The worst men always find themselves in others. If they are instinctive liars, they accuse their opponents of lying. If they mistreat women, they assume all other men do the same. If they are sleazy, over-promoted know-nothings, they see their angry faces in every stranger they meet.
On this reading, Liam Fox’s barroom tirades are just the voice of his own subconscious speaking truth to a man who should be a thousand miles from power. When Fox said the British were ‘too lazy and fat’ to be a free-trading people, he did not realise he was describing himself. When he said British managers were not up to the task of exporting because they preferred to spend Friday afternoons on the golf course, he was confessing in his inchoate way that the 19th hole was his natural home.
Beyond wondering why the supposedly sensible Theresa May made Fox her International Trade Secretary, there did not seem much else to say. Fox is just not up to it, as Clement Attlee said when he fired ministers, and that appeared to be that.
But I suspect this is not the last time we will see the right treating business as a negligent children which the state must chastise. Brexit is a nostalgic project that borders on the utopian. With the exception of Boris Johnson, its advocates genuinely believe that leaving the EU will free business from Brussels red tape, restore sovereign power and send British exporters off across the wide blue oceans to trade with the old empire and beyond.
In their public deliberations at least, they have not acknowledged that all countries trade most with their immediate neighbours, wide blue oceans or not, and 44 per cent of our exports go to EU countries. (Their argument that our membership of the EU somehow prevented us trading with the rest of the world never made sense, incidentally. It didn’t stop Germany enjoying $154 billion of trade with China in 2014 after all.)
How much of our European trade the Brexiteers are prepared to sacrifice depends on what happens next. We could ask to stay in the single market. (I say ‘ask’ because we have no right to assume a priori that the rest of the EU will agree.) This soft Brexit would undoubtedly help exporters, but as Nick Clegg and his colleagues say in their devastating papers on our dismal prospects, we would not just have to continue paying the EU and accepting the free movement of labour, but we would still have to abide by EU rules we would have no say in drafting.
Very well, says David Davies, in a rare moment of candour from a government that is otherwise reluctant to involve the nation in ‘the national conversation’. The Brexit vote was a vote to ‘take back control’ of immigration. If we cannot top the free movement of European labour, we cannot stay in the market. May ‘slapped him down,’ as the political journalists say, but in theory Davies’s logic was impeccable. In practice, however, neither he nor the rest of the Brexit clique spelt out the economic cost of a hard Brexit to the millions who voted to leave this summer. Rather they derided every ‘expert’ who tried to spell it out as a corrupt spokesmen for the EU, ‘the establishment,’ the global elite, the illuminati or whatever other monster filled the Brexiteers’ nightmares.
As a poll-winning tactic, the derision was stunningly successful. Alas, the referendum was not a game, which finished when the electorate blew the whistle. It is now a process involving a succession of choices. None of the questions the despised experts raised about the choices we face has yet been answered. This should not surprise you for none of them are easy to answer and none of the answers are good. As Clegg says, the Brexiteers never understood what modern trade agreements are – or they never told the public the truth about them, if they did.
Negotiators rarely spend much time negotiating the removal of tariffs, which are generally low, but instead discuss the harmonisation of ‘non-tariff barriers’: the product and production standards, licensing, environmental and employment rules and intellectual property laws, which can provide hidden obstacles that frustrate outsiders. The single market is more than a free-trade area because it is trying to eliminate non-tariff barriers. If we remain a member, British business will continue to export without difficulty, and in the case of manufacturing, remain a part of cross-continental supply chains.
Far from reducing that ‘red tape’, however, our exporters will face the same regulatory system as before. And, crucially, our lack of a voice in the drafting of the regulations will leave us weaker. We will be able to do nothing to stop rival countries imposing rules that, deliberately or not, run against British interests – regulations that weaken financial services being the most likely. We won’t be ‘taking back control’; we will have lost it. Far from ‘regaining sovereignty,’ we will have given our power away. No more opt outs or special considerations for Britain.
As Nick Clegg says, Canada’s agreement with the EU, which Vote Leave floated as an option during the campaign isn’t an obvious improvement.
That agreement still includes some tariffs for manufactured goods, it excludes many key service sectors, and it still requires Canada to comply with EU rules when exporting to the EU, with no say in how the rules are written. For the UK, where we are so dependent on services and so closely tied to our neighbours on the continent, it is not a satisfactory.
After rejecting the single market and the Canadian alternative, all that remains is to ‘take back control’ and have the hard Brexit Davies and so many others want. We would be outside the single market, with no privileged access, and outside the customs union. We would be able to control immigration from the EU. But there would be tariffs on British exports, and worse than that, British exporters would have to comply with the ‘rules of origin’ regulations on the components of their goods. According to Clegg, they will increase the trade costs of UK exporters by 4 per cent to 15 per cent, depending on the sector.
You have to say it is more than likely that foreign investors will stop coming and existing manufacturers, domestic as well as foreign, will leave. Brexiteers, supported by that imbecilic betrayer of the British working class, Jeremy Corbyn, will wreak havoc on manufacturing Britain. Perhaps Clegg is wrong. Everyone should hope he is. But if he and all the other experts are not wrong, how will the right-wing react?
I suggested in the Observer the other day that Fox, Davies, Johnson and the rest should go to places like the Nissan car plant in Sunderland and ask the pro-leave workers what comes first: immigration controls or their jobs? Such a display of political courage and democratic honesty is improbable to put it mildly. I cannot see them admitting they were wrong when their promises turn to dust either. They will not admit they have made a terrible mistake, and sob that they want a second referendum. They will not blame themselves. They will blame others. When businesses struggle to make up for the loss of European markets, the politicians who shut the markets to them will say they are not to blame. They will blame business for failing to find alternatives. When negotiations to settle trade agreements with those alternative markets drag on for years, as they will, it will not be the fault of the politicians who took us out of the EU’s agreements without a clue what to do next. Politicians will blame business for lacking the buccaneering spirit that would have led them to find new trading partners regardless.
Don’t dismiss the golf club belches of Liam Fox. Don’t stop your ears and walk away. They are the sound of Britain’s future.