EU Referendum

Brexit: too late for panic


One wonders why, only at the eleventh hour, the motor industry decides to make a big thing about a no-deal Brexit.

Is BMW's Peter Schwarzenbauer really only at this stage, 24 days before we were due to leave the EU, beginning to realise the implications to his firm – and now deciding that the future of the Mini brand in the UK was under threat?

Since Mrs May's Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017 – and even before - a no-deal has been on the cards. She was confident, she said, that this scenario need never arise but she was "equally clear" that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain".

We would still, said Mrs May, be able to trade with Europe. We would be free to strike trade deals across the world. And we would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the policies that would attract the world's best companies and biggest investors to Britain.

Re-reading this speech with the benefit of hindsight, one sees things that should even then have been sounding alarm bells. "If we were excluded from accessing the single market", she said, "we would be free to change the basis of Britain's economic model".

She then posited the scenario that if Britain was outside the Single Market, "it would mean new barriers to trade with one of the biggest economies in the world". It would also, she said, "jeopardise investments in Britain by EU companies worth more than half a trillion pounds".

Continuing with this theme, she declared that "it would mean a loss of access for European firms to the financial services of the City of London". It would "risk exports from the EU to Britain worth around £290 billion every year", and "it would disrupt the sophisticated and integrated supply chains upon which many EU companies rely".

You can see where she's coming from here. A no-deal means grief for the EU. "Important sectors of the EU economy would also suffer", she says. "We are a crucial – profitable – export market for Europe’s automotive industry, as well as sectors including energy, food and drink, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture".

And on she goes. "These sectors employ millions of people around Europe. And I do not believe that the EU's leaders will seriously tell German exporters, French farmers, Spanish fishermen, the young unemployed of the Eurozone, and millions of others, that they want to make them poorer, just to punish Britain and make a political point".

Thus, at this point, on 17 January 2017, Mrs May believed that, "because of our shared values and the spirit of goodwill that exists on both sides", she was confident that we would follow a better path.

She was confident that a positive agreement could be reached. And while, in her view it was right that the government should prepare for every eventuality, this would be done "in the knowledge that a constructive and optimistic approach to the negotiations to come is in the best interests of Europe and the best interests of Britain".

More recently, we have Sir Ivan Rogers telling us that Mrs May and her circle of advisers did not understand how the European Union worked and consequently followed a negotiating strategy that "was doomed to fail". But we didn't need Sir Ivan to tell us this – it's there, writ large in her Lancaster House speech.

She actually believed that, "because of our shared values and the spirit of goodwill that exists on both sides", she could do a deal with the EU outside of the Single Market, for no other reasons than because it was "in the best interests of Europe and the best interests of Britain".

Ever since then, the writing has been on the wall as Mrs May and her team has made one misstep after another, taking us to the point where a no-deal is the most likely outcome.

But, even at the time, I was writing that one perhaps had a better idea of why Ivan Rogers had resigned. One might also take the view, I added, that the wrong person resigned. Every day that Mrs May remained in No 10, I wrote, will add to the growing sense of disaster.

And if it was so clear to me, one might assume that these great captains of industry such as Peter Schwarzenbauer, on their mega-salaries - with hoards of well-paid advisers and consultants – might be able to see which way the wind was blowing.

By and large, though, business has been the dog that didn't bark. While it would have been entirely legitimate for business voices to point out the perils of a no-deal Brexit, and to point out the indivisibility of the Single Market, there has been silence on the points of substance, with platitudes and generalities filling the gap.

Thinking this through, one tends towards the conclusion that these great captains of industry are about as ignorant of the ways of the European Union as are the high-level politicians. The ignorance, of which Sir Ivan complains, is by no means confined to the political classes. Business is equally lacking in any solid appreciation of the mechanics of the EU.

That would largely explain why, in effect, they are indeed panicking. They really are just beginning to put two-and-two together, realising that Mrs May doesn't have things under control. Having largely relied on anodyne assurances from ministers that things will be "alright on the night", they now have to deal with the prospect that, in just over three weeks, their comfortable, secure little worlds are going to take a very hard knock.

Of course, at this late stage, every Tom, Dick and Harry is able to work up a preferred horror story about how a no-deal Brexit is going to damage us – most of them way off beam. But it was back in January 2017, when Mrs May was saying that no deal was better than a bad deal, that the alarm should have been raised.

There is absolutely no point, at this stage – as the Guardian is reporting - of carmakers issuing "stark warnings" of an exodus from the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It is too damn late. But nor do I have any truck with the likes of Spiegel which has commentator Jan Fleischhauer, "Watching a Country Make a Fool of Itself".

"No country in the world", he says, "has cultivated arrogance the way Britain has. But the sad truth is: The former global power can't even find its way to the door without tripping over its feet". Yet this is a man who is just as much a bubble-dweller as the people about which (quite rightly) he complains. He fails completely to see that there are thousands of literate (and articulate) people in this country who also complain of the arrogance of the political classes and their handmaidens in the media.

Says Fleischhauer, "the United Kingdom is currently demonstrating how a country can make a fool of itself before the eyes of the entire world", adding that, "It has now been 28 months since the British voted to pull out of the European Union. Unfortunately, they haven't taken a single step further since then".

If he stepped outside his bubble, he might realise that there is a substantial constituency of British people who are making more or less the same observations, but not about the generic "British". Rather, we British people are complaining about the arrogance of the establishment and the media.

And while we remain invisible in our own country, we are also invisible to clever-dicks like Fleischhauer. On the outside looking in, he is mistaking the (mostly London-orientated) noise for the substance, and lumping us all together.

The thing, of course, is that there have been plenty of ideas of how an effective Brexit could have been managed. And while they have attracted prolonged sneers from the clever-dicks, they are on the record, they are accessible and they are available to anyone who has the wit to study them.

The fate of alternative viewpoints, therefore, probably illustrates the real failing in this benighted country of ours, where the London-centric media and the political noisemakers have captured the debate and are able to control access to it.

This was not always the case – the intellectual birthplace of the Labour Party was in Bradford, my adopted home town. But one cannot imagine a political party now getting off the ground unless it is located close to the London media studios.

Outside the foetid, self-referential political bubble that infests the capital, there is still plenty of thinking. Out in the provinces, there are even people with brains, who are capable of working out how we deal with this mess. But, as always, we are invisible.

But, if the bubble – and their business partners – prefer to panic, so be it. As a passing thought though, it is not only ideas that develop in the provinces – so do revolutions.