Brexit – could it really just be all about the taxes?


I’ll bet you’re confused as heck about Brexit. Don’t worry, so are most average Brits. It’s deliberately designed to be confusing, because, apparently, it’s all just a massive con game to the powerful interests who are really in charge. That’s what I have come to believe in the past month or so of obsessively reading everything I can get my hands on about Brexit. The narrative that finally began to resolve into a sensible explanation, even though on its face, it’s a paranoid fantasy, is that Brexit was designed from the very start to be chapter three in the staggering acceleration of the wealth gap between working class and (those who consider themselves) ruling class. (If you’re feeling tl;dr about the deep stuff, and just want to know how Brexit WORKS, watch this video instead.)

It all started to fall into place for me when I read this article by George Monbiot in the Guardian. Monbiot is someone I have learned to trust over the years, years which have included such horrors as the Afghan war, the Iraq war, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, a torture czar in the US cabinet, the global meltdown with its bailouts only of the rich and despicable, and the austerity nightmare that was just beginning when I left the UK in late 2011. There were murmurings of Brexit even then. At that time, Cameron was PM, and like May and Johnson, he didn’t have an outright majority either. His coalition was with the “Lib Dems” and his deputy PM was a now thoroughly discredited LD named Nick Clegg. Cameron and Clegg were gung ho for austerity, even though the LD was supposed to be against the immiseration of the poor. But they were also confirmed Remainers, and the original referendum, which brought them down, was supposed to result in a Remain vote. A more savvy political observer (like Monbiot, not like me) would have seen a clue in the fact that the post-Cameron coalition was not with the Lib Dems, who remained Remain and refused to be a part of this number, but with the ridiculously toxic Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, the DUP, founded by this guy in 1970, just before the dawn of The Troubles. (Not coincidentally.)  

Well, I say a clue. It’s too convoluted for that. In fact, I think this part, the saga of the Irish backstop, has to be part cruel irony and part crazy distraction. Before I get into this issue, though, a little linguistic clarity. The US among its other peculiarities uses the word “customs” to mean what every other country calls “passport control.” Basically in controlling borders, there are two visible things that want to cross, goods and people. People are controlled by passports, and goods by customs. So I imagine USians might be very confused by the idea of the UK exiting the EU (and thus losing their EU passports) but staying in the Customs Union. What this means is that under that kind of Brexit – Theresa May’s failed “deal,” basically – there would no longer be free movement of people but would be free movement of stuff. (Sort of like NAFTA.) Why did there have to be a continued Customs Union in the deal, and why was that called Irish? Because there is a political border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK province of Northern Ireland. This used to be a visible, militarized, sometimes violent border, but the Good Friday Agreement had pacified it and made it invisible. If I understand it correctly, the backstop would mean that, for now, that border remains unchanged. Goods and people flow freely across it. Passport control would exist in the ports of the Irish Sea, so people would effectively cross from the EU to the UK only when they went to the island of Britain. So you can see the problem. The DUP’s ne plus ultra is that Northern Ireland is in every sense a part of the United Kingdom and nothing to do with the Republic. But now there would be a border between them, albeit temporary. This, plus the fact that both major parties, Tories and Labour, were split over Brexit, is a reason why May’s deal was always doomed to failure. Which sets the stage for “No Deal.”

Coincidentally, at about the time Boris Johnson assumed the Prime Minister role and No Deal began to look close to inevitable, I happened to read something that made me think even the Irish backstop was smoke and mirrors by comparison to what was really going on. What if it was all about money in its most naked form? What if it was all about taxes? When I first moved to the UK, and especially when I began working five months later, one of the big adjustments was about taxes. No other country has a behemoth, world-straddling department like our own IRS to supervise taxes, nor do they make people figure out how much they owe in taxes, and nor do they tax their own citizens when they are living and working abroad. And I thought, like most Americans, that working in the UK would mean an enormous tax burden, to pay for all the “free stuff.” But actually, it was quite comparable to the US in amounts, and much much easier to do, because you basically do nothing. This myth of 95% income taxes on the wealthy Brits persists even though that only lasted a decade or two, and neoconservatism under Thatcher and her successors, then even more neoliberalism under Tony Blair, chipped away at the legal “on paper” tax levels of the wealthy and powerful even more. Meanwhile, pound millionaires and billionaires devised all manner of occult practices to “shelter” or just plain hide their income, to the point where it’s quite common for them to not pay anything at all. However, on a parallel timeline, as the EU and the “payments industry” matured, as EU countries began to “harmonize” their tax and banking practices, and as technology advanced bringing new tools, it got harder, or threatened to, to hide your money from all the different taxmen. According to the most scary theory of all about Brexit’s “true purpose,” as explained in the frankly terrifying Quora piece below, it was mainly about allowing British billionaires and global corporations to avoid taxes.

This summary of Brexit history is on Quora, a crowdsourced answers website. The answer is from a British guy named Barry McGuinness, and in a very long essay, he demolishes all the Brexit myths that were used to sway poor and working class Brits to vote for something that would damage them incalculably, and explains who benefits from a No Deal Brexit. Among the highlights from McGuinness’s answer:

  • Brexit is being primarily driven by a tiny minority of super-rich businessmen who like to operate above the law — tax-dodging tycoons, foreign oligarchs and unscrupulous investors.
  • Since 2010, the EU has been introducing regulations to put a stop to their unethical practices. In particular, the EU began to clamp down on hedge funds (2011) and corporate tax avoidance (2016).
  • They [the tiny minority mentioned above, operating through their hired hands in Parliament] rejected Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement because she had agreed to retain the EU’s tax regulations.
  • Boris Johnson has been sponsored to push through a no-deal Brexit by Halloween. The official line that he is actively seeking a new deal is pure spin.
  • For some in the Conservative Party, Brexit also represents an opportunity “to finish what Margaret Thatcher started,” i.e. dismantling the welfare state and restructuring the UK in favour of self-interest and private profit — only this time without any trans-national regulations or human rights laws getting in the way. [This piece is more thoroughly explained in the Monbiot article cited above.] 
  • Recent surveys show that many [non-rich people] voted ‘Leave’ simply as a protest against years of government-imposed austerity, not really expecting that the referendum outcome would be a victory for ‘Leave’.

All of these points are meticulously footnoted, by the way.

So there you have it. Much worse than you thought, eh? And incidentally, among the whole classes of people for whom nothing has been decided, who are literally living in a hellish limbo this whole time, are EU citizens who have been working and living in Britain for decades, UK citizens who have retired or set up households with spouses and children in EU countries, and EU-based students who are currently enrolled in universities in the UK and have invested many years and Euros in an education which may melt away like the glaciers of Greenland on October 31. They weren’t part of the deal, and they are only glancingly and disparagingly mentioned in the notorious Yellowhammer document, planning for the coming dystopia of Brexit.

– Deb K.R.