Professor Chris Greys latest Brexit analysis on slippery language, free ports, border checks, and whether the public will fall for the bait and switch Brexit that is being prepared for them.


First published in February 2020.


We’re in a strange kind of limbo period in which the UK has left the EU, and the Transition Period has started, and yet the crucial talks about future terms have not yet begun and won’t do so until March. That gives the impression that nothing much is happening with Brexit for, as Luke McGee of CNN observes, the government is “eerily quiet on the single most important issue facing the United Kingdom in 2020”.  And what little is being said has largely been drowned out by the cabinet reshuffle, HS2 and other stories.

An eloquent silence

Yet that silence, in its own way, gives and is intended to give a message. I wrote in my previous post about Boris Johnson’s childish refusal to use the word Brexit any more, a stance confirmed by the now former Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom in a visit to Sunderland last week. “That was something that happened”, she rather peculiarly said when asked, rather as if, to use a comparison I’ve made before, Brexit had been an embarrassing episode at last year’s office party. It must have been rather deflating for the Sunderland voters, many of whom may have wanted to celebrate that which they are no longer supposed to mention.

But, of course, there is a very serious side to this. Invoking Orwell, both Jonathan Lis and Ian Dunt have recently written articles about how a wholesale revision of language is underway which is expressly designed to prevent scrutiny and accountability. Whatever may or may not happen now is to be decoupled from Brexit. It is hardly a new political technique, but it is being deployed with a rapidity, ruthlessness and shamelessness that is chilling.

And yet this is developing into the latest of the many paradoxes that Brexit has created. For at the same time as attempting to relegate Brexit to distant memory, the government is also claiming all kinds of benefits from “having left the EU”. Thus Health Secretary Matt Hancock explained last week that it would allow Britain to train or re-train many new medical staff (the Daily Express, where his article was published, was rather off-message in its headline by invoking the B-word).

It was not explained how the EU had prevented this, nor whether it would compensate for the exodus of EU staff from the NHS. But the ‘now we’ve left the EU’ formulation doesn’t require any causal link to be claimed. If Brexit is something that ‘has happened’, well, this announcement is something which is ‘now happening’. If readers fill in the blanks and ascribe it to Brexit – or headline writers do it for them – that’s a matter for them.

“Traders’ wines and olive oils …”

More complex was last week’s announcement of a consultation exercise about the establishment of free ports (the policy itself is not new and was announced last August). These are areas, not necessarily on the coast, where normal tax, customs checks and trade tariff rules are suspended so goods can be imported, stored, processed or worked on, and then re-exported or sold in the domestic market (at which point any relevant tariffs would apply).

Free ports have long been claimed by Johnson and many Brexit ideologues on the free market right as one of the great prizes of Brexit. The government’s consultation document suggests as much. It begins with some airy guff about how “in the Ancient World, Greek and Roman ships - piled high with traders’ wines and olive oils – found safe harbour in the Free Port of Delos” (p.5). That language is cringe-making but it is not accidental, being all of a piece with the cod history of so much Brexiter rhetoric, as if cutters bearing spices rather than container ships bearing crankshafts were at stake, and Brexit was a remake of The Onedin Line.

There is more in this woeful vein, but then it gets to the point. Free ports (or freeports, as the document has it) are all about “the opportunities that leaving the EU brings” (p.8). The clear suggestion is that the EU prohibits free ports. That turns out not to be true. They exist in the EU and existed in the UK until 2012, at which point the UK allowed the relevant UK legislation to lapse.

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Freeports Consultation. / HM Government

This led to much adverse comment on social media that the government was lying but matters are more complex than that. The language being used is very slippery – including that of the incoming Chancellor, Rishi Sunak – which makes it hard to hold on to what exactly is being claimed. But whilst free ports are allowed by the EU, they are circumscribed by EU Law as to how they can operate, including by state aid regulations (because, for example, certain sorts of tax incentives would amount to subsidies) and it was this, arguably, that led to the UK’s decision not to continue with them.

Beneath the rhetoric

So from that point of view the government is being half-truthful in suggesting that post-Brexit British free ports could be different from those within the EU (although they would not be a complete free-for-all in that WTO rules, so loved by Brexiters, create some restrictions). But nested within that are some other issues. The obvious one is that it reveals that what is really at issue here is not free ports per se but whether or not Britain agrees to the Level Playing Field (LPF, including state aid rules) which would prevent this divergence from EU free port regulations.

Since agreeing to LPF is one of the (last week hardening) EU red lines for doing a trade deal, it’s not unduly cynical to think that if the negotiations founder for that reason, one justification the government will give for not making a deal is that it will preclude these supposedly wonderful British free ports, especially as according to the consultation document free ports are to be a “cornerstone” of the government’s national ‘levelling up’ policy and, thus, the delivery of ‘the people’s priorities’.

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That’s questionable because according to Sussex University’s highly respected UK Trade Policy Observatory the economic case for free ports is debatable anyway, and numerous criticisms of their role in lowering labour standards and promoting tax evasion and money laundering have been made. And where there are examples of successful free ports they do not really translate to the British context.

Moreover, the government proposals are actually a hybrid of various kinds of policy, including regional regeneration which is not seen as a rationale for free ports even by their advocates, and enterprise zones which exist anyway.

I’ve focused on the free ports example because it has been current last week, and because it may come to have an importance in its own right, but also because it is illustrative of the tangle of language which has the effect, and probably the intention, of bamboozling people. Hence the half-true implication that this is new freedom for Britain, and the disguised truth that what is new about it is not having to adhere to regulatory restrictions which, if explained, many might prefer to keep, and the tendentious claims for the benefits.

That itself is consonant with the way, as argued in my previous piece, that the government remains within Brexit campaign mode. For it is very much like the linguistic chicanery of ‘Turkey is joining the EU’, defended on the grounds that it was true that, in principle, there was an ongoing process for Turkish accession whilst carrying the untrue implication that accession was an accomplished and imminent fact. Likewise, the “let’s spend” £350M a week on the NHS slogan was defended on the basis that this was merely a ‘suggestion’ for what could happen.

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The misleading Vote Leave campaign highlighting the possibility that Turkey may soon be allowed to join The EU. / Geograph.org.uk - Neil Theasby

Fortunately, the English love a queue

However, in one respect at least the government did start talking about the practical realities of Brexit – though it was not generally reported as the headline story it should have been – and it turns out that these are not so liberating after all.

As with free ports, it was dressed up in bracing terms – the Border Delivery Group, no less – beneath which lay the stark truth that as of next January there will be border checks on goods coming into Great Britain* from the EU, whether or not there is a trade deal, as well as tariffs charged if there is no trade deal. There were promises of ‘smart border’ arrangements by 2025, but that’s a long way off, most experts think them unlikely to be ready that soon and, anyway, they do not mean an end to customs formalities.

At one level, such border controls have been the obvious implication of Brexit ever since it was decided that this meant the hard Brexit of a trade deal or the even harder one of no trade deal at all. Yet that reality had been obscured by all the gaslighting about lack of checks on the Swiss border, the endless promises of frictionless trade continuing and fanciful claims of alternative arrangements to deliver this (most often with reference to the erstwhile Irish land border but, by extension, to be used at all EU-UK borders).

Everyone who knew anything about it knew that this was nonsense but, extraordinarily, last week was the first time that any high-profile official announcement of the reality of border checks in the UK was made. In the preparation for a no-deal Brexit, the plan had been that, whilst it was accepted that there would be EU tariffs and checks on UK exports to the EU, there would be almost none on goods moving from the EU to the UK.

That was always a strange idea anyway (giving EU exporters a huge advantage over UK exporters), but was intended as a temporary measure, at least in the first instance**, born of a recognition that there was insufficient time to build the necessary customs infrastructure in the UK. For similar reasons, no-deal planning had waived or reduced many of the normal border formalities but with last week’s announcement these, too, will now be put in place by the end of December.

It remains an open question whether the ten months or so until then will be sufficient and, if not, there are likely to be serious queues at the main ports (‘unfree ports’, perhaps). But, more importantly in the long-run, it spells out the very clear fact that Brexit is going to put an end to businesses running EU-UK just-in-time supply chains, as well as adding substantially to the costs of other businesses which trade across the new border.

Conceivably, it is intended as a negotiating ploy designed to make ‘German car makers’ and the like realize the consequences of there being no trade deal (if so, Brexiters have learned nothing). But it looks more like an acceptance that the no trade deal scenario is increasingly likely and, in any case, that there is no trade deal which can re-create the frictionless trade of single market and customs union membership. Zero tariffs does not mean zero checks and zero customs formalities – all of which mean friction and also mean increased business costs.

On the other hand, if there is no trade deal and import tariffs apply, an obvious question to ask is what tariff rates Britain will be applying. Alas, there is no answer to that since it also emerged last week that it has not yet been decided. This is a peculiar situation for a nation seeking, and desperately needing, to make trade deals not just with the EU but around the world. After all, how can such negotiation proceed if the other party does not know the terms that would apply without a deal being struck?

That is part of a more general picture of lack of preparedness which is one reason why leading American officials to say that a trade deal with the UK is now a lower priority for the US than one with the EU. We’re no longer first in the queue apparently. That may explain why Brexiter MPs like Iain Duncan Smith are spearheading opposition to the government’s use of Huawei – perhaps they have belatedly realised that the realities of international trade talks entail power plays that make a mockery of their windy rhetoric about ‘taking back control’.

Bait and switch

Businesses now have a greater sense of what the government intends to inflict on their trade with the EU and, to some extent, that at least has the benefit of increased clarity. But they have warned, again, what this will mean for product availability and prices. That will have no cut-through with either the government or much of the public, of course, having already been discounted as Project Fear. The calculation appears to be that there is no political price to be paid for having spent years promising sunny uplands and then delivering dank swamps. Such a bait and switch is the oldest technique in the conman’s repertoire, but it does risk the wrath of disgruntled punters.

Much will depend upon exactly what damage occurs and how quickly, and whether enough people make the connections. Will they, for example, remember cases such as the boss of Norton, the British motorbike firm that went into receivership last week citing Brexit as one reason, saying in 2018 that Britain “would thrive outside the EU” and urging the government to get Brexit done? Or, if they face shortages and price increases because of border delays and costs, will they recall the warnings that were dismissed as Project Fear?

More generally, will enough people remember that Michael Gove, who made the announcement of the new border controls last week, was the same person who in 2016 sold them the bogus Vote Leave campaign line that there “is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey … after we vote to leave we will remain in the zone”?

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Gove: UK would remain part of “free-trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey” after Brexit. / Open Europe

The depressing thing is that they probably won’t, the more so if the government is successful in persuading people that Brexit was something ‘that happened’, rather than something that is happening, and which both in principle and in form the Prime Minister and other leading ministers made happen.

This is why it is important – especially in the media – to keep challenging the linguistic contortions, and to keep comparing the promises with the outcomes. For although it may seem that both rationality and honesty have now disappeared from our politics that is not inevitable, and will only become so if we all drop the attempt to keep them present.🔷



*The arrangements for Northern Ireland will, of course, be different. How these will work remains unclear and appears to have experts baffled.

**I say ‘in the first instance’ because, whilst the plans were indeed billed as ‘temporary’, on the wilder fringes of Brexit debate there are some influential figures who do propose the unilateral abolition of (all) import tariffs by the UK. Apart from the devastation this would cause British manufacturing and agriculture, such an approach would, of course, make negotiating trade deals with other countries rather difficult. For (whilst trade deals aren’t just about tariffs) why should they remove tariffs on UK goods if the UK has already removed tariffs on theirs?


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Check their Voting Record:

🗳️ Boris Johnson

🗳️ Andrea Leadsom

🗳️ Matt Hancock

🗳️ Rishi Sunak

🗳️ Iain Duncan Smith

🗳️ Michael Gove










[This piece was originally published on the Brexit Blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 18 February 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Thomas Leuthard. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)



     

THE AUTHOR

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Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.