Feb 1st 2020

Britain Enters the Unknown 

by Chris Patten

Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.


LONDON – A history teacher at my school believed that every great event in the past should be approached on the basis of a tripartite analysis of its causes, pretexts, and results. He would list these in columns on the blackboard, and we would then have to learn them by heart: the causes of the eighteenth-century War of the Spanish Succession, the pretexts for the French Revolution, the results of the American War of Independence, and so on.

Of course, life and further study teach us that things are not that simple. Causes can be a combination of accident, ambition, and coincidence, together with more profound economic, social, and technological changes. Results can be equally difficult to gauge neatly. After all, history rarely brings closure, and it is hard to know when the effects of a great event begin and end.

In that regard, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union at 23:00 GMT on January 31 is probably the most important national political event in my lifetime. Enthusiastic Brexiteers are furious that Big Ben, the Westminster Parliament’s iconic clock, cannot sound to mark this event because of long-overdue repairs. They act as though this were yet another grievance to add to the long list that has sustained their campaign.

But what are we supposed to be celebrating? No one seems to know what comes next. The future is shrouded in waffle, wishful thinking, and the sort of mendacity that these days appears to exact no political price.

For starters, Brexiteers airily dismiss the question of costs. Bloomberg Economics recently estimated that Brexit has already cost the UK economy £130 billion ($169 billion) since the 2016 referendum, with the country set to be a further £70 billion poorer by the time its transition period ends on December 31. Other credible sources have produced similar figures.

But why believe anything that contradicts the quasi-religious fervor of Brexit Britain? Brexiteers regard any unwelcome economic estimate as an attempt to talk the country down. In any case, they insist, whatever the cost, we have got our freedom back. We have taken back control.

But what precisely does that mean?

According to Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, the UK will avoid aligning itself with EU regulations when it leaves the bloc. Instead of being a rule-taker in the single market or customs union, it will be a rule-maker. But back in 2016, when he was business minister, Javid sang a different tune, arguing that Britain would face “a decade of stagnation and doubt” if it left the EU. So, after Brexit, perhaps we will be taking control of a new narrative that denies what we have previously thought and argued.

We are also apparently going to be able to promise one thing in Brussels and another in Belfast. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s divorce settlement with the EU embraced a deal explicitly rejected by him in the past and ruled out by his predecessor, Theresa May, because it appears to split the UK down the middle of the Irish Sea. Until the UK has agreed a future trade deal with the EU, Northern Ireland will in effect remain in the bloc’s customs union and will have to apply checks on goods moving between its own ports and the rest of the UK.

EU officials say there can be no backsliding, but Johnson backslides all the same. Northern Ireland can, he tells people there, be both in and outside the customs union. The early Christian church used to argue about something called consubstantiality when debating the nature of a three-in-one God. Perhaps this is what Brexiteers have in mind. Northern Ireland will be both in and out at the same time: a true miracle.

And will the trade deal that the UK negotiates with its largest market be a close or distant set of arrangements? Only two things are clear. First, we won’t be able to agree anything broad, detailed, and sophisticated by the end of 2020, when Johnson wants the deal completed. Second, greater access will come at the cost of closer alignment with EU rules. There is no getting around that fact.

It remains to be seen whether any of this will matter, and whether the Conservative Party, which now owns Brexit lock, stock, and barrel, will eventually pay a political price. Or perhaps such concerns will even be forgotten as we confront two far bigger threats in the century ahead.

The first of these is climate change, and the associated struggle to get world leaders to join together in taking it seriously. US President Donald Trump says that talk of global warming is just doom-mongering, and most of his fellow Republicans appear to agree. Moreover, leaders in Brazil, Australia, and other countries shelter behind Trump’s science-defying prejudices, even as temperatures and sea levels rise and fires rage. Whatever the effects of Brexit may be, some of the consequences of climate change are already apparent.

Second, Britain will be celebrating its glorious independence from the complications of international cooperation at a time when the intellectual, political, and economic hostility between China’s communist leadership and liberal democracies is becoming ever clearer. If liberal democracy is to survive, it must stand up for itself. And we should be under no illusion: open societies under the rule of law, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia, are in China’s hostile sights. The West should not aim to encircle or pen in China. But liberal democracies cannot allow it to distort international norms in its own favor.

Compared to these huge challenges, the consequences of Brexit may seem far less significant. But the UK has chosen an odd and dangerous time to decide to go it alone.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Whenever the crisis has passed, there will be numerous studies of what happened and why. The hardest question to face, and one that will be long debated, is how many people died needlessly as a result of Trump’s leadership."
Apr 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Locking down the economy is correctly viewed as a way to buy time to expand capacity and reduce the peak-load demand on health systems. But it is not a complete strategy. Even when combined with monetary accommodation and a large fiscal program geared toward protecting vulnerable people and sectors, an economic deep freeze cannot be sustained without eventually imposing unacceptable costs on individuals and society."
Apr 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s behavior over the past two weeks is exactly what’s wrong with America’s response to COVID-19. Paul has a compromised lung, so he decided that he should be tested for the disease out of an abundance of caution. From the time of his test until he was confirmed positive six days later, Paul did nothing to protect those around him. On the contrary, he met with other senators, cast votes on the Senate floor, played a round of golf at a private club, and even squeezed in a few laps at the Senate pool. In the countries that have contained the coronavirus outbreak, such irresponsible behavior has not been tolerated, and even could have landed Paul in jail. As a physician (ophthalmologist), he, more than anyone, should know that if he was concerned enough about COVID-19 to be tested for it, he should have been equally concerned about the risk he was posing to others."
Mar 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "The absence of effective federal oversight and management of the COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly be judged by historians as the biggest US governmental calamity of all time."
Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: " South Korea is one of the world’s most advanced countries........... But so, too, is the United States. Why, then, has the US lagged so far behind in its response to the pandemic? The short answer is that the US has a president who is fundamentally unfit for the job, both intellectually and temperamentally."
Mar 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "A large part of the fallout to date – particularly on stock markets – has actually been from negative sentiment rather than real effects."
Mar 24th 2020
EXTRACT: ".........every component of aggregate demand – consumption, capital spending, exports – is in unprecedented free fall. While most self-serving commentators have been anticipating a V-shaped downturn – with output falling sharply for one quarter and then rapidly recovering the next – it should now be clear that the COVID-19 crisis is something else entirely. The contraction that is now underway looks to be neither V- nor U- nor L-shaped (a sharp downturn followed by stagnation). Rather, it looks like an I: a vertical line representing financial markets and the real economy plummeting..............The risk of a new Great Depression, worse than the original – a Greater Depression – is rising by the day."
Mar 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "President Donald Trump and US policymakers have thus far favored piecemeal measures, especially when it comes to the state directing – indeed, reorganizing – the private sector. Their instinctive belief in the superiority of the market and private initiatives, regardless of the circumstances, leads them to recoil from the scale of government intervention needed to save our lives and livelihoods."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Back in July 2019, while in Michigan for one of the early Democratic Party presidential debates, I was invited to a small dinner with Bernie Sanders. Toward the end of the meal, those who remained at the table included actor/activist Danny Glover, Dr. Cornel West, former Mayor Gus Newport, Jane Sanders, and a few key campaign staffers. What ensued was a free-flowing discussion of the agents of social and political change, sprinkled with personal recollections of and lessons learned from historical figures – many of whom had been known by my dinner companions.......I came away from that evening seeing Bernie Sanders in a different light. He was, and still is, a candidate for the presidency of the United States. At the same time, he must also be seen as a transformative figure in modern American political history."
Mar 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Why are we more scared of what is less likely to kill us? The psychological principle that makes us fear swine flu, avian flu, or COVID-19, but not the common flu is called fear of dread risks. It is easy to elicit fear of episodes in which many people die within a short interval, such as plane crashes or epidemics. But when just as many or more people die over a longer period – as with car accidents or the seasonal flu – it is difficult to scare the public into wearing seatbelts or getting vaccinated."
Mar 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "But if containment measures fail – as we are seeing in Italy just now – the banks may still end up in trouble. They may also stop lending again, in which case the asset bubbles would collapse and a long-term recession would become a certainty. Central banks and governments would have to step in with more assistance: as well as further interest rate cuts, they look likely to try more QE and potentially bailouts like in 2007-09 if necessary. But given the limited scope this time around, if the global economy stalls for the long term, these measures might still fail and central bankers could potentially lose control of the marketplace altogether. In such a situation, we would be in truly uncharted territory." PICTURE BELOW: WORLD DEBT.
Mar 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Russian resistance appears to have derived from fears that if they cut back exports and OPEC managed to keep the price high, US petroleum firms using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) would simply rush in to grab Russian markets in Europe........So the theory that Russia provoked the price fall to harm US fracking companies is incorrect. They provoked it to avoid being harmed by the American producers, as they saw it."
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "I was recently walking along East 29th Street in Manhattan, after visiting a friend at Bellevue Hospital, when I was roused from my thoughts by a middle-aged white male screaming at an old Chinese man, “Get the fuck out of my country, you piece of Chinese shit!” The old man was stunned. So was I, before I bellowed back (deploying the full range of my native Australian vocabulary), “Fuck off and leave him alone, you white racist piece of shit!”  The pedestrian traffic stopped. A young white guy with dark hair came storming toward me. As a non-pugilist by instinct and training, I braced for what was coming. He stopped just short of me and said, “Thank you for standing up for him. That’s why I fought in Iraq; so that people like him could be free.” "
Mar 6th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Dreyfus was originally arrested and convicted on charges of selling military secrets to Germany – France’s historical enemy. But because he was a Jew, his guilt was assumed from the start, particularly by most of the French officer corps. To ensure that the charges would stick, various conspirators fabricated evidence against Dreyfus, including a secret file that only the judges who handed down the conviction and prison sentence were allowed to see........In the Dreyfus Affair, a savagely right-wing press fanned the flames of anti-Semitism and intrigue among elites, just as Fox News does today against Trump’s enemies. Owing to these malign efforts, truth itself becomes blurred,........Most depressing of all, though, is the fact that no senior figure in the US has come forward to stand alongside Vindman. There has been no Zola to issue the equivalent of the famous “J’Accuse!” pamphlet, shaming the country’s complicit elites for their lies and corruption. Instead, men like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton have put their personal interests first, remaining mostly silent......"
Mar 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "After nearly four years of inveighing against the US intelligence officials and analysts who revealed Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump is finally acting fully on his paranoia by carrying out a purge. "
Mar 3rd 2020
EXTRACTS: "........the next global recession could be around the corner – and that it may look a lot different from those that began in 2001 and 2008.........unlike the two previous global recessions this century, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, implies a supply shock as well as a demand shock. ..........In contrast to recessions driven mainly by a demand shortfall, the challenge posed by a supply-side-driven downturn is that it can result in sharp declines in production and widespread bottlenecks. In that case, generalized shortages – something that some countries have not seen since the gas lines of 1970s – could ultimately push inflation up, not down."
Feb 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "The EU must ask itself if it is prepared to do what is necessary to remain an independent player, united in the common interest of all Europeans. Otherwise, Europe’s viability as a democratic, sovereign entity in control of its own destiny will be called into question – and therefore tested by adversaries – like never before."
Feb 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The world economy has clearly caught a cold. The outbreak of COVID-19 came at a particularly vulnerable point in the global business cycle. ...........This matters little to the optimistic consensus of investors. After all, by definition shocks are merely temporary disruptions of an underlying trend. While it is tempting to dismiss this shock for that very reason, the key is to heed the implications of the underlying trend. The world economy was weak, and getting weaker, when COVID-19 struck. The V-shaped recovery trajectory of a SARS-like episode will thus be much tougher to replicate – especially with monetary and fiscal authorities in the US, Japan, and Europe having such little ammunition at their disposal. That, of course, was the big risk all along. In these days of dip-buying froth, China’s sneeze may prove to be especially vexing for long-complacent financial markets."
Feb 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this new coronavirus is likely to do much more damage than SARS. Not only has COVID-19 already caused more deaths than its predecessor; its economic consequences are likely to be compounded by unfavorable conditions – beginning with China’s increased economic vulnerability.................So far, US investors seem unconcerned about these risks. But they may be taking too much comfort from the US Federal Reserve’s three interest-rate cuts last year. Should the US economy falter, there is nowhere near enough room for the Fed to cut interest rates by 500 basis points, as it has in past recessions."
Feb 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Beyond the usual economic and policy risks that most financial analysts worry about, a number of potentially seismic white swans are visible on the horizon this year. Any of them could trigger severe economic, financial, political, and geopolitical disturbances unlike anything since the 2008 crisis."