CC0 Public Domain
One of the fascinating and under-remarked twists in the topsy-turvy course of the Brexit debate has been the quiet rehabilitation of regulation in general, and EU regulation in particular. In the Commons debate of 29 January, Theresa May stood up and said: “The government will not allow the UK leaving the EU to result in any lowering of standards in relation to employment, environmental protection or health and safety."
Whether you believe her or not is one thing. With the balance of power shifting towards the no-deal disaster capitalists on the Tory backbenches, it seems highly likely that Brexit will in fact result in deregulation – whether directly, or indirectly through new trade agreements with the likes of Donald Trump. But the mere fact that May now feels that promising to keep EU regulations is a political necessity rather than a political liability is nothing short of astonishing.
Misleading propaganda about “red tape” from “barmy Brussels bureaucrats” was a key weapon in the arsenal of the Leave campaign, and had been a mainstay of the tabloid press for years before the referendum, stoking anti-EU sentiment. Much ridicule was heaped on a woman in the Question Time audience who said she had decided to vote leave after seeing straight bananas in the supermarket, because she’d had enough of “silly rules that come out of Europe”. But she was merely repeating one of the key attack lines of the Leave campaign.
the mere fact that May now feels that promising to keep EU regulations is a political necessity rather than a political liability is nothing short of astonishing.
Even the Daily Mail joined the pile-on, wondering with impressive chutzpah where ‘EU banana lady’ could possibly have formed such an eccentric view. Maybe from its own back catalogue of cheap bendy bananas stories? Maybe from Boris Johnson, who in an impromptu speech launching the Vote Leave battlebus said it was “absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us how powerful our vacuum cleaners have got to be, what shape our bananas have got to be, and all that kind of thing”?
Or possibly from the Daily Express, which in June 2016 published a listicle entitled “REVEALED: The EU’s top ten pointless decisions the UK can now get rid of” – which repeated the myth that the EU had banned bendy bananas, alongside other outrages like supermarkets being “encouraged to avoid confusion” between turnips and swedes, and the “soaring” price of washing up gloves after they were subjected to “rigorous testing … to stop people being injured.” (Those pesky Brussels bureaucrats, sitting at their desks thinking up new ways to stop ordinary people being injured!) One of the items screamed that “eggs CANNOT be sold by the dozen”, while the text beneath quietly admitted that yes, as anyone who has been in a shop recently will have noticed, eggs are in fact still sold by the dozen.
This sort of thing has been part of a sustained, years-long campaign to paint not just EU regulation but all regulation as pointless red tape dreamed up by time-wasting bureaucrats, rather than essential protections designed to save lives and safeguard the environment. Domestic regulation has been subject to the same assault, as Stephen Devlin and I documented in a 2016 report for the New Economics Foundation. David Cameron’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’ encouraged people to suggest pointless regulations that should be scrapped. Government issued press releases that read a lot like Daily Express listicles, encouraging people to laugh at stupid rules about Christmas crackers, squirrels and jam. The initiative’s website boasted that 84% of health and safety regulation had been “scrapped or improved” – an indication of the extent to which ‘health and safety’ had been made a dirty word.
So what’s changed? Domestically, there is one obvious answer: Grenfell Tower. It’s hard to imagine any government boasting about slashing health and safety rules now, after it was revealed that cuts to fire safety protections had helped cause a horrifying inferno that killed 72 people. Grenfell was a stark reminder that regulation saves lives, and that governments who slash it in the name of boosting corporate profits are doing something morally reprehensible. It’s hard now for the champions of deregulation to pose as champions of the common people.
Grenfell was a stark reminder that regulation saves lives, and that governments who slash it in the name of boosting corporate profits are doing something morally reprehensible.
When it comes to EU regulation, something has happened that has echoes of the Red Tape Challenge. It turns out that when people are asked what they think about specific, real-life regulations – as opposed to the abstract red tape bogeyman – they actually kind of like them. What the left has done very successfully since the referendum is shift the terms of the debate onto the actual regulations we stand to lose when we leave the EU – things like our rights at work, the safety of our food and toys, and measures to cut pollution. Labour, the unions and civil society have pushed this message to the point where May now feels obliged to say that these things won’t be at risk.
In all the furore over the Irish backstop, this has gone relatively unnoticed. But it’s an absolutely huge turnaround. The political debate has done a full 180, with social and environmental regulations swinging from something we need to escape to something we need to protect. In a world where it often feels like the right controls the political narrative, this is a significant reframing victory for the left, one that we should claim and celebrate. It also holds lessons for a Labour party which is currently tying itself in knots over how fiercely to defend freedom of movement against the anti-immigration politics of Brexit. If a bold and unapologetic left can change the political weather on one key issue in the Brexit debate, surely it should be on the front foot seeking to do the same for this one too.
Again, a reframing victory is not the same as a policy victory, and this is certainly no time to rest on our laurels. The political agenda of hard right Brexiteers remains aggressively deregulatory, premised on the UK reinventing itself as the tax haven of Europe. In 2016, international trade secretary Liam Fox gave a speech in my adopted home town of Manchester talking in ludicrously grandiose terms of the “great task” of stripping away barriers to trade (otherwise known as regulations). He began (what else) by invoking Adam Smith, attributing to him the somewhat chilling view that “it is a moral right for people to buy whatever they want from those who sell it to them the cheapest.” He ended with a rousing call to arms: “If other nations are hanging back, then the UK will happily lead the charge for global free trade” – and Brexit is a “glorious opportunity” to do this.
Make no mistake: such ideologues are still shaping the Tories’ Brexit agenda, and they must be resisted to the hilt. But the signs of the debate shifting in our favour may just make this Great Task a little easier.