Reality check

It is hard to believe that March is almost over. How could the first three months of 2017 disappear like that? I had been told that as people get older, the time passes more quickly, but I wasn’t quite expecting this! It is true that I had been rather busy, at least from mid-January for various reasons, and I have found it hard to find a time to sit down and relax.

In a piece of good news, the world has not ended. Well, not yet. Donald Trump’s presidency has had a controversial start with the attempted travel ban, and it feels as if the wheels are coming off Mr Trump’s administration faster than many people had anticipated (including myself), as allegations about his and his associates’ closeness with Russia persist, and he has had a rude reality check as the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act came to an unceremonious end, because the Republicans in the House could not come to an agreement. It is not a particularly promising beginning: there were great hopes and fears – depending on your political persuasions – that things will be done as the same political party is in control of the executive and legislature, yet it may be the case that both the president and the Republicans in the Congress are playing the opposition, leading insurgency, than being responsible actors in government.

It is likely that the United Kingdom will face its reality check as it formally starts the process of leaving the European Union tomorrow. British politicians appear to be either dim-witted, deluded, or duplicitous about the enormous political, legislative, administrative, and economic burdens of the process. In other words, they are either too stupid to comprehend the enormity of the task, believe naively that somehow things will turn out OK so long as Britain shouts loudly and slowly enough at the Europeans and push through legislation, or know very well the difficulties involved but are not talking about them honestly to the people. Calling them dim-witted is probably too uncharitable, and I hope, for the sake of the country, that they have been duplicitous, but I somehow cannot rid the feeling that they are deluded.

The British government must do its absolutely best to obtain the best possible deal for the UK in the Brexit negotiations, as that is its duty to the British people, however the process is not going to be easy. The UK is not owed a good deal. It needs to fight and negotiate for it. The other EU member states and their governments owe the same duty to their people that they get the best out of the Brexit deal. Aligning the interests of the EU member states – and in some cases regions within states as the Wallonian opposition to CETA demonstrated – is no easy task, and the UK may be cornered into making concessions, as it is doubtful the national governments or leaders of other European countries would want to expend their political capital on behalf of Britain.

Brexit and its repercussions on their own would stretch any government’s political, legislative, and administrative capacities to the limit. The process is further complicated by two constitutional crises: Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland is likely to have another referendum on independence in the next few years, be it before or after Brexit is complete, but regardless of the timetable, Westminster and Whitehall will have to deal with the prospect of Scottish independence, which will need to be factored into the Brexit negotiations. Due to the existence of a land border on the island of Ireland, coming to an agreement on this border issue should be quite central in the Brexit negotiations. I am currently struggling to see how Britain will square the circle of leaving the single market, yet keeping the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic open as it is. No power-sharing agreement has been reached in Stormont and Brexit may add further dimensions to the politics in Northern Ireland, and that in turn may affect Westminster. Another Scottish referendum, and keeping the devolution going and maintaing peace in Northern Ireland, each on its own would tax any UK government, but Theresa May’s government will have to deal with them in addition to Brexit.

The economic implications of Brexit will start to become clearer. If Britain does well, then all will be well, but if the economy struggles, then the government will be in a difficult position. The options for public finances, broadly speaking, are to borrow more, tax more, and/or spend less. The second option looks out of question as Philip Hammond found out recently. The government does not seem to be keen on borrowing more either: depending on the circumstances it may not be a viable option. So that leaves option three, spending less, which has been the mainstay of government policies since 2010, but there is likely to be less and less room for cuts without really hurting people: there are indications that people are already suffering quite grievously.

Uncompromising opposition is easy, because keep saying no is seen as an unswerving and principled course of action, but being in government and getting things done are not, because such requires making deals and accepting that compromises are necessary. It is easy to unite against something, and blame someone or something for all the ills afflicting the society, but that unity in opposition does not necessary hold together once the incumbent is removed, since the opposition itself is often split into different groups with different and conflicting narratives and visions. Perhaps on both sides of the Atlantic, the insurgents who had been railed and rallied against the establishment – and won – are now finding out for themselves how difficult it is to do things, get things done, and manage the consequences.