Ongoing Brexit Blues

Photo by DAVID HOLT | CC BY 2.0

Photo by DAVID HOLT | CC BY 2.0


Last week Theresa May announced that the UK was preparing for a “hard” Brexit, meaning that the UK had given up any notion of retaining access to the EU’s single market and customs union.

May’s announcement merely acknowledged the inevitable.  The EU has insisted throughout the period after the Brexit vote that the UK would not be allowed to pick and choose the bits of the EU edifice it wished to retain and which to discard, while May fed the illusion that this somehow remained an option for the UK while she dithered and prevaricated on the manner of the UK’s departure.

The die is now cast.

At the same time no such clarity exists regarding the UK’s own management of the Brexit process itself.  This was always going to be a highly complex undertaking, and, as expected, the UK’s handling of the Brexit process has been disorganized and confused.

A merry-go-round of bureaucratic hitches and derailments was always on the cards, since oversight of Brexit has been entrusted to a separate ad hoc department created specifically for this purpose, instead of the traditional government departments (Treasury, Trade and Industry, Foreign Office, Immigration, etc.), as might be expected.

The setting up of a completely new department, with a cadre drawn from all over the existing civil service, to manage a multifaceted brief was bound to be tricky. The issues it faces are numerous.

Large areas of UK law will have to be disentangled from the EU’s legal system– there are 80,000 pages of EU agreements on legal issues, and deciding what to retain in British law and what to jettison is going to be a messy business.

Separate individual treaties on a range of issues with countries who made agreements with the EU, and to which the UK was party by virtue of its EU membership, will have to be drawn up.  An agreement between New Zealand and the EU on agricultural produce, say, will now have to be negotiated anew on a bilateral basis between New Zealand and the UK.  The EU has thousands of such agreements, and each one will have to be renegotiated and redrafted by the UK and the country in question.

An army of civil servants will be required for years to implement Brexit.  This comes at a time when the civil service is at a low ebb, both in terms of numbers and morale.  The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics shows that UK local government now employs 2.21 million people, its lowest staffing level since 1999, when the ONS began to gather public sector employment statistics.

Meanwhile the civil service, which employs 392,500 full-time staff, is at its smallest since the second world war.  The Tory government has attacked civil service jobs, pensions and resources since it came to power in 2010.

This continues a trend which began with Margaret Thatcher, who did not trust a supposedly non-ideological bureaucracy to implement her deeply ideological “reforms” — these were now entrusted to her own teams of special advisers drawn from think-tanks and foundations sympathetic to her cause.  New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown saw no reason to reverse what Thatcher had begun.

Disdained by the media and politicians for decades, and living with huge cuts to their departments, these bureaucrats will now be needed to ensure stability while their politician-counterparts bask in opportunities to posture in front of their voters.

As a portent of what might ensue, last week Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU since 2013, resigned three months before the expected start of Brexit talks.  He resigned his civil service position a few days later.  Reasons given for his resignation range from a supposed lack of Eurosceptic enthusiasm on his part, to a presumed unwillingness to shoulder what looks like an impossible negotiating mandate.  All are plausible where a pro-European technocratic mandarin is concerned.

The expression “headless chickens” is used every few weeks by this or that person of (perceived) consequence in the media to label those in charge of the UK side of Brexit.  Last week it was the turn of Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary to use it to describe British officials, alleging they have “no idea where they’re going to finish up”.   O’Leary told the Belfast Telegraph that Ryanair will not base its new fleet in the UK because of the indecision prevailing after the Brexit referendum.

Also to be expected are labour shortages in key sectors when workers from the EU countries leave after no longer being permitted to work in the UK.   There is deep concern over the NHS, where 5% of staff in England – more than 57,600 workers – come from the EU. There are 10,000 doctors alone from other EU countries working in England, making up almost 7% of the medical workforce.

However, this movement of people is likely to be two-way, as, according to the Guardian, hundreds of thousands of elderly Brits who retired to EU countries with sunnier climes will have to return to their rainy country of origin when they no longer receive healthcare in those countries under reciprocal arrangements created by the EU.

A large funding gap will be generated when the UK ceases to be a recipient of EU funding.  The UK receives EU cash in many different ways but one of the main sources is the European Social Fund, which the UK uses to increase jobs and skills. The current funding round, which runs from 2014 to 2020, is worth about £2.3bn across England.

Another source is the European Regional Development Fund, which targets regional economic disparities.  Extending from 2014 to 2020, this subsidy is worth £2.9bn to English regions.

According to, in 2013 British farmers received €295.5 billion in subsidies from the EU under its highly controversial common agricultural policy.   Many of us consider the farming lobby to be a glorified extortion racket when it comes to farming subsidies, so there are going to be a lot of unhappy farmers when this particular tap is turned off.  Unless of course the gallant British taxpayer comes to their rescue.  Farmers vote Tory in overwhelming numbers, hence taxpayers should count on being stiffed by the Tories to please their dependable farmer-voters.

The Brexit vote unleashed an immediate wave of Little Englander xenophobia, resulting in an epidemic of hate crimes against immigrants, especially those from eastern Europe.  The BBC reports that race and religious hate crimes rose 41% after the Brexit vote.  The largest increase in hate crimes occurred in the two counties– Lincolnshire and Kent– with the highest percentage of pro-Brexit votes.

An utterly perverse and unfeasible Little Englanderism, envenomed by the Tories and their supporting right-wing tabloids, all in the hope of winning the 2020 general election by gluing the substantial anti-immigrant Brexit voting bloc to the Conservatives, became the order of the day once the referendum result was announced.

With the 2020 election setting priorities as the Brexit negotiations and their outcome loom even larger in the next two years, it is also likely that the agenda entrusted to the Brexit department will be shaped by focus groups and opinion polls, and the wishes of the Tory party’s big donors, which is hardly a recipe for good decision-making.

The pound sterling has declined by 10% in value against other major currencies since the Brexit vote.  This may be good in principle for UK exports, except that the UK exports relatively little these days.  Far more likely is an increase in the price of imports, resulting in a rise in the cost of living at a time when the wages for most people have been stagnant since the 1970s.

I speak here as someone who has always been against the EU, albeit for left-wing reasons.  But a version of Lexit is hardly in public sight, even as a theoretical possibility.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has long been against the UK’s EU membership, but the mainstream of his party is solidly pro-EU (apart from brazen opportunists who may be pro-EU beneath the surface, but now want Labour to take advantage of the pro-Brexit vote and campaign like the Tories on an anti-immigration platform).

Corbyn’s position as party leader is precarious since he is undermined repeatedly by his own parliamentary right-wing.  As a result, he’s been largely silent on the EU while Theresa May struts around as the “strong leader” on Brexit issues. Corbyn looks timid and vacillating, while May, with assistance from her PR handlers, finds ways to mime bits n’ pieces from Thatcher’s handbag-swinging and snarling “Iron Lady” script.  In the PR game on Brexit/Lexit, Corbyn is hardly visible.

No one therefore makes a serious and concerted case for Lexit.  No major left-wing politician has exposed the vacuous and contradictory fakery behind May’s “Global Britain” slogan, pitted by her as an alternative to ties with Europe, but, a few whinnies and chirps about “Britain as a global force” notwithstanding, driven overwhelmingly by xenophobic sentiment.

May knows that the Tories chances in the 2020 election hinge on their cementing the anti-immigrant voting bloc, which may otherwise go over to the far-right UKIP.  Her approach to the Brexit denouement is dominated by this consideration.

The UK economy today is overwhelmingly dependent on London’s financial sector, and a little bit of tourism.  The financial sector is basically a casino- and money-laundering operation for Russian oligarchs, Gulf sheikhs, and Chinese multi-millionaires.  It does nothing for ordinary people. May’s own multi-millionaire husband is a creature of this parasitic sector.

All this is pretty obvious.

A case for Lexit will begin (but not end) by stating the self-evident, namely, that “global Britain” as envisaged by Theresa May so far involves little more than the expansion of London’s speculative casino- land money-laundering activities, accompanied perhaps by a braying plea for more tourists, and an “I love global but am really tough on immigration” stance.

Everything else has so far been smoke and mirrors, including May’s speech at Davos yesterday where she called for “a globalization that works for everyone”.  At the same time, she’s begging the big international banks– those ruthless believers in globalization for the 1%—not to move their London HQs after Brexit.  Talk about wanting to have one’s cake and eating it!

If May seriously believes HSBC, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan give a fig about Jim and Jane Normal in Stockton on Tees, she probably also believes that a penguin will win the pole vault in the next Olympics.

Can a left-wing UK politician supporting Lexit, whether or not they purport to be “populist”, at least begin by pointing out this contradiction in May’s position, and going after her for it?

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.