Is our democracy toast? Part 2 of the double-barrelled piece

Meme by the author

Fishers feel betrayed. Boats are in dry-dock, fish markets are bereft of trade, and five-generation businesses are facing bankruptcy. No Brexiter politicians are posing with them now. No Brexiter politicians are even listening to them now. Similarly, agri-food businesses, no matter how well prepared they were, are seeing the fruits of their labours spoiled, at great cost, because of last minute ‘surprises’ in the new Brexit red tape. The price of everyone’s weekly shop is about to go up in consequence, but wages, pensions and benefits won’t follow. North-East Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is no doubt very ‘uplifted’ by the queues snaking across the snow outside foodbanks.

Pre-Brexit, London was the world’s most important financial centre. It has since haemorrhaged over £1 trillion in assets to other countries, looks on impotently as high-potential new business lines (like trade in European carbon emissions contracts) relocate elsewhere, and now finds itself second to Amsterdam for share-trading. Somebody forgot to tell the companies now fleeing London that they weren’t supposed to leave. The combination of top-flight talent, high-quality business services and the rule of law gave the City a competitive advantage that would not be eroded, Michael Gove said. He gambled with a £126bn industry and got it wrong ‒again.

Britain’s E-commerce businesses, suddenly confronted with a massive ramping-up of carriage costs due to higher transportation expenses, new handling fees to cover additional bureaucracy, and the end to VAT exemptions for low-value goods, are closing down EU business lines, or even shutting up shop. Sure, it will have an impact on EU countries too ‒ misery loves company. But they’ve got 26 other markets to fall back on to source those goods on superior single market terms. We do not.

Our musicians are being silenced. Touring is how tomorrow’s stars hone their craft and build their fan-base. The UK has a surplus of musical talent, and too small a market to support them all. Good news: the EU loves them. That’s one of the reasons our music industry is worth £5.8bn to our economy: 14.5 times the contribution from fishing – although money is not the only metric of worth for either industry. Our government’s deliberate decision to say “NON!” to the EU’s offer of free movement for musicians, artists and creatives (a privilege other third-country nationals have), and then lying about doing it, is unfathomable. Some highly successful musicians might be able to afford the extra costs and hire someone to take on the hassle of the paperwork, but most performers, crews, roadies and drivers cannot.

Like music, the UK’s £35bn fashion industry needs freedom of movement, not just for designers and top models, but for all the make-up artists, seamstresses and other essential staff, too. It has also been hard-hit by new Brexit red tape, especially the nit-picky small print of rules of origin. Fashion is not just a top earner in terms of cold hard cash, but also in soft power prestige; but top brands warn Brexit complications will destroy British brands. The UK government must be wearing noise-cancelling headphones on a permanent basis, because it is deaf to reason and persists with its Maoist approach to Brexit.

Let’s not forget the unfortunate people at the sharp end: the haulage firms. Extra checks, a more complex process, clunky, outdated government IT systems, inexperienced officials and customers – many of whom are giving up rather than deal with it all ‒ means that two out of three times the haulier runs an empty truck on one leg of the journey. Between lost business and a swathe of new costs, turnover is down markedly.

This list is by no means complete. We can all give examples of businesses that have been hit and brands that warn of a slow deflation of value, skills and competitiveness due to Brexit. What is our government doing about it?

Meme by the author

Government has six response strategies for poor results. These are not exclusive to Brexit —you’ll see them applied to all cock-ups, including those related to Covid-19.

  1. Deny
  2. Confuse
  3. Trivialise
  4. Dismiss
  5. “No comment”
  6. Divert

“I don’t recognise that figure,” is a phrase we hear increasingly from ministers in this government. This is new. We didn’t hear it before Brexit, and most of us would be glad never to hear again. It’s Tory-speak for a denial. Another form of denial is to spout ‘alternative facts’. Rees-Mogg is a champion at this. He loves to claim false benefits for Brexit. He tweeted on 2 December:

“We could only approve this vaccine so quickly because we have left the EU. Last month we changed the regulations so a vaccine did not need EU approval which is slower.”

As you’ll know if you’ve read ‘Vaccine ‘wars’? What on earth is going on’ and ‘Thank EU for our speedy vaccine approval?’, not a word of Rees-Mogg’s statement is true. However, Rees-Mogg knows that by bigging up a Brexit benefit, albeit a false one, people might be distracted from the dreadful disadvantages.

Meanwhile Michael Gove has been giving a master class in how to confuse the picture as he has done the rounds of Select and Lords Committees this week, to give updates on the workings of the Irish Protocol (IP) and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), as the Brexit deal is known. Not only has he claimed not to recognise the 68 per cent drop in exports reported by The Observer, but he has then gone on to throw out alternative figures. “Trade flows have held up exceptionally well,” he told the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, citing 98 per cent for outbound and 99 per cent for inbound flows, compared with February last year.

Do you see what he did there? Flows falsely equated with Exports. Flows include empty trucks. Usually, empty trucks account for up to 30 per cent of transits. In January that reached 75 per cent, but has now reduced to 65 per cent ‒ although Gove prefers the French statistic of 50-60 per cent. Nothing says I’m on your side and I’ve got your interests at heart so much as Gove preferring to believe the statistics from a country he’s usually at odds with, to those supplied by his own domestic industry. Still, Gove is hoping to obliterate the shock of a 68 per cent drop in exports by deliberately confusing exports with flows.

Central Conservative HQ has decided to trivialise the Brexit problems faced by British businesses as ‘teething problems’. This is a clever phrase, as it at once communicates to the audience that the problems are temporary, and that the businesses complaining of them are cry-babies. Trivialising an issue is a way to dupe people into thinking it is unimportant, but it is also a way to dismiss it. The Tories’ preferred way to dismiss issues is to brand the person raising them as a ‘woke lefty’ —or ‘wokist’ as Rees-Mogg puts it. That argument works on their fan-base, none of whom want to be perceived as woke or of the left, but it is a particularly nasty tactic. It is akin to saying, “Nothing anybody who is in a different position on the political spectrum has to say can ever be worth listening to, and certainly doesn’t merit any sort of a response.”

Here is an example of Rees-Mogg dismissing a claim that the Tories have a poor record on health in the North of England, by labelling it as ‘Balderdash’:

“That’s above my pay-grade” is the new “no comment” – a sure sign that the minister does not wish to engage on the topic, either because the public would not like the answer, or because the minister does not know the answer. Politicians like it because it neither confirms nor denies, and so provides them with a fig-leaf of integrity.

And finally, to diversion. This occurs when, instead of focusing on the heart of a matter, politicians encourage us to focus on an insignificant detail, or something else altogether, often referred colloquially to as a dead cat or a squirrel. Once again, Rees-Mogg has given us a perfect example.

On 9 February, Weetabix tweeted a teaser photo of a bowl of Weetabix with baked beans on top, with the caption, “Why should bread have all the fun, when there’s Weetabix? Serving up @HeinzUK Beanz on bix for breakfast with a twist.” Other big brands, organisations and even police forces waded in with witty opinions on the matter, including Sainsbury’s, Boots, SpecSavers, Bletchley Park, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Pfizer UK, The NHS and the Manchester Police Force. For two days, it made Twitter a funnier, more festive place ‒ and succeeded in creating viral marketing not only for Weetabix and Heinz, but also for the brands who responded.

Somewhat behind the curve, the joke was brought up in Parliament on 11 February. Kettering MP Philip Hollobone suggested it was possibly a more divisive argument than Brexit. In response, Rees-Mogg recited 1970s jingles (incorrectly), informed the house the best way to eat Weetabix is with warm milk and brown sugar, and then revealed his preferred breakfast is toast with Nanny’s own home-made marmalade. Is this what our democracy has come to? Infantile discussions about toast?

Now, while we might agree with Hollobone’s statement that, “We all need a little light relief…”, is a session of parliament the right place for that? Businesses are fighting for survival and people are struggling to maintain their livelihoods, because of the botched Brexit these two men backed. What is more, thousands are still dying from Covid-19 every week, due in part to our government’s negligence. And let’s not forget the damage of being in lockdown again as a result of the mismanagement of the first wave of the pandemic. As for tackling climate crisis … we’ve barely begun… we’ve even gone in the opposite direction.

When Rees-Mogg jokes around like this, it’s all part of a strategy to trivialise the problems our government has caused, and divert attention away from them. Please be conscious of what they are doing and how they are doing it, and hold the precious gift of your trust in reserve. Sad to say, but it doesn’t look as though that trust will be deserved any time soon.