Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Bureaucracy and Brand Britain

The Bottom Line, presented by Evan Davis on BBC Radio 4, is not one of the programmes I would normally go out of my way to listen to. All too often the guests, for the most part senior business figures, show all the signs of having spent too much time with their PR advisers and stay resolutely on message.

A couple of weeks ago things were rather different as Davis and his panel gloomily chewed the cud in the aftermath of the referendum vote. The programme, available as a podcast, can be found here.

The consensus was that the best possible outcome for the UK would be a Norwegian-style arrangement with continued access to the single market, even though that would mean paying hefty contributions to the EU without the added bonus of having a say in EU policy, and allowing freedom of movement for EU citizens.

One of the guests, a woman who runs a successful business manufacturing bags (Bidbi), was particularly frank. The first thing her business had noticed was a sharp rise in the price it was having to pay for cotton, thanks to the weaker pound. Cotton is the main raw material used in her products, and since she spoke her costs have risen even further.

The biggest benefit of the single market, she explained, was that it makes no difference whether you are sending your products to Birmingham, Bremen, Barcelona or Bologna. If a customer in Bucharest wants your stuff, you just send it to them in the same way that you would to someone in Bristol.

Exporting to countries outside the EU was a different proposition altogether, and involved lots of very detailed customs paperwork. A tiny mistake in filling out the myriads of different forms for different countries meant that your goods were likely to be held up for weeks and weeks until all the boxes were correctly ticked and verified.

Exit from the EU single market would mean that her company and anyone else who traded with Europe would need to hire staff whose sole purpose would be box ticking and form filling. And that would add cost and make UK businesses that bit less competitive.

The same would also apply to government, she pointed out. Not only would the UK need to recruit hundreds of trade negotiators, but it would need to employ huge numbers of pen pushers to deal with paperwork accompanying imports of anything you care to name.

Perhaps that's what Boris Johnson, Farage and all the rest meant when they promised a bright new future for the economy - thousands of new, unproductive administrative jobs created as we free ourselves from the shackles of Brussels bureaucracy.

One of Davis's most interesting questions came right at the end of the programme: what had the Brexit vote done to "Brand Britain"?

A couple of the suits immediately switched to bland PR waffle, but once again Julia Gash, the bag lady, played it straight.

Her friends and business contacts were horrified by the decision and even more disgusted by the upsurge in xenophobic and racist attacks which had accompanied it, fanned, let's not forget, by Johnson ("EU is a Nazi super-state"), Farage ("Breaking Point") and the rest of the Brexit lobby.

Courtesy of the Daily Express
Popular perceptions of what different countries are like are very, very slow to change. For decades the stereotypical Englishman in most European countries was a combination of Patrick Macnee as Steed in the Avengers and John Cleese in a bowler hat, despite the best attempts of English football fans to set the record straight. In German, corduroy is known as "Manchester", even though the cotton mills which once made it have long since disappeared.

Brexit, coming as it did with the latest displays of English culture on the streets of French cities, changed all that in the space of a few short days. While the Sun's boys were hurling vile abuse at Roma children ("oy, drink this glass of my piss") and bellowing chants about World War II, the European press was picking up on events closer to home.

Here are just a handful of headlines to ponder.

Stern Magazin (centre-left German weekly): "Brexit - wave of racism rolls over Great Britain"

Sueddeutsche Zeitung (largest circulation German daily, progressive): "Brexit - why immigrants are now scared"

Svenska Dagbladet (Swedish centre right daily): "Wave of hate crime in Great Britain - scared to go out"

France TV Info: "Great Britain and the EU: racism released in Great Britain where attacks are multiplying"

Sadly all of these reports and scores of others like them talk about "Great Britain", although all of the cases highlighted occurred in England. Just as the 2011 riots all broke out in English cities.

The attacks have been indiscriminate, with abuse and even arson and violence being dished out regardless of skin colour or religion. Merely being suspected of being foreign is enough to land you in trouble, and more often than not the victims have been women and children.

As for those dishing out the abuse, the range is as wide as is their choice of targets. Middle-aged women, angry pensioners, teenagers, shaven-headed thugs - the lot.

It does not matter that the chances of becoming a victim are slim because it's perceptions that count here. If you were an Italian, French or German tourist, you would think twice about heading off for a country where you may be shouted at, spat on or beaten up for talking with an accent.

And how would you feel if you were this young Dutch woman who was refused service in a York pub because she did not have "English ID"? And how do you think her friends and family think about the UK as a result?

If you were a business thinking of investing and creating jobs, would you choose Britain as a place to set up shop, even if you were willing to overlook the bleak economic outlook which self-imposed isolation will entail?

Brexit has breathed life into a very ugly kind of nationalism, but on Saturday many of us will be heading to Carmarthen to celebrate the legacy of Gwynfor Evans and a very different way of seeing our place in the world.

In stark contrast to the impression left by England fans in France, even if the troublemakers were just a minority, we can all be immensely proud of both our team and our fans in Euro 2016. Good natured, funny, eloquent, outward-looking, at home in Europe and well-behaved are just a few of the words which have been used to describe the fans. Even the group which went over from Ffostrasol.

During the referendum campaign, Boris Johnson and his allies repeatedly talked about Britain being "shackled" to the EU. Now we find ourselves shackled to the bloated and putrifying corpse of a state in which Wales, Scotland and the north of Ireland are second class, poor relations.

It's time we emulated our football team and stood up for Wales, our values and our children's future. It's time for a second Brexit.

Cymru rydd.


Anonymous said...

Good post, nobody’s said it but UKIP won and won big on 23rd June and we’re all paying for it by living in UKIP land or EnglandandWales as it’s otherwise known. Scotland will get independence, remain in the EU and flourish while Ulster’s politicians will strike a deal with the Republic’s government for some sort of self rule.

For Wales, UKIP land is the future, entrenched social and cultural divisions with communities pitted against each other for resources, racism, bigotry and xenophobia the norm, mass emigration of young people and economic pain that’ll make the last 30 years feel like a teddy bears picnic.

I’m scared because I don’t think Plaid Cymru can win elections outside Y fro or even arguments about Wales’s future anymore. Is Wales finished maybe and perhaps that’s what we all deserve because we didn’t fight hard enough for Cymru when we had the chance?

Cneifiwr said...

Fair comment. One of the points I was trying to make, albeit indirectly, is that there is now a growing economic case for independence - an independent Wales in the EU would suddenly look very attractive to companies like Bidi.

Of course there is a huge amount of work to be done, but one of the lessons learned on 24 May was just how quickly things can change and how what looks like a permanent fixture (the British state) suddenly looked very fragile.

The same could be said of Ireland in 1916 - from no hope to independence in 6 years.

Incidentally, if the post sounds anti-English, it is not, but England really looks like a basket case at the moment. The most frightening thing has been the absence of responsible leadership and the fact that a good few senior politicians chose to whip up the mob. No doubt some of them will now be rewarded with Cabinet posts, peerages, etc.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for replying and I understand the point, but if businesses like Bibi survive and it’s a big if they’re more likely to relocate to Scotland who’ll already be EU members with tariff free access to the single market, the most depressing thing about the vote aftermath in Wales is seeing the entire political class still in denial about the result and few get that the economic outlook for Wales is close to catastrophic even with the Norwegian model.

Because its not just regeneration funds that are lost, all farming subsidies will go, all university grants, all research monies, collaboration opportunities etc and then add in Wales’s lack of leverage at Westminster, we can expect a few token gestures but that wont be anywhere near enough.

And good that Plaid Cymru’s starting to campaign for independence because you’ve been afraid to talk about it until recently because of former leaders, but be realistic Wales will resemble a third word country in the 20 or 30 years it’ll take to get there.