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The tragedy of Brexit: When simple ideas meet complex realities.


How taking the simplifications of Brexiters and trying to turn them into the complex realities of policy represents a major failure of political leadership by the Prime Minister and her government, Professor Chris Grey writes in an exclusive piece for our magazine today.


There have been many attempts to pin down what support for and opposition to Brexit mean. It plausibly codes old versus young, nativists vs globalists, provincials vs metropolitans, social illiberals vs social liberals, protectionists vs free traders (and yet also, on some accounts, free traders vs protectionists), uneducated vs educated, unskilled vs skilled, racist vs tolerant. It undoubtedly reflects many combinations of these and other dichotomies.

But an under-discussed issue, which cuts across many of these pairings, is the way that Brexit polarises simple and complex apprehensions of politics. The great achievement of the Leave campaign was to make Brexit seem simple: both as a choice, and as a process. It was a simple choice — taking back control, for who would not want to do that? And a simple process — the very next day after a vote to leave the German car industry will tell the EU to give us a great deal; anyway, there are hundreds of countries outside the EU and they manage fine, as did we before we joined. Overall, the Leave message was ‘follow your instinct’.

The great failure of the Remain campaign was to make staying in the EU seem complex. Given that for decades almost no one had presented a positive vision of the EU, choosing remain was presented as an impenetrable, transactional calculus of costs and benefits the nature of which, it seemed, no one could really agree upon. And arguing that the process of leaving was difficult seemed boring to many voters whilst, for committed leavers, just went to prove how far Britain was entwined with the EU. Better to cut the Gordian knot now. Overall, the Remain message was ‘read this report’.

It’s this dichotomy which gave Michael Gove’s💬 much-quoted remark “I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts” such traction, positioning ‘the people’ with their salt of the earth wisdom against ‘experts’ with their pointy-headed data. That distinction feeds into many of the polarities of the vote (especially those around age, education, class and metropolitanism). But it is worth looking at the whole of what Gove said: “I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts with organizations from acronyms saying... that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong, because these people — these people — are the same ones who got it consistently wrong”. Instead, he argued, “I’m asking the public to trust themselves” saying he had “a faith in the British people to make the right decision”.

For those who profess not to understand what ‘populism’ means, this is an object lesson. It is, precisely, about elevating ‘the people’ above ‘these people’. The mythologised people speak for a purer truth than the experts, for all their so-called cleverness, can ever know. It’s nonsense, of course, and Gove almost certainly knows it. But it’s undoubtedly effective campaign politics, as the outcome of the vote shows.

However, this then leads to what has become the central problem — one might call it the tragedy — of Brexit. No matter how simple the Leave campaign made it sound, the reality of Brexit is massively complex, as some of the Brexiters now in government such as David Davis and, to an extent, Gove himself have been forced to recognize. Just undertaking any one aspect of what Brexit involves would be a major task: re-engineering almost the entirety of trade and regulatory policy, and much of security and foreign policy, has all but overwhelmed governmental capacity.

As Nick Cohen has argued, the real lie of the Leave campaign wasn’t the £350M a week for the NHS absurdity, but the promise that it would be easy. There’s just no way that any country in the 21st Century can detach itself from whatever its long-term economic and geopolitical anchors may be without sustaining massive damage. It is irrelevant that many countries in the world are not in the EU: those countries have different histories and different economic and geopolitical anchors and would also be damaged were they to abandon them. No developed, democratic country in modern history has ever attempted such a thing.

Thus, however effective the Brexiters were in (very narrowly, let’s not forget) winning the Referendum vote, the moment at which their ideas became government policy they fell apart. Such simplifications cannot survive exposure to complex realities. What we have seen since the vote is Brexiters leaping hopefully upon one simple solution after another only to see them crunched out of existence because they can’t be translated into workable policy. We won’t accept sequencing; it will be the row of the summer. Then, sequencing is accepted without demur at the first meeting. The financial settlement? The EU can go whistle💬. Then it gets agreed. A deal can be done in months, and we won’t ever (need to) agree to a transition period that makes Britain a vassal state. Then the impossibility of the time frame becomes undeniable and a transition period is both sought and agreed. The current version is that there’s no need for an Irish border, that’s just EU malice and, anyway, it can all be sorted out with technology. We know how that’s going to end.

Such examples could be endlessly enumerated. The details in each case are different, but they all have an identical structure. Brexiters proclaim a simple solution, dismiss the warnings of all those who know the complexities and vilify those who issue them, and then — either quietly or sulkily — are forced to realise that their simplicities were, after all, wrong.


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Each of these episodes creates a situation unsatisfactory to all. The Brexiters clearly don’t like the outcome, but that doesn’t mean that Remainers are getting their way either. All that is happening is, at best, damage limitation. So far, that applies just to the various components of Brexit that have been dealt with in the negotiations. Eventually, it will apply to the whole thing. Because Brexiters are not learning from these reverses. They are not abandoning their simplifications. They just keep moving on to new ones. Assuming we do get to Brexit day in March 2019 then, again at best, we’ll end up with a messy fudge: nothing like Brexiters promised would be gained, and nothing like as good as what is being lost. This is lose-lose politics.

The villains in this piece are many. The leaders of the Leave campaign who mis-sold Brexit to the public and the newspapers who supported them are the most obvious. They could, after all, during all their years of campaigning, have developed detailed, realistic plans. Some leavers did, indeed, do so producing the ‘Flexcit’ plan (many aspects of which can be argued about, but it was certainly a serious and detailed proposal), but neither this nor anything like it was ever adopted by the leading Leave campaigners. It just won’t do for them to say now that it is for the government to work out the details of what they persuaded people to vote for.

But a great deal of the blame lies with Theresa May and her closest advisers in the months following the Referendum. That was the time when an effective leader would have said something like: this vote has happened and must be respected (many Remainers will disagree with this, but politically there wasn’t any realistic alternative for any Prime Minister, certainly not any Tory Prime Minister). She could have continued by saying that what the vote meant in practical terms now needed to be established, that it was a major moment in Britain’s history, that the country was clearly very split, that some consensus was needed, and that a cross-party commission along with, yes, experts in various key issues would be established. The country would plan carefully, take its time, and get it right. In the meantime, she could have given a unilateral promise to EU-27 nationals in the UK that their status and rights would be assured, whatever happened. And whenever toxic and divisive statements, threats or indeed violence occurred, she and other government ministers could immediately and robustly repudiate and condemn them.

The outcome of such an exercise would almost certainly have been a soft Brexit which respected the Referendum, whilst giving most people some of what they wanted and some people all of what they wanted. That is to say, roughly, Remainers would have got the single market and freedom of movement and leavers would have got an out from CAP, CFP, future foreign policy and defence integration, and direct EU budget contributions. Many of the complexities around citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and regulatory agencies would have been lessened if not even removed. And by the time Article 50💬 was actually invoked, a detailed, workable, realistic set of proposals would have been developed.

Instead, without any public or even, apparently, Cabinet debate, May gave the Ultras the lock, stock and barrel of what they wanted. We know this wasn’t automatically entailed by the Referendum because, were that so, it would not have taken seven months for her to announce it. This was not only massively divisive for the country but, crucially, it endorsed rather than challenged the simplifications of the Ultra position. It, therefore, baked those simplifications into government policy — and into the Article 50 notification letter — ensuring that it was undeliverable. The greatest irony of that is that it has ensured that the Ultras will end up being disappointed and will cry betrayal (and already are). No doubt they would have done so anyway, but now their protests have greater traction since May promised them the impossible. At the moment she was strong, and when they would have been forced to accept it, May dodged the chance to stand up to the Ultras. Now, when she is much weaker, it is too late, and she is stuck with gradually retreating on her endorsement of all their unworkable slogans.

This, in turn, has set up a situation where the entire country is undertaking this huge change in a spirit of sullen resentment and anger. That is obviously the case for remainers, who have been treated with complete contempt and are simply expected to ‘suck it up’ even though, the voting statistics suggest, they include the majority of those who actually have to deal with the practicalities of Brexit, whether in the civil service, business or civil society, and the majority of the economically active population. But it is no less true for leavers. They continue to be as angry as ever — you only need to spend 10 minutes on social media to see that — and believe themselves to have been betrayed or, at the very least, are bemused as to ‘why we can’t just get on with it’. Notably absent is any sense of joy or excitement from those who support Brexit or even, now, any great claims for its benefits, rather than a kind of Dunkirk — we can get through this, and it may not be as bad as people say — doggedness.

This is the inevitable consequence of taking a set of simplistic political assertions and trying to translate them into complex policy realities. It is no good dismissing this as elitism. In any part of our daily lives, we can’t buck the realities of complexity — say, when buying a house or fixing a car — by just trusting our instincts that such things can be achieved without regard for those realities, be they legal or mechanical. Which is why it is absurd for Brexiters to complain that all would be well if only everyone ‘got behind’ Brexit. If their simplicities were right, it would need no such enthusiasm for them to be proved so.

We can’t will the world to be different to how it is, even if we wrap it in a sacred flag and call it the ‘will of the people’. Responsible and competent political leadership consists not of concealing complex realities but of explaining them. That isn’t elitism. Elitism is pretending to the public that the simplicities are true whilst, behind the scenes, knowing and acting differently. Whether out of contempt for the ability of ‘the people’ to understand complexity, or fear of those who pronounce that ‘the will of the people’ is to ignore it, this is precisely the basis on which Britain is currently governed. The obvious danger of this is that it will further corrode trust, further toxify political culture, and further increase the demand for simple solutions to complex problems.🔷




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Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.

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