Men in suits are liv­ing in a fan­tasy world

The New European - - Agenda -

Even at this late stage, Brex­i­teers are pro­ject­ing their own dreams onto their fail­ing en­ter­prise, in the knowl­edge they will escape the blame. JOHN KAMPFNER re­ports

Paradise comes in many shapes and sizes for Brex­i­teers. Their wet dream starts with tear­ing down the EU flag. It ends with... well, whatever, they want it to be.

All the key play­ers in the night­mare on Down­ing Street are pro­ject­ing their wildest fan­tasies onto their fail­ing en­ter­prise. They haven’t the faintest idea how to achieve them. They are not both­ered that their plans may be un­achiev­able and con­tra­dic­tory. Granted free air time by the BBC and other cred­u­lous jour­nal­ists, they let their imag­i­na­tions rip.

What to make of their rever­ies? First a reprise, in no par­tic­u­lar or­der.

Jeremy Hunt: here was a Tory lead­er­ship con­tender who planned to in­ter­rupt his Christ­mas hol­i­day in or­der to fly the flag, the Union flag. No sooner had he ar­rived in Sin­ga­pore, he was on the To­day pro­gramme air­waves brief­ing out the speech he was about to make ex­tolling the virtues of the city state.

The for­eign sec­re­tary lav­ished praised on Lee Kuan Yew, the great founder, rolling out the stats on the coun­try’s re­mark­able eco­nomic growth. And re­mark­able it re­ally is. When the Brits gath­ered up their pris­tine white colo­nial suits in the 1960s, Sin­ga­pore had the GDP of Ghana. Now it is one of the rich­est coun­tries in the world, in terms of per capita wealth. Peo­ple flock there to make money and to live a good life.

I was born in Sin­ga­pore and re­turn there fairly fre­quently. I spent some time a few years ago at the LKY school of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence of the Na­tional Univer­sity, re­search­ing a book called Free­dom For Sale.

This looked at the Sin­ga­pore model and how suc­cess­ful it was as an ex­port around the world. The idea is that peo­ple vol­un­tar­ily give up their pub­lic free­doms (free­dom of ex­pres­sion and gen­uine democ­racy) in re­turn for lib­erty and se­cu­rity.

The Chi­nese were study­ing the model hard. The UAE prac­tises it. Other coun­tries in the de­vel­op­ing world are do­ing the same. These thorny is­sues were not on Hunt’s agenda. In­stead, he ram­bled aim­lessly about Sin­ga­pore as a low tax and low reg­u­la­tion bea­con, sug­gest­ing that the UK could take in­spi­ra­tion from it. The en­tre­pre­neur­ial haven.

For the Brexit min­is­te­rial war­blers, ex­am­ples tend to come with a long-haul flight at­tached. Liam Fox, in his mer­can­tile won­der­ings, likes to play down the fact that nearly half of Britain’s ex­ports go to the EU. “Clearly, the vote to leave the Euro­pean Union has not had the cat­a­strophic ef­fect on our econ­omy that was pre­dicted,” Fox opined in a speech in Novem­ber.

“Quite the re­verse. Now is the time to raise our sights, and ac­knowl­edge that there is a world be­yond Europe, and a time be­yond Brexit.”

Fox se­lects his facts care­fully. Britain flogs more to Ire­land than we do to the four BRIC coun­tries (Brazil, Rus­sia, In­dia and China) com­bined. Yet you won’t hear that from the lips of the in­ter­na­tional trade sec­re­tary. In­stead one day he is lav­ish­ing praise on Chile, the next on Thai­land. Even Saudi Ara­bia, un­til they killed Ja­mal Khashoggi and chopped him up. Fox is in a state of delir­ium when­ever he de­liv­ers a speech to a right-wing think tank in Wash­ing­ton. There he goes into tra­di­tional White­hall de­fault, prais­ing the “spe­cial re­la­tion­ship” and Amer­ica’s busi­ness cul­ture. But what to do about in­jected chick­ens and other man­i­fes­ta­tions of low reg­u­la­tion?

Michael Gove has mor­phed from a rad­i­cal free trader into more of an interventionist. His role in charge of the en­vi­ron­ment may have prompted this, but more likely it is po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion. He is now call­ing for a more reg­u­lated Brexit, even per­haps a

Nor­way model, en­vis­ag­ing an econ­omy that is less bare-knuckle, free-mar­ket. That more com­mu­nau­taire ap­proach was once es­poused by Theresa May’s ide­ol­o­gist-in-chief, Nick Ti­mothy, al­though he would have re­coiled at the Fran­co­phone term.

Now Ti­mothy spends his time de­nounc­ing his erst­while boss’s Brexit deal, vy­ing for space and rhetor­i­cal flour­ish with Boris John­son on the pages of the Tele­graph. There can, how­ever, be room for only one Castlereagh or Churchill.

Hav­ing presided for a cou­ple of years – enough to earn him the soubri­quet of the worst for­eign sec­re­tary of mod­ern times – each week John­son writes of a proud is­land freed from the shack­les of the per­fid­i­ous con­ti­nent. Britain, he prom­ises, will once again rule the waves.

An­other who spent the fes­tive sea­son on ma­noeu­vres is ‘the Saj’ Javid. His travel plans, were, un­like Hunt’s, not planned, in­volv­ing a rushed re­turn to the helm from his fam­ily sa­fari in Africa. The cause was a cou­ple of hun­dred Ira­ni­ans and Syr­i­ans land­ing on our shores via rub­ber dinghies, oth­er­wise known as a ‘ma­jor in­ci­dent’.

These two se­nior min­is­ters have much in com­mon. Both were Re­main­ers dur­ing the 2016 ref­er­en­dum and have ac­quired the fer­vour of the re­cent con­vert.

Do these dis­parate Brexit philoso­phers have any­thing in com­mon? They share two at­tributes – an ob­ses­sive fo­cus on im­mi­gra­tion and an in­choate fan­tasy about ‘Global Britain’.

This term, first given a run-out by

May and John­son in late 2016, has be­come the or­gan­is­ing slo­gan of UK for­eign pol­icy in the age of Brexit.

It means ev­ery­thing and noth­ing, as the House of Com­mons for­eign af­fairs select com­mit­tee pointed out in a re­port last March. The find­ings make for ex­cru­ci­at­ing read­ing. “No min­is­ter dur­ing our in­quiry was able to give the com­mit­tee a de­fin­i­tive ex­pla­na­tion of ‘Global Britain’,” it points out, un­help­fully.

It quotes tes­ti­mony from Sir Si­mon Fraser, for­mer per­ma­nent sec­re­tary at the For­eign and Com­mon­wealth Of­fice, who de­clares the re-la­belled for­eign pol­icy con­sists of “a lot of rather mushy think­ing” and “a lot of rather sim­plis­tic words”.

As for prac­ti­cal ev­i­dence of this new swash­buck­ling Britain pack­ing a punch, the re­port notes that the UK failed to se­cure the elec­tion of a Bri­tish judge to the In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice for the first time since 1946. All this from a com­mit­tee led by a Con­ser­va­tive and for­mer army of­fi­cer, the es­timable Tom Tu­gend­hat.

One might, if one was be­ing gen­er­ous (and I’m not), con­cede that the lo­gis­ti­cal chaos, the stacked lor­ries at Dover and the other as­sorted eco­nomic dam­age might be worth it in the short term, if there was a road map to a long term new for­eign pol­icy for Britain.

Whether it is the tax regime, strate­gic al­liances or mi­gra­tion pol­icy, the Brex­i­teers have no fixed po­si­tion, or any­thing ap­prox­i­mat­ing to one. They will work it out as they go along, they sug­gest, which is not en­tirely re­as­sur­ing.

I have even heard it said by one Brexit ad­vo­cate that the EU is a racist con­struct, favour­ing white peo­ple. Once out of the bloc, we can be more gen­er­ous to peo­ple of other eth­nic­i­ties.

I’m not quite sure that is what the burghers of Sun­der­land, Bos­ton or Rams­gate had in mind, or what the Sun leader writ­ers might ad­vo­cate.

Last, but not least, come the Lex­i­teers – Jeremy Cor­byn and his merry gang. For the Labour leader, who con­tin­ues to defy his own party with blithe in­dif­fer­ence, the EU is a ca­bal of free mar­ket zealots.

Ev­ery­one to his own in­ter­pre­ta­tion, I sup­pose. It’s not quite what Mar­garet Thatcher thought of Jacques Delors. In the view of JC, a Britain out­side the EU will be free to in­vest, sub­sidise and na­tion­alise to its heart’s con­tent.

Some­one seems to have for­got­ten to tell him that there won’t be any money left to play with. Britain will spend the next decade or more hav­ing to re­trench, to pay for the plea­sures of the Brexit pro­tag­o­nists.

By then, pre­sum­ably, all these var­i­ous dream­ers will have parted the scene, and will be able to blame the govern­ment of the day that this wasn’t the true, Bri­tish, red meat, Brexit that they all had so metic­u­lously planned.

Pho­tos: Getty Im­ages

INTERVENTIONIST: Michael Gove

SIN­GA­PORE FAN: Jeremy Hunt

FANTASIST: Sa­jid Javid

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