The Tory party ERG learns nothing. It listens not at all, and it doesn’t understand the difference between engaging and navel gazing. All its proposals for leaving the EU basically boil down to descriptions of unicorns. However today, lost amongst the wall to wall coverage of the D-Day commemorations – that’s Donald Day in case you were wondering – the ERG published its carefully thought out and extensively researched paper on leaving the EU on 31 October without a deal. Well, I say carefully thought out and extensively researched. What I mean is that they asked Mark We Won the War You Know Francois, Iain Duncan-Smith, and Jacob Rees Mogg. Together they’ve come up with something that represents a radical and innovative breakthrough on thinking about Brexit. It is still a description of a unicorn, but the cunning bit is that now it is in a different font.
Brexit papers are very like that other product of a fervent leaver, Dyson air dryers, except they’ll work out a lot more expensive and blow a lot more hot air. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s last foray into publishing was when he brought out his book about great Victorians, a tome which was described by one reviewer as trite, tedious, and muddle-headed. The ERG’s Brexit paper is very much in the same vein. Called “A Clean Managed Brexit”, the paper even manages to lie in its title. There is no such thing as a clean Brexit. It’s always going to be messy. And there is no such thing as a managed no deal except in the sense that you can call plummeting off a cliff onto the rocks below a managed descent because you’re aiming for a big rock shaped like a pillow.
A no deal Brexit would rapidly be followed by panicked negotiations to get some deals in place as quickly as possible in order to forestall the chaos, only the UK will be negotiating from a position of abject weakness. It won’t be so much negotiating as pleading. The ERG’s paper refuses to acknowledge that reality. Because we won the war you know. D-Day. That’ll show them. Essentially what this plan boils down to is that the UK will generously concede to consider an utter capitulation by the EU, and if the EU doesn’t play ball, then the UK will embrace a no-deal Brexit because vassal state, or something. It’s basically a threat that the UK will shoot itself in the head because then the EU will get splattered with the blood. That’ll teach them.
David Henig, who’s the director of the UK Trade Policy Project and co-founder of the UK Trade Forum, called the paper a “total refusal to face up to the real world.” Meanwhile Steve Peers, who is a professor of EU, Human Rights, and Trade Law at Essex University, said that it was full of false and misleading statements, and added that it showed utter contempt for both the 3 million EU citizens resident in the UK and UK citizens resident in EU states. Even the Telegraph newspaper, which isn’t exactly a bastion of pro-remain sentiment, called it “ludicrous”. At least the paper managed one thing of note however. It earned even worse reviews than Jacob’s last book.
The ERG’s new paper has a daring and radical new solution to the question of the Irish border. OK. No it doesn’t. That bit is wishful thinking. But then the real proposals contained in the paper for dealing with the Irish border are equally wishful thinking. There’s going to be an invisible border with existing technology. Which is grand. It’s just a pity that the existing technology to achieve that doesn’t actually, you know, exist. You’d be as well saying that you’re going to organise a scientific expedition to explore the Alpha Centauri solar system and get there and back within two weeks using existing technology.
Similar objections could be raised to just about every other so-called solution proposed by this paper. All of them boil down to the UK sticking its fingers in its ears and refusing to listen. This is, to be fair, pretty much what the British government has been doing for the past three years, so there is precedent for it. However it’s not exactly got us all very far.
But the truth is that even the swivel eyed Brextremists behind this paper know that it’s a political non-starter. The EU has repeatedly stated that it is not going to reopen the exit deal, and it is not up for renegotiation. Far less is the EU about to capitulate to the UK’s every demand. Even the ERG, deep down in that dark pit of desolation that passes for their soul, realise that. But then this paper isn’t really about proposing solutions. It’s basically a glorified version of a dug peeing on a bush in order to mark its territory.
The real purpose of this paper is to define what “a proper Brexit” means for Tory leadership candidates, and particularly for Boris Johnson. This paper allows the Brexit extremists to justify their cries of betrayal when Boris or whoever takes over as leader of the Tory party attempts to put some lipstick on Theresa May’s pig of a deal. This isn’t really a proposal for progress on Brexit, it’s a species of holy writ that the Tory chosen one has to follow or be condemned as a heretic. Brexit, as it has been pointed out before, can never be delivered. It can only be betrayed. The only future that the UK offers is uncertainty, instability, and the constant cry of betrayal. You can bet that heavily remain voting Scotland will loom large in the list of traitors to the one true Brexit.
This tiny faction of Tory MPs, these zealous ideologues with a persecution complex, these fantasists who substitute nostalgia for empire for a vision, will have greater influence on our future than the Scottish Government. Scotland didn’t elect them. They represent only a tiny minority of Scottish opinion, but they have the ear of the future British Prime Minister in a way that no Scottish Government ever could. Scotland’s place within the UK is to shut up and do what it’s told by people who know little about us and who care even less.
In the space of five years we’ve gone from only a vote against independence can guarantee NHS funding, to selling the NHS off to the highest US corporate bidder. In the space of five years we’ve gone from only a no vote can guarantee Scottish democracy and protect us from political extremism, to the rise of the right wing English nationalist populism of Nigel Farage and a Tory party shaping itself in his image. In the space of five years we’ve gone from only a no vote can guarantee Scotland’s place within the EU, to demands that only a no-deal crashing out of the EU respects the result of the EU referendum.
There’s no certainty left in British politics, except for the certainty that in five years time the Brextremists will still be crying betrayal. But within five years Scotland can have saved itself, and could be an independent nation forging its own relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. We have to take the road to independence, to save ourselves, to save the NHS, to save our public services, to save our democracy.
The ERG might learn nothing, but these past few years have taught Scotland the truth about the UK. It’s not a pretty truth. We have a simple choice ahead of us.
My new book has just been published by Vagabond Voices. Containing the best articles from The National from 2016 to date. Weighing in at over 350 pages, this is the biggest and best anthology of Wee Gingerisms yet. This collection of pieces covers the increasingly demented Brexit years, and the continuing presence and strength of Scotland’s independence movement.
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