To me, forty days is a nice round number. It doesn’t fit in well with our time cycles of days, weeks and months, but it undoubtedly has great symbolic meaning, the most famous of which, perhaps, is the 40 days and 40 nights of rain that caused Noah’s Flood – and transformed the world, cleaning away all of the old sinful ways. But the biblical references don’t stop there. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert and was subject to all manner of temptations, including the temptation to use his divine superpowers to turn stones into bread, in order to overcome his hunger. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, wandering in the desert for 40 years; and then fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments.
Today (Monday, February 18) marks 40 days until Brexit day. And like Noah’s Flood, at least for true believers, Brexit will clean away all of the old sinful EU ways, leaving a bright clean sunlit future. Whether we will also need to ask for divine intervention to provide our daily bread through the conversion of stones, remains to be seen. But there really is something akin to a ‘Milliennial Cult’ about Brexit.
Millennial cults – so named because they have a habit of springing up around each Millennium – generally believe that there will be some apocalyptic event and that either the world will end, or there will be a new beginning, or both. Apocalypse literally means revelation or uncovering and our Millennial Brexit cult is now preparing for the great reveal – of a new Britain. This is nothing new. William Blake wrote Jerusalem as a way of describing his belief that a new Heaven could be created, on Earth, in England.
Leaving aside the religious connotations, it may be worth spending a few minutes thinking about what is actually likely to happen on and around Brexit Day on March 29th. If only for practical everyday reasons. To do that, it’s necessary to decide what kind of Brexit is now most likely to occur. There are a number of possibilities: it might be postponed, if Theresa May’s Government decides to ask the EU to approve a delay. May’s deal, which the EU has signed off but Parliament has rejected, might scrape through. Or, a revised version of that deal, such as one that includes Labour’s demands that the UK enter into a Customs Union with the EU, might make it through Parliament and be signed off by the EU. Or the Malthouse Compromise, which means ditching the Irish border backstop and replacing it with unspecified new technology, might be signed off by Ireland and the EU, in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement.
All of these are possible, but unlikely – arguably very unlikely. We have reached an impasse. There is a large enough group – mainly the ultra-hardline Brexit Millenialists of the European Research Group, who will not support May’s deal, let alone anything that’s got a sniff of Labour about it. The EU will not sign off any weakening of the backstop, let alone some unspecified techno-fix. Labour won’t support May’s deal as it stands. And so the existing Parliamentary process leads inexorably to a no-deal Brexit. It’s the default. Unless something miraculous happens, this is where we are heading. In 40 days’ time.
So let’s start with the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter. All of our drinking water in the UK is supplied domestically, either from reservoirs or aquifers (underground wells). So these supplies will continue whatever happens with Brexit. While leading Brexit prophet Dan Hannan was rightly mocked for attacking suggestions that the UK would run out of drinking water (nobody suggested that), there are certain chemicals which are imported from the EU, and used in purifying water to make it safe for drinking. But let’s assume that there is already a stockpile of these in the UK, or that they could be brought in by boat. British houses are also unlikely to collapse on Brexit day, though the hostile environment that EU nationals are already being subject to is hardly likely to help with shortages of key trades in the UK construction industry. Homelessness and the housing crisis will still be with us after Brexit day. Those houses will continue to receive gas and electricity.
Gas supplies come into the UK via pipelines from the North Sea (domestic production) the EU and Norway; and via giant container ships full of Liquefied Natural Gas. Nearly half of the UK’s gas supplies comes from or via the EU. You can see one reason why the Brexites are so keen on fracking. As the Russians showed with Ukraine in 2006, cutting off a country’s gas supplies can have pretty profound consequences. Electricity is mainly produced domestically, with a small amount imported when necessary via one of several interconnectors, including from France. So we wouldn’t want to really annoy the French, for example by refusing to pay what we already owe to the EU for previous commitments to the EU budget – the £39 billion or whatever the final amount will be. And we certainly would not want to annoy the Norwegians, by trampling on their arrangements with the EU, via the European Free Trade Area. This seems pretty unlikely to happen in the next 40 days.
Of the three essentials for life, food is the one upon which Brexit day could have a dramatic impact, (although Brexists will continue to shout “project fear” until the cows come home). The simple reason for this is that around half of our food comes from the EU, either directly or indirectly. And it wouldn’t take much of a delay at the border for perishable food such as fresh fruit and vegetables to be rendered unusable. It’s a pity nobody thought about this at the time they decided to make Brexit day at the end of March. It’s just about the worst possible time of the year if we were having to fall back on domestically-produced fruit and veg. Last year’s stocks are running down, but little is coming in from the farms. I guess nobody thought about this as an important consideration at the time, when we were going to have all of our new trade agreements signed on day one. Nevertheless, we will probably still have plenty of potatoes, turnips, cabbages, carrots and Brussel sprouts. But if imports from the Netherlands and Spain (where most of our imports originate) are held up, then that means shortages of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, lettuce, courgettes and cucumbers. Popular exotic veg and fruit (Avocado Toast anyone?) arrives in Europe at Rotterdam, not directly into the UK.
You might also be surprised at how much chicken we import. As a country (obviously not including the vegetarians/vegans) the UK prefers white chicken meat, rather than brown meat. So we export most of the brown meat and import white meat to compensate. Most of the imported white meat comes from The Netherlands, then Poland. Conversely, if exports of UK food produce to the EU are held up (and face high tariffs), as seems inevitable with a crash-out Brexit, that will lead to a glut of some things. Something like 25% of UK lamb is exported, mostly to the EU. UK beef and pork exports will also be hit. And as for taking back control over our fishing industry…. 75% of the fish that are caught in UK waters are exported – to the EU. Any delays in lorry movements through Dover will spell disaster for the fishing industry.
Without going into massive detail, the picture I am trying to draw is one where things we are used to eating will be harder to find, while food exporters are stuck with products where there is low domestic demand. Will sheep farmers take lambs to market and accept a lower price which means they are out of pocket – or leave them in the fields where there is insufficient grazing to go round? Will the Government step in and start buying produce as used to happen in the bad old days of milk mountains and butter lakes. Even if they did, there is nowhere to store the surplus.
The pound will plummet
While some supermarket shelves will be empty or at least sporadically filled, for other products, gluts may well mean prices are dropped, just to shift food out of warehouses and into homes. But there’s a catch. Because one thing that seems certain is that a crash-out Brexit will cause the value of the pound to plummet. I’m not going to make any predictions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one Pound equals one Euro. And that means prices are going to increase across the board. Combine that with job insecurity, and it’s no surprise that the Government has just issued new guidance on ‘riot compensation.’
Of course, this impending crisis will not continue forever, perhaps only for a few weeks. After a few weeks of chaos, the tectonic political plates will shift again. Perhaps we’ll be heading into another general election, with one, possibly two new party leaders – perhaps even some new political parties. Is this really what the country wanted? Of course not. Brexit was always a political project – an unholy alliance of the hard right and the far-right.
The hard right are those, like the European Research Group and their constellation of corporate lobby groups masquerading as charities or think-tanks, who want to shrink the state, privatise everything, do away with as many regulations and laws as possible and let loose the unbridled forces of the free market. The far-right are the xenophobes, the bigots, the racists, the white supremacists – some who want to return to the days of the Empire; look down on “foreigners”, see women back in their place (the home); and who attack social justice as ‘cultural marxism’.
That’s not to say all those who voted for Brexit are hard-right or far-right. Many had their own valid reasons for doing so, though the fact that both Vote Leave campaigns cheated brazenly did not help. But who among them would ever have dreamed we would be where we are now, facing food and medicine shortages, with the Army reserve having been called up to deal with anticipated civil unrest?