Thirty years ago this month there were crunch trade talks in Brussels. After four years of discussions, attempts to secure a new global deal were not going well. Inside the negotiating room, the US and EU teams were at loggerheads. Outside, on the streets of the Belgian capital, farmers were rioting over proposed cuts in agricultural subsidies.
As deadline time for the first editions of the UK papers loomed, the press room was graced by the arrival of the Daily Telegraph’s man on the spot: a young Boris Johnson. The paper’s news desk had belatedly twigged that there was a story in these collapsing trade talks and had told Johnson to find out what it was.
Britain’s future prime minister did what any other journalist would do in the circumstances: he turned on the charm and asked his fellow hacks to fill him in. From memory, he wasn’t too bothered about the nitty-gritty but just wanted the big picture.
That was smart. By and large, people find the details of trade negotiations boring and often incomprehensible. There will be those who read and understand every clause of the agreement signed last week by the UK and the EU, but they will be as small in number as those who made it past page 5 of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
As such, it’s reasonable to assume that for most voters the details of the deal between London and Brussels will become fuzzy quite quickly. They will recall that it had something to do with fish but will need to do a Google search to find out precisely what it was. The big picture will matter; the small print won’t.
Those on the left who have been urging Sir Keir Starmer to vote against the UK–EU deal would do well to bear this in mind. Labour, it is said, should make sure that Johnson has to “own” the accord, so that when its “disastrous” consequences become evident the prime minister will suffer the political fallout.
This is wishful thinking for a number of reasons. There is zero evidence that the UK’s trade performance has any political salience, despite the fact that this country has been running a whopping deficit in manufactured goods in every year since the early 1980s.
Moreover, what matters to a nation’s trade performance is the quality of the goods and services it provides rather than the trade deals it negotiates. The EU’s single market is much more advanced for goods than it is for services, yet that hasn’t prevented the UK from running a hefty surplus in services trade. Why? Because since joining what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 the structure of the UK economy has changed. Manufacturing has been hollowed out but the services sector has grown and become highly competitive internationally.
A potted history of the three decades goes something like this. The Brussels trade talks took place less than a month after Margaret Thatcher had been defenestrated as prime minister and two months after the UK had joined the European exchange rate mechanism. At a time when communism was collapsing, plans were afoot for European monetary union and a new single currency.
In the 1990s Britain crashed out of the ERM on Black Wednesday, the single currency became a reality, and we saw the arrival of fully turbo-charged globalisation. It became axiomatic – for parties of the left as well as the right – that there was little that could be done (or should be done) to meddle with market forces. People, goods and money should all be free to move around the world. Nation states were deemed to be redundant and the focus of politics changed. There was no longer any real debate about economics; instead, radicalism was increasingly challenged towards cultural change.
In the 2000s, Labour’s traditional coalition started to come apart. The university graduates and white-collar public sector workers who increasingly came to dominate the party embraced the mix of economic and social liberalism. The party’s blue-collar wing, which tended to favour economic activism and social conservatism, did not. A particular cause of friction was the sharp increase in net migration after countries in eastern Europe joined the EU in 2004.
Gradually, Britain became two countries. One half did well out of globalisation; the other half did not. One half liked the idea of unrestricted free movement of capital and people; the other half did not. One half was broadly satisfied with the status quo; the other half was not.
To make matters worse, when those who were unhappy sought to voice their concerns they were ignored or told to pipe down. The EU referendum in June 2016 provided them with an opportunity to be heard and they took it. It was a sign of the boiling resentment that they were willing to ignore the wildly hyperbolic claims of imminent disaster from both the domestic and political establishment and to vote for Brexit.
Having done so, they expected the normal rules of democracy to apply. What they didn’t expect was to be vilified and for the losing side to do everything in its power to overturn the result. They found the idea of being told to think again in a People’s Vote an insult, which indeed it was. The demolition of Labour’s “red wall” in the 2019 general election was the result.
As Starmer now seems to have belatedly realised, there is little political mileage in continuing to carp about the decision made in June 2016. Johnson is happy to “own” his trade deal because it allows him to say that he will use the freedom provided to address the grievances of leave voters. He would be delighted to see Labour oppose it.