Richard North, 02/03/2021  

A survey carried out by ICM for the think-tank British Future, part of the "Talk Together" consortium, has suggested that Brexit is gradually receding in the nation's consciousness.

On the basis of the results, the think-tank suggests that as an "inter-group identity conflict", Brexit is likely to gradually receive less prominence as UK society goes through a process of acceptance and reconciliation.

Only a quarter of people (25 percent), it finds, are still emotionally invested in the politics of Brexit. Just 12 percent identify as "leavers", slightly outnumbered by the 13 percent who identify as "remainers".

For 53 percent of people, we are told, their primary political identity now lies elsewhere, with traditional tribal politics reasserting themselves, pushing them mainly into the Conservative or Labour camps. Another 21 percent do not identify with any political party or cause.

What might give some insight into this process, though, is an observation the Brexit was a salient issue in the discussions held by the think-tank in November and December 2020. That, they concede, was when the UK-EU trade negotiations featured more prominently in the news.

It was also a prominent theme of the discussions held in Northern Ireland, where people were fearful about its economic impact and that the Irish border might become a flashpoint for violence.

Thus, while British Future thinks that we might be "getting over" Brexit, what the think-tank might be seeing is a reflection of the loss of media focus. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that there is a correlation between lack of media interest and receding public consciousness. The question is which came first – the chicken or the egg – the lack of public interest or the fall-off in media attention.

Possibly, where it all went wrong was the media expectation of queues stretching from Dover to Aberdeen, and empty shelves in the supermarkets. But when the lorry-watchers were frustrated, and Brexit got complicated, the journos began to lose interest. As the politicians also retreated, thus refusing to provide the essential biff-bam dynamics, it was inevitable that coverage would diminish.

Then, for all their protestations, it is fair to say that most people are easily led. Despite the substantial fall-off in their print circulation, the legacy media and broadcasters still largely set the news agenda. And in this they can rely on the responses of the politicians, as they feed off each other.

Thus, if a subject is ignored by the politicians and media, it will struggle for attention. Many an issue suffers that fate and, for the moment, it is Brexit's turn to be sidelined.

However, it is almost certain that the corollary applies. If the politicians re-engage with the subject, and the media start taking an interest again, one can expect public interest to recover, and the same old partisan passions to revive.

And here we can be certain that Brexit hasn't gone away. From the speciality magazines, the trade bodies and, to an extent, the local media, there is no shortage of tales of woe.

A casualty recently in the frame was the pet food industry, picked up by the Financial Times after a press release from the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PRMA) reporting that the industry was "struggling to export to the EU".

The UK pet food industry is valued at £3 billion and in 2019 exported £285 million-worth of goods to the EU versus £45 million to the rest of the world. With exports being hugely important to the industry, businesses are being harmed.

Three things are adversely affecting the industry, articulated by Michael Bellingham, PFMA chief executive. These are the familiar litany of red tape, vet shortages and hauliers refusing to accept animal-based products in case they are stopped at the border. "Two-thirds of members are not getting their product through. It's a big issue", Bellingham says.

The "vetnary" problem has an interesting twist. Many official veterinarians are unwilling to take on the extra work of certifying animal by-product consignments because they are not confident about what is required – another graphic example of the fatuity of the EU (and other administrations) in elevating the profession to its God-like status, when so many of its practitioners are out of their depth.

On Twitter the industry woes are amplified by the Canagan Group, which illustrates the paperwork required to send one order to the EU (above). It also complains that it faces £100,000 year on veterinary inspection fees, when the previous cost was zero.

Despite the brief interest from the Financial Times though, and marginal interest on Twitter, the story hasn't taken off in the rest of the national media. It is unlikely to do so now.

Similarly, a Welsh story on the experiences of the Archwood Group - a leading manufacturer of timber products, based in Chirk, near Wrexham - is staying in Wales.

Josh Burbidge, Managing Director of the group, explains that his company's exports to Ireland "have caused the most challenges, with our goods being held up at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for around three weeks".

"Initially", he says. "the issue concerned what information was required and in what format for the customs declarations. For example, the HMRC system needed to be updated because our goods had been incorrectly flagged as needing phytosanitary documentation". This resulted in products being held at the border for around three weeks until the orders were reclassified.

Nevertheless, he says, "We continue to face delays of our products reaching the Republic of Ireland because the customs paperwork is taking a long time to process, which adds to our costs".

The company is also having to bear the cost of using special heat-treated ISPM pallets to transport products over the border, with the prices for these rising significantly. And the rules of origin have complicated matters further because Archwood Group's customers now face import duty for products the company buys from outside the UK, such as plastic mouldings.

David Hopkins, chief executive at the Timber Trade Federation comments that Archwood's problems "are indicative of those faced by hundreds, if not thousands, of small to medium sized businesses across the UK".

The costs, he says, can be carried and spread more easily by larger firms delivering larger orders. But, the costs are the same for each one of the multiple smaller deliveries that companies like Archwood are making across borders. They obviously want to keep their customers in those countries so face a choice between increased costs and lower margins or losing business altogether. This is not a recipe for business growth.

For those prepared to trawl though the undergrowth, there is no shortage of material to report. But as Pete observes, our interest in the EU as an entity is on the wane, and the debates of technical substance are no longer fashionable. Brexit's self-appointed experts are scrabbling for a fading limelight.

Despite that, it really won't go away. Says Pete, when the next big kick off happens, it won't be over tariffs or food export rules. But there is a running sore that won't be put to bed until it's out in the open. With so much damage and disruption, it is only a matter of time before the issue is capturing the headlines again.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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