Brexit news

When Will Boris Johnson Be Committed?

With Brexit finally in full swing, we are beginning to see the seriousness of the Tories’ commitment to keeping promises.
Peter Isackson Daily Devil’s Dictionary, Brexit news, UK Brexit news, UK post-Brexit laws, UK exports of plastic waste, UK environmental commitments, UK labor laws, UK workers rights, Boris Johnson Brexit news, Conservative Party UK news

Thilafushi waste disposal site, Maldives © MOHAMED ABDULRAHEEM / Shutterstock

January 22, 2021 07:04 EDT

The UK has finally cast off all its shackles and is ready to assert its freedom under the creative leadership of Boris Johnson, the man who made Brexit happen. Things are a little complicated for the moment, but once COVID-19 can be tamed, British creativity will find its cruising speed.

Brexit has been official only since January 1, 2021. It’s far too soon to expect any concrete results. Creative leadership needs a little bit of time to get going. Faced with a challenge, Britain’s creative managers will do the first thing all creative managers do, especially those with a sense of how the law works. They will search for loopholes and storm their way through them. Rest assured, Johnson’s government is already hard at work.

One example is the “working time directive,” an initiative, as reported by the Financial Times, that will rescind the 48-hour workweek limitation imposed by European law. This new directive is part of a promised “post-Brexit overhaul of UK labour markets.” This reform in the name of improved productivity theoretically violates the last-minute agreement signed a month ago with the EU but, apparently, there’s a loophole. The EU will have the right to protest only if it can “demonstrate the changes had a material impact on competition.” Let them try. That will keep the bureaucrats busy and it will take years to begin to make the case.

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The government claims this measure will help both businesses and workers in the UK, but Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, begs to differ: “In the midst of the worst economic crisis in three centuries, ministers are preparing to tear up their promises to the British people and taking a sledgehammer to workers’ rights.”

Another example concerns the post-colonial habit of wealthy nations that have for decades been shipping their plastic waste to poor countries. Karen McVeigh in an article for The Guardian, “’Loophole’ will let UK continue to ship plastic waste to poorer countries,” describes how the post-Brexit UK is “failing to honour its promise to curb shipments of plastic waste to developing countries.” This is all the more astonishing as Johnson’s Conservative Party, in a brave attempt to prove its ecological credentials, had taken a firm position condemning the practice. McVeigh writes: “Britain will continue to allow plastic waste to be exported to developing countries, despite a Tory party manifesto commitment to banning the practice, and promises of no regression of environmental standards post-Brexit.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:


A solemn promise intended to be kept unless it turns out to be costly or inconvenient.

Contextual Note

The point of a party’s manifesto has never been to define an ambitious legislative program that it intends to pass, but rather to give an idea of how its members imagine a utopian society might look. That’s what interests voters during an election campaign. It proves that the party has what can be called “a vision,” which has become a standard political commodity that can be fabricated practically instantly by experienced spin doctors.

The European Union had already taken an initiative on the question of plastic waste. The Tories vociferously claimed to agree with it and announced their commitment to implementing it. The European law became applicable at the beginning of this year. It requires the banning of “all non-recyclable plastic waste being shipped to developing nations from 1 January.” 

One of the reasons both the Europeans and the British Tories found this so convincing is that, apart from the catastrophic effects on the environment of the countries to which the waste is shipped, much of the plastic ends up polluting the oceans and seas of the world, including those that surround the isle of Britain. Now that the UK is nothing but an island, there is a selfish reason for the reform. But, as the world should now realize, selfish environmental reasons rarely trump selfish monetary reasons.

The government’s lawyers have taken a lesson from the recent legal history around the issue of sexual assault. They have drafted a condition that makes everything acceptable, so long as it is consensual. It even has a name: “prior informed consent.” In other words, the UK is committed to respecting the idea that “no means no.” McVeigh offers the details: “UK exports will now be made under a new system of ‘prior informed consent’, under which the importer has to agree to accept the waste, and has the opportunity to refuse it.”

Historical Note

The FT article quotes a government spokesperson, who clearly believes in Britain’s future vocation as an innovator that may serve as a model for others. It may fall short of a return to empire, but some people still remember the cultural leadership of the UK in the 1960s and 1970s. That was when the UK offered the world The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Carnaby Street, Monty Python, the Skinheads and punk rock. As per the British government, “Leaving the EU allows us to continue to be a standard-setter and protect and enhance UK workers’ rights.” 

As they have done for the past four years, the Johnsonite Tories see this as a turning point not only in the history of the British Isles, but a major event in world history. European standards were unbearably bureaucratic and led to sclerosis. The new deregulated standards of the UK are flexible and innovative, the stuff of a shining future.

Some may feel that this sounds like an appeal to the past, to the Thatcher years. That would be understandable coming from Margaret Thatcher’s party. But in terms of its capacity to produce plastic waste, the UK has no need to return to the glories of the past. It is already a leader. “Britain is one of the biggest producers of plastic waste in the world, second only to the US.” With 67 million inhabitants, the UK represents a little more than one-fifth of the population of the United States. Holding second place in such a competitive world is quite an accomplishment.

The article lists some of the countries to whom Britain exports its waste: Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Turkey. Finding a way to take advantage of poor countries is baked into British imperial culture. A Greenpeace political campaigner complained that “creating a loophole to allow the dumping of our plastic trash on environments and communities bodes very badly. This is not leadership, it’s failing to do the bare minimum.” What Greenpeace fails to appreciate is that, like limits on working hours, this measure is meant to make British businesses more competitive. Reducing the amount of plastic sold to consumers might hurt sales and profit margins.

The government makes the case that this is nothing more than a big misunderstanding. A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed the government pledge “to ban the export of all plastic waste to non-OECD countries.” Promises are for the future, not the present. After all, there was no precise timetable on the pledge. Instead, the department confirmed that “it had commissioned research to better understand existing UK plastic waste recycling capacity and would consult in due course on how to deliver its manifesto commitments.” Research by bureaucracy takes time. That was one of the main reasons Boris Johnson wanted to leave the European Union. Its bureaucracy made it difficult to expedite important business.

The problem Karen McVeigh cites is, therefore, clearly exaggerated. Even though Europe managed to get the law in place for the first day of this year, the much more efficient decision-making of a liberated, unbureaucratic Britain will only need several more months, years or, who knows, decades. After all, research is complicated and expensive, especially when you’re on your own and have to rely on your limited resources.

What the UK government wants us to understand is that the commitment is there. That should be enough. It will remain there with the same firm intention to carry it out until the date that the policy can be put into effect, whenever that may be, if, of course, no other unexpected event prevents that from occurring. In which case it will be reconsidered, more research will be conducted and subsequently a new commitment for future action will be announced.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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