Diary Day 323: Self-declared Brexit martyrs challenged. Questions for Theresa May, the DUP and Sinn Féin. The Bank of England’s Brexit dilemma. 

My #Remainer’s Diary Day 323: Brexit zealots fumed and spluttered at Sir Vince Cable, who wrote at length in the Mail on Sunday. (The Sunday edition does not drip with the same weekday anti- EU venom;  it is not edited by Paul Dacre.) 

Vince wrote that the Remain argument about economic damage is now largely accepted, and more and more Brexiteers are embracing economic pain as a price worth paying for ‘taking back control’: almost as a badge of honour. 

“To describe such masochism as ‘martyrdom’ is dangerous… there is an undercurrent of violence in the language which is troubling…” 

He compared Iain Duncan Smith’s tactics attempting to shut down debate with how McCarthyism began.  He said the Brexiters were becoming desperate, but instead of closing down dissent should explain how Britain could flourish outside the Single Market. 

He continued: “Another concern is that the self-declared martyrs may be planning to sacrifice other people rather than themselves. It is striking that the martyrs appear predominantly elderly… 

“The martyrdom of the old comes cheap, since few have jobs to lose. And even if the country were to become poorer, their living standards are largely protected by the ‘triple lock’ on the state pension and many can rely on occupational, final salary, pensions which are closed to younger people. When I joined the Coalition Cabinet in 2010, we took pride in the ‘triple lock’ to banish the scourge of pensioner poverty. But one of its unintended consequences has been a growing rift between generations…

“The old have comprehensively shafted the young. And the old have had the last word about Brexit, imposing a world view coloured by nostalgia for an imperial past on a younger generation much more comfortable with modern Europe…” 

“No 10 confirms that freedom of movement will end in 2019. Therefore, the single market ends. There will be no transition. The cliff edge draws closer. For the Brexit martyrs, paradise beckons.” 

They absolutely hated it. But I have countless times met people like these. They are in an echo chamber, their opinions reinforced by the company they keep and what they choose to watch, hear and read. Their ideas about the unelected superstate, patriotism, what WW2 was about, what Magna Carta was about, the Anglosphere, and so on are munged. The underlying emotions are all about their world view, their wants, their prejudices, their dreams; not about people whose opinions legitimately differ, nor about young people or their prospects, and certainly not about the millions of EU citizens whose lives are being cruelly disrupted. And like as not, when asked to explain how EU membership has adversely affected them, they can’t. 

Articles like Vince Cable’s are part of combating the spread of, to use Tim Berners-Lee’s phrase, “nasty mean ideas”. Such articles are a kind of preventive inoculation, even though the self-declared martyrs’ brains may be incurably infected with nonsense. 

Writing in the Meath Chronicle, John Bruton (Taoiseach of Ireland 1994-97, EU Ambassador to the United States 2004–2009) posed three crucial questions. 

First, exactly what sort of deal does Theresa May want with the EU customs union? 

Her wish list in her Lancaster House speech was impossible to achieve. Mr Bruton pointed out that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) worked on the basis of the “Most Favoured Nation” principle. It means that if the EU Customs Union grants any concessions to the UK, it must grant the same concessions to all its trading partners. There is an exception to this if the special UK concessions cover substantially all trade between the UK and the Customs Union. (The WTO came into being in 1995, replacing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It requires members to grant “most favoured nation” status to each other. No special favours. Exceptions allow for preferential treatment of developing countries, regional free trade areas and customs unions.) 

Thus, as Mr Bruton puts it, “the UK will have to be either ”substantially in”, or “substantially out”, of the Customs Union. Which does Mrs May want? She should be able to answer that question by now.” 

Mr Bruton decribed the burden on Ireland if it had to carry out checks for compliance with safety, sanitary, origin and other EU rules and collect the EU Common External Tariff on food products arriving at the land border or at ports from the UK. “This is something being imposed on us, as an EU member, by a UK decision.” 

He also pointed out that the impacts on Ireland’s trade will be very significant. And if UK rules diverge, UK businesses will have two sets of standards: those for the UK market, and those for the EU. 

Secondly he asked the DUP what sort of agricultural policy it wanted in Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

The DUP, “which supported Brexit, and which is now dispensing gratuitous advice to the Irish Government on EU matters, should tell us exactly what sort of UK agriculture and food policy it expects post Brexit. It is now in a good position to get an answer to that question from the UK government. Its own farming supporters would like to know.” 
I’m sure they would. They could face bankruptcy. 

Thirdly Mr Bruton asked Sinn Féin why it would not go into the House of Commons next month to fight for Irish interests on the new Brexit laws. 

The point here is that Sinn Féin has a long standing policy of abstentionism – standing for Parliament but not taking up seats there, except for the salary. I had thought it was due to their refusal to swear loyalty to the Queen. But as Mr Bruton points out, since 1998 this principle has been breached. 

Sinn Féin won seven seats on 8th June, a significant number as it turns out in this hung parliament (especially as it took seats from the SDLP, who used to take up their seats). I have written about the finely balanced arithmetic before. 

After the result of 8th June Sinn Féin’s leader Gerry Adams told Sky News that the party had won the seven seats “on the basis of us not taking our seats.” He said, “We don’t have any real interest in what happens in the British Parliament.” But in view of Brexit and its effect on the people of Ireland, both sides of the border, that is not true. 

Returning to Mr Bruton’s article, he wrote: “Sinn Fein should remember that the Irish people, on both sides of the border, accepted the Good Friday Agreement in a Referendum in 1998, and that removes any “nationalist” argument Sinn Fein might have had for not taking their seats. If Sinn Fein can shake hands with the Queen, if they can take their seats in Stormont, they can take their seats in Westminster! 

“There is work for them to do there now.” 

A Sinn Féin TD, David Cullinane of Waterford, wrote in a different publication: “The people of the North have already spoken, they voted to remain within the EU in June 2016. This democratically expressed view of the cross-community majority who consented to Remain must be respected…

“The Tories and the DUP… are pressing ahead against the wishes of the majority of parties and the interests of citizens in the north.

“EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier made clear that he will only negotiate with sovereign member state governments not devolved administrations.

“The Irish Government therefore must… work with all those parties that represent the majority of voters, to ensure that vote in the north is respected, that our agreements are protected and the interests of all Ireland are represented at the EU negotiation table… now and over the next 12 months…” 

Mr Cullinane did not say anything in his article about the delicate arithmetical balance at Westminster. On his logic, Sinn Féin MPs should turn up at Westminster and use their votes. If the UK Government can not get Parliament to back its chosen stance, it has to back down, or go. It cannot impose its will. Parliament – the Queen, the Commons and the Lords together – is sovereign. Because of that balance, and unrest in Tory and Labour ranks, there is a significant chance that Sinn Féin MPs could affect the position of the UK Government. 

Simon Nixon, of the Wall Street Journal, wrote analysis of what he called the Bank of England’s Brexit dilemma, and why the market reaction has been that “sterling fell 0.6%, and the gilt yield curve flattened” (signifying market participants’ belief, I suppose, that the BoE would continue to think boosting economic activity was more important than controlling inflation). 

First, last week only two members of the MPC voted to raise interest rates. The previous month it had been three.  

A second reason, he suggested, was that the Market thought the BoE was underestimating the Brexit hit to the economy. “The BOE’s own central scenario is based on the most optimistic outcome for Brexit, including a smooth transition to a new trading arrangement that preserves a large degree of access to the EU market.” 

A third reason, he suggested, might be that markets put the probability of an extreme hard Brexit as high as 25%. Such a Brexit “would not only do even greater damage to the U.K.’s supply side potential, it would also likely lead to further erosion in sterling, driving inflation further above target, while creating a hole in the public finances that the government probably would aim to fill with increased borrowing, raising doubts about its fiscal credibility.” 

Sounds awful. 

The Government should just call Brexit off. Just write to Mr Tusk that the UK has changed its mind. 

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