It’s an unappealing fact of political life that almost every story gets seized on for its political significance, in opposite directions simultaneously, almost as soon as it breaks. Sometimes events become a political stick or shield, to beat with or fend off a beating, before there has even been a chance to consider their full, real world implications.
That’s somewhat perverse at the best of times, but even more so when the news is one of impending job losses. While the announcement that Honda’s Swindon plant is expected to close in 2022 almost immediately became engulfed in the wider national debate about Brexit, the first and foremost fact ought to be that it is a source of distress and loss for thousands of workers and their dependents. While the political causes or implications of Honda’s decision should of course be investigated, discussed and considered, it would be unforgivable if the human reality of the situation was overshadowed because parties and politicians are in a hurry to use them to score a point.
All sides of politics (I almost wrote ‘both sides’, but this is an issue of interest across two divides – left and right, as well as Leave and Remain) are guilty of such preoccupation with their own concerns in the last 24 hours, and it is a poor look for Westminster politics to have almost skipped over the most important aspect of the news.
That isn’t to say there is no political aspect to Honda’s announcement, or that it shouldn’t be considered. That would be a cop-out, or a cynical silencing tactic of its own. Some have rushed to allocate the bad news entirely to Brexit, and others have dashed to deny it has anything to do with it. Others have blamed the Government or austerity, while some Conservatives have pointed to the generally positive employment figures, despite the fact that national totals and averages offer zero comfort to the specific people who now stand to lose their jobs.
These debates can be distastefully swift, or shamefully loose with the facts, but, done properly and reasonably, they are an essential part of how our democracy is meant to work – to assess when things go wrong in the hope of learning from errors.
Most pressing, given the timescale, is whether these are ‘Brexit job losses’ or not. Having brandished “Leave means they Leave” placards displaying car manufacturers’ logos, some Remain campaigners have been keen to crow “we told you so”, and are working hard to weaponise the issue in the hope of preventing Brexit from taking place. In response, many Brexiteers point to the explanation by senior Honda managers, who explicitly state that “this is not a Brexit-related issue”, in an effort to neutralise it (or at least bat it into the party political world of economic policy instead).
Those Honda quotes do matter – it’s hard for campaigners to parade around insisting that a company has done something for x reason while the company itself says “actually, it wasn’t x it was y”. Frankly, some of the commentary which simply ignores what the company has to say has verged on the dishonest today. The issues involved – diesel’s collapse, green regulations and levies, the rebalancing of global trade eastwards, and the on-shoring of Japanese manufacturing following the signing of the EU-Japan trade deal – are real, and they matter. Ignoring them to aid your Brexit argument doesn’t help anybody, and doesn’t help resolve those issues.
In that sense, much of the Brexiteer defence has been justified. That Honda is closing its Turkish plant at the same time, for the same reasons, does underscore that this is about more than Britain leaving the EU. Where spin is at play and lies are being told they should be called out.
But, it’s also possible to go too far in the opposite direction. I don’t share Greg Clark’s views on the EU, or indeed on the Brexit negotiating strategy, but he surely had a point when he told the Commons that continued uncertainty and lack of clarity is likely incurring an economic cost in terms of business investment.
In other words, if Britain was remaining in the EU, would Honda still be closing its plant? All the evidence we’ve seen suggests the answer is probably yes, sadly.
Has the continued difficulty in securing an acceptable and ratifiable Brexit deal made the circumstances any easier, either for the company or in finding replacement employment for the workers involved? Most likely not.
Of course, even if we all agreed to accept that view (some hope) we would probably still then disagree on its implications.
Perhaps you think we’d be better able to mitigate the impact of a inevitable loss by staying in the EU entirely, even at the cost of the added and prolonged uncertainty of a second referendum. Perhaps you think we could provide complete and swift certainty at the soonest juncture by accepting a deal, any deal, to bring stability. Perhaps you think this underscores the need for one last negotiating heave to get the right deal nailed down, even if means the uncertainty continues a bit longer. Perhaps you think the current deal too costly and a further negotiation impossible, so rather than drag out the doubt we may as well just declare No Deal so everyone knows where they stand.
Disagreements like that are called politics, that’s the point of the whole process – it’s how we learn, develop and improve. It’s a bit depressing that sometimes, seemingly more often when the stakes are at their height, the people who are meant to pursue such debates are prone to simply disagree about the basic facts instead.