18th Mar 2018


Conservative 'buccaneering Brexit' narrative unrealistic

Conservative politicians are frantically trying to forge a hopeful narrative out of Brexit.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson recently set out his vision of a 'liberal Brexit', backbench MP and chief Brexit 'hardliner'Jacob Rees-Mogg has previously called for a 'bold Brexit' and Liam Fox, the international trade minister, has described a 'Buccaneering Britain' cutting trade deals across the post-Brexit world.

  • Fox, the international trade minister responsible for UK trade deals with the rest of the world, is a hardcore Thatcherite (Photo: Chatham House)

Yet, after years of pessimistic rhetoric it somehow feels just a little odd to see right-wing Tories do a complete 360 degree turnaround and join the sunshine brigade.

Conservative Brexiteer's positive spin over Brexit is proving unpersuasive, and for good reason. Such is the nature of conservatism that enthusiastic stories are unusual.

Negativity is standard fare in democratic politics, particularly on the right and the Conservative party are past masters at this approach.

Indeed, one of the party's most effective electoral moves has been to claim it will, to paraphrase, 'clear up the mess left behind by Labour'.

Margaret Thatcher played on a sense of crisis in the 1970s, which she claimed was caused by Labour's economic profligacy and incompetence allied with irresponsible trade unions, and returned to it repeatedly in office.

It was potent enough to win the post-Thatcher 1992 election (with the famous Labour's 'tax bombshell' poster) and the same tactic was attempted, this time unsuccessfully, in 1997 ('New Labour, New Danger').

In fact, something very similar came to dominate the 2010 election.

If senior Tories were to be believed, Britain was just days away from the kind of economic catastrophe that was then engulfing Greece.

We were told that this national economic emergency necessitated austerity politics and deficit slashing, although these targets were subsequently abandoned and the deficits no longer deemed so grave.

The Conservative party clearly does negative politics very effectively.

Nevertheless, in its more confident moments Tory politicians can offer something more optimistic, for instance Margaret Thatcher's 'popular capitalism', John Major's (albeit much maligned) 'Citizen's Charter' and even David Cameron's elusive 'Big Society'.

Revenge of eurosceptic Thatcherites

What appears to be currently on offer from pro-Brexit Conservatives is reheated Thatcherism, or at least a particular interpretation of pro-trade nationalism.

The case was made by the co-chair of 'Leave means Leave' (and former Director General of British Chambers of Commerce), John Longworth, on the Conservative Home website recently.

Longworth stated that leavers have 'every reason to be optimistic'. As well as – in true Thatcherite style – invoking a radical combination of entrepreneurs and the 'silent majority' that chose Brexit, Longworth believes the result is "a sort of 'Glorious Revolution'".

So, the answer is that we Leavers, and that should mean all of us, should certainly be optimistic. It will not be long before our independent, liberated, prosperous and free country becomes to define the new status quo.

Furthermore, the focus of Brexiteers in cabinet, such as Johnson and Fox, and those in the parliamentary party, appears to be primarily around trade.

This liberal (in the economic sense), 'buccaneering', project apparently offers a prosperous future through free trade deals made across the globe.

For many voters, however, what is on offer is someway from the prospectus of the 2016 referendum.

'Take Back Control'

If 'take back control' was a deceptively simple call for greater national sovereignty, anti-immigration rhetoric clearly made a huge difference.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the campaigns, the decision to leave can probably more accurately be read as a desire for more protectionism, economic and cultural.

A recent survey stated that only nine percent of Leave voters chose 'Better trade opportunities with the wider world' as their primary motivation for their choice in the referendum, while even 55 percent of Remain voters would like migration from the EU to be limited.

The British were amongst the most vociferous protestors against Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the now-shelved free trade agreement with North America.

Therein lies Jeremy Corbyn's ambivalence, if not outright hostility, to the EU's single market. Corbyn and his allies have made careers out of their opposition to free trade and it may be an under-appreciated segment of his support in last year's election.

In fact, Corbyn – having dusted off his own vision from the Thatcher era – is now seen as the bringer of good news.

All this is to leave aside the main contradiction of the liberal Brexit ideal.

The 'buccaneering trading nation' model promises to, curiously, withdraw Britain completely from the world's largest, deepest and most integrated trade area, consisting of democratic governments, in exchange for a smorgasbord of ad hoc trade agreements made predominantly with, almost inevitably, a motley crew of despots and authoritarian regimes.

Liberals or despots?

This new arrangement will probably not be best described using the term liberal.

It is unsurprising that Tory Brexiteers and their backers are attempting to paint a positive and optimistic view of Brexit.

After all, 17.4 million people voted to leave and are certain to be unhappy at mainstream politicians attempting to block Brexit, demeaning them as they do so.

Indeed, when Brexiteers come under pressure or sense any weakening of resolve they are quick to admonish the culprits with claims about patriotism and how the will of the people must be respected.

Yet, the liberal Brexit on offer by 'Hard Brexiteers' may do little to satisfy the grievances of those who rejected the EU in 2016, myriad as they are.

The inconsistencies intrinsic in a 'Buccaneering Brexit' lay at the very core of the Gordian knot now facing the government, and the country.

What these conflicting narratives tell us is that Brexit - past, present and future - is essentially an internal struggle for the heart and soul of the Conservative party.

Dr Robert Ledger is a visiting professor at Schiller University in Heidelberg, Germany, and previously worked for the Stability Initiative think tank in Brussels

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