It is now not far from two years since Britain voted to leave the EU, and coming up to a year since the formal process of leaving began.
During that time, the debate about what is happening and what it means has become ever more convoluted, ever more ferocious and, I suspect, for many people ever more arcane. It is common to hear vox pop news reports of voters, regardless of how they voted, asking ‘why can’t we just get on with it’? Even those who are not particularly committed to either side could be forgiven for feeling fed up with the way that Brexit seems to drag on interminably.
It is easy to either pore obsessively over the weekly twists and turns – I write a blog which does just that – or alternatively to switch off altogether. But both responses miss the big picture of the enormity of what is happening and why. Perhaps the key point to make is that the 2016 Referendum did not mark an end to anything but rather was the beginning of a process which, however it plays out, is going to shape and dominate British political and economic life for years, perhaps for decades.
That is in itself ironic since the immediate political rationale for holding the Referendum was to try to put an end to an issue which had dominated and divided the Tory Party for decades. That was, indeed, a party matter - Britain’s membership of the EU never registered as a pressing concern amongst the electorate – and for David Cameron it was meant to deal with those divisions (which it probably would not have done, whatever the outcome), and to head off the electoral threat of UKIP (which was probably far smaller than he thought). At all events, the result, which few expected, far from uniting the Tory Party has exposed ever more clearly the divisions within it.
The consequence of this failed attempt at party management has been to draw the whole country into the bitter psychodrama of the Tory party and, in the process, make the entire economic and geopolitical strategy of the country the prize or the price of the outcome. What was once a relatively minor debate within British politics has become a struggle over the identity, and perhaps even the existence, of the United Kingdom. It has both revealed and exacerbated deep and longstanding divisions: between the constituent parts of the UK, between generations, between cities and regions, and between classes; and it has exposed cleavages in education, social liberalism and cosmopolitanism.
So this is the first part of the big picture. We can’t ‘just get on with it’ because there is no unified ‘we’ to do so. The Brexit vote has created a very high stakes contest that rips open the national fabric. That is why we now have a political discourse that is, at least in my lifetime, unprecedented in its toxicity. Saboteurs, traitors, enemies of the people and so on used to be very niche and marginal terms in British politics. Now, they are central.
That they have become so reflects a series of other reasons for the situation we now find ourselves in. Principal amongst these is that whereas the vote to leave the EU was a vote against something (i.e., EU membership), it was not a vote for anything in particular. The Leave Campaign never specified a single version of what leaving meant, not least because leading leavers themselves had very different versions of what it should mean. Inevitably, that implies that leave voters also understood the meaning of their vote in very different terms. The most obvious differences were about what leaving meant in terms of the economic relationship with the EU and more especially single market membership.
For many years before, and often during, the campaign leavers had invoked Norway (and sometimes Switzerland) as being the end destination. It was only later that some, most notably UKIP, changed their line on this, the reason being the realisation that such an outcome would make little or no difference to the freedom of movement rules of the single market. In order to tie leaving the EU (which few voters cared about) to reducing immigration (which many voters cared about), it was necessary to disavow the single market. But many leading leavers and leave voters still defined leaving the EU in Norway terms. And, of course, other leave voters were motivated by something completely different: giving the sitting Prime Minister and, perhaps, “the elite” in some general and ill-defined sense, a good kicking - in some cases assuming that, nevertheless, the outcome would be to remain. We can’t ‘just get on with it’ because the ‘it’ wasn’t defined by the Referendum.
So this brings us to the third part of the big picture. Having won – to their surprise and, it often seems, their dismay – a very narrow victory for leaving the EU, but on the basis of not having specified what should happen afterwards, the leading leavers opened up a new debate about what leaving meant. By then, of course, Theresa May was Prime Minister and using the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra as a placeholder while the answer to what it meant was agreed. That could, and with good leadership would, have taken the form of a consensus-building national discussion, perhaps via a cross-party forum or commission which might have detoxified the divisions the Referendum had exposed.
Instead, it took the whole issue back into the internal politics of the Tory Party, where it had first begun, and it wasn’t until the Lancaster House speech of January 2017 that it became definitive government policy that Brexit meant hard Brexit – meaning, no single market, no customs union, no role for the ECJ and therefore no membership of a whole range of institutions, such as Euratom, which had scarcely, if at all, been mentioned during the Referendum campaign.
This interpretation of the result, claimed to be the Will of the People, but clearly only the will of only some of even those people who had voted leave, exacerbated the lack of a unified ‘we’ to ‘just get on with it.’ It also set the stage for the fourth part of the big picture, itself having two elements. The first element was that to enact Brexit in this form is necessarily going to be enormously complicated. Compared with a softer Brexit, it entails a complete rewriting of every aspect of the way that Britain relates to the EU and, through the EU, with the rest of the world. There is no prospect of simply getting in a time machine to arrive, blinking, back in 1973 to pick up where we left off. The world, and especially the nature of the global economy, has utterly changed in the intervening decades. Brexit, at least in its hard form, means simultaneously detaching and re-attaching ourselves on new and unknown terms to the global economy and its institutions, including but not confined to the EU. Nothing like this has ever been undertaken by a developed, democratic country before.
The sheer scale of what will be involved was not remotely discussed during the Referendum, and goes well beyond trade, although trade is hugely complex in itself. Indeed during the Referendum (and, even, afterwards), numerous authoritative leaders of the leave campaign talked of deals being done within minutes, based on wholly spurious claims about the size of the British economy, its trade deficit with Europe, the supposed interests and influence of the German car industry and so on. Other issues, such as the Irish border or aviation regulation or medicine licensing, had all been dismissed as non-issues or as easily resolvable. One by one those claims or dismissals have since been shown to be untrue. Thus, whilst much has been made of the dishonest claim that leaving the EU would, or as it was later amended could, bring a £350M week dividend for the NHS, the far more important dishonesty was the repeated claim that leaving would be easy. So we can’t ‘just get on with it’ because ‘it’ has been defined in such a way that getting on with it is fiendishly difficult.
The second element of the way that the government interpreted the vote, though, was even more reckless. As well as embarking on doing something extremely complex and difficult, what was – and still is – envisaged is a form of Brexit which is riven by incompatible aims that make it not just difficult but impossible to deliver. At the heart of this is the refusal to accept that leaving the EU and the single market means losing the benefits of these. What began as (apparently) a joke from Boris Johnson, ‘having our cake and eating it’ actually became government policy. This has been articulated in various different sorts of language but always comes down to trying to replicate all of the features of the single market and of other EU agencies and institutions whilst avoiding some things definitionally entailed by them: in particular, any form of ECJ jurisdiction, a border with the EU on the island of Ireland, freedom of movement of people, and a shared trade policy. Thus we can’t ‘just get on with it’ because ‘it’ has been defined in an impossible way.
That such impossibilism should become the policy of a country which had hitherto had a reputation for pragmatism can be explained primarily by the fact that to do what is politically possible within the Tory Party would be so economically damaging for the country that it would have the effect of making that Party unelectable in the future. Of course, if it were true, as some Brexit advocates now claim, that the British people want Brexit at any economic price, this would not be an issue. But whilst some voters may indeed value sovereignty (on a certain definition) and cultural identity (on a certain definition) above all else this most certainly isn’t how Brexit was pitched to leave voters and pitched in that way would not command a majority. Indeed opinion polls have repeatedly shown both that voters are not willing, personally, to pay much of a price for Brexit and that the majority would prefer to stay within the single market.
In pursuing Brexit in a form which is difficult and complex but, worse, which in its details is impossible by definition, the government have set up the situation that we now see of grinding negotiations, constant backtracking on previously stated red lines but most dangerous of all a growing narrative that the EU is punishing Britain. The latter is especially pernicious since it threatens to permanently sour Britain’s relationship with the EU even if – as is still conceivable, albeit unlikely – Brexit were to be abandoned altogether. Equally pernicious is that what is in prospect is an outcome which will be as unsatisfactory for, and as much resented by, leave voters as remain voters. That contains within in the very real danger of a permanently toxic political culture which may, in the long run, be greater than any economic damage caused by Brexit.
There is obviously an endless amount that has been, could be, and will be written about Brexit. Ultimately, it will be for historians to give the true big picture of what we are currently living through. Those historians will, of course, know how the story ends, a luxury we don’t have. We don’t even know when it will end, but it certainly isn’t going to be anytime soon. Even if Brexit day does come in March 2019 (and it’s still not inconceivable that there will be a revocation or an extension of Article 50) there is likely to be a transition period which may well last for much longer than the two years or so currently envisaged; some are talking about a five or even 10 year transition. During that period there will be ongoing negotiations and political events, both in the UK and the EU, which are entirely unpredictable. Meanwhile, the more time that elapses from the 2016 Referendum, the more precarious any mandate it bestows becomes. People are going to be asking why ‘can’t we just get on with it’ for a long time to come.🔷