Brexit is the road to nowhere, whoever is driving the car

Brexit has ground to a halt. Theresa May will put her deal to Parliament again and it will fail again. At this rate we will come to the end of the extension period having achieved nothing. Which isn’t surprising, given that very little has really changed in the past two years.

Why has there been so little movement? Simple. Brexit is a really bad idea. Some of our politicians have known this for a while and the reality is beginning to dawn on many others. The trouble is, they haven’t got a clue what to do next.

People have come up with various analogies to illustrate the near impossible situation in which we now find ourselves. Perhaps the most famous is Hugo Rifkind’s ‘submarine made out of cheese’:

Perhaps a better way of understanding it, though, is to imagine that people had voted to get rid of motorways. After all, few of us like motorways. It’s much more pleasant to drive on A and B roads. If someone promised that it would be possible to get where you needed to go just as quickly on A roads and that you need never drive on a motorway again, there would be plenty of takers. After all, many of us have fond, half-remembered recollections of the days before motorways. Quiet roads and gentler speeds. Pootling through the Cotswolds, along tree-lined lanes, stopping at a little cafe or some woods by the road for a picnic, Dad having a chat with the petrol pump attendant on a crisp spring morning, the sun just poking through as the mist rises over the Fosse.

It’s even possible to construct a cod-economic argument against motorways. After all, the UK’s per capita GDP grew at a faster rate in the decades after the Second World War than it did from the mid-1970s. The more motorways we had, the less our economy grew. And just look at all those booming economies with much lower motorway density than the UK, such as India, China and Singapore. Motorways, who needs ’em?

The trouble is, after having voted narrowly to get rid of motorways the problems start to become clear. Motorways are baked into the business models of many UK firms. They assume that it will be possible to get from one point to another in a certain time. Many companies warn that getting rid of motorways will put them out of business. Others point to the devastating impact on just-in-time supply chains. Modelling by civil servants predicts a significant hit to the economy and, in the case of a sudden ‘cliff-edge’ closure, localised shortages of food and medicines.

Some politicians put forward compromise plans, such as a phased transition period or a ‘name only’ option under which all the motorways will be re-branded as ‘A+ Roads’. The ultras are having none of it though. They dismiss the warnings as ‘project fear’ and insist that the motorways be closed immediately as its ‘what the people voted for’. A TV presenter remarks that we managed fine in the 1960s before we had motorways. “It’s not the end of the world. We won’t starve,” say rich businessmen who can afford to go by helicopter or private plane. A bombastic and hitherto unknown MP pops up, decrying motorways as a foreign idea and saying that his dad didn’t fight at D-Day only to have a Nazi road system imposed on Britain.

The hardliners come up with ever more preposterous explanations as to why a sudden closure of the motorways would have barely any impact, often citing crank science or convoluted interpretations of obscure laws. A consultant appears offering to implement an as yet untested technological solution that would somehow enable A-road journeys to be done at motorway speeds but with none of the tedious unpleasantness. It could be done ‘if only governments had the will’ he insists. Despite most other experts dismissing this as a ‘unicorn solution’, his comments are seized on by hardliners as ‘proof’ that the motorways could shut tomorrow and life would go on as before.

MPs are split. At one extreme is a small but growing group who realise that the whole idea is crazy and should never have been suggested in the first place. At the other extreme is a group of ultras. They are a mixed bag, ranging from those harking back to a semi-mythical Golden Age of British Motoring, through to the financier-politicians paying lip-service to the nostalgic dream while salivating at the prospect of making a killing by building new toll roads. One MP, while publicly sticking to the patriotic rhetoric, advises his investors to get out of the industries that will clearly be damaged and to invest instead in those companies preparing for the new world of privatised highways.

In the middle is the bulk of MPs who know that closing the motorways will screw the country but who don’t want to be seen as going against the ‘will of the people’. They struggle frantically to find a compromise that will minimise both the economic damage and the risk to their political careers. Arcane ‘solutions’ are debated, voted on, rejected, amended and them debated again. The MPs hope that if they string it out, eventually something will turn up. Against all logic, some of them put their faith in a new leader somehow being able to sort something out. None of this will make any difference. It is a circle that can’t be squared. No matter how many people voted for it, it is impossible to close the motorways without severely damaging the country.

A ridiculous story? Well, yes, but not that much more ridiculous than the impasse we find ourselves in over Brexit. Membership of the European Union and the frictionless trade that goes with it is baked into companies’ business models just as surely as the assumption that they can use motorways to move their goods. The economic arguments for Brexit and the fairy-tale technologies and made-up legal arguments that will make it work are every bit as preposterous as the suggestion that we could close motorways and carry on as before. There really is no way of doing Brexit without damaging our economy and/or unravelling our country, unless we stay so close to the European Union that there seems little point in leaving. The options are, to varying degrees, bad so it’s no wonder we can’t get a majority for any of them.

None of this is going to change, regardless of who wins the Euro elections or whether a Tory leadership contest or a general election gives us a new prime minister. Whoever replaces Theresa May will be up against the same problems. However tough their talk, the reality remains the same. People have been promised the impossible – leaving the EU without any negative economic or geopolitical consequences. As a result, there is now no way out of this dilemma without significant political damage to parties and individual politicians. By far the least damaging option for the country would be to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU. The political fallout will be horrible whatever happens but dealing with it after a chaotic Brexit would be so much worse. How long it will take for this penny to drop is anybody’s guess. Perhaps we need another leader to fail before the reality becomes so stark that even the most blinkered of MPs can see it. The road to Brexit leads only to stagnation and chaos. It’s time to turn off and take another route.

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35 Responses to Brexit is the road to nowhere, whoever is driving the car

  1. A fascinating allegory and one which my late Polish father, a structural engineer, would have loved!

  2. gunnerbear says:

    Why do you want the UK to be ruled by foreigners we can’t elect or get rid of? Why do you want the UK to be a colony of the EU?

    • Staberinde says:

      …he said on the day of the election for the European Parliament. You couldn’t make it up!

    • bobbydriver says:

      He literally explains that in the article. Because it’s the LEAST WORST OPTION. Apologies if you are being sarcastic and/or demonstratively illustrating the crux of the problem for jokes

    • What are you talking about? The EU parliament is elected by all the countries in the union, the European Commission has representatives from all of the EU governments. It’s like saying that London is a colony of the UK.

    • Guano says:

      The UK is not a colony of the EU.

      The UK is not ruled by foreigners.

      So why are we doing all this?

  3. Andy Ledger says:

    Motorways = Brilliant analogy

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. bill40 says:

    It is indeed time to take another direction and that direction should be EFTA/EEA. The sooner Remainers realise this is the best that they can hope for the better. The fact that a snakeoil salesman like Farage is running rings round you ought to tell you you’re on a loser. As it happens I think we won’t leave unless the EU kicks us out for the simple reason our politicians just aren’t up to the the job. I very much hope that the EU elections finally make you realise you can’t have what you want because not enough people want it.

    • BenM says:

      Look! It’s the EFTA pusher who only ever sneers at Remainers.

      Farage may have his day in the sun, but it’ll be pyrrhic. The fundamentals of Brexit are the same. It’s a turd. We won’t leave.

  5. Jim says:

    Yes because tying yourself into a trading bloc that has an increasingly small share of world trade is such a wise thing to do………

    https://fullfact.org/europe/eu-has-shrunk-percentage-world-economy/

    • Woodsman says:

      Ah percentages. As the rest of the world grows this is inevitable. The EU is still growing, though its share may be decreasing. It won’t matter whether we’re in or out will it?

      • Jim says:

        Yes, but the argument is that leaving is EU is as stupid as abolishing motorways. Given the not-EU part of the globe is growing far faster than the EU part of it, how does that argument stand up do you think? Is it better to be tied into the slow growing bit via customs union and tariff barriers, or to be a free trading part of the fast growing bit?

        The EU was 30% of world GDP 40 years ago, its now just over half that. If that trend continues for another 40 years then it’ll halve again, and be under 10% of world GDP. How important will the EU be then? We’d be excluding ourselves from 90%+ of world trade. I’d say THAT was as dumb as proposing abolishing motorways.

        • Alistair Mackenzie says:

          Once Chinese and Indian growth slows down, the percentage of world trade will stabilise, so the trend can’t continue indefinitely. Also we still trade with the rest of the world on superior terms via the EU than we could get ourselves. So both your premises are false.

        • Pyre Light says:

          You know, the EU trades with the rest of the world as one of the three major trading powers. How do you plan to get better deals as the UK alone has only 1/10th the gdp of the EU?

        • BenM says:

          You are guilty of falling for the base rate fallacy.

          UK trade with the EU is £260 billion. US, next, is just £60 billion. Most far eastern countries are worth a couple of billion at most.

          2% growth against £260bn is £5.4bn
          10% growth to a £2bn export market is £200 million.

          Do you see your problem?

          • Dipper says:

            Of course most of our trade is with the EU. we are in a tight customs union with them. We run a massive manufactured trade imbalance which will only get worse as was correctly predicted by Peter Shore 40 years ago. The EU is going nowhere and we are chained to them so doomed to go nowhere too.

            Do you see your problem?

        • Detlef says:

          “We’d be excluding ourselves from 90%+ of world trade.”

          As a German I´m quite amazed to hear that we are excluded from trading with the rest of the world?
          Especially given 40-50 free trade agreements plus several hundred bilateral (trade) agreements. All negotiated by the EU.

  6. Dipper says:

    Agree with the three above.

    Rick, you’re a smart guy and know your way around business. You know that a business whose management that tells its workers they are stupid and useless and are only good for following orders will fail. So why do you and your fellow Remainers persist in this strategy?

    • Detlef says:

      So you are more in favour of Brexiters Raab and Patel?

      “he British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
      (Britannia Unchained 2012)

  7. Ian Erskine says:

    Excellent analogy Rick. Given the comments thus far I’m sorry that you’ve failed to achieve any converts. It’s worth remembering the old adage that you will never convince anyone out of an adopted position by using facts, unless their position has been reached by facts. Beliefs alone drive Leavers. The facts just can’t penetrate those beliefs. Revocation of Art 50 is now inevitable.

    • Dipper says:

      Nonsense. Leaverism is full of facts. And projections, like the European Commission demographic reports.

      Which facts are on your side? The recession and job losses following a Leave vote?

      • Ian Erskine says:

        Nonsense eh! Leaverism is full of facts, yet you do not cite one, only a projection, which is not a fact. Oh, and you also mention Remain projections made during the referendum campaign. See what I mean about Leavers not letting facts get in the way. Think I might just be whispering ‘job losses’ at the mo.

        • Jim says:

          “Think I might just be whispering ‘job losses’ at the mo.”

          Is unemployment up or down since 2016?

        • Dipper says:

          What facts are you looking for? The growth in immigration from the EU? The fishing quotas? The net payments into the EU? The amount of our legislation that comes from the EU not from the UK parliament?

          Job losses? We keep getting told we have so many jobs we need to import people to fill them. And, incidentally, for all their bellyaching about jobs and prosperity I haven’t seen any major company or employers organisation making any commitments re pay, jobs, or living standards. Absolutely no commitments on jobs or pay at all from pro-EU organisations.

  8. 33250p says:

    Basically it’s impossible to leave the EU in any real sense unless you first unite Ireland. Now that would give Farage something constructive to do – so I doubt he’d even offer…

    • P Hearn says:

      Why should we unite Ireland? Ireland is a foreign country and has been for nearly a century. Ulster is part of UK territory.

      If the people of Ulster want independence from the UK and/or to join Ireland, that’s up to them. Until then, they remain part of the UK, and Ireland has to live with it. Being on the same landmass doesn’t mean you need to be one country, otherwise England, Wales and Scotland would all have to become England. Nobody in England wants that either.

  9. Dipper says:

    So lets just say for the sake of argument that Parliament revokes A50. What happens then? Do we get to negotiate a more favourable financial arrangement? better fishing quotas? Or are we just told that this is the best we can do? Because if its the latter then telling people that they have no power, just have to accept what their rulers give them and there is nothing that can be done has, historically, not ended well, or peacefully, for those who have given that message.

    Its too late to put the genie back in the bottle.

  10. P Hearn says:

    “Why has there been so little movement? Simple. Brexit is a really bad idea.”

    That’s the searing, in-depth analysis that I look for on this blog. If there’s nothing to back up your argument, make a bold, baseless statement and move on.

    More accurately:

    “Why has there been so little movement? Simple. Remain campaigner Theresa May, has no intention of taking the UK out of the EU, and will ensure any ‘deal’ is so bad nobody could possibly vote for it”.

    Warming to the theme, the writer invokes a completely bizarre tweet from someone called Hugo Rifkind “The thing is, the best way to understand Theresa May’s predicament is to imagine that 52 percent of Britain had voted that the government should build a submarine out of cheese.”

    Er – no. You might just argue we somehow voted for a bus, but deciding to leave the EU is simply deciding to be like the 94% of the world’s population that’s not in it. This isn’t an extremist position, and neither has it anything to do with cheese submarines.

    t.b.h. I can’t go on with this blog post because time is short and YOLO. I hope the standard improved further down. Normally there are lots of brightly coloured graphs with edited axes to emphasis a point, but whilst scrolling down, even this ‘evidence’ is lacking this time.

    Not your best work.

    • BenM says:

      It was Brexiteer David Davis who rolled into Brussels on day one, totally unprepared, and immediately capitulated on sequencing of negotiations. May eventually assumed a more prominent role because the Brexiteers she appointed were so predictably useless (and sweaty, in Raab’s case)

      • Jim says:

        I think you’ll find that the Ministers were for democratic show purposes only, the real power of negotiation lay with Olly Robbins……………..and he didn’t/doesn’t want to leave……………

    • David says:

      Nailed it P Hearn . Disappointed , Rick , the analogy is unworthy .

  11. leon says:

    This analogy is better than the submarine made of cheese as (for me at least) it actually induces some empathy for the other side instead of mocking them. You could push it even further: imagine David Cameron was losing votes to the Greens and their charismatic leader, Ben Fogle. So he offers a referendum on the UK going net-zero carbon emissions in 5 years, which would involve banning all non-electric cars. Not expecting this to pass he makes no plans for how we would actuallly achieve this goal. To everyone’s surprise it passes with a narrow 52% majority, partly due to a campaign that rather glossed over the costs involved in such a change. 3 years later, with Chris Grayling in charge of building the infrastructure, not a single new wind farm or electric car charging port has been built. A hardcore 30% still want to press on with the worthy goal of switching off all the UK’s coal and gas power stations but others are wavering and would like a second referendum about it…

    • Guano says:

      The world is going to have to make some big decisions in the near future that might involve actions like abandoning motorways and rapidly phasing-out certain fuels. They cannot be done just by saying “Dunkirk”.

  12. What an odd analogy, even deranged. As far as I know, we are not ruled by motorways. This writer is suggesting that we cannot and should not have any influence over the way we are governed.

    • P Hearn says:

      It’s a very weird post, this one. Normally the stories are straightforward, quite entertaining New Labour fare, garnished with lots of charts in an added-value management consultant style.

      This one’s straight from the hip. And it’s missed. Hey ho!

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