Efforts by pro-EU political grandees to guilt the country into feeling bad about Brexit by elevating trivial British victories in ancient, minor trade disputes as proof of our great influence in Brussels only reveal the poverty of their ambition for Britain
Another day, another ageing political grandee is wheeled out to lecture us about how selfish and ungrateful we were to turn our backs on so benevolent and non-threatening an institution as their beloved European Union.
This time it is the turn of former Tory Environment Secretary John Gummer, who takes to the Guardian with a particularly tedious and deceitful lament that “we are unravelling the greatest peacetime project of our lives because Brexiteers insist we’ve lost control. But it’s simply not true”.
The premise of Gummer’s argument is that because he once had a good relationship with his environment and agriculture ministerial counterparts in Europe and ensured that Britain won key trade and regulatory battles when our national interest was at stake, this somehow proves that we had unparalleled and decisive influence in Brussels.
In fact, the UK has led Europe in a remarkable way, and has rarely failed to gain its major objectives. However the process is one of debate and argument, proof and counter-argument, rather than demanding that the rest of EU should immediately see the sense in our position and give way without question. It is this assumption of always being right that has bedevilled our relationships with our neighbours.
Immediately Gummer frames the question of whether Britain could influence the EU as one of whether we could win individual arguments within the EU institutions rather than whether we could meaningfully influence the course of the EU itself.
Gummer then presents the crown jewel of his argument:
One example suffices. In a single market, the UK’s refusal to allow the export of live horses for food was clearly illegal but politically essential. All the odds were stacked against us, Belgium was becoming increasingly insistent, and a vote was looming. We had one strong card: our relationships. We had helped others in parallel positions, helping to find ways for the EU to meet its common objectives while recognising national differences.
My very effective minister of state, David Curry, and I had formed friendships and we took trouble to maintain them. Many of our fellow ministers had come to Britain and stayed at our homes. Above all, we had never pretended. They all knew that if we said something was really important to the UK, we weren’t bluffing.
We were always communautaire – but in the national interest. When the relatively new French minister, a socialist, in a very restricted session, without his key advisers, had agreed to something that would have been very difficult for France, I slipped round the table and pointed the problem out. He was able to retrieve the situation, the council was saved interminable recriminations, and Britain had a firm friend. Working as a team, clearly putting our national interest first but ensuring we got the best out of the EU, meant that when it mattered we won. I don’t suggest that my counterparts ever really understood the peculiar British view that it’s all right to eat beef but not horse, but they accepted it was a political reality and knew the UK would help when they had to explain their own national singularities.
Oh gosh, this riveting act of high-stakes international diplomacy will be recorded in the history books for all time. Schoolchildren two hundred years hence will still be learning about how John Gummer heroically managed to stop the UK from having to export live horses for slaughter in continental Europe, all because he was best pals with the French undersecretary for agriculture. Consequential feats of statecraft like this put one in mind of Yalta.
In fact, it only shows the extreme paucity of Gummer’s thinking and the worldview he represents. These old grandees – and you can throw in the likes of Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke here, too – sincerely believe (or have somehow convinced themselves) that British disquiet with membership of the European Union was based on trivialities like how many battles we won over live horse exports. They think that if only they can provide enough examples of the UK having successfully defended the interests of Cheshire cheesemakers or Welsh textile makers then we will have an epiphany, see the error of our ways and beg to be allowed back into the club.
It simply does not occur to these EU-loving grandees that the British problem with the European Union might originate at a deeper level than who is seen to win a plurality of disputes over trade or regulation. Having marinated for so long within a political elite which accepted supranational government and the gradual deconstruction of the nation state as a self-evidently good thing, they are now shocked to discover that not everybody agrees with the basic premise on which their entire worldview rests.
The Lord Ashcroft poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum showed perfectly clearly the key drivers of the Leave vote, and the number one issue was sovereignty (decisions about the UK being taken in the UK, as per the specific poll question). The British people voted to extricate ourselves from the supranational government in Brussels and reclaim our right to make policy and law for ourselves without having to either haggle with 27 other member states or otherwise operate within the narrow tramlines set by a set of remote Brussels institutions towards which many of us feel no love or affinity.
Unfortunately, almost since the beginning of the referendum campaign, most prominent Remainers refused to deal with the big picture. Yes we got a lot of tired old soundbites about the importance of “friendship ‘n cooperation” or overwrought tales about how the EU alone had kept the post-war peace, but the official Remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe, desperately shied away from the big picture at every turn.
Why? Because the big picture has always been toxic or concerning to far more Britons than actually voted Leave in the referendum. Most people don’t want the supranational government and its ambition/necessity to transform into a federal Europe, and knowing this, the Remain campaign never dared to try persuading them otherwise. This left Britain Stronger in Europe (and most Remainers) with little option but to drag the fight to a lower level, where it became all about money, economic risk and the kind of low-level goodies that people like John Gummer think dictate our sentiments towards the EU.
Perhaps this is understandable. From Gummer’s very narrow perspective we probably did indeed “win” in Europe a lot. But Gummer is thinking about issues of farm animal exports and agricultural regulations, not matters of geopolitics or statecraft. And the truth is that Britain had almost zero influence on the ultimate direction of the European Union as a political entity. Yes, we could sometimes slow things down or carve out occasional opt-outs for ourselves (at a diplomatic cost). But Britain could never realistically propose that a large supranational government in Brussels with strong federalist ambitions transform itself into a looser federation of closely economically integrated nation states. That simply would never have happened, even if Britain played the long game and aggressively sought support from other countries.
If one was a passenger on a cruise ship it would be nice to be sufficiently influential to sometimes suggest menu ideas to the chef or offshore excursions to the cruise director and have those suggestions adopted. But even then, at no point could that passenger reasonably imagine himself an officer of the ship, let alone the captain. Winning battles within the framework created for us to argue is not the same as having meaningful influence over the design of the framework itself. So no, we did not “win” in Europe, because we could not persuade those on the bridge to set a course which we were willing to follow.
Once again, this debate has proven that the British people have always had a more expansive view of the EU question – and higher ambitions for our country – than the majority of our political class. Many Remainer grandees still see things in terms of petty fights won and lost in the Brussels crèche where they were allowed to play, and simply can’t understand that our problem was not that they failed to smack the other kids around to our satisfaction but rather that they were content to play the role of children in the first place.
By voting to leave the European Union, the British people are demanding that our politicians and leaders become adults again, not rambunctious toddlers and surly teens supervised by their parents in Brussels. We want government without training wheels again, even if this means that we wobble a bit or even fall and scrape our knees.
This was never about petty little trade disputes here and there. Brexit was far more fundamental than that, but even now many EU apologists fail to see it.
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Here was a speech almost in the American political tradition – reaching back through history to affirm the roots of British exceptionalism, the challenge now before us and the promise that an even greater Britain can be ours if only we strive for it:
It’s why we will put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do. Because it is only by coming together as one great union of nations and people that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead. The result of the referendum was not a decision to turn inward and retreat from the world.
Because Britain’s history and culture is profoundly internationalist.
We are a European country – and proud of our shared European heritage – but we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world. That is why we are one of the most racially diverse countries in Europe, one of the most multicultural members of the European Union, and why – whether we are talking about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, countries in Africa or those that are closer to home in Europe – so many of us have close friends and relatives from across the world.
Instinctively, we want to travel to, study in, trade with countries not just in Europe but beyond the borders of our continent. Even now as we prepare to leave the EU, we are planning for the next biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018 – a reminder of our unique and proud global relationships.
And it is important to recognise this fact. June the 23rd was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world. It was the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain.
The peroration was particularly good, as May eschewed the temptation to bribe the electorate with glib promises of riches today and instead asked us to consider the longer term good, as well as our place in the history books:
So that is what we will do.
Not merely forming a new partnership with Europe, but building a stronger, fairer, more Global Britain too.
And let that be the legacy of our time. The prize towards which we work. The destination at which we arrive once the negotiation is done.
And let us do it not for ourselves, but for those who follow. For the country’s children and grandchildren too.
So that when future generations look back at this time, they will judge us not only by the decision that we made, but by what we made of that decision.
They will see that we shaped them a brighter future.
They will know that we built them a better Britain.
When nearly every other major set piece speech in British politics is little more than a dismal effort to placate a restive and self-entitled electorate by promising the people Free Things Without Effort or Consequences (ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you), here was a speech that set its sights a little higher and actually aspired to statecraft.
May’s criticism of the European Union and justification of the UK’s decision to secede from the EU was very good, particularly coming from someone who herself supported the Remain side and kept her head firmly beneath the parapet during the referendum campaign:
Our political traditions are different. Unlike other European countries, we have no written constitution, but the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement. We have only a recent history of devolved governance – though it has rapidly embedded itself – and we have little history of coalition government.
The public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly, and as a result supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life.
And, while I know Britain might at times have been seen as an awkward member state, the European Union has struggled to deal with the diversity of its member countries and their interests. It bends towards uniformity, not flexibility.
Without straying into undiplomatic language, May firmly placed responsibility for Brexit at the foot of a Brussels supranational government which is inflexibly committed to endless political integration by stealth, with member state individuality subordinate to European harmonisation.
The prime minister was also at pains to point out that dissatisfaction with the EU is by no means a uniquely British phenomenon, and that significant numbers of people in other member states hold many of the same legitimate grievances:
Now I do not believe that these things apply uniquely to Britain. Britain is not the only member state where there is a strong attachment to accountable and democratic government, such a strong internationalist mindset, or a belief that diversity within Europe should be celebrated. And so I believe there is a lesson in Brexit not just for Britain but, if it wants to succeed, for the EU itself.
Because our continent’s great strength has always been its diversity. And there are 2 ways of dealing with different interests. You can respond by trying to hold things together by force, tightening a vice-like grip that ends up crushing into tiny pieces the very things you want to protect. Or you can respect difference, cherish it even, and reform the EU so that it deals better with the wonderful diversity of its member states.
Of course this blog, unconstrained by any need for diplomatic restraint, would have gone further. Theresa May was at pains to state that a strong and united European Union is in Britain’s interest, which sounds magnanimous and sensible until you actually recognise the punch which is being pulled.
If the EU is an antidemocratic straightjacket imposing unwanted political integration on national populations who are ambivalent at best, why do we wish that the organisation prospers for decades to come? Do we not think our European friends and allies as deserving of democracy and the right to self-determination that we demand for ourselves? But this is nitpicking – the Brexit negotiations would hardly be served if May openly salivated at the prospect of the breakup of the European Union.
In her outreach to other European leaders, assuring them of Britain’s continuing goodwill, one almost hears an echo (okay, a very, very distant and diminished echo) of Lincoln’s first inaugural (“The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors…”) as May asserts that the UK government will negotiate in good faith so long as the EU reciprocates:
So to our friends across Europe, let me say this.
Our vote to leave the European Union was no rejection of the values we share. The decision to leave the EU represents no desire to become more distant to you, our friends and neighbours. It was no attempt to do harm to the EU itself or to any of its remaining member states. We do not want to turn the clock back to the days when Europe was less peaceful, less secure and less able to trade freely. It was a vote to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy, national self-determination, and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit.
We will continue to be reliable partners, willing allies and close friends. We want to buy your goods and services, sell you ours, trade with you as freely as possible, and work with one another to make sure we are all safer, more secure and more prosperous through continued friendship.
You will still be welcome in this country as we hope our citizens will be welcome in yours. At a time when together we face a serious threat from our enemies, Britain’s unique intelligence capabilities will continue to help to keep people in Europe safe from terrorism. And at a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty.
We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.
All of this is good. So why am I not celebrating?
Because then the prime minister proceeded to outline her government’s plans and priorities for the upcoming Brexit negotiation. And at that point it became clear that we are not dealing with Abraham Lincoln but rather with James Buchanan.
In other words, the real problem with Theresa May’s speech came when she pivoted from the background context to the government’s 12-point plan (or exercise in wishful thinking).
In just a few short passages May has driven a horse and cart through all good sense.
For starters May has misunderstood the exam question. The process of leaving the EU is to negotiate a framework for leaving and a framework for continued cooperation. Instead she has taken it as the process of securing a trade deal – which doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the depth and complexity of the task. Because of this Theresa May will ensure we pay the maximum price possible.
By any estimation there is no possibility of securing a comprehensive agreement in two years and if we reach any kind of impasse then all of the leverage falls to member states as we beg for an extension.
Worse still, May has fallen for the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal and is prepared to walk away from the table. This would result in the WTO option and would be the single most egregious act of economic self harm ever recorded. As much as that is to be avoided there is now every chance that it will happen by accident as our time expires.
May has drunk deeply from the Brexiteer kool aid and Britain is about to find itself substantially poorer with fewer opportunities for trade. This will be the Tory Iraq. Blundering with half a clue and no plan and no real understanding of the landscape, resting the fate of the adventure on some overly optimistic patriotic nostrums that fold at first exposure to reality.
Mrs May has set her face against a rational, measured Brexit and is embarking on a wild gamble, the outcome of which she has no way of predicting.
Such is her idea of pursuing “a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement with the European Union”, an undertaking which others have tried in the recent past – the most recent being Canada, which has spent eight years now in trying to bring an agreement to fruition, and we’re still waiting. The possibility, therefore, of the UK negotiating a deal (and getting it ratified) inside two years is, to say the very least, remote.
Nevertheless, there are those who think otherwise. They argue that, because the UK is already in the EU and achieved full regulatory convergence, transition from one type of agreement to another should be relatively straightforward and swift.
That, however, is completely to understate the complexity of modern trade agreements. In addition to regulatory convergence, there must be a dynamic arrangement that will ensure the automatic uptake of new regulation, and also the changes mandated by ECJ judgements. There must also be internal market surveillance measures, agreed conformity assessment measures, customs agreements, dispute settlement procedures, agreements on competition policy, procurement and intellectual property rights, as well as systems to deal with rules of origin.
These and much else, will require an institutional structure to facilitate communication and ongoing development, a form of arbitration panel or court, and a consultation body, which allows input into, and formal communication with the EU’s regulatory and institutional system.
This is my way of saying that to achieve a “bold and ambitious” free trade agreement with the EU inside two years is not just difficult. It is impossible. It cannot be done. And it doesn’t matter how many times it is discussed amongst the chattering classes, it still can’t be done.
It has been over eighteen months since this blog woke up to the fact that lazy Brexiteer tropes about quick-n-easy free trade agreements being the golden solution to every problem simply do not cut it in the face of such an unimaginably complex undertaking as extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union.
Since that time, it has become clear to me and many others that forty years of political integration cannot be unpicked within the two-year timeframe granted through Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and that any attempt to negotiate a bespoke solution within this timeframe would see us hit the deadline without a deal in sight, leaving us at the mercy of the EU27 as we scramble for an extension or risk going over the cliff and resorting to WTO rules.
But what has been clear to this blog (since I first read of the Flexcit plan for a phased and managed Brexit with an eye to developing the new global single market which must eventually replace the parochial EU) and to a growing number of Brexiteers remains completely opaque and mysterious to Her Majesty’s Government:
So as a priority, we will pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union.
This agreement should allow for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states. It should give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets – and let European businesses do the same in Britain.
But I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market.
European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the ‘4 freedoms’ of goods, capital, services and people. And being out of the EU but a member of the single market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are. It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it still having direct legal authority in our country.
It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all.
And that is why both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the single market.
So we do not seek membership of the single market. Instead we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement.
That agreement may take in elements of current single market arrangements in certain areas – on the export of cars and lorries for example, or the freedom to provide financial services across national borders – as it makes no sense to start again from scratch when Britain and the remaining Member States have adhered to the same rules for so many years.
But I respect the position taken by European leaders who have been clear about their position, just as I am clear about mine. So an important part of the new strategic partnership we seek with the EU will be the pursuit of the greatest possible access to the single market, on a fully reciprocal basis, through a comprehensive free trade agreement.
Okay, great. And you plan to accomplish this in just two years, at a time when we are rebuilding our national trade negotiation competency from scratch? And what about the numerous other aspects of our co-operation with Brussels that do not directly relate to the single market? What process is there to be for evaluating and renegotiating these?
Ministers clearly still view Brexit through the narrow lens of wanting to sever all of the ties that bind us to Brussels and hope that a “quick and dirty” free trade agreement will somehow be a good substitute for patiently considering and unpicking each individual strand of co-operation between London, Brussels and the EU27.
Look: I like the ambition and confident tone of Theresa May’s speech. I like some of the swagger and self-confidence. And if May had been speaking about any subject other than Brexit in this manner I would be on my feet, giving a standing ovation. But unfortunately the prime minister has chosen to be smug and blasé about the one topic where airy self-assurance alone cannot win the day.
The prime minister accurately summed up many of the problems with the European Union, and did a good job in reminding people what an indispensable country Britain really is to the future economic, cultural and geopolitical prospects of Europe. That’s great. But it doesn’t begin to explain how Britain is going to negotiate an entirely bespoke new relationship with the European Union within two years when far less extensive deals focusing purely on trade routinely take over a decade to complete.
Unpicking forty years of political integration within two years would be an unimaginably tall order at the best of times, even if the organisation into which we are subsumed had not gradually drained us of the critical competencies required to complete the task. Theresa May promising a clean Brexit given our current national capabilities and negotiating climate is like President Theodore Roosevelt promising a moon shot in 1903, when the Wright brothers rather than Wernher von Braun represented the pinnacle of aviation technology.
So mixed feelings. How nice to finally hear a political speech that is so outward-looking and ambitious in content, positive in rhetoric. How sad that this particular one is likely to end in disappointment and recrimination.
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The National Review might not be down on all the fine details of Brexit*, and quite possibly put too much faith in the elimination of tariffs as a means of spurring trade, given the modern shift toward non-tariff barriers, but their forthright and optimistic call for a swift US-UK trade agreement is most welcome nonetheless.
First, a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and U.K. would foster trade and growth in both countries without subjecting either to the onerous external regulation and loss of democratic control that Britain has experienced in the European Union. Until now, the exclusive nature of the EU prevented Britain from establishing a free-trade pact with America, its most lucrative trading partner, to the detriment of tariff-paying businesses in both countries.
Nevertheless, under treaties governing EU membership, the U.K. cannot make free trade deals with non-EU partners. It must apply the growth-suppressing common EU external tariff, an average of 4.5 percent, to all imports. Once Britain legally extricates itself from the EU, that can change — and should. An agreement between the world’s largest and fifth-largest economies will create a huge free trade zone, benefiting businesses and spurring growth on both sides of the Atlantic.
Second, an agreement that focuses on eliminating tariffs, but not creating supranational oversight bodies, will protect both countries from the loss of sovereignty that British voters rejected with Brexit and that Mr. Trump has criticized. Such a simplified deal would require U.S. companies operating in (or exporting to) the U.K. to accept U.K. law, and U.K. companies operating in the U.S. to do the same. Since U.K. and U.S. law is so similar and both countries have so many lawyers versed in the commercial law of the other, international oversight would prove largely unnecessary. In a bilateral treaty, significant disputes or grievances can simply trigger provisions to renegotiate terms — or to accept arbitration in limited cases before mutually agreed tribunals.
This, of course, serves to underscore the importance of freeing ourselves from the customs union as part of any interim and permanent Brexit deal. To do otherwise would truly be an act of self-harm, constraining Britain’s ability to negotiate freely with other countries just so that bitter Remainers can cling slightly closer to the vestiges of their European dream, with no commensurate benefit whatsoever.
But as Meyer notes, a US-UK trade deal would matter symbolically and diplomatically just as much as economically:
A free trade offer will also help repair the U.S.-U.K. special relationship after eight years of intentional neglect and decades of slow erosion as the result of Britain’s gradual absorption into the EU. Strengthening the alliance with Britain will promote U.S. national security because it will free the U.K. to act decisively as a bilateral partner when the strategic interests of our two countries align — as they often have.
The Obama years have witnessed a dramatic weakening in the strategic position of the United States and the West, as well as a diminution of U.S. military power. In addition to rebuilding military capacity, as Trump has promised, the United States now badly needs genuine allies with shared interests who have demonstrated the will and capability to stand alongside America in times of international crisis. More than any other ally, Great Britain has consistently demonstrated that proclivity and capability: Apart from France, only the U.K. among U.S. allies maintains an independent nuclear deterrent and the capacity to project significant naval power. Among NATO allies, only the U.K. keeps its treaty commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense.
Whatever else one may think of Donald Trump – and this blog is not a fan – it is at least heartening to hear some vaguely warm sentiments being spoken about Britain again from soon-to-be White House aides.
This blog has generally admired Barack Obama’s temperament (if not his policies), but his thinly-disguised disdain for Britain and the transatlantic alliance will not be missed. President Obama can be as chummy as he likes with Chancellor Merkel, but when the going gets tough, it is the UK with our nuclear deterrent, blue water navy, deployable armed forces and positive disposition toward America upon which the United States will immediately rely. America’s natural closest allies have not always felt the warmth they might have reasonably expected from the Obama White House. Hopefully this will soon change.
Offering the right kind of trade deal to the British — as they negotiate the return of their own national sovereignty — will decisively advance that goal.
A pragmatic assessment of the mutual shared interests of two great powers and firm allies. Now, doesn’t that sound an awful lot better than Barack Obama’s rigid and unimaginative defence of the failing European supranational project, and his haughty insistence that Britain would go to the “back of the queue” in America’s estimation?
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Former Republican presidential primary candidate Rick Santorum, siren of the white working classes back in 2012, ran a campaign which laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s insurgency in 2016, and ultimately prophesied his victory
For several months now I have been waiting for somebody to make the connection between Rick Santorum‘s strong running in the 2012 Republican primaries and the playbook which took Donald Trump all the way to the White House.
Way back during the 2012 campaign, I noted that Santorum was singing a siren song to the “white working classes” of rust belt America, responding to their very real and valid concerns with reassuring but unrealistic promises that the tide of globalisation could (and should) be turned back, thus sparing them the need to adapt to the new America.
Back then I labelled Rick Santorum the “Pied Piper of Pennsylvania“, a reference to the way in which the former Pennsylvania senator accumulated a large, trusting and often sympathetic audience of followers, but whom he would ultimately lead off the edge of an economic cliff:
Barring certain specific exceptions, the manufacturing jobs that America has lost will simply never return.
And perhaps among all of the things that Rick Santorum says that rile me up, this one makes me the most angry. He is peddling a Pleasantville-style, black and white, 1950s vision of a country where once again it is possible to live a comfortable middle class lifestyle with a decent sized family home and a couple of cars, paid for by the wages earned from assembling televisions, or refrigerators, or cars. And Republican primary voters, many of whom are in the squeezed middle class and have been let down by successive administrations, are listening to Santorum’s claims and gaining hope, and voting for him, even though he cannot in actual fact turn the clock back fifty years, even if he does actually want to.
Whether he wins or loses the Republican primary and the general election, the persistence of this argument – and the belief that a few tweaks to the tax code and the drilling of a few more oil wells will spur a resurgence in unskilled and semiskilled manufacturing – simply dooms another generation of people to a life of stagnating or falling living standards.
People trust Santorum because, unlike the other main Republican candidates, he is so genuine. Why would he advocate policies that would hurt them, when he was one of them? And yet the policies that he proposes would either do little to bring back more unskilled or semiskilled manufacturing jobs, or would make the US population even less qualified to perform those jobs which already exist. And all the time that people hold out hope that a Rick Santorum or another politician like him can work this magic, it is time that they are not spending going back into training, or into college or university, and reskilling themselves for the jobs of tomorrow’s economy.
Rick Santorum says all of the things that the Republican Party’s blue collar base want to hear, but in many ways he is just a modern day Pied Piper, promising them a brighter future while marching them off a cliff.
Globalisation cannot be rolled back, nor should it be. The challenge – which falls hardest upon Republicans and small government, small-c conservatives like myself, who generally do not foresee an active role for central government in the lives of citizens – is to find a way of reaping the fruits of globalisation while bringing these disrupted communities with us instead of callously leaving them behind.
And we should be honest: conservatives are at a disadvantage here. Leftists have the luxury of simply waving their hands and promising new government programmes for the mass retraining of millions of people in new, higher value-added jobs and careers. But no matter how costly or inefficient those schemes may prove, those on the right have an even harder job persuading voters, and no one party or politician on either side of the Atlantic has yet arrived at a fully convincing solution.
The inability to satisfactorily answer these questions and convince enough people of his ability to deliver the fruits of globalisation with none of the adverse consequences -together with the establishment reluctantly falling firmly behind Mitt Romney – ultimately saw Rick Santorum fall by the wayside back in 2012. But four years later, Donald Trump came charging along with almost the exact same message, and stormed all the way to the White House. And during this extraordinary journey, none of his supporters seemed to realise or care that Trump has been every bit as unable as Rick Santorum was to answer the question of “how?”, beyond his usual barnstorming bluster and well-worn pledge to Make America Great Again.
Now Bill Powell from Newsweek magazine has also picked up on the similarity between the two men, with a new piece entitled “How Rick Santorum helped Donald Trump win the White House” in which he argues that to a large extent, Donald Trump merely honed and executed a playbook originally written by Santorum.
In the spring of 2015, [Trump] was talking to a few family members and confidantes about running for president. And he wanted to get in touch with a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, who had served two terms before losing big in 2006. In 2012, he was the runner-up to Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primaries. Ensconced since then in a Washington, D.C., law firm, Santorum had written a book that attracted little attention: Blue Collar Conservatives, Recommitting to an America That Works. But Trump had read the book, very carefully, in fact, and was intrigued. He called Santorum and asked if he would come to Trump Tower for a visit. Santorum was a bit surprised by the invitation but said yes.
Santorum didn’t know what to expect. He had never met Trump and, like millions of Americans, knew of him only from his long-running NBC reality show, The Apprentice. Trump got right to the point. He had loved Santorum’s book and believed it could unlock the White House for a GOP candidate who ran a campaign based on reaching the working-class voters throughout the industrial Midwest that, Trump said, Democrats take for granted.
Santorum agreed, of course—he was thinking of making another run at the White House, using that playbook. (He did, but got bum-rushed early in the primaries.) Trump then surprised Santorum even more by questioning him on details of his book and economic policy in general. What could be done with trade policy to help the working class? Was there any way to turn around the massive bilateral trade imbalance with Beijing? Could the White House be used as a bully pulpit to pressure American companies to stop sending manufacturing offshore? On and on they went, and Santorum left the meeting wondering what might happen if you mixed the power of celebrity with a blue-collar tent revival.
We now know the answer. Trump’s improbable run to the presidency—which was nearly derailed on several occasions by his lack of discipline—was guided by a conviction that he could, as political consultant and longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone said last year, “rewrite the [electoral] map” by smashing the “great blue wall” of Midwestern Democratic states. And smash it he did.
Something happened (or continued to happen) between 2012 and 2016 which made more people receptive to the Santorum message of economic populism and protectionism, and the failure of the Obama administration to change the economic trajectory of those people already suffering the fallout from globalisation (or nervously waiting for it to impact their industry and their jobs) clearly played a large part.
But even then, Trump’s victory could probably have been prevented had prominent Democrats like Hillary Clinton and President Obama not been so blasé about the economic challenge facing millions of Americans while they were campaigning. Hillary Clinton in particular took every opportunity to criticise Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, neglecting to consider that from many people’s perspective, America is only as great as their own present circumstances. But while sanctimoniously lecturing Donald Trump and his supporters that “America is already great” may have been factually true, it also felt a lot like the establishment dismissing the legitimate concerns of suffering people.
Sure, America is pretty darn awesome if you are one of the Wall Street bankers to whom Hillary Clinton loved to give speeches, one of the celebrities attending her fundraisers or just a prosperous coastal professional whose job and career is not about to be eradicated through automation or outsourcing. But if you do not fall into one of these categories, America can feel a lot more precarious than great. And having the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee continually insisting that everything is wonderful and that anyone with concerns or complaints is somehow “deplorable” was about the most stupid and politically tone-deaf way for a candidate to behave.
And of course we all know the outcome:
The Trump high-command members knew then they had an opening. The crowds Trump was drawing were enormous, and even before [FBI director James] Comey’s announcement [about the reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server], their internal polls said the race was tightening, but not enough to make many of them believe he would win. Now, though, they thought they had a shot. Trump remained focused, and the campaign laid on rally after rally—up to five per day in the last days of the race. Trump went back to Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin again and again. He even made a trip to Minnesota, the bluest of blue states, because—stunningly—polling had him drawing close even there. The Santorum strategy was playing out just as Trump had bet it would so many months before.
[..] “Those states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin—were the targets,” [Trump campaign manager Kellyanne] Conway would later say. “[Trump] had a `theory of the race,’ and when it became clear that he had tapped into something very big, he rode it. And that is what good candidates do.”
Bill Powell is right – to a large extent, Donald Trump picked up the mantle from Rick Santorum, amending it by ditching some of the niche social conservatism (an integral part of Santorum’s Catholic traditionalism) and ramping up the economic populism even further.
While Santorum spoke of the pain of those whose manufacturing jobs were disappearing and promised help through the corporate tax code, Donald Trump identified a specific bogeyman in the form of China and other countries who supposedly always get the better of America, and then promised to confront these foreign economic enemies. While Rick Santorum railed against the coastal intellectual elites and dismissed aspiring to go to college as “snobbery”, Donald Trump insulted and belittled those Ivy League experts and elites day after day.
In many ways, watching Donald Trump on the campaign trail was like watching an incredibly vulgar, amoral and less eloquent version of Rick Santorum, with the brightness and volume dial turned up to max. And it worked. The economic message that Santorum road-tested in his 2012 campaign and in “Blue Collar Conservatives” was a beguiling one, as I acknowledged four years ago. But when it was hitched to a television celebrity phenomenon and fuelled by a combustible blend of identity politics backlash and the Democratic Party’s seeming disdain for middle America, it became immensely powerful.
Of course, this leaves President-elect Trump in a far worse place than Rick Santorum. Santorum was able to rack up Republican primary votes and victories against Mitt Romney, but his ultimate defeat saved him from having to make good on his campaign rhetoric and unrealistic promises to insulate middle America from the negative consequences of globalisation. Donald Trump has made it all the way to the White House, and the people who put him there will now expect him to deliver.
Which means that it falls to Donald Trump – of all the unlikely people – to do something that no right-wing politician anywhere in the world has successfully achieved: find a way to reap the benefits of globalisation while mitigating the negative side effects.
My gut feeling: assuming that Trump even tries to address this challenge, it will only be by enacting economically ruinous levels of protectionism or by abandoning any pretence of conservatism and embracing some kind of mass worker retraining program, either in a massive expansion of the federal government or else delivered by the states through federal block grants. And given the dynamics in Congress, it is by no means certain that any such measure would pass.
Make America Great Again – so easy to say, so hard to deliver for millions of struggling Americans.
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In the year 2000, when the internet was taking off and PCs and laptops were becoming more widely affordable, celebrity businessman Alan Sugar bet the house on his Amstrad Emailer device – an embarrassing, uneconomical and altogether pointless hybrid between a landline telephone and 1990s-era AOL. It didn’t go well. And now, in 2016, Britain’s facetious answer to Steve Jobs has something important to tell us about Brexit
People who host The Apprentice seem determine to shoehorn their way into our political discourse this year. First Donald Trump defeated fifteen human watercolour paintings to become the presumptive Republican Party nominee for US president, and now Trump’s British not-quite-equal, Alan Sugar, has parachuted into the middle of the raging EU referendum debate.
And Sugar certainly has Donald Trump’s ability to execute a 180 degree U-turn while vehemently denying that he has ever changed his position. Only six months ago, Lord Sugar could be found excoriating Brussels and ranting about how much the EU constrained his business. Fast-forward to today, however, and Lord Sugar 2.0 – newly appointed government enterprise tsar – is telling anyone who will listen that Britain leaving the EU is crazy and unimaginable.
Lord Sugar has urged voters not to be ‘daft’ by backing Brexit as he joined a host of high profile business figures who came out in favour of staying in the EU.
The businessman and Apprentice boss has produced a video making his pitch for Britain to stay in the EU.
He tells viewers they ‘could not be listening to a bigger gambler than me’ but says leaving the EU is a ‘gamble we can’t afford to take’.
Describing himself as an ‘East End chap’ who had built a business empire from scratch, he blasts the ‘daft ideas and duff proposals’ put forward by Brexit campaigners and said it would be a ‘massive mistake’ to quit the EU.
Lord Sugar, who was appointed as the Government’s enterprise tsar last week, says in the video: ‘Having lived in this country for 69 years, a country which I love, I just don’t want to see a massive mistake being made by the younger generation or, indeed, any of the generations who just simply do not understand the ramifications of leaving the European Union.’
Donald Trump would famously take any position, campaign for any cause, support any politician, donate to any political party so long as it won him access to people in power – that’s how a big Hillary Clinton supporter who was once on the liberal side of all the culture wars is now the presumptive GOP nominee. And it seems that Alan Sugar is an opportunistic sell-sword in the same vein.
But in many ways, there could be no more appropriate intervention on behalf of the Remain campaign than that now bestowed by Alan Sugar, the brains behind the Amstrad Emailer, that revolutionary and futuristic communications device. In fact, the comparisons between Sugar’s perennially unpopular “super telephone” and the European Union are quite striking.
Both the European Union and the Amstrad Emailer are anachronistic inventions, hopelessly outdated even before they saw the light of day (the EU as it is currently known came into force with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, when globalisation was really beginning to take off and the idea of large, homogeneous regional trading blocs was already showing its age).
Like the Amstrad Emailer, the European Union takes something generally agreeable (tariff and barrier-free trade) and packages it in a fearsomely complicated design with a dozen unwanted embellishments such as all the additional trappings of a European state.
Like the Amstrad Emailer, persisting with a fundamentally flawed product in the form of the European Union reveals much about the stubbornness and contempt for democracy (the market, in Sugar’s case) held by the “founding fathers” and today’s leaders of the EU.
Like the Amstrad Emailer, nobody today would ever create the European Union as it currently exists. We only persist with it because forty years of steadily deepening political integration makes leaving a complex process and a daunting one for many – not to mention huge resistance from the establishment who like the status quo, which gives European leaders power with no accountability, and British politicians the trappings and rituals of office without the pesky responsibility.
So yes, we should welcome Lord Sugar’s intervention in the debate because the brains behind the Amstrad Emailer has inadvertently revealed an uncomfortable truth: engaging with today’s globalised, interconnected, multilateral world through the filtered lens of the EU is like trying to broadcast and receive in High Definition using one of Alan Sugar’s duff products.
For example: Norway, outside the European Union but maintaining access to the single market through EEA membership, does not delegate its voice in trade negotiations to a single EU position (itself an awkward compromise between the priorities of 28 squabbling countries).
Not only is Norway an independent member of Codex, it even hosts the all-important Fish and Fisheries Products Committee. Thus, it is the lead nation globally in an area of significant economic importance to itself. When it comes to trade in fish and fishery product, Norway is able to guide, if not control, the agenda on standards and other matters. The EU then reacts, turning the Codex standards into Community law, which then applies to EEA countries, including Norway. But it is Norway, not the EU, which calls the shots.
Britain, meanwhile, sometimes even has to endure the indignity of seeing our own vote (on international bodies where we retain a seat) used against us by the European Commission, which controls that vote because the EU claims exclusive competency in matters relating to trade.
This is what remaining in the EU means – forsaking all of the benefits which could come from taking an active, fully-engaged position in all of the global bodies which pass down rules and standards to the European Union, and instead choosing to hide behind the EU’s skirts and accept an endless succession of fudged compromises because we lacked the confidence and skill to play the fuller role in world trade which is available to us.
Like the Amstrad Emailer, the European Union is the basic and highly predictable option, the kind of gift you might buy your grandparents (except nobody ever did) because you think that they would be overwhelmed trying to learn how to use a full PC. And now, while they could be buying things on Amazon, talking to the grandkids on Skype, blogging, editing holiday pictures in Photoshop or even setting up an online business, instead they are doomed to forever make low-quality, grainy video calls to one or other of the remaining six people in the country to own one of Alan Sugar’s devices.
That’s us. That is Britain, for so long as we remain in the European Union. A little old granny whose relatives didn’t think that she would be able to handle the complexity of a decent laptop, pecking out typo-strewn missives to the world on a rickety plastic keyboard and a monochrome screen while the richness and variety of the internet completely passes her by.
Why on earth would we vote Remain when we could vote to Leave the European Union and properly re-engage with the world as the influential, powerful and capable nation that we are? Why, when the brand new MacBook of Brexit sits wrapped with a bow on the table next to us, are we still fearfully clinging to our trusty, familiar Amstrad Emailer?
Postscript: This article in The Register provides a hilarious summary of the Emailer’s fortunes as the Next Big Thing in technology:
Since March 2000, he has tried tirelessly, and unsuccessfully, to sell the concept to everyone from journalists to politicians to the City – all have turned the device down.
Termed “the most important mass market electronic product since he kick-started Britain’s personal computer market 15 years ago” by some idiot on the Mail on Sunday, the emailer emerged in a blaze of glory at the same venue as the cheap PCs that made Amstrad a household name 20 years ago.
It cost £79.99 and still does and within a week we concluded it was far too expensive. With even low usage, it would put £150 per month on your quarterly phone bill. The public agreed with our analysis and no one bought the thing.
But the more it has failed to take off, the more fanatical Sir Sugar has got about it. He vehemently denied technical problems in August that year, then when the subsidiary set up to deal with the emailer, Amserve, put up a £2.3 million loss, he took up most of the company’s financial report explaining why the device was so wonderful.
The next set of results in February were even worse. Profit down 82 per cent from £8.2 million to £1.51 million. Again Sir Sugar waxed lyrical about how wonderful the emailer was – sales continued to be “encouraging”. This time Amserve took a £3.9 million loss.
He managed to persuade the then home secretary Jack Straw to back it up. Mr Straw said it was the perfect example of how technology could be used to “improve the flow of information and intelligence in a bid to decrease crime” at a Neighbourhood Watch photo opportunity. It made no difference to sales.
The IT correspondent for The Independent then incurred Sir Sugar’s wrath when he wrote, one year on from the launch, that the emailer had been a failure. Sir Sugar sent an email to all emailer owners, ranting about the piece and providing the journalist’s email address. Unfortunately it backfired because many of the received emails concerned the terrible problems they were having with the device.