Now we have sight of Boris Johnson’s letter to Donald Tusk, we have a little clearer idea about where things are heading subsequent to the Vote Leave takeover of the government after Johnson’s election as Tory leader. While the press comment has – rightly – focused on the attention given in the letter to the backstop and the issue of Northern/Ireland, the key paragraph is surely the one on p. 2 which talks about the backstop being ‘inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU’ and, specifically, this bit:
Although we will remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.
There is an easy point to score here in that not one aspect of our democracy ever put Vote Leave into Downing Street – check, for instance, the 2017 General Election which delivered a hung parliament and May’s Euro elections results in the UK. Brexit remains, as it always did, a battle for control of the Tory Party in which all of us have been caught up.
It’s also very easy to criticise the tone of the letter – in something purporting to re-open negotiations, in superficial pursuit of an expressed desire that the EU might compromise, it is clear that it very much closes them down by hardening the red lines which were already the logical conclusion to May’s botched negotiation. It has, entirely predictably, already received short shrift from the EU and presumably, this was its purpose such that the EU can be portrayed as the ‘inflexible’ enemy unwilling to compromise to secure a deal. This is evidently not a serious attempt at a re-negotiation. If further evidence was required, it’s surely there in the paragraph towards the bottom of p. 2 of the letter withdrawing from the commitment set out in the agreed Joint Report to ‘full alignment’ with the single market and customs union. Negotiation cannot sensibly proceed when one side is so publicly thumbing its nose at agreed commitments previously entered into.
Even so, we should note very carefully the threat implicit in the paragraph quite above – that, unless the EU gives us the exit deal we want, the UK will move to a de-regulatory ‘paradise’, undercutting the EU on its environmental, product and labour standards and becoming a sort of Singapore in Europe, sitting on Europe’s offshore and acting as a haven for the sorts of dodgy interests that have given us Brexit in the first place. If that is the ‘UK’s final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship’ (whatever that tortuous expression actually means in practice) – well, I can’t recall being asked to vote on that; and neither, of course, is it at all sustainable to be seeking perpetually to drive down standards, including on labour, in a race to the bottom. (Of course and not only labour – it makes absolutely no sense to have divergent standards on the environment when global action is required to save the planet: but then, climate change denial is one of the reasons we have Brexit – and it won’t stop there until the rest of the international institutions trying to address themselves to climate change have also been undermined). In this respect, proposals for no state pension until 75 (‘Don’t retire, expire!’) is only the start.
If indeed it it not a serious attempt at re-negotiation, and that the real target of the letter is not Brussels but the domestic audience, then it does, perhaps, further signal a general election prior to 31 October.
We should also therefore note the language in the letter around ‘anti-democratic’ which is not just Dominic Cummings’s word du jour to boil the debate around the EU into a soundbite – it also symbolises the verbal oppression to which those who would be likely opponents of a UK-as-Singapore policy would be subject. We have seen this sort of language before and very recently (‘saboteurs’, ‘traitors’, enemies of the people’, ‘collaborators’) but it casts here a very wide range of likely opponents of government policy as opponents of democracy. Environmental organisations and activists, food welfare and safety NGOs, and trade unions alike – all would oppose the driving down of standards in their respective fields and all, it therefore seems, are likely to be seen in the process as undermining a project which the unelected (oh the irony!) Cummings (a figure held earlier this year, remember, to have been in contempt of Parliament) now chooses to describe as ‘central to our future democracy’. Trade unions have famously before been seen as ‘the enemy within’, and both unions and environmental organisations are no strangers to infiltration by state agents, but the febrile political atmosphere in which we find ourselves as a result of the 2016 referendum and ten years of austerity politics, amidst the continuing trashing of the UK’s domestic institutions, to which we can now add the fifth estate to the fourth, and indeed the first, casts an entirely new light on the phrase.
It’s beginning indeed to look a lot like fascism.