Imagine chaos. Dream disruption. Think of a hundred Kim Darrochs as the Boris Johnson moment approaches. Tear up the script. Shout “no deal”. Laugh with Johnson, cry with him. Welcome to anarchy hall.
Even as a stubborn Eurosceptic, I can see no conceivable benefit in Britain leaving Europe’s economic area on 31 October, least of all without any sort of customs deal. For a nation to initiate controls on border movement and trade with its adjacent continent is mindless self-harm, in this case driven by populist machismo. Yet that is what both Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have agreed to countenance after this week’s leadership debate.
I have attended Brexit seminars, briefings and rallies over the past two years, and am baffled by the absence of any remotely positive case for it – other than on the softest of single market models. Even hardened Brexit economists such as Patrick Minford and Gerard Lyons acknowledge some “short-term” disruption. This is quite apart from the millions, approaching billions, now being diverted from other uses to prepare companies and individuals for a no-deal Brexit, a blatant reneging on Theresa May’s frictionless border pledge.
Preparations for no deal outlined by the BBC and the Institute for Government have examined scenarios varying from extreme disruption to genuine chaos: chaos at the ports, chaos in food and medicine distribution, chaos in care staff recruitment and chaos as financial markets shift to the EU. No one seems to have a clue how the Northern Ireland border will operate. Johnson fluffs all questions on the subject, seeking comfort in the bonkers faction of James Dyson and Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin.
Yet ask Johnson’s small band of more sophisticated no-dealers, and a different justification begins to emerge. It lies in the theories of creative disruption espoused by the postwar economist Joseph Schumpeter and his followers. To them, occasional bouts of chaos are necessary. As during wars, recessions and Thatcherism, Britain needs a therapeutic shock to jolt it into a new karma, a new inner greatness.
To these no-dealers, sheep farmers and fishermen are the lackeys of Euro-protectionism. UK manufacturers have become slaves to Euro-conglomerates, forced to import bits of cars and planes because they can no longer fashion their own. They should get real. Likewise, it is humiliating that Britain should have Bulgarians picking its fruit, Poles building its houses, Portuguese staffing its clinics and care homes. Of course no deal will be painful in the short-term, but the short-term is for economic snowflakes.
This vision of no deal accepts that it will take years to fashion “trade deals with the rest of the world”, but self-sufficiency is not built on deals. A no-deal Brexit might be a self-imposed economic sanction, but sanctions can strengthen siege economies. They enforce downsizing, and slash regulation and bureaucracy. They encourage import substitution behind a plummeting exchange rate. Schumpeter posited just such a “gale of creative destruction … a process of industrial mutation that revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” That is no-deal Brexit to a T.
Schumpeter’s explicit inspiration was Marx, who wrote of “the violent destruction of capital not by relations external to it, but rather as a condition of its self-preservation”. Though no Marxist, he was much attracted to Marx’s thesis that capitalism required “explosions, cataclysms, crises, in which … suspension of labour and annihilation of a great portion of capital … violently lead it back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide.” To Marx, capitalist disruption was a gateway to socialism, but Schumpeter saw it as cleansing, purifying through pain.
Johnson’s supporters may be right in seeing ossification in the oligopolistic economics of the EU. Capitalism needs constantly updating and refreshing – which is why many believe that Britain should stay and offer Europe its leadership in this endeavour. But creative destruction is a bizarre turn-up for British Conservatism, with its traditional caution and respect for established institutions and interest groups. It is a measure of this ideological revolution that it was Hunt, not Johnson, who said the sacrifice of export-reliant businesses was a price worth paying “with a heavy heart” for a no-deal Brexit. Hunt was a Tory traditionalist, panicking and capitulating to modern populist politics. Johnson’s heart was nowhere to be seen.
As Thatcher showed, even creative destruction demands crisis management. Johnson’s politics seem more in tune with the wilder shores of chaos theory. In one gaffe after another, he has been the butterfly whose wing-beat can effect an unpredictable storm. While the chaotic forces of no deal whirl ever faster, his bland shrug of the shoulder becomes the “strange attractor” around which they mysteriously cohere. As with Donald Trump, anarchy can mean bad things, good things, absolutely any things.
Thus Johnson might last just a few months before a scandal erupts or his party cries enough. A Commons revolt might see a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, even perhaps briefly under Jeremy Corbyn or a “caretaker”. A sudden referendum might reverse Brexit – humiliating the Brexiters. There might emerge an Irish customs union, or a Scottish secession. Pain and cost could be enormous, but there could be gains as well as losses. That is the essence of chaos. Nobody knows.