William Wallace writes….What’s Brexit really all about?

At the consultation meeting the Lords Party held at our Bournemouth conference, the strongest plea that came from round the table discussing Brexit was for more information on what is happening.  We will take that back to the wider parliamentary party and our small and overworked group of researchers, and see what more we can do.  There are some really good papers from Nick Clegg’s advisory group on the party’s web site, which explore the underlying issues; but the politics of the negotiations are moving and changing almost every week, and I guess that campaigners want usable material to respond to that.  So meanwhile, here are some initial suggestions on how best to play the issues in different places.

The most important shift in the Brexit debate over the summer has been from general principle to detail, as negotiations get under way, and as the deadline of March 2019 begins to loom.  Boris Johnson’s Telegraph article was a denial of where we are – sweeping aside the difficult questions about HOW we manage a mutually-advantageous relationship with the EU after we leave, to argue that those who say Britain will suffer if we don’t get an agreement are talking the country down, and that a close external association with the EU will make the UK ‘a vassal state’, in ‘a national humiliation.’  This, we must all repeat vigorously, is Brexit denial, like climate change denial: refusing to admit the detailed evidence that there are problems to resolve.  The detail matters, we must insist against the ideological sceptics: crashing out without a deal will cause chaos in the UK economy, cost jobs, and endanger standards.

Let’s take the issue of border controls. 2.6 million trucks pass through Dover every year, five times as many as when the Single Market started in 1992.  They spend an average of 2 minutes each passing the border.  If this extended to 20 minutes each (the fastest one estimate suggests they could be cleared outside the customs union), the queues would soon stretch along the M20, supermarket shelves would empty (1/3 of our food is imported from the EU) and assembly lines would grind to a halt (Honda’s Swindon plant alone depends on 350 truck-loads of components a day coming through Dover). Revenue and Customs are trying to introduce a new computer system, but that may not have the capacity to cope with the number of transactions required outside the customs union, and in any case may well not be ready by March 2019.  Estimates of additional customs staff needed by then are in the thousands; but recruitment has not yet begun.  And Boris doesn’t think we need a transition arrangement after that date?

Now translate that into local campaigning; there’s local information to be found from companies and the media.  TheTimes reports that 180,000 British businesses export only to EU markets, so at present don’t have to bother with customs declarations and controls.  Find some of these in your area, and ask them if they have yet calculated the additional costs they will face – in 18 months time, if negotiations break down.  Highlight specific interests in your area that are caught up with a continuing easy flow of goods and people, and discover how they will be hit.  I wrote on Brexit for the Yorkshire Post the other week, focussing on the negative impact on the Humber ports, the loss of protected designation in export markets for products like Wensleydale cheese, and the heavy dependence of the region’s food and agriculture industries on exports to the continent. Other regions will have different interests and examples to quote, including the many component manufacturers feeding into pan-European supply chains.  My impression is that local businesses and trade associations are now becoming  really anxious about the potential ‘cliff edge’ of a breakdown in negotiations as we approach the March 2019 deadline, and frustrated with the government’s incoherence.  One industry representative has just complained to me that when she spells out the practical problems that leaving the customs union presents to her large company’s operations and its complex supply chain. ‘Conservative MPs’ eyes just seem to glaze over’.

Or take another issue: regulation of blood supplies, which are traded internationally, and at present regulated by an EU Agency which the UK will be leaving.  Before these regulations were tightened, the UK imported blood plasma from commercial sources in the US which were contaminated with Hepatitis C and, in some batches, also HIV, infecting thousands of British haemophiliacs and others (google ‘Contaminated Blood Scandal).  A return to looser regulation and commercial supplies will threaten a repeat.

Boris Johnson’s article concludes, after all its bluster about national self-confidence and British greatness, by calling for ‘simplifying regulation and cutting taxes’.  That is the agenda of right-wing Brexiteers: it means lower standards and deteriorating public services.  We should throw that at every Brexiteer we argue with: is that the sort of country we want to go back to?  The Daily Mail is still trying to make fun of health and safety standards after the Grenfell Tower fire, which vividly showed what happens when safety is subordinated to saving money.  Mark Littlewood, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, argued in The Times recently that post-Brexit Britain has much to learn from Jersey’s economic model: low tax, strong financial services, minimum regulation.   A shrunken state, with an unbalanced economy…  (And of course John McDonnell and left-wing Brexiteers want socialism in one country, the model that President Mitterand unsuccessfully tried in France 40 years ago.)  Behind Boris’s bluster is an odd combination of nationalism and free market capitalism.  Issue by issue, we have to keep pointing out that unregulated markets are for Panama and the Cayman Islands; and we have to challenge their sweeping arguments in one economic sector after another, and in detail.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Tristan Ward 22nd Sep '17 - 12:52pm

    Who wants to stay in the EU?

    Please feel free to adopt, adapt or ignore.

    1) Someone who knows that Britain has been at war with European countries about 1 year in 5 since about 1600 to prevent domination of Europe by a single power;

    2) Someone who can’t understand why Britain is leaving the EU since our doing so makes it much easier for the continent to be dominated by a single power;

    3) Someone who knows that is it perfectly possible to trade successfully as a member of the EU with non-EU states (see Germany);

    4) Someone who doesn’t understand why putting up customs barriers with the UK’s biggest market is a good idea;

    5) Someone who has spotted that the £ has fallen and things are a lot more expensive since the referendum vote;

    6) Someone who works in the City and sees lot of highly paid jobs paying lots of tax (that support schools and hospitals) leaving for European financial centres;

    7) Someone who fears for peace in Northern Ireland should a hard Brexit go ahead;

    8) Not to mention weakening Europe generally with that nice Mr Putin to the east…..

    9) ……when Trump is taking about reducing US support for NATO and European security;

    10) Someone who knows that elected people make the final decisions in Europe (The Council and the Parliament);

    11) Someone who thinks Winston Churchill had a good idea when he thought Europe should unite after the 2nd World War; (follow the links in this blog for the evidence: http://eu-rope.ideasoneurope.eu/2013/11/10/winston-churchill-a-founder-of-the-european-union/)

    12) Someone who thinks that most of the country are coming round to agree the UK should not leave: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-majority-uk-british-people-stay-in-eu-not-leave-latest-poll-theresa-may-florence-speech-tory-a7960226.html

    13) Someone who is a patriot;

    14) Someone who thought at university 30 years ago that Boris was a bit of a prat and hasn’t really changed.

  • Riccardo Sallustio 22nd Sep '17 - 1:59pm

    @ Tristan Ward you are spot on

  • After the May/Maybe speech we are effectively in the EU till 2021. Do we particpate in the 2019 E U Parliament elections then. Presumably the answer is Yes.

  • Theakes
    I fear the answer to your question is No. We may “effectively” be in, as you say, but we have been “deemed” to be out by TM and I believe the EU, unless we specifically apply for a pause in the “Article 50 process”. I realise you may have been using irony here, and I wish your hypothesis could be made so, but I fear not….

  • Nom de Plume 22nd Sep '17 - 7:08pm

    I try to ignore Boris. His statements are largely of an emotional nature. I do not think he is trying to create a rational argument or solve problems, rather that he is trying to appeal to a certain constituency. It is politics. Not unlike Trump. I very much doubt LibDem members are his target audience.

  • No teakes we will effectively be in the same boat as Norway. We will have to implement decisions made by the EU but have no say in the making of those decisions. Totally losing control all curtsey of the brave Brexiteers taking back control, O the irony. The sad thing is two years will become three then four then five as Brexit proves more difficult then they thought. On the plus side at least the UKIP MEP’s will be out of a job as will the rest.

  • I try to ignore Boris. His statements are largely of an emotional nature. I do not think he is trying to create a rational argument or solve problems, rather that he is trying to appeal to a certain constituency. It is politics.


    If we look back to the referendum campaign and believe what Boris said and from the way he said it, he wanted us to believe it. Boris wrote two newspaper columns, one arguing the case for Remain and one arguing the case for Leave (if memory serves me correctly transcripts of both were subsequently published on the Internet), he said it was a difficult decision as the arguments were very close and he took sometime before deciding to back Leave. Now a little over a year later he wants us to believe that the Leave argument is overwhelming to such an extent that he will kill himself if the UK pays any money to the EU.

    I also try to ignore Farage, as he also needs to be reminded of his previous utterances where he saw the UK leaving the EU but remaining within the EEA/Single Market…

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