Brexit is sorted isn’t it? Not so fast. Covid-19 is currently rightly the nation’s No.1 concern, but those who think that we can now safely put Brexit behind us are mistaken. The real struggle over what sort of Britain will emerge from leaving the EU has only just begun. Arguments over the last few years have only been about establishing the rules to get the process of Brexit underway. It is only now that we’ll begin to see the government introducing major changes in the way British society and its economy operates.
And we shouldn’t be surprised at the direction of these changes. We’ve had plenty of warnings.
Right-wing Tories – now firmly in charge – have been consistently clear about their objectives, which are very different from those of the more moderate elements in their party. They want to break away from the social market model on which the EU is based in order to establish a de-regulated economy, with minimal government regulation and low taxation. The aim is to re-establish the agenda of the 1980s and further undermine what is left of the welfare state, in order, in the words of former Chancellor Nigel Lawson, to bring about “the completion of Thatcherism”.
This is not something those of us who believe in the need for a welfare state, and fair wages and working conditions can ignore. The intention of true believers in Brexit is to mount an assault on the economic and social basis of our society and to do so in a way that will make any attempt to roll back those changes extremely difficult indeed.
The signs are already emerging. The government has moved to remove restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids, despite an EU-wide ban. These pesticides are believed to have damaging effects on pollinating insects such as bees.
The Financial Times recently reported on plans being drawn up by the government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills to change employment conditions. A select group of business leaders has been sounded out on the proposals. The aim was to remove the provisions of the EU’s Working Time Directive, such as the maximum 48-hour working week and the way holiday pay is calculated.
After widespread opposition, with more than 120,000 signing a petition objecting to the proposals, the government has backtracked. New business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced this week that the consultation would not now be going ahead.
However, the ground for other changes is being prepared. In what may be the greatest extension of the royal prerogative since King Charles I set out on the path that led to the English Civil War, the government has ensured that many new provisions will be introduced by ministers without having to face the scrutiny of parliamentary debate.
The process has already begun with Jacob Rees-Mogg closing down the Brexit select committee before it had time to consider Prime Minister Johnson’s deal, but we can expect more of the same approach.
Trade deals in particular will escape scrutiny, their details hidden in the small print, and ignored by much of our mainstream media. To ensure this is the case, MPs – on the instructions of Boris Johnson – have rejected safeguards in Lords amendments designed to protect the NHS from future trade deals, and also to ensure such deals do not lead to lower food standards. Some protection will still be afforded by the EU, as a result of the trade deal provisions that aim to prevent the UK from undermining the level playing field. However, these are cumbersome and only likely to be activated if EU countries perceive a persistent and serious threat to their own industries. Moreover, they only affect traded goods and services, which will leave public services vulnerable, in particular.
Battered and demoralised as we are, we must find strength from the success of the opposition to changes in working conditions, to oppose and confront the real purpose of Brexit. At stake are hard-won working conditions, our environment and even our NHS, whose value to us is immeasurable, but to US drug companies with their eye on profiting from a future trade deal, the value is in millions of dollars.
On the plus side, the Brexit coalition that saw the Tories win over working-class voters, especially in the north, will fragment when these Brexit backers begin to see threats to their standard of living. This wasn’t the deal they signed up to.
The Tories, by introducing changes in line with their own agenda, will inevitably put a strain on their support. Indeed, the real fight has only just begun. It may be an unequal one, but they don’t hold all the cards.