manifesto, but it has to be, because the agreement will essentially run out shortly after the next election. There is no chance that Labour will issue a manifesto which ignores such a major issue. Granted, he may think that he can forget the “Brexit” label and just have a policy on trade relations with Europe, but I fancy that the label will still haunt him…

Add to that the fact that it’s a partial deal – it doesn’t cover quite a lot of things, of which services is only the most prominent, and it anticipates other agreements and modifications on a continuing basis throughout that five years. We don’t even have (say) four years during which we can stop thinking about it – it will be prominent on the political scene within months, if not weeks, and we can never forget that it contains provisions which could scrap some or all of it if either side is radically unhappy about the way it’s progressing (as Ian Dunt expands on) . Dunt, to be fair, sees this as an opportunity to move closer together in small increments – and that really should be the case.

But it won’t be. There are just too many MPs at the moment who will rebel at any move towards a “softer” Brexit. The only thing I can see which would not attract such opposition would be “passporting” UK financial services into Europe, which I earnestly hope will be on the agenda immediately – not only does it constitute a large segment of our overseas earnings, but it also provides a significant slice of our tax base. While I agree with Chris Grey that we could do to rebalance our economy away from services (I said as much in the first post I link to above), doing it abruptly will be a “double whammy” and put us in a bigger trade deficit and a hole in our tax revenue at the same time.

And the only thing I can see coming from that from our current government is a new period of “austerity”, in other words removing by stages all the good things government provides, at the expense of those in our society least able to bear that.

I am only slightly less despairing, therefore.

The shock of incarnation

On Christmas Eve, I listened to a fair proportion of “Carols from Kings” (a rather Spartan version compared with the norm). Somehow, it isn’t really Christmas without this precursor, usually listened to while finishing off various cooking tasks in the kitchen, but this year without anything major left to do. It seems that Nel and myself make a very efficient team in the kitchen, swapping chef and sous-chef roles smoothly – and it wasn’t that we were cooking far less food, as our Christmas lunch had all the usual elements.

That gave me the opportunity to really listen to some of the words. Kings always starts with “Once in Royal David’s City” and ends with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, but somewhere in there will be at least one new piece, and some different arrangements. By the time we got to the Herald Angels, I was wondering how it was that I didn’t usually take full notice of what the carols were actually saying – most of the content is so familiar that it sort of slides over the rational faculties and engages the emotional resonance direct, at least when there’s something else to do.

And my mind went to the notorious artwork “Piss Christ”.

In 1987, Andres Serrano made this photograph, of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a countainer of urine. This caused absolute outrage in many conservative Christian circles, combining as it does a venerated religious image with a particularly “unclean” medium. Richard Beck makes much of this image in his splendid book “Unclean”, which explores ideas of the sacred and of the taboo.

Why this?

The carol writers rather generally try to expose the disconnect between (taking “Hark the Herald Angels” as a template) the “triumph of the skies”, a particularly imperial concept of Jesus, with “offspring of a virgin’s womb”, the paradox of “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity”. But it’s all too familiar. The messy business of birth, with various bodily fluids and secretions and, for the mother, a total collapse of any sense of dignity, is lost. “Piss Christ” brings back that idea forcibly. I have no difficulty with the image at all – I’m a panentheist, if called on to give an ontological account of the relationship of God and man (even though I think that is beyond my or anyone’s capacities to define), and God, for me, is radically present in all things. And that, of course, includes the piss as well as the Christ. I regard Christmas as the feast of radical immanence – “God with us”, but also in us, around us, under us, over us, before us, behind us… It isn’t remotely a stretch for me to think of a mewling infant, which in the world of 1st century Judaea was someone who might, possibly, become human in 14 years or so if very lucky, as God, the highest being (or hyper-being, or something beyond that) imaginable.* So high and mighty, indeed, that Judaism prohibited any attempt at representing him (or her). That, in it’s time, was a shocking, an inconceivable idea – but the shock value has vanished for us.

But, as I contemplated this, I recalled the start of the carols. “Love and watch the lowly maiden” from “Once in Royal David’s City”, and I thought “‘lowly maiden’? – this is the Theotokos (“God-bearer”), the Queen of Heaven, according to Orthodox and Catholic theology”.#

“There is is”, I thought, “There’s the paradox, the inconsistency, the contradiction, the rupture, the cognitive dissonance which I was missing”.

It’ll do for this year. For next year, I may need someone to write a carol involving piss, blood and amniotic fluid… and get it performed by Kings.

* Or beyond our ability to imagine, and only guessable at by extension…

# I’ve been spending some time reading a group including a lot of conservative Catholic and Orthodox people, on the basis that you shouldn’t restrict yourself to a like-minded bubble. They would not like “Piss Christ”…

Hope deferred indefinitely.

I may be writing this slightly too soon*, but it appears we have reached the final deadline to agree a trade deal with the EU, and failed. Failed despite the fact that the EU has, throughout the negotiations, been offering us really very good deals. Failed, perhaps, primarily because Boris Johnson used the opportunity of a face to face meeting with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, to slag off other European countries and bluster, instead of doing what the country desperately needs and giving up the sticking points – fish, for goodness sake, which represent 0.1% of GDP, and some half-baked notion of sovereignty which thinks you can get all the benefits of a market without committing to obey it’s rules.

We are, it seems, going to crash out of the Single Market on January 1st without any trade deal at all with our most important and nearest trading partners, the remaining 27 EU countries. And, of course, without any trade deal with most of the rest of the world, because our trade with them was under EU agreements, which will also end.

And there’s a little bit of me which is happy, despite the probability that we will be facing shortages of food and medicines (among a vast number of other things – the shortage of medicines means that a few of my friends will quite likely die as a result of this – and I might as well) and a blow to our economy which will permanently set us back as a trading nation. I calculate that, instead of being 5th in the G7, recently slipped from 4th as a result of the pending Brexit, we’ll be hard pressed to stay a member at all… and I might worry about staying in the G20. OK, I know Rees-Mogg thinks that in 50 years we’ll see a benefit from it (and that that will be worth it!) but we will have wrecked large sections of industry and, perhaps most importantly, the City of London, which loses its access to Europe. That, in turn, means that government revenues will nose-dive (less economic activity, less tax revenue) and I confidently expect that the “austerity” of 2005 onwards will look like a slight inconvenience in comparison with what is to come.

So how can I possibly be happy?

Well, to start with, any deal which might remotely have emerged other than the fantasy I’ve occasionally had that the government would turn round and say “OK, we can’t do a bare bones deal which is any good, let’s do a ‘Norway’ deal” (which would have had most of the advantages of EU membership without any say in what the rules were), such a deal would have been only slightly less awful than the “no deal Brexit” which is going to happen. Granted, that “slightly less” would have possibly halved the negative effects on the economy. However, no deal means that opposition parties will not be put in the position of being called out for voting against a deal (and so voting for no deal) if they don’t support whatever was negotiated. Johnson and the Conservatives will be unequivocally responsible for the disaster, and it will be far easier to “make them own it” and set up the opposition to try to do something positive in the years to come.

Secondly, the period of ups and downs, with a deal being slightly more likely one day then not likely the next is over. A bare bones deal might have been absolute garbage compared with what we used to have as a full EU member, but it was something, and produced a level of hope beyond its real value. Raising and dashing hope time after time is soul-destroying; “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick”, and eventually one can prefer not to have the hope rather than have it demolished for the 100th time.

But there are other reasons to think there might just be some good come out of this.

Firstly, although I very much fear the results of removing a large amount of our tax base with the demise of the City, what the City actually does is to a great extent not productive – it’s gambling on movements in shares and commodity prices and on whether risks will materialise – and this does not translate into real things. If we are, as I suspect, heading for a collapse of the whole world system of financialised free market capitalism, to cure ourselves of dependence on this earlier rather than later could, just possibly, be worthwhile, even if it is extremely painful. It would probably be more painful later…

Secondly, with ecological crisis looming, I question whether trade over long distances is something we can actually afford. Transport contributes very large amounts of CO2 to global totals, and while we seem on the verge of ditching petrol-driven cars here in favour of electric, I see no corresponding moves to make goods vehicles more carbon-friendly, far less ships or aircraft. Again, the correction would be painful – but it may be one we are going to have to make anyhow. We could be forced to make and grow the stuff we want to use and eat, instead of importing it – assuming, that is, that anyone still has the money to start enterprises of that kind.

Lastly, although I absolutely don’t want this to happen, things might get so bad that the government is removed by force, by some form of popular uprising – and that would remove the awful prospect of four more years of Tory rule, and the threat of various measures which are calculated to destroy our democracy; removing the power of parliament to bring the government to account, for instance (which they have already voted away in respect of trade deals); removing the power of the courts to ensure that the government abides by the constitution (yes, there is one, even if it’s unwritten, largely conventional and can always be overruled by parliament) as was seen when Boris sought to stop parliament sitting; removing human rights; ending devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland… the list could go on. It might even give us things like a more sensible voting system and an upper chamber which had actual power to hamper a runaway government like this one, rather than just slowing it down slightly.

[“Taking back control”, it seems, is something this government is doing – from parliament, from the devolved governments, from the courts and from the people, not from the EU, where if anything we have let go of some control.]

Actually, in the case of major civil unrest, I would expect that the Conservatives would ditch Johnson and his ERG cronies and try very hard to get a sensible trade deal (much more than the minimal one we’re currently not getting), as well as doing a U-turn on things like reducing the power of parliament and the courts. It would, of course, not be a “Brexit deal” any more, just a trade deal with our nearest neighbours. I think that in order to get there, Johnson and pretty much all of his current cabinet would have to go (and I would shed no tears if any or all of them never held office again), because they are poison from the point of view of the rest of the EU.

Though, were I the EU, I might insist that we first established ourselves a written constitution which parliament and government couldn’t ignore, and a PR system of voting. They do, after all, have “stable government” as one of their criteria for membership – maybe also for a comprehensive free trade agreement and customs union? Personally, I’d like to rejoin outright, but that might be a bridge too far for the electorate at the moment; even if something like two thirds think leaving the EU was a mistake, the figure would be significantly lower for a move to rejoin.

  • It turns out I was, as we have yet another extension of talks. I am not allowing myself hope…