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Rip it up and start again

Part of me wants to smash it all up. I want to see the British bubble burst: the imperial nostalgia, the groundless belief in the inherent greatness of this nation; the casual dishonesty of those who govern us; the xenophobia; the intolerance; the denial; the complacency. I want those who have caused the coming disaster to own it, so that nobody ever believes them again. No-deal Brexit? Bring it on.

Such dark thoughts do not last long. It will be the poor who get hurt, first and worst. The rich leavers demanding the hardest of possible Brexits, with their offshore accounts, homes abroad and lavish pensions, will be all right. I remember the eerie silence of the City of London. While the bosses of companies producing goods and tangible services write anxious letters to the papers, the financial sector has stayed largely shtum. Shorting sterling is just the first of its possible gains.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, caused by the International Monetary Fund’s insistence that countries removed their capital controls, began with an attack by foreign speculators on Thailand’s baht. As currencies tanked and nations raised their interest rates, indebted companies went down like flies. Foreign corporations, particularly from the US, swept in and bought the most lucrative assets for a fraction of their value. Though the causes are different, it’s not hard to see something similar happening here. If it does, the City will clean up.

But this is not the end of it. A no-deal Brexit might offer the regulatory vacuum the Brextremists fantasise about. The public protections people have fought so hard for, that we obtained only through British membership of the EU – preventing water companies from pouring raw sewage into our rivers, power stations from spraying acid rain across the land, chemical companies from contaminating our food – are suddenly at risk.

In theory there are safeguards. The environment department has been frantically trying to fill the regulatory chasm. It has published more statutory instruments than any other ministry and has drafted an environment bill with plans for a watchdog to hold the government to account. But a series of massive questions remain, and none of them have easy answers.

The environment bill will not be placed before parliament until after the Queen’s speech (probably in May). It won’t be passed until autumn, at the earliest. The green watchdog (the Office for Environmental Protection) will not materialise until 2021. During that time there will be no body equivalent to the European court of justice to ensure that the government upholds the law. Instead there will be a “holding arrangement” – with an undefined “mechanism” to receive reports of environmental lawbreaking, which the watchdog might be inclined to investigate when it eventually materialises.

Replacing just one of the EU’s environmental functions – registering new chemicals – requires, before 29 March, a new IT system, new specialist evaluators, new monitoring and enforcement across several agencies; and new government offices, filled with competent staff to oversee the system, in the four nations of the UK. All this must happen while the government attends to scores of transformations on a similar scale. If the shops run out of food, hospitals can’t get medicine and the Good Friday agreement falls apart, how much attention will it pay to breaches of environmental law?

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