By Russell Bruce
Five years ago England (and Wales by a narrower margin) voted for Brexit. Scotland voted 62% to remain in the EU and N. Ireland also voted to remain by 55.8%. Amid all the discussions and counter proposals Scotland’s voice and those of remainers elsewhere have been ignored. On 15th October 2018, with no clear end game from Westminster in sight, Nicola Sturgeon published a paper reiterating Scotland’s compromise position that if we were to leave the EU we should remain in the Single Market and Customs Union.
This was largely the position during the Transition Period from 1st January to 31st December 2020. A time for the UK government to work out and put in place the systems and infrastructure for the conditions that would prevail from 1st January 2021. By the end of the first quarter of the Transition Period Europe was in the midst of the Covid pandemic. A great deal more has changed with lockdowns and restrictions making normal business for many sectors very difficult, and impossible for some, like hospitality, performing arts and the travel sector. Before the end of the Transistion Period the EU offered to extend the TP for a further 1 or 2 years due to the economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic. Johnson at the behest of hard core English nationists who now dominate the Tory party instantly turned this down without the slightest reflection.
Getting to Europe either as a visitor, worker, student or a lorry driver transporting goods is being made ever more difficult as a result of the Max Brexit the UK government is determined it will follow, cutting all possible links with EU countries.
Remember all those actually possible alternative Brexit deals that were discussed and reported on for months and years on end. A Norway deal, a Swiss deal (never a possibility), a Canada plus plus deal, joining EFTA – even an Albanian style deal got a look in from Michael Gove. Johnson et al determined on Brexit Max meaning massive delays at Dover, the UK’s busiest port. The Port of Dover came to an arrangement with France that French Border and immigration checks would be carried out at Dover, ensuring rapid clearance when cars and lorries landed at Calais. Currently there are 5 passport lanes.
To deal with the slowing of post-Brexit clearance Dover wanted to double the number of passport lanes to 10 and applied for a grant from the UK government’s Port Infrastructure Fund. Previously a passport lane could clear 500 an hour but with Max Brexit in place that is now reduced to 50 an hour according to the FT. The Johnson government decided the purpose of the grant did not meet the government’s requirements for the Port Infrastructure Fund.
Due to Covid the number of cars crossing the Channel is significantly lower than before and also impacted by the restriction to spend no more than 90 days in a period of 180 days in the EU. This means passports have to be stamped with the date you enter an EU country so that the 90 day rule can be monitored. Hence longer queues as the right to free movement when we were EU citizens, no longer applies. Dover thinks it has been unfairly treated and has won the right to a judicial review and is taking the UK government to court. Lawyers for the Port of Dover said the government had “acted irrationally”. Welcome to irrational government. One of the few things Johnson’s government excels at – World beating, in fact.
The UK government is planning to stick to its anti EU guns. Downing Street said the government was robustly contesting Dover’s claim. The idea of French Border and immigration officials working at Dover is no doubt what sticks in Brexiteer craws, even when it is an advantage to travellers and exporters, easing their onward journey when arriving at Calais.
Remember when you got your first passport and headed off to Europe. Travelling by train could take you through several European countries but passports were usually given a cursory look as you reached another border but they were never stamped. Those blank pages remained virgin unless you travelled further and required a visa. Now Brexit has unleashed complications in travelling to countries that previously saw an EU country passport and waved you through. The other thing about those earlier dark blue passports is you could chose to state your nationality as one of the UK’s 4 nations. My first passport stated my nationality as Scottish. That made being a British subject rather than a citizen slightly more bearable. Those years are long gone and the pace of Britishisation of the non English nations of the UK has become frantic under Johnson’s government, at a time when the differences on who we believe ourselves to be and the type of country we are have never been more distinct.
We have not seen the worst of Brexit Max yet
Produce deliveries from Europe have become more difficult, yet the entirety of Brexit bureaucracy has not fully come into force as it is a phased process, and partly through the UK ignoring requirements they signed up to. Trading with the UK has become difficult and lorry drivers who make it across the channel are restricted in the additional work they can do making their journeys less cost effective and the goods brought back more expensive.
On top of which there is a shortage of 70,000 lorry drivers in the UK as many were EU nationals who have gone home. EU nationals that formerly came to do the seasonal work of picking home grown fruit, veg and salad crops are also no longer coming to the UK. In theory Brexit should have offered some advantage to home producers but theory and reality do not come together when the people required to increase home production and deliver it are not available. When an ardent Brexiteer moans that he can’t get the EU staff he needs to operate his pubs the simplistic thinking that formed his view of an EU free future of sunny uplands is exposed for the delusional day dream so many in England bought into, with no regard for warnings or the ability to deal with consequences beyond their ken.
Brexit Britain Post G7
Johnson thought that as host of the G7 the spotlight would be on him as chair of the meeting. It was, but the messages delivered by Biden and European leaders were not what he expected. For the serious commentariat this was not a surprise but he did at least comb his hair. British exceptionalism may be alive and well in the columns of the Torygraph and a clutch of non dom owned red tops but in the real world British exceptionalism only thrives in the make believe world of a long gone past.
Is Johnson finally coming under pressure?
Politics South of the Border do shape politics in Scotland and our political landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade so we are going to have a look at recent by-elections so see if Johnson’s low esteem internationally might be changing as a result of Brexit Max, undermining the English Nationalist Johnson Tory party. There does seem to be mounting pressure on Johnson and a growing voice from the Cabinet who want decisions to return to collective responsibility and curtail Johnson on his preference to act like he was the head of state indulging in limited consultation.
The recent by-elections present a mixed picture regarding new trends emerging. The red wall expanded on 6th May when Hartlepool returned a Conservative member in a seat that had always been Labour back to 1983. A hint from 2015, when UKIP came second with 28% of the vote, ahead of the Tories, was a warning signal for Labour. The Brexit Party, although third placed in 2019 took 26% of the vote. The seat was Labour’s to lose despite the shock waves of the by-election result and the damage to Starmer’s leadership.
Next was the Airdrie and Shotts by-election on 13th May, comfortably held by the SNP despite a small swing to Labour. This was always a Labour seat until 2015. Labour held the seat in 2010 with 58% of the vote. In 2015 the SNP took the seat with 54% of the vote, although they only held it by a whisker in the 2017 general election with a majority of just 195. That was a warning to the SNP to always be prepared for sudden general elections, especially now with the introduction of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (Repeal) Bill. We are rapidly approaching what is likely to be mid-term for Johnson’s government. That could conflict or get in the way of an independence referendum which would suit the unionist agenda.
So far we have a couple of Lib Dem lost deposits but they fulfilled their constant function to be the alternative choice when a fairly rare set of electoral circumstances come together to enable them to win, as was the case on 17th June in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, when they came storming through in a seat that had been Conservative since 1983. The Lib Dems or SDP Liberal coalition have a history of coming second since 1983. They fell to fourth place in 2015, pulled up to third in 2017 and regained second place in 2019. Unlike Hartlepool this was a strongly Remain area at the EU referendum in 2016 with limited history of UKIP support at general elections. This was a seat for the LIb Dems to win. It was none the less a stunning victory although we do not think this points to a major revival for the Lib Dems.
A fourth by-election is scheduled for the Yorks and Humberside seat of Batley and Spen on 1st July. It was held by the Conservatives from 1983 to 1992. Labour won the seat in the Labour landslide in 1997. Longer memories are needed to remember when Labour could mount a landside challenge. This is a staight two horse race. The Lib Dems who once polled around 14% are in their now accustomed territory of lost deposits. The 2019 GE saw Paul Halloran for The Heavy Woollen District Independents come third with just over 12%. Don’t ask. Starmer really needs to hold this seat for Labour but the straws look to fall to the Tories who only need a 3.3% swing to take the seat. The latest constituency poll by Survation gives the Conservatives a 6% lead.
So far three by-elections have been won by 3 different parties. The two in England put the Tories 1 up 1 down but if they take Batley and Spen that would consolidate Johnson’s position and heap piles of manure on Starmer as Labour goes full angst. That one is never pretty. Our conclusion, for now, is politics in England is likely to remain World beating inward looking with increasing ‘Britishisation’ of the devolved nations, especially Scotland. That will bolster support for Independence and regaining our EU membership and citizenship. As Covid continues to ravage normal life that will take a bit longer than any of us expected or hoped.
UK business invests in the EU
Businesses with significant trade with the EU have been preparing for the 2021 Brexit changes for several years. If getting goods through EU border controls is going to be more difficult then there is an easy solution – establish a base in an EU country trading independently of the UK based company. This of course does not work for fisheries or agriculture as our fishermen and farmers are finding out to their cost. An LSE study in 2019 showed UK business was investing more in EU countries than in the UK.
For EU companies difficulties in getting deliveries of UK products are also a major problem as Sea Vertrieb, a German distributor of audio equipment, who buy a fifth of products from the UK found out. German customs are super efficient and they now face delays of 6 weeks due to the Brexit deal Johnson insisted upon. There is no good news on the customs clearance front for the UK or our once free passage of getting products to market. Out means Out. The Office for Budget responsibility (OBR) predicts both imports and exports will be 15% lower in the long run. What does that imply? Less choice, less volume, demand exceeds supply therefore increased prices. Welcome to Max Brexit.
Never mind there is always Australia
Everybody is going to be affected but there is a double hit for farmers who will face increasing competition from Australian meat produce which does not meet Scotland’s higher food and animal welfare standards. Johnson would need 200 such deals to make up for his Max Brexit and some of the big ones, US and Canada also have serious implications for Scottish producers. Boris Johnson has opened the farm gate to far flung producers and others are noting this dangerous precedent. For a few younger people and those with skills Australia wants the deal might offer some opportunity but these are the very people we need to keep to regrow the economy.
The Tories want cheaper meat to offset Brexit inflation even though that comes at the cost of livelihoods. They are also on a search for influence in the world. As outcasts in Europe and not flavour of the decade with the new Biden administration, they think they can build influence in Asia. Hence the Australia trade deal and the promise to send an aircraft carrier to the region to annoy the Chinese. It is less than 80 years since British gunboats patrolled the Yangtze river. British imperial history in China has not been forgotten.
Eighteen years later Harold MacMillian recognised that the Empire had gone (belatedly) in his Wind of Change speach. Four years later Harold Wilson recognised a military presence in Asia was unsustainable and the decision made to withdraw East of Suez. Now Boris Johnson thinks the UK can have a serious presence again in Asia. To quote Dover Port’s lawyers Johnson’s government has ‘acted irrationally’ in its attempts to find some real purpose in international affairs.
Today Scotland can celebrate that 62% Remain vote 5 years ago on 23rd June 2016. That strengthens our resolve for independence, regain our European citzenship and become a member of the EU in our own right. Scotland is a European country. England can make believe what it likes.