Those who are genuinely worried about the rise of the extreme right in Europe – the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, Orban’s party in Hungary, the Polish party for democracy and progress, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Golden Dawn in Greece and others still – should do well to face up to the music in the UK. As Ian Dunt writes today in Politics.co.uk, the Conservatives have drifted further to the authoritarian nativist right than at any point since Thatcher and arguably before then (see here). What is the point of UKIP, Dunt asks, when its entire political mission has been adopted by the Conservatives and its emotional instincts have been internalised (see here). I do not believe that Ian Dunt is exaggerating at all. On the contrary, I am convinced he’s right. And the Brexit is making – and will continue to make – everything much worse.
There will probably be a Brexit
For some time, I thought that there would be no Brexit. Remember, May opposed the Brexit before the referendum. Does she feel like going down in history as the executioner of Cameron’s failed gambit and, possibly, as the PM who tore the UK apart? It seems that the Conservatives are willing to take this risk, simply because, in their calculations, the gains outweigh the costs. It is abundantly clear that the Scots will take action if Scottish voters prove sufficiently unhappy with the best deal London can strike. It is crystal clear that the appeasement in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement, will be history in a UK outside the EU. The Irish Catholics categorically refuse to be part of a non-EU UK (see here).
Why did May wait for hundred or so days to announce that she will invoke Art. 50 in six months time? If it is the government’s goal to contemplate about the best way to proceed, why are Boris Johnson (Foreign Secretary), David Davis (EU Exit Secretary) and Liam Fox (International Trade) now in key positions, people who are widely seen as hapless dimwits, if not bordering at times on the delusional (see here, here, here and here)?
Could it be that May is stretching out the timetable as far as possible, giving ample time for the electoral basis for the Brexit to erode? Bankers and major foreign investors such as Nissan signal their readiness to leave. Local councils are beginning to tally EU funds they will lose (see here). David Welch writes in the Globe and Mail what I also suspected for some time: May sets an impossible time frame, two years, in which, coincidentally, there will be elections in Germany and in France next year and in Italy in 2018 (see here). The negotiations with the EU – not with any of the individual countries, this is strictly forbidden as long as there is no Brexit – will linger on until the 2020 election, when the Brexiteers will suffer defeat. Or, as Welch speculates, Theresa May might call an election in March next year. The potential political gains for the Conservatives could be huge. It could, for example, perhaps pave the way for a super-soft Brexit – less access to the single market in some shape or form in return for restrictions on immigration, a scenario that some within Europe no longer oppose.
There would be other gains. If May calls an election in March, what would Labour’s position be (see here)? May would fight a divided Labour Party with the great prize, the removal of the socialist Corbyn, looming at the horizon. This strategy is as good as full-proof. Labour cannot win as long as it does not regain lost ground in Scotland. If it defends its pro Brexit position across the northern border, it risks losing the only seat it still has left (it lost 40 of its 41 seats in Scotland in 2015).
However, I started to consider this scenario unlikely because it is clear that the Conservatives can do even ‘better’: the Brexit gives them the chance to hollow out parliamentary democracy to an extent nowhere seen in recent history. It is my guess that this temptation will prove too big to resist.
The enormous political danger
To see this, we need to look at how May is planning to manage the divorce. Announcing the repeal of the European Communities Act of 1972 (ECA) – the bête noire of the Europhobic right — is typical May. It sounds good to the right. The ECA gives not only effect to EU law in the UK, but priority to EU law over UK. So, if the UK wants to become a ‘fully independent, sovereign nation’ (‘again’), this is what needs to be done (see here).
May’s strategy of ‘snapshoting’ involves passing a repeal bill which will incorporate all EU law into British law. Subsequently, the automatic legal link with the EU will be broken and, finally, the British government will decide what will remain, what will be amended and what will be excised (see also here).
May said in her speech at the Conservative annual conference that “(a)ny changes in the law will have to be subject to full scrutiny and proper Parliamentary debate.” This is certainly hot air. It is inconceivable, just utterly impossible, that the entirety of the process whereby the body of domesticated EU law is to be reviewed, amended or excised could be carried out in parliament. Hence, the government will do the job. The result will be a vast accumulation of British law-making power to the executive and a severe weakening, and even marginalisation, of the Parliament (see here).
Note the word British. There is no reason to expect that what will be acceptable to the English government, will also be acceptable to the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh. Wales is a ticking time bomb too – does it really want to lose its EU agricultural subsidies? Will it do better without EU Cohesion Fund funding for its deprived areas? May left no doubt about who is in charge:“the job of negotiating our new relationship is the job of the (UK) Government” (…) (W)e voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom” (see here).
The big danger of it all is a government that is able to act as it wants without ‘interference’ from parliament. It can take EU law, cut it into pieces, amend it, excise some of it, with no real democratic oversight and little constraints and, of course, no European ones. Perhaps the Conservatives will give everybody more and better rights, just as perhaps Elvis is still alive. It can be logically assumed that the exercise will result in a fundamental hollowing out of human rights, social rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, health care rights, intellectual property rights, in lowering working standards, European climate change adaptation policies will be gone as well as environmental standards and protections, UK military actions will fall outside the European Convention (see here, here, here and here). Basically, everything the Conservatives do not like is at risk. Before, a government could not dismantle a right because it was protected by Europe. If a government infringes upon someone’s human rights, she or he can take a case to a court in the UK. This right is guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights (see my article on the ECHR here). But with the UK gone, the ECHR is also gone. It will be replaced by an English Bill of Rights. As Dunt writes, the perverse irony of the process needs to be noticed: a government determined to restore parliamentary sovereignty while giving parliament no say over the triggering of Art. 50 now seamlessly moves into the greatest accumulation of executive power of any constitutional democracy in modern times (see here and here and here).
It is not only the 1972 Act. The acquis is some 170.000 pages of legal text. There are a multitude of regulators. A lot of the regulation will just be lost, just now that we need it more than ever. This is yet another question that most Brexiteers never addressed, a first order problem they never anticipated. Leave how? It is not as simple as saying ‘Goodbye’ and negotiating access to the single market or making trade agreements with individual countries. EU law has been UK law for over forty years.
The Tories are trying to reassure people. As Davis said “To those who are trying to frighten British workers, saying ‘when we leave, employment rights will be eroded’, I say firmly and unequivocally ‘no they won’t’.” Those who grant themselves more power, always promise that nothing will change (see here).
As Ian Dunt writes on the site of the London School of Economics, it would be dangerous for government to have so much power in the first place, but never as dangerous as at this very moment. British negotiators will engage in talks with other countries. The treaties that are lying on the table will further reduce standards – data protection standards, chemical safety, health regulation, the complete liberalisation of the sectors such as energy, everything under the sun. The drama is that British ministers will be in an ideal position to deliver on them (see here).
I do of course not know what other people think, but I sometimes have the impression that continental Europeans are underestimating what is happening in the UK these days. In just three days, the Conservatives have pledged to phase out foreign doctors, cut down on the numbers of foreign students, put landlords in jail for not checking their tenants’ residency papers and ‘name and shame’ companies for hiring foreign workers (see here).
Those who made the point that the Brexit was not about immigration did not notice that UK politics for the last ten years have not been about much else. We speak about nothing else and always in negative terms, “despite proven economic advantages.” But, as Dunt writes, now it is going even further. It is not even about immigration anymore, it is about immigrants (see here).
Picture 1: Cartoon in the Murdoch owned ‘quality newspaper’ The Times, depicting Corbyn bringing in a boot with immigrants which was published after Corbyn had said that immigrant numbers are unimportant (Source: The Times).
Picture 2: As a comparison with The Times’ cartoon, one from the 1930s depicting Jewish immigrants on a boat ‘for the exclusive use of ‘the persecuted’’ (Source: American immigration).
Can you imagine a European country in the year 2016 where the government implements a law which has the purpose to “name and shame” companies that hire migrant workers? Because hiring migrants has become dirty, shameful, un-patriotic. Seriously, where did you hear that before? Can you imagine a European country in 2016 where the government says that foreign doctors are to be ‘allowed’ to work until we train up sufficient UK-born ones (see here)? In the UK, for many, the immigrants have become a foreign body which cannot and should not be assimilated. We can allow them temporary residence, as far as we need them, nothing more, not respect or equality (see here).
Picture 3: Head article in The Times (3/10/16) (Source: The Times).
Picture 4: The unspeakable nonsense of the Daily Mail is now government policy.
It is clear that the European immigrants in the UK have become a play ball in the negotiations – as Liam Fox says they are ‘one of our main cards.’ These people are not people, they are things, assets in a poker game. As Dunt writes – and it is high time that people say this out loud:
“The sudden exodus of three million people from the UK. That is the suggestion. That is the threat. That is what is implicit in Fox’s card game. It might be the most shameful policy Britain has considered in living memory. It is so shameful no-one dares say it out loud. They only imply it. But that is what he is proposing. That is the reality” (see here; see also here).
As I wrote immediately after the referendum, there is no way to explain the Brexit result without referring to a much larger transformation that has been eating up England for a long time, the renewed rise of English nationalism and the spread of intolerance, authoritarianism, open resentment and hatred towards anyone who is not ‘English’ in an England that, ‘once again,’ wants to ‘stand alone.’ The genie is out of the bottle. Expect things to get worse. What will it be next week? A badge all immigrants need to wear so there can be no confusion about who to insult and discriminate against? One thing is for sure, the racist taunt of ‘go back where you came from’ is now official government policy.
UPDATE: Since I posted this article, I found two articles which are worthwhile reading:
Kerry-Anne Mendoza writes in The Canary that ‘ The despicable front pages of today’s papers belong in 1930s Germany, not 21st Century Britain (see here) and in Leading Britain’s Conversation, James O’Brien compared Amber Rudd’s speech to Hitler’s words (see here).