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"It does not have to be like this". But it is

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This week the UK government, belatedly, made public its draft legal texts for an agreement with the EU, for the first time authorising them to be communicated to EU Member States. They are, necessarily, lengthy and highly technical documents which have already begun to be picked over by numerous independent trade experts such as David Henig, Sam Lowe, Dr Anna Jerzewska, Dmitry Grozoubinski, and Iana Dreyer. No doubt more will appear as they and others digest the contents of these documents.

They were accompanied by a covering letter - described by Daniel Boffey of The Guardian as “extraordinary” - from David Frost to Michel Barnier which gives much insight into how the UK is approaching the negotiations. Much of it is not surprising. Repeatedly, it invokes arguments which are now familiar and which I have discussed in several previous posts.

First, it envisages a “suite of agreements” rather than the kind of over-arching Association Agreement sought by the EU. Secondly, it constantly invokes supposed “precedents” based upon a variety of other agreements that the EU has with third countries. As I discussed in my recent blog, this is profoundly unrealistic. However, what I didn’t say there and which has only become clear (to me, at least) with the publication of the draft texts, and the commentary of those listed and linked to earlier, is the cumulative effect of these two things.

For, despite being predicated on the idea that the UK is not asking for anything that other third countries don’t have, stitching them together creates what overall is an unprecedented ask (£), without apparently offering much, if anything, in return. There’s nothing wrong with trying that, of course, but it is disingenuous to suggest at the same time that it is a modest, minimal or straightforward demand, and absurd to complain if it gets rejected.

It’s not fair!

That brings us to the third feature of the letter, which was more surprising and, indeed, extraordinary. For it reads as, first, a letter of complaint, in which the EU is ‘told off’ for having taken an unsatisfactory stance and, second, as a submission to an academic seminar on political theory in which various “arguments” are discussed and (supposedly) refuted. However the overall tenor is, more than anything else, like the familiar refrain of childhood: ‘but it’s not fair’. In that last respect it is very much in line with what Bobby McDonagh, writing in the Irish Times but before the letter appeared, described as Britain’s “Brexit tantrum”.

Thought of in these terms, a useful question to ask is – what reaction from the EU is anticipated? If a letter of complaint – ‘we’re sorry, we got it wrong’? If an academic seminar – ‘good point, we hadn’t thought of that’? If a childish lament – ‘there, there, mummy’s here now’? What, precisely, is envisaged? In the event, the response from Barnier was to point out that such posturing “cannot be a substitute for serious engagement and detailed negotiations”. Well, quite.

For those who insist, as many Brexiters do, on the dignity and indeed the pride of the British nation it was a remarkably undignified and petulant statement. More to the point, it’s simply irrelevant as regards an international (trade) negotiation. For such negotiations are not about winning arguments or making complaints. They are about cold, hard power, interests, and trade-offs. Not only do argument and complaint cut no ice, but they show that you have already lost. It’s as simple and as brutal as a playground fight – the person who wants to reason with their opponent is the one who has already lost.

Does that make the EU a bully, administering ‘punishment beatings’? It’s a meaningless question. Power is just power. What is surprising is that Brexiters who have spent decades saying how awful the EU is are now pearl-clutching about its ‘viciousness’, as if what they expected was charity, or special treatment. And that is the more surprising since they have spent those decades insulting the EU, and yet now imagine that they will be the recipient of its kindness. What, for example, did Brexit Party MPs who last July were childishly turning their backs when the European anthem was played in the European Parliament think? That it would endear Britain to the EU? Did those repeatedly comparing the EU to Nazi Germany or the USSR think doing so would make securing a good deal easier?

So at one level the letter is an expression of the continuing naivety of Brexiters. At another, of course, it’s not about negotiations with the EU at all. Instead, it’s part of a concerted campaign to depict the EU, to the UK domestic audience, as unreasonable. And, indeed, the claim that Barnier is “losing the argument” is now being deployed routinely in support of this. It is as silly as Jeremy Corbyn’s widely-mocked claim that Labour ‘won the argument’ in the 2019 General Election in that, whether or not it’s true, it’s irrelevant to the only issue that matters.

Yet it has a serious implication to the extent that it will morph into blaming the EU if there is no deal, and all the attendant chaos of that, come next January. And if that happens then, no doubt, many will buy that line and forget all the promises made by Brexiters about how Britain ‘held all the cards’. What will matter, politically, is how many do so, if fresh chaos is heaped on a nation still reeling from coronavirus. If it’s, say, 50% or more then the gamble will have worked (in a political sense – of course the economic damage will be unaffected by where the blame goes). If it’s, say, 30% or less then the gamble will have failed. No doubt the question of where, within that kind of range, public opinion might land is what Boris Johnson will be calculating over the next month or so as the decision on transition period extension has to be reached.

The extension debate

With respect to that, fierce debate continues to rage. The Brexit Ultras associated with Patrick Minford et al - in yet another incarnation, this time the “Centre for Brexit Policy” – produced a predictable call against extension. Based, as usual, on the discredited ‘Cardiff model’, it recycled all the usual Ultra lines of which perhaps the most egregious is that whereas, if necessary, ‘WTO terms’ are perfectly viable for UK-EU trade, the key to post-Brexit prosperity is negotiating preferential trade terms with non-EU countries. (And if the predictable recycling of discredited arguments is your thing, look no further than David Davis’ suggestion on Radio 4 this week that – yes - ‘German car makers’ are about to ride to the UK’s rescue, as well as his prognostications about the trade negotiations. But always remember that Davis is the man who invariably  gets everything about Brexit wrong).

On the other side of the argument, warnings about the impossibility of completing a deal with extension abound, both from (pro-Brexit) columnists (£) and health experts, whilst Nicole Sykes of the CBI tweeted eloquently about the problems for businesses of preparing for a December end to transition whilst dealing with the coronavirus crisis. However, in general terms, businesses have been remarkably quiet about this, perhaps because in the current situation they are so heavily dependent upon government support. But several business-savvy journalists are speaking up, including Martin Wolf in a powerfully argued FT column yesterday (£). I’ve made my own arguments for extending the transition before, and won’t repeat them here.

One interesting intervention in the extension debate came this week from Raoul Ruparel – formerly Theresa May’s Special Advisor on Europe – in an article in Politico. It is a serious piece from a serious author, and proposed a ‘conditional extension’ to be agreed by the end of June, effectively to implement any deal agreed by, say, October. One merit lies in its recognition, often absent from this debate, of the key problem of business preparedness. Another lies in the implication – correct, I think – that the most likely route to extension in terms of UK political realities would be some form, even if not this form, of re-badging and re-designing.

That said, Ruparel’s proposal has several problems, both of timing (a deal by October) and of its legal basis (which he questionably suggests that Article 50 provides) but the one which I think is particularly important, because it has a wider implication, is the suggestion that such a conditional extension could be preceded by a UK parliamentary vote “to indicate that initial political agreement has been reached between the two sides on what their future relationship will be”.

The obvious problem here is that there has already been a not dissimilar kind of vote, when parliament approved the Political Declaration on, precisely, the outlines of the future relationship. This included a commitment to Level Playing Field conditions, specifically linked in the text to geographical and economic closeness, that the UK now openly disavows. It is therefore difficult to see what confidence could be placed in a parliamentary vote of the sort proposed.

A country that can no longer be trusted

For the bitter truth – bitter, that is, to have to say it about one’s own country – is that the way the UK has conducted itself these last four years means that the EU has very little grounds for confidence in us. That is both because we – or more accurately our governments - have repeatedly shown ourselves to be untrustworthy but also to be incompetent – either reneging on, or apparently failing to understand the implications of, what has been agreed to, for example, but also especially, as regards Northern Ireland. It doesn’t need a PhD in textual analysis to realise that when Michel Barnier wrote in his reply to Frost’s letter this week that “I would not like the tone you have taken to impact the mutual trust … that is essential between us” it was diplomatic code for the fact that it already has done so.

But this is not just a matter of a single letter £). The shrivelling of national reputation has been long in the making and, again, for this we must thank the Brexit Ultras such as Jacob Rees-Mogg who over a year ago proposed that the UK should use an (Article 50) extension period to make things “as difficult as possible” for the EU. Or David Davis who disowned the phase 1 agreement within hours of the UK signing it. Or the entire legion – Andrew Bridgen, John Redwood, Nigel Farage - who have made it clear that they regard the financial settlement as illegitimate.

And this is also relevant to the Ruparel proposal (or similar ones that may be made in the future) more generally. For whilst, as I agree, some re-badging and indeed repackaging is likely to be a politically necessary for the UK to agree to any form of extension, the question is – why is this so? The answer is solely in order to once more dance around the sensibilities of the Brexit Ultras – the same old dance that has driven the entire Brexit saga from the decision to hold a Referendum onwards. Again, it’s rather as with a spoiled child who is constantly indulged and, of course, whose behaviour gets ever worse the longer the indulgence goes on.

It is a national tragedy for us but, more importantly in the present context, it is a game the EU is no long willing and no longer needs to play. Having for decades offered compromises and opt-outs to satisfy British Euroscepticism, our domestic political poison is, luckily for the EU, no longer its problem. I don’t sense any appetite within the EU to indulge Britain further.

The brutal truth is that neither Britain, nor Brexit, really matter very much anymore for the EU. Except, to an extent, for Ireland, Brexit is scarcely discussed in the European media, doesn’t figure in the political debates of the member states, and is well near the bottom of EU priorities. The passage of time and the press of coronavirus means that almost no one outside the UK cares now. Yes, the EU would much prefer a deal, but not at any price. So there’s going to be little flex from the EU side because it cares so little about Brexit and, apparently, none from the UK government because it cares too much about Brexit.

For these various reasons, and despite my previous opinion that an extension would probably end up happening because of the overwhelming rationality of the case for it, I agree with Tom Hayes’ excellent discussion in his latest BEERG Brexit Blog which suggests that the extension period will almost certainly end as scheduled, and with no future terms deal in place.

Post-Brexit Britain is coming in to view

Whether or not that proves right, we are now seeing more and more detail of what kind of post-Brexit Britain is envisaged by the government. This is being revealed by, for example, the ongoing parliamentary passage of legislation such as the Agriculture Bill, the dangers of which for animal welfare and product standards were analysed by veterinary surgeon Anna Bramall in Prospect this week. It is also revealed by the Immigration Bill which gleefully cements the end of freedom of movement rights. Though it is rarely stated, this includes the end of those rights for British people - on the other hand, they are awarded the special Brexit bonus of having the lowest paid jobs reserved specially for them! There’s even now a dedicated ‘pick for Britain’ website to facilitate this.

This has been an unusually busy week for Brexit-related stories, and also a busy one for me, so there are several important developments and reports that I have not been able to discuss in this post. So I will just briefly mention some of them.

First, the UK announced the new Global Tariff schedule it will apply to countries with whom it does not have a trade agreement from the end of the transition period. If that includes the EU, then the cost of food and cars imported to the UK from there “will rise sharply” (£). At the same time, the new Customs Academy – set up to train the estimated 50,000 new customs agents that will be needed after Brexit – is reported to have neither the money nor anything like enough trainees to deliver them.

Second, there was a good BBC report on the complex issue of fishing quotas, where all the Brexiter promises are unravelling. Third, there was an analysis of the intricacies of the Irish Sea border by Dr Katy Hayward and Tony Smith on the LSE Brexit site, plus a wider discussion of Brexit and Irish border issues by Dr Andrew Blick at Federal Trust. That is the same Irish border that, before the Referendum, Boris Johnson said would be unaffected by Brexit and about which, since, he denied the consequences of what he signed up to with EU.

Disparate as these and the other stories in this post are, they all point towards what is emerging for Britain. A country that is poorer and meaner, in antagonistic relation with its neighbours and natural friends. A country mired in complex and intractable problems that are entirely of its own making. A country that in the name of taking back control and animated by nationalist chauvinism is now reduced to childish whining when the world outside does not do its bidding and scarcely even registers its complaints.

What makes us “so unworthy”? “It does not have to be like this”, David Frost caterwauled in his letter to Barnier, like a spurned teenager berating the intransigence of a lost first love. Well, certainly, it did not need to be like this and wouldn’t have been – without Brexit, of course, but also without the utterly cack-handed way in which Brexit has been pursued. But it is like this, and it will go on being like this. As indeed the Brexiter faux-patriots were warned from the start and throughout these years of negotiations in which they have, by their own choices and incompetence, dragged our country into internal distress and external disrepute.

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expatpaul
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The virtual parliament was a complete success, so of course it must be ended at once

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If they choose to rush back for no reason whatsoever beyond their own insatiable lust for their own sense of self-importance, they're making themselves exempt from the rules they expect everybody else to follow

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"Large numbers of Tory MPs know that their job involves precious little beyond emitting low level growling noises at noon on Wednesdays to provide a sort of aural white noise masking effect for the blindingly obvious uselessness of the man they chose to be their leader."
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Four-year-old pre-schooler promises to use ‘common sense’ when deciding which Lego pieces to lick

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After the government issued further guidance regarding the reopening of schools in England, many four and five-year-olds have said they are ready to apply the common sense required when it comes to how many things they put in their mouths.
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Belgian mom makes cardboard car to get McDonald’s drive-thru meal

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A mother-daughter duo in Belgium captured widespread attention after building a makeshift cardboard car to be able to get a McDonald’s drive-thru meal despite the coronavirus lockdown.

On Labour Day, Nathalie Moermans and her 16-year-old daughter from the Walloon city of La Louvière were spotted inside a cardboard car queuing up alongside other vehicles at the local McDonald’s drive-thru.

Not owning a car, the pair opted to build their own out of cardboard boxes in an attempt to get a meal from the fast-food chain, located some 500 metres from their home and where Moermans said they ate at once a month.

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“My daughter wanted to go but I told her we couldn’t since we don’t have a car and we couldn’t go with somebody else either, because of the lockdown,” she said in a phone interview.

To get around this limitation, Moermans proposed building their own car out of cardboard boxes, an idea her daughter initially rejected before jumping enthusiastically on board.

“At the beginning, my daughter thought it was a stupid idea — she was embarrassed. So I started building the car on my own and then she started helping me,” she said, adding: “I told her it would give her some nice memories to tell her children about their grandmother’s crazy ideas.”

Once their vehicle was done, complete with a ‘Covid-19’ licence plate and markings reading: “Sorry, I want a McDonald’s but don’t have a car” they took to the road, sparking the interest of drivers and passers-by.

 

“We had a bit of trouble taking it out of the house because it was too big for our front door, but once on the road, other cars honked at us, gave us thumbs-up from their windows and people stopped to take pictures….” she said.

Their creation also drew attention from a police patrol, who approached them to ask them what they were doing in the drive-thru.

“I told the policewoman that I didn’t have a car but that we wanted to get a meal, and I think only then she realised that we were inside a cardboard car and burst out laughing,” Moermans said.

Moermans said she and her daughter did not expect to receive so much attention from their Labour Day activity.

Photos she posted on her Facebook have so far been shared thousands of times and received hundreds of comments, most of which she said were positive.

“Even a paper in the south of France wrote about us, we were not expecting this… But it’s nice if we have done something to make people laugh, especially in a situation like this,” she said. “It’s a nice feeling and I think we need that sometimes.”

Ultimately, the trip was a success, with the duo successfully getting their meal once their time came to order.

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times

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zippy72
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This is genius
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Innovation
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Donald Trump's prescription for coronavirus: quite literally toxic | Marina Hyde

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The president’s advice involves ingesting bleach, which for some of us is beginning to seem like the only rational response

Interesting developments in America’s elect-your-id experiment, as the shining city upon a hill runs up against that age-old political question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Which is Latin for “who lung-bleaches the lung bleachers?”

The inquiry arises after Thursday’s White House press conference, which saw Donald Trump offer his latest symposium on how to kill a country. “I see the disinfectant where it knocks [the virus] out in a minute,” he gibbered, live on national television. “One minute! And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? … So it’d be interesting to check that.” Wouldn’t it? Let’s pop it on the to-do list, right below “staple our eyelids to the floor”. Another interesting thing to check would be the precise theoretical point at which deciding to ingest bleach becomes the tragically rational response to the fact that a sitting president is suggesting Americans ingest bleach. For now, though, let’s just include the presidential caveat. Pointing to his head, Trump went on: “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.”

Related: Newspapers are enjoying a surge in popularity, but they're struggling to survive | Simon Jenkins

Related: UK coronavirus live: officials apologise after key workers denied tests on day one of Hancock scheme

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Coronavirus and Brexit

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It is now increasingly clear that there is a complex web of interconnections between Brexit and responses to the coronavirus crisis. I have been writing about that on this blog since the beginning of March (and especially here and here) which I mention not as a boast for any perspicacity on my part but just to avoid repeating too much of what was said in those posts.

There are two ways of thinking about those interconnections. One might be called ‘ideational’, meaning things arising from an overlapping mind-set (it would be to ascribe too much coherence to it to call it an ideology). The other might be called ‘institutional’, meaning those things arising from governmental or administrative overlaps. And, of course, there is an interplay between the tow.

Ideational connections

Here, the main issue is the very clear overlap (£) between those who think that the coronavirus restrictions are overdone, should never have happened or should be lifted quickly, and that the whole thing is essentially a fuss about nothing – the self-styled ‘lockdown sceptics’ - and those who support Brexit, think it is easy and simple, and should have been done by now.

There is a small but very influential group of politicians and commentators who approach a nexus of issues in the same way be it Brexit, coronavirus, climate change, immigration, sexual harassment or any number of other things. It’s always the same people, and always the same blokey, angry, resentful, constantly triggered but can’t-you-take-a-joke-snowflake, sneeringly superior yet self-pitying victimhood schtick.

And it’s always the same argumentative tricks – cherry-picked statistics (£350M/ comparative death rates), semi-understood factoids (WTO rules/ herd immunity), bogus past comparisons (we managed fine before/ flu), overblown rhetoric (dictatorship/ house arrest), and drastic exaggerations of their opponents’ claims so as to erect absurd strawmen for demolition (so it means WW3/ we’re all going to die? Really?).

In a previous post I gave Tim Martin, the Wetherspoon’s boss, as an exemplar in discussing this overlap, at least as regards Brexit and coronavirus. Martin, of course, is a passionate advocate of Brexit and ferocious critic of social distancing measures. Since then, fascinating work has been done by Professor Ben Ansell, a political scientist at Oxford University, showing correlations between Brexit-voting areas and lower levels compliance with social distancing instructions.

The data are open to different interpretations – especially the possibility that those in leave voting areas might be more likely to have jobs that cannot be done from home – but a plausible one is that the correlation partly reflects the overlap in mind-set I alluded to (just as there is an overlap in the US between Trump’s core vote and those objecting to coronavirus restrictions).

Another set of interconnections was identified this week by Professor David Edgerton, a historian of science and technology at King’s College London. He argues that both Brexit and the government response to coronavirus reveal shared “fantasies about British scientific and inventive genius”. He also links this to pervasive myths about the Second World War which, of course, have been central to Brexit and are almost unavoidable in relation to the pandemic. As the historian Robert Saunders, of Queen Mary, University of London, remarked, it is as if British politicians only have one historical reference point and it’s one they don’t understand anyway.

Institutional connections

Edgerton’s analysis centres on the government’s attempts to boost ventilator production, the story of which was devastatingly laid bare by Peter Foster in the Financial Times this week (£), provoking an angry response from the government. And here the ideational and institutional connections begin to merge. For as Foster records, the link is not just idiotic comparisons with the Blitz or Spitfire production, but a constant boneheaded refusal of politicians to engage seriously with experts. In other words, governmental failures over coronavirus are inseparable from Brexit ‘simplism’ in general and the Second World War myths in particular.

The institutional interconnections were thrown into even sharper relief by a truly devastating report in The Sunday Times about the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis (which also provoked a furious reaction from the government or perhaps, as is widely rumoured, from Dominic Cummings). They were at least two-fold. One was, simply, political exhaustion from all the Brexit battles of the previous months. A second was the way that planning for a future pandemic had been entirely sidelined by planning for no-deal Brexit, not just in general but in relation to specific recommendations about pandemic planning.

The latter is just another way of saying that it’s impossible to deal simultaneously with coronavirus and the Brexit negotiations, a point I’ve made repeatedly on this blog. It’s also been made, with more authority, by Georgina Wright and by Joe Owen, both of the Institute for Government, and innumerable others.

Why does this matter?

Most obviously, it matters in terms of the concrete question of whether the transition period will be extended. Without repeating the arguments for that, an important development this week was the Scottish government calling for it. It’s also been called for in a punchy editorial, again in The Sunday Times, and by a group of senior ex-civil servants. And a new opinion poll shows that 64% of the public support extension with even 45% of Brexit Party voters doing so. What is also coming into focus in this debate is, as I wrote this week, not just the question of whether to extend but by how much given that only one extension is possible. Yet we still don’t know that it will happen, as Tony Connelly of RTE explains.

But I think there is a deeper importance to all this. What both Brexit and coronavirus reveal are some fundamental flaws in the way we are governed and the political discourse around it. The populist explosion of this decade, of which Brexit was a prime example, has bequeathed a way of governing which is impervious to reason, and incapable of engaging with complexity. It isn’t just chance that we have a woefully incompetent Prime Minister, a dud stand in, and a cabinet of mediocrities, propped up by a cadre of special advisors with few skills beyond contrarian posturing.

They are the legacy of Brexit. They were brought into power by Brexit. But all the things which secured the vote for Brexit – the clever-but-dumb messaging, the leadership-by-slogan, the appeal to nostalgic sentiment, the disdain for facts and evidence, the valorisation of anger and divisiveness, the bluff ‘commonsense’ and the ‘bluffers’ book’ knowledge – are without exception precisely the opposite of what is needed for effective governance in general, and crisis management in particular.

This can be seen in the increasingly bizarre and convoluted stories about (non-)participation in EU procurement schemes, and the Turkish PPE flight. Both bear the hallmarks of the Brexity ideology, dishonesty, bullying, spin and incompetence that are the stock-in-trade of these people.

The realities of delivering Brexit had already found them out, but in the face of the pandemic their entire approach has been comprehensively discredited. If we must use Second World War analogies then, as Peter Oborne writes, Johnson is a Chamberlain not a Churchill. Oborne also notes what is being increasingly widely recognized about Johnson, and which I wrote about when he was still Foreign Secretary, namely that he is always in campaign mode and has no facility for, or much interest in, governing. The same is true of Cummings and, for that matter, the entire Brexit high command which has always been characterised by protest and victimhood not competence and responsibility. That is a disaster in terms of Brexit, but it is – literally – fatal in terms of coronavirus.

But – and this is the worst part of the legacy – despite all this some opinion polls show public approval for their approach continues to grow (and though the picture on growth is mixed, still, it shows continuing majority approval). They have no incentive to change their ways – even if they were capable of doing so - when the rewards for not doing so are so ample. That may change, though, and quickly. I have just a sense that the narrative may be shifting at the moment and one index of that is, actually, the furious responses to adverse news stories, which smack of desperation. It shouldn’t be forgotten how easily public opinion can turn, as it did, for example, over the Iraq War.

A final thought

From those thoughts flows another. In this post, as in many others on this blog, I have referenced academics, journalists and think-tankers who do such extraordinary work in analysing and communicating what is going on. So much for having enough of experts. Indeed, as has been widely remarked upon, it is noteworthy how, in the coronavirus crisis, the UK government has turned not just to medical experts but to academic scientists and to businesses to cope with that crisis.

What is less widely pointed out is that, on the basis of the education profile of the vote to leave the EU, the majority of these are likely to have been against Brexit and are very much the kind of people who for the last four years have been reviled as the ‘liberal elite’. Equally, the heaviest burden in dealing with the sharp end of the crisis has fallen on NHS workers of all sorts, care workers, delivery drivers, supermarket staff and so on. Many of these, at all levels of skill, are immigrants, including many from the EU-27 who did not even have a vote in the Referendum.

Yet it is all these people, rather than the archetypical coastal townpensioner or home counties golf club bore, who are now expected to deal with the coronavirus crisis (just as civil servants are expected to deliver Brexit whilst being traduced as remainer traitors). In this sense, the deepest connection between the coronavirus and Brexit is the way that the former has comprehensively discredited some of the central myths and lies of the latter. It turns out that when the chips are down educated professionals, immigrants, and indeed educated professional immigrants are rather important after all. More so, at least, than contrarian newspaper columnists raging against restrictions on their inalienable right to go around infecting people.

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