Professor Chris Grey on the Frost-Lewis article and its wider significance, the latest economic and cultural costs of Brexit, and the ever-clearer paradox of hardline ‘sovereignty’ in an interdependent world.
First published in July 2021.
As predicted in recent pieces, including last week’s, there is no sign that the government’s confrontational approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) is going to change. Neither the Biden intervention nor the EU’s agreement to extend the chilled meats grace period, plus other recent flexibilities, is going to make any difference. What may just be beginning to change is the willingness of Labour to challenge it, with Keir Starmer making some unusually critical comments about Johnson's and Frost’s failings over Brexit.
The Frost-Lewis article
The continuing antagonism of this approach was sharply intensified by an article co-authored by David Frost and Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, in the Irish Times last weekend, which has had reverberations throughout the week. It articulates what has emerged as the standard Brexiter case against the NIP, including the familiar dishonesty about the significance of the EU’s aborted proposal to invoke Article 16, but a few features are worth flagging up. In particular, it is important in its formulation of the central problem as being “the inflexible requirement to treat the movement of goods into Northern Ireland as if they were crossing an external EU frontier” (my emphasis added). This is noteworthy because it effectively rejects the core meaning of the NIP, and the reason why it exists. For it is not a matter of ‘as if’: the NIP is, precisely, an agreement about where the external EU frontier will be.
The refusal – repeated by Frost at an event last week – to accept this basic fact actually gives the lie to the recurrent motif in the article that the issue is that UK did not “expect” the border to be enforced as it is required to be, or had “assumed” that it would not be. Even taken in its own terms, this suggests rank incompetence on the part of Frost and the government. But that is actually far too generous, because they must have known at the time and were certainly advised of it by civil servants. Frost and Lewis write as if the NIP was just a general document, with all the details left to be filled in later, but whilst it’s true that there is scope for it to evolve over time, it also contains detailed provisions in the annexes for how it will work.
So whilst Frost and Lewis claim that EU insistence on implementing these provisions is to take a “theological approach”, as if to imply that all they seek is a little flexibility, their rejection of the central tenet of the NIP shows that this is not the case at all. Nor is their implication that their objections have only arisen as a result of trying to implement the NIP true. In fact Lewis, like Johnson and other ministers, denied from the outset that a sea border had been agreed at all. Moreover, as Professor Ronan McCrea points out, what Frost is proposing about the sea border neglects the wider context of compromises and trade-offs of which it is only one element. Meanwhile, lurking behind Frost, Lewis and Johnson is the DUP’s new leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, pushing for sea border controls to be removed “within weeks”.*
Irish reactions to Frost-Lewis
The placing of this article in the Irish media is both significant and deliberate. It signals that the UK stance is not just for domestic consumption, but is one the government is intent on pursuing. That this is so is underlined by the fact the that the UK Ambassador to Ireland approached RTE shortly before the article was published, knowing its content, and proposing that this meant it would be a “good time” to give an interview. This duly went ahead on Saturday and consisted of an uncompromising defence of the article.
So Frost-Lewis had not committed some accidental diplomatic gaffe: there appears to be a concerted British strategy in play which can’t be dismissed as playing to the Brexiter gallery (since neither the Irish Times nor RTE is the right theatre for this). It may be part of an attempt to garner support in Ireland for the UK case, perhaps with the idea that the Irish government might act as the UK advocate within the EU. If so, the reaction to it suggests it will fail and, indeed, that the article is seen as an unnecessarily provocative gesture.
Thus Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, was highly (though diplomatically) critical of it, remarking that it seemed to amount to an attempt to “dismantle elements of the protocol piece by piece”. Media reports in Ireland quote senior officials saying the Irish government will not act as a go-between for the UK, and also that “there was a growing feeling on the EU side that the UK were ‘banking’ concessions offered by the EU”.
Subsequently, there was a much more robust response, the more striking given his traditionally pro-British stance, from the former Taoiseach John Bruton, lacerating Frost-Lewis for refusing to take responsibility for what the UK had signed, and for behaving in a “menacing” manner towards Ireland. It is well worth reading as a comprehensive dismantling of the UK position, including the abundantly clear fact that Frost has no intention of using the chilled meats grace period extension for the purpose of reorganizing supply chains, which was why it was granted (and why it existed in the first place).
Lord Frost. | Number 10
Wider implications for UK-EU relations
The article caused ripples well beyond Ireland, as such ‘megaphone diplomacy’ was bound, and presumably intended, to do. Later in the week Maros Sefcovic spoke of a lack of trust, deepened by the Frost-Lewis article, and others of a growing feeling that Frost-Johnson never intended to honour the NIP. Meanwhile the EU Ambassador to the UK suggested that the UK was not interested in finding solutions to the NIP’s operations (implying, I assume, that it wants to ditch it altogether).
In short, all of the things I’ve been saying in this column for weeks are now increasingly appearing in public statements (I don’t mean to imply any special insight on my part, it’s just that, obviously, I’m not subject to any of the diplomatic constraints that politicians and officials have on what they can say). The question of how the EU responds remains difficult to answer, and probably won’t be clear until the autumn, at the earliest. Sefcovic is talking about stepping up legal action over the unilateral extension of grace periods, but the real issue isn’t this or that disputed issue but the overarching refusal of the UK government to accept the basic tenets of the agreement it signed, and the antagonistic manner with which it conducts itself.
Some in the EU may still think, as some British commentators do, that the UK will quietly become more reasonable whilst continuing to bluster for domestic purposes. I think that is unlikely and, as mentioned, the placing of the Frost-Lewis article in the Irish Times is one indication of that. It also underestimates the extent to which post-Brexit British politics has become detached from rational calculation or, perhaps, operates according a rationality of its own.
Thus, as I’ve remarked before, it seems clear that Frost-Johnson believe that their approach works, has no domestic downsides and will have few international repercussions.
The problem for the EU is how to react to a country which behaves in a hostile way, but hasn’t quite gone rogue; a country which alternates sabre-rattling about breaking international law with passive-aggressive talk of ‘our European friends and partners’. My sense is that the default EU position is to keep talking and to try to dampen down or postpone outright conflict, but for how long is that sustainable?
Increasingly, the situation for the EU seems like that of a law-abiding citizen stuck with the neighbour from hell. At first, you try polite, rational argument – surely, if you just calmly explain your point of view the noisy all-night parties, drunken rows and revving engines will stop? But they just swear at you and turn the music up louder. So you explore legal sanctions, but these are weak and treated by the neighbour as an affront, even a justification for behaving even more badly. The aggravation worsens, but never quite to the point where you can take decisive action. All the time there are more-or-less implicit threats which you, used to reasonable conduct, don’t really know how to deal with. You keep trying to talk, but the more you do the more your neighbour senses your weakness. Perhaps one day, goaded beyond endurance, you lash out – only to have your neighbour report you for harassment. Or perhaps you give up trying, and put up with your nerves being shredded by broken nights and endless rows. It’s an intolerable, yet insoluble, situation – the more so as in this case moving house is impossible.
Brexit bites hard at home
So much for UK-EU relations. Meanwhile, the domestic damage of Brexit is racking up. Six months on from the end of the transition period, there is ever-more detail emerging about the damage to a wide variety of sectors where exporting has become more difficult and more expensive, with 17% of companies that used to trade with the EU having stopped doing so. Inevitably it will have been smaller traders who are most likely to have given up, but firms which have incorporated the new costs will also suffer in terms of reduced competitiveness.
All this has downstream consequences for employment and tax revenues, but the immediate looming crisis is the supply disruptions caused by a lack of HGV drivers. This is substantially, though by no means entirely, linked to Brexit and although there have been warnings for months it is only now feeding through into tangible gaps on supermarket shelves (as well as shortages of, for example, construction materials), even as food rots unpicked in fields. Astonishingly, the government response is to temporarily allow even longer working hours for HGV drivers, something greeted with dismay by the haulage industry as being neither a safe nor a sustainable solution.
The wider issue is that of skills gaps caused by the end of freedom of movement of people. One easy, and not unreasonable, response is to say that firms should pay more and/or offer better conditions of employment and/or invest more in training. However, apart from the fact that this also implies consumers paying higher prices (which, again, may not be unreasonable), the underlying problem is not shortages in this or that sector but across the board, and it derives mainly from the ageing demographics of UK society (although there are debates about what these look like and what they imply).
Not for the first time in recent history the UK economy needs more immigration for economic reasons. The tragedy, however, is not that ending of freedom of movement ended an easy answer to this need, it is that freedom of movement meant so much more than economic migration – it enabled lives and families to be created and enriched in non-economic ways, as well. Skills shortages may be the most obvious, but are only the most superficial, sign of what has been lost.
PM Boris Johnson. | Number 10
The unending culture war
The intangible losses implied by that go wider than freedom of movement. Whilst it would be ridiculous to blame Brexit for any and every intolerance or nastiness in British society, there is a palpable sense that Britain – or England, anyway – has become meaner and coarser as a result, or at least that it has enabled the more open expression of mean and coarse sentiments. That can’t be proved but, if nothing else, the fact that Johnson’s government extended what worked in campaigning for Brexit into the wider, now daily fought, culture war has pushed things in that direction. After all, you can’t have a culture war in which there are no cultural casualties. Perhaps worse than that, in a culture war neither victory nor defeat can ever be declared: it must always feed on some new outrage.
That is one, and arguably one of the most severe, legacies of Brexit. Not just because of a general coarsening but because ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ are now conflated with the wider culture war battles. Empirical evidence doesn’t really support it, but pro-Brexit commentators like Matthew Lynn explicitly link ‘pro and anti-maskers’ with remainers and leavers. Others make the same linkage with ‘woke’ and ‘anti-woke’ opinions, and this in turn gets linked with all the stuff about ‘cancel culture’ and so on. To see how these and other things get mashed up together by the culture warriors, a good place to look is the recent interview on GBNews – itself a medium and outcome of the culture war – with Douglas Murray. Even the football tournament (Euro 2020) was linked to Brexit in a wide variety of ways (there’s a whole piece that could be written just about that).
Brexit is crucial to this culture war, not just as having been a gateway to it but because there was a vote on Brexit. It was this victory – narrow and tainted as it was – which gave a new inflection to what had always been rhetorically claimed as ‘the silent majority’ by putting a number on it. With that came the idea of ‘the will of the people’ and the positioning of its opponents as not only wrongheaded but anti-democratic.
The paradox of Brexit
At the risk of labouring the earlier analogy, imagine yourself, now, an unwilling occupant of the house of the neighbour from hell. Your home has been taken over by anti-social hooligans and you are stuck with it as they rampage from room to room, smashing things up. This is effectively the situation of half the British people. Of course you might decide to leave if you can and, unbelievably, Brexiters are now denouncing an “EU plot” to attract British citizens to take up citizenship in EU countries because, as Bernard Jenkin explains, “their career opportunities are so limited [compared] with what they were”. The specific loss being raised was that of their freedom of movement, and the refusal of the government to have a mobility agreement with the EU. Only a dolt like Jenkin could fail to understand it is a consequence of the Brexit he advocated.
The two components of the analogy are linked. Inherent in any populist politics, and one of the ways in which ‘populist’ is not the same as ‘popular’, is that it claims to speak for a people always under attack (thus Lynn, again, writes of an “EU plot to destroy the City”). That is why it is so belligerent in its use of symbols, such as the flag, in a way that a truly popular politics would be too self-confident to need to be. The perceived attack is both from external enemies who would dominate the people and internal traitors who would undermine and weaken them. Waving the flag is meant to scarify the external enemy, whilst exposing the traitors who do not fly it or of whom it can be claimed, no matter how absurdly, that they mock it.
Yet the two elements often come into sharp conflict, as can be seen in the current situation regarding asylum seekers. On the one hand, the government is developing an ever-more spiteful and mean-spirited policy with its Nationality and Borders Bill published last week, in clear pursuit of its domestic culture war. On the other hand, it has discovered that Brexit makes it harder, not easier, to pursue such a policy and that it needs the agreement of other countries to replace the UK’s previous membership of the EU’s ‘Dublin regulations’.
As the BBC’s Home editor Mark Easton put it, it is “the paradox of Brexit that taking control of your borders requires more international co-operation, not less”. That doesn’t just apply to control of borders, of course. It exposes the entire fantasy of a sovereignty that can be exercised without regard for that of others, and the lie inherent in the ‘take back control’ slogan.
It really is time that David Frost and Boris Johnson understood this, but there’s absolutely no sign that they will.
*For an assessment of Donaldson, the DUP and the NIP see Dr Lisa Claire Whitten’s analysis on the UK in a Changing Europe website.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Chris Grey, Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
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[This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 14 July 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson. | 9 JULY 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)