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Brexit Bluster: a Sorry Tale About a Country that Wanted to ‘Take Back Control’

The closure of Gatwick, the second largest airport in Britain, just before Christmas after the sighting of a mysterious drone near the runway, received wall-to-wall coverage from the British media, dominating the news agenda for the best part of a week.

Contrast this with the limited interest shown when a majority stake in the airport was sold by its owners to a French company. A consortium led by the US investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners, which included the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and Australia’s sovereign wealth fund, were paid £2.9bn by the French group, Vinci Airports.

The change in ownership of an important part of the British infrastructure from one foreign corporation to another came at an interesting moment. It was only a couple of weeks after the Whitehall spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, had issued a report explaining one reason why the British army is short of new recruits.

It says that back in 2012 the army had agreed a £495m contract with the outsourcing group Capita Business Services to be its partner in the recruitment of soldiers. But problems with the recruiting systems put in place by the company have made it increasingly complicated for even the most enthusiastic recruit to join up.

This is at a time when there is a shortfall of 5,500 in the number of fully trained British soldiers with 77,000 in the ranks compared to a target of 82,500.

The auditor’s report says that it took 321 days for an aspirant soldier to move forward from his or her initial online application to starting basic training. Unsurprisingly, many became discouraged over this long period so no less than 47 per cent dropped out in 2017/18.

More traditional methods such as local army recruitment centres had been run down as out of tune with modern times. The number of such centres was cut from 131 to 68 in an abortive attempt to reduce costs, according to the report.

What makes these two episodes significant is that they took place at the very moment when British politics is in greater turmoil than it has been for decades, if not for centuries, over the question of who runs the country. Yet this argument is focusing almost exclusively on the decision to leave the European Union on 29 March.

Proponents of Brexit argue that this is the best way to restore British national sovereignty and British control over their own country’s future. Yet, as we stagger towards Brexit in less than a dozen weeks’ time, it is extraordinary that decision-making on so many issues directly affecting the daily lives of people living in Britain should be in the hands of corporations at home and abroad.

The ability of national politicians to regulate and, above all, tax these international entities is already low and will get considerably lower if Britain leaves the EU and is scrabbling for new investment post Brexit. Vinci is reported to have got a bargain basement price for Gatwick because of Brexit fears.

Opinion polls have long shown popular opposition to the privatisation of providers of essential services and utilities, but people seem resigned to the idea that everything from airports and pharmacies, to their electricity and water supply will end up in the hands of corporations and foreign investors over which the British government has only diluted authority.

The great failing in the whole divisive debate over Brexit is that it has never really addressed the means by which – to adapt the words of the famous eurosceptic slogan – control could be regained.

The argument has focused instead on Brussels and on a narrow range of economic pluses and minuses, while it should have been over who runs Britain in an era of globalisation when the power of the nation state is everywhere being eroded.

No wonder this is provoking a nationalist and populist reaction across the world, stirring discontent from Wisconsin to Yorkshire and Paris to Damascus. Mention of the Syrian capital is not accidental; globalisation was one unrecognised ingredient in the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011.

The anti-Brexit forces made a disastrous mistake in treating the issue of the relations with the EU as if it was all about economics and immigration. Instead of treating the nation state and its history as slightly absurd and certainly outdated, they should have promoted the EU as a way of enhancing the power of the nation state by pooling sovereignty in order to re-empower individual EU members.

The baffled anger of the pro-Brexit politicians over why they are being pushed around by Ireland during the Brexit negotiations shows that they do not understand why EU solidarity ensures that the balance of power is against Britain every step of the way – and there is no reason why this this should change for the better.

None of the British political parties have ever faced up to the question of how they would maintain Britain’s position as a nation state as it is hit by the all-embracing impact of globalisation.

Instead, Brussels and the EU became the symbols of these frustrations and discontents, but neither Labour nor Conservative parties ever plotted an alternative course other than promising to maintain a status quo that was increasingly burdensome to a growing number of people.

Labour has always supported national self-determination as the right vehicle for nations escaping colonialism or otherwise seeking to gain independence. But when it comes to Britain – and above all England – Labour has always had an uncomfortable relationship with nationalism, suspecting it of being disguised racism or, at the very best, a diversion from essential social and economic reforms.

The Conservative stance is more frightening because so much of it is rooted in wishful thinking and selling a fantasy about Britain’s place in the world.

Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, claimed in an interview in the last few days that “this is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play.” Once free of Brussels, we are to shift our focus to global horizons, opening new bases in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

Williamson is not alone in pumping out such deceptive dreams. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, told audiences during a visit to Southeast Asia – as if he were Captain Cook landing in Polynesia – what good things we are going to bring to our old colonial stamping grounds between Malaysia and New Zealand where: “Britain’s post-Brexit role should be to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world.”

It is possible that bombast like this is designed to soften the blow for Brexiteers if Britain’s departure from the EU is largely nominal. Inevitably, the country will be weaker and poorer. Less obviously, the obsessive Brexit venture has prevented Britain taking those long-term measures necessary to secure its future as an independent nation state.

 

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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