The UK’s decision to override parts of the EU Withdrawal Agreement “breaks international law” in a “limited and specific way”. I don’t suppose, in what’s left of the British pub industry, that will make many people switch their gaze away from the televised Bundesliga. But it should.
Because the decision to welch on an agreement with our closest trading partner, reached less than a year ago and hailed as a breakthrough then, signals that neither the Tory government, nor the people who voted for it, really understood the concept of sovereignty.
When they first privately mooted overriding the agreement, which has the status of an international treaty and thus “law”, ministers were told the ministerial code obliges them to obey the law. Suella Braverman, the attorney general, appears to have interpreted things differently, prompting the resignation of a top civil servant.
This will affect people in Northern Ireland, it will affect our relationship with Europe, but most of all it affects the ordinary people sitting in the pub. It means that our ad-hoc constitution, consisting of international treaties, legislation, custom and supreme judgements, turns out to be a mere guideline that ministers can always break in a “limited and specific way”.
The Tory right and Ukip fought for Brexit on grounds of “sovereignty”. But sovereignty in a globalised free-market economy is always shared. And sovereignty is an internal, not just an international concept. If you want “control of our laws”, then, once they are set, they have to be obeyed. This is especially true if – unlike serial international-law-breakers such as Russia or Turkey – you want your capital city to be a global centre of finance. Money flows through the City of London because of the quality and swiftness of its commercial law system, and because our government obeys the law.
To understand what’s driving the Tories we have to distinguish three projects. The first, in the short term, is to disrupt negotiations over a new EU trade deal. Johnson needs a crisis so that, aided by a xenophobic tabloid press and talk-radio industry, he can position the government for a no-deal outcome.
I do not believe that the Conservatives fully want no-deal – it’s just that they are no longer particularly bothered about avoiding it. The economic damage of Covid-19 is an order of magnitude greater than the projected economic damage of no-deal, making the latter more conceivable.
The second project is Dominic Cummings’ plan for a technologically empowered miniature imperialism. When Britain was an empire, said Trotsky, the elite did “their thinking in terms of centuries and continents”. Today, China apart, it is mainly tech corporations that plan and strategise along timescales of 100 years, with geographical chess pieces such as “Asia Pacific” and “EMEA” (Europe, the Middle East, Africa).
The original Tory vision was that a sovereign Britain would emerge from the EU as a self-acting chess-piece that breaks up the game and changes the rules. Having broken its own chains to a continental-sized trading bloc, it would fight for a world without such trading blocs. That was the express vision in Johnson’s 3 February speech on Brexit in Greenwich.
Always delusional, it was a vision completely destroyed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Globalisation is in retreat, the nation state is on the offensive, and regional trading blocs are probably the only thing that will stop the complete disintegration of a globalised economy for trade, capital, ideas and technologies.
The people who understand this best are the circles Cummings moves in: the big tech insiders. Privately, they already accept that the world’s technology standards will become Balkanised; that just as today Facebook and Twitter are frozen out of China, and Huawei frozen out of the US, so there will in the future be a tech landscape resembling George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, at war with each other for ever.
In the heyday of globalisation, political, economic and tech issues were disaggregated: Britain could complain (weakly) about human rights in China but go on trading with it; the US could witter about the Chinese theft of intellectual property, but still welcome 300,000 Chinese students into its research labs.
See also: Stephen Bush asks whether it is really possible to break international law in a “limited and specific way”
That period is ending. Competition in technology – over rights, market access and standards – now increasingly mirrors geopolitics. Germany has, this week, broken sharply from engagement with China. The US is constructing an “Indo-Pacific” foreign policy, building an alliance with Delhi, Tokyo and Taipei. The EU itself is consolidating.
Faced with the break-up of the global order, and the obvious long-term possibility of mass migration from Africa and the Middle East, the EU has – belatedly – got serious about the concept of European sovereignty, above all in technologies and a common foreign policy. Greece, for example, faced with the twin threat of politicised refugee flows and missile warfare with Turkey, can never again put itself at odds with Brussels and Frankfurt.
The 21st century will be a three-cornered game between the US, the EU and China, and the dream of a freeloading, buccaneering Britain in a friction-free global economy is over. Quietly, the object of Brexit has changed.
ITV’s political editor Robert Peston, in an unattributed quote, spelled out Cummings’ “fundamental article of faith for this era”: “Countries that were late to industrialisation were owned/coerced by those early (to it). The same will happen to countries without trillion dollar tech companies over the next 20 years.”
This is the new Tory dream. They will use state aid to give preferential treatment to tech start-ups run by their Oxbridge friends, and create from scratch an AI industry, a space industry and a genetic medicine cluster. And to do it they need absolute freedom from Europe. In fact, much more overtly than in Brexit 2.0, they need Europe to fail. If you follow the logic of Peston’s anonymous quote, the purpose of Britain having a “trillion dollar tech company” is to “own/coerce” those who don’t.
Because this essential change of national strategy has been formulated in the dark, and not revealed to the electorate unless they can decipher columns in the Spectator, most people are still seeing this week’s shenanigans as a negotiating trick. They’re missing the wider purpose.
Which brings us to the third project: getting re-elected. In Keir Starmer, the Tories now face an opposition leader they should fear. Starmer is making mincemeat out of Johnson at PMQs – which does not matter in itself but will matter at election time, should Johnson still be around. He is not fighting the rhetorical battle his members want to fight; he is fighting the actual battle of winning power.
The Tory project relies on cementing the votes of small-town, low-skilled people using xenophobia and racism, lubricated by preferential public spending offers into specific towns and demographic groups. It relies on a culturally divided Britain and an opposition prepared to lard a perfectly ordinary left social-democratic programme with phrases such as “in and against the state”.
But Starmer is refusing to take the bait. And in case you’re wondering, he hasn’t even started yet. The entire Labour operation is a holding action, like Chuikov’s at Stalingrad, aimed at the creation of a single, simple offer and a party prepared to go on the offensive with it at the right moment.
That is why Starmer has commandeered the issue of the Withdrawal Agreement: we did a deal, we have to stick to it. We now need to do a final deal and stick to that, not walk away into the perpetual uncertainty of World Trade Organisation rules.
But here lies the upside of a no-deal Brexit for domestic politics. If Johnson can force such an outcome, and revel in it, telling Tory voters it is positive, Labour faces a dilemma.
The UK needs a trade deal with Europe, and the millions of progressive voters split between Labour, the nationalist parties, the Lib Dems and the Greens want that deal to be comprehensive, leaving Britain attached to but not part of Europe, and committed to a win-win relationship. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, Starmer cannot enter the 2024 general election saying “let’s leave it that way”. The natural response would be to promote a European-orientated national policy with a broad political coalition behind it.
But that’s what Conservative strategists want: the reinjection of Europe as a strategic issue into British politics. Starmer, the lawyer and internationalist; Johnson, the law breaker and xenophobe. To achieve that framing in 2024, the Tories are prepared to break the law in 2020, and they probably won’t stop.
See also: Stephen Bush on why the Internal Market Bill makes a no-deal Brexit more likely