BREXIT UPDATE 57: Welcome to Boris’s Buccaneering Brexit Britain

It has to be admitted that Dominic Cummings’s election slogan “Get Brexit Done” – like his 2016 referendum slogan “Take Back Control “– was a masterpiece of simplicity and political manipulation.  The little four-letter word “done” worked brilliantly in two ways: a) it addressed the yearning of those who voted Leave in 2016 finally to see their democratic vote implemented – “done” in the sense of “carried out”; b) in its second meaning “over and done with, finished”, it resonated with the longing not to have to talk or even think about Brexit any more, after years of argument and incomprehensible parliamentary debates and procedures.   And of course Labour’s second referendum policy was suicidal, in that it went completely against both these desires.

There is however, another meaning of the word “done”: swindled.  At 11pm on Friday, January 31, the UK officially left the European Union, but this does not mean that Brexit has been implemented and that we no longer need to talk or think about it.  We have simply reached the end of the first phase, so that we are now in the interim/transition period, during which effectively everything stays the same.  And we are faced with yet another cliff-edge deadline: December 31, 2020.  If Boris Johnson has not managed to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU by then, the UK will once again be faced with the possibility of leaving without a deal.

What has happened to Boris Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit Bill, which had been, as it were, in the freezer ever since he “paused” it after the Commons (which had passed the Bill on its Second Reading by 30 votes) asked for a longer time to consider it than three days? (See Brexit Update 49).  The Bill came back to the Commons on December 19, with additions that have very disturbing implications for democracy.  When the government had no majority, Johnson did not dare to put these clauses in the Bill; now he has come back with a large majority, he knows he can pass undemocratic, authoritarian legislation.

The new Bill attacks the powers of Parliament and the Courts.  One clause curtails the ability of parliament to intervene in future Brexit negotiations.  In another clause, government ministers are given the power to instruct the lower courts to depart from European Court of Justice case law (the law as it stood was that all UK courts except the Supreme Court would be bound by pre-Brexit decisions of the ECJ).  In addition a clause to safeguard the rights of unaccompanied refugee children was watered down and another clause protecting workers’ rights was removed.[1]

The Bill easily passed its Second Reading on December 19.  After the Christmas break, the Bill came to the Committee stage on January 7.[2]  All the amendments put forward by opposition parties were voted down.  They included a clause that would have ensured that MPs had a guaranteed vote with an amendable motion on the EU-UK Future Relationship and negotiating objectives; a clause that would have protected the right of unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their families after Brexit; and a clause that would have required the government to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with the EU protecting workers’ rights. [3] The Commons opposition simply doesn’t have the numbers any more to pass amendments.  The unamended Bill easily passed its Third Reading.

But when the Bill went to the House of Lords on January 21, the government encountered obstacles.  It doesn’t have a majority in the House of Lords.   Five amendments were passed by the peers. In two amendments, peers voted to remove the power of ministers to decide which European Court of Justice rulings can be disregarded or set aside by UK courts and tribunals.  Another amendment called for EU nationals to be given a physical document to prove they have the right to live in the UK after it leaves the EU.   And the failed Commons amendment that had called for unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their families after Brexit passed in the Lords.  A fifth amendment addressed the rights of Britain’s devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – rights that have also been curtailed in the revised Brexit Bill: the amendment altered the Bill to take note of the Sewel Convention, under which Parliament should not legislate on devolved issues without the consent of the devolved institutions.

The amended Bill went back to the Commons, which predictably threw out all the Lords’ amendments.  The Bill then returned to the Lords; but rather than initiate a bitter showdown with the Commons, the Lords decided to back down and pass the Bill unamended.[4]  The Bill received Royal Assent on January 23, and is now law.

The growing authoritarianism of the Johnson government also seems to be reflected in a clash between the government and the media.  Ironically, the mainstream media was so opposed to Corbyn that it showed considerable bias towards Johnson during the General Election[5]; but Johnson clearly still found parts of the media so hostile that he appears to be freezing them out.  A big row has broken out over an incident in 10, Downing Street on Monday; journalists claim that they were divided by a Johnson aide into two groups; reporters from favoured outlets on a special list were allowed to stay; while the second group was asked to leave. The journalists, even the accepted ones,  staged a mass walk-out in protest.[6]  Government ministers are also boycotting the BBC’s Radio 4 flagship current affairs Today programme; and the government has launched a public consultation into decriminalising non-payment of the BBC licence fee.[7]

To return to the new Brexit Act:  it also includes a clause prohibiting the government from extending the interim/transition period beyond December 31, 2020.  So the Johnson government is committed by law either to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU by that date or to take the UK out of the EU without a comprehensive deal.  In the Maybot’s deal, the interim/transition period was open to being extended for up to two years.  If an extension is not requested by July 1, it will not be granted by the EU.   In a key speech on Monday (February 3), Johnson argued that, if the talks fail, the UK will not leave without a deal – it will fall back on the existing Withdrawal Deal.  But commentators say that failure to negotiate a free trade agreement by December 31 will mean the UK will leave on disadvantageous World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms – in effect, leaving without a deal.[8]

The talks on a free trade agreement are due to begin in March.  Both sides have set out their initial negotiating positions, which can hardly be further apart. In a speech to the European Parliament last week, Ursula von der Leyen – who has taken over from Jean-Claude Juncker as the President of the European Commission – said: “A pre-condition to the UK continuing to access the single market is that Britain will also continue to abide by a level playing field….we will not expose our companies in Europe to unfair competition”.[9]  By “level playing field”, she means workers’ rights, environmental protections etc.

But in his key speech on Monday (February 3), Johnson emphatically rejected the EU’s requirement that the UK should adopt EU rules “on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment or anything similar”. He pointed out that the UK has a choice between a deal similar to the arrangement that the EU has with Norway: “full access to EU markets, along with accepting its rules and courts” (the Norway model is close to Corbyn’s Brexit plan); or a deal resembling that which the EU has with Canada: “a free trade agreement which opens up markets and avoids the full panoply of EU regulation”.  Johnson was extremely clear:  the UK government chooses Canada, not Norway.  Lucid though he was on this, he did, however, bemuse everyone by adding: “the question is whether we agree a trading relationship with the EU comparable to Canada’s or more like Australia’s”. [10]  As many commentators have pointed out, the EU does not at present have a deal with Australia – so an Australia-type trading relationship means leaving without a deal, on WTO terms.

This decision for Canada (or Australia if Canada fails) accords with the right-wing Brexiteers’ romantic, nationalistic vision of Britain as a buccaneering nation trading round the globe on the high seas.   The venue at which Johnson delivered this speech — the Old Naval College in Greenwich – was clearly carefully chosen.   As Robert Saunders pointed out in an illuminating New Statesman article back in October 2019, the nationalistic myth told by the right-wing Brexiteers is not, as is often asserted, a throwback to the days of empire: to talk about empire would be to acknowledge its loss, which Brexiteers are reluctant to do.  Instead, Saunders argues, the story

“is not of a great empire that no longer exists, required to cut its cloth differently for a  post-colonial age, but of a small island that has always punched above its weight; a ‘swashbuckling’, ‘buccaneering’ people valiantly winning out against the odds.  It is the myth of smallness, not the myth of empire, that defines ‘Global Britain’, and that teaches such dangerous lessons for the future.” [11]

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/19/johnson-revises-eu-bill-to-limit-parliaments-role-in-brexit-talks

[2] https://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2020/january/brexit-bill-third-reading/

[3] https://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2020/january/brexit-bill-enters-committee-stage/

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-51210602

[5] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/11/28/video-on-day-johnsons-nhs-lies-explode-in-his-face-the-bbc-shows-him-discussing-how-to-put-jam-on-a-scone/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/03/political-journalists-boycott-no-10-briefing-after-reporter-ban

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-51373372

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/dec/15/boris-johnson-threatens-bbc-with-two-pronged-attack

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47213842

[9] https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/articles/news/von-der-leyen-warns-uk-it-must-abide-%E2%80%98level-playing-field%E2%80%99-trade-talks

[10] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51351914

See also: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-51360178

[11] https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/10/myths-small-island-dangers-buccaneering-view-british-history