I’m not a big fan of counterfactuals, not because I don’t think they are useful, but it’s more that some politicians seemsnot to understand that they are in fact abstract thought experiments rather than a rendering of some class of reality.
I’m thinking here about Jim Allister and Sammy Wilson or even Ed Poots who told us not to worry about the potential downsides of Brexit and are now railing against a reality they helped bring to pass (and now can do very little to change).
The other type is the one that Sinn Féin likes to use every now and again, which is probably well enough summed up by the two tea time news broadcasts from the north and the south I listened to last night:
"We wish we could be more certain…" rightly, says Sinn Féin's deputy First Minister @moneillsf re school openings, as @MichealLehane reports there is "deep uncertainty" in the Dail where SF Deputies ask for clarity on vaccine delivery (where none is possible). Panto politics!
— Mick Fealty (@mickfealty) January 28, 2021
We are wading knee deep in deep uncertainty. It’s a given, it’s the climate it’s the epistemological condition not just of the government but all of us. And there’s no counterfactual reality in which deeply uncertain stuff can be rendered certain.
Now, a short appeal to some of our wandering commenters. The core of this piece is about Brexit and what we can learn from it, NOT the politically myopic shortcomings of Unionist or Nationalist public representatives.
Please, humour me for a bit? So, Exhibit A is this useful insight from Stephen Bush in his weekly column in the i Newspaper:
A difficult truth for us Remainers is that the United Kingdom would not have been able to roll out coronavirus vaccines at a greater speed than the European Union had we stayed in the bloc.
The MHRA, our regulatory body, was able to approve not one but two vaccines before the European Union’s regulator, the EMA, and we are now feeling the benefits.
Along with a faster approval process, we have a more heavily centralised healthcare system, and as a result we have vaccinated many more people than any other European country.
It’s true that the EU’s treaties hand member-states an opt-out on public health matters during emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic, but when the UK was a member of the EU, we were also the host of the EMA.
Therefore, it would not have been diplomatically possible for the UK to opt out of the EMA’s process: if you are the host of a big institution, you can hardly declare that you think it is unfit for purpose. In addition, it may well have been logistically impossible.
Now, this is largely a case of luck. 2020/1 is no ordinary year. And as he rightly notes, much of the last four years during which the EMA was forced to move from London to Holland will have burned a lot of its spare capacity. It also freed the UK’s regulator (the MHRA) from working on a third of the contract the EMA used to give it every year.
One of the biggest miscalculations that nationalists of all types on these islands tend to make is to score England as having a zero value in any conversation about the individual futures of their own particular part of the archipelago. Covid is revealing (amongst many other important things) that this is an illusion, and one that’s hostile to their larger ambitions.
As great an illusion, perhaps, as Brexit being a moment of great liberation? Bush points out that the dream of becoming a low wage haven (more than it already is) will have to wait. [Because Mr Johnson now has an off-red wall to defend? – Ed]…
Buried in this week’s headlines about vaccines was another, perhaps more important story: that the UK business department has abandoned consultations on whether to water down workers’ rights after Brexit. Although the Government rightly points out that in many aspects, we have a more generous set of labour market provisions than the European average, in private, farsighted ministers fear that, if you are not willing to deregulate and diverge from the EU, then Brexit is all cost and no prize: that we have cut ourselves out of the regulatory and customs orbit in order to gain theoretical freedoms that we don’t have any intention of ever using.
For some Conservatives, that is a temporary problem tied into the personality of the current Prime Minister. They think that, essentially, Boris Johnson dislikes giving bad news or messages about tough trade-offs, and that means that as long as he is Prime Minister, Brexit will remain a set of theoretical freedoms, rather than a big change to how the United Kingdom operates. Unless his hand is forced by a crisis, then things will stay pretty much the same.
But other Conservatives fear that the UK will occasionally be able to seize one-off benefits during times of crisis (like our nimble vaccine response), but day-to-day, the unpopularity of any big moves away from the European way of life will mean that the end result of Brexit means many more days in which we feel the economic costs of British regulators being unable to bid for European work – and fewer days when we can enjoy the fruits of a faster vaccine rollout.
Those who point to Singapore miss out the bit where the Singaporean state owns almost everything that moves (including 90% of all property). Sudden leaps forward have a poor record across the world, and I suspect the post Brexit UK will have to rely on something a little smarter than slashing the wages of the poor even more than it already has.
We shouldn’t need Brexit to tell us that that punitive model is long since bust…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty