Professor Chris Grey’s latest Brexit analysis on a week showing UK has to have reality explained, take what it’s given and pretend that’s what it wanted, learn its place in the world, and have Brexit defined for it... by others.


First published in January 2020.


It’s widely remarked upon that ‘take back control’ was a brilliant campaign slogan, not least because it could be taken to mean whatever people wanted it to mean. But as the cliché has it, politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Whatever lofty dreams the slogan may have inspired, we are now beginning to see the more prosaic realities of what it is going to mean in practice, and how these are puncturing the delusions that not only characterised the Referendum campaign but which have proved remarkably resistant to the battering received by events over the last three years.

Having to have reality explained – yet again

The core delusion was tackled again this week by the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, during her visit to the UK. In polite, regretful and measured tones – painfully at odds with so much of the political debate here – she pointed out the basic fact that, by definition, the UK’s new relationship with the EU will be less close and less beneficial than that of a member state, and less close and less beneficial than that of a member of the single market. It is a statement of the blindingly obvious, to the extent of being a definitional truth and virtually a tautology. Michel Barnier made exactly the same point in 2017, and again just a few weeks ago.

Von der Leyen also made the points, equally obvious to anyone with any knowledge, that a comprehensive deal could not be done by the end of the transition period, that the time available for even a minimal deal would be tight, and that the greater the distance the UK wanted in the relationship, the less comprehensive the deal would be. Again, these are no more than definitional facts. That anyone, let alone a major stateswoman, should have to explain them again arises solely because all of them are still denied, and apparently not even understood, by many Brexiters. It is actually quite embarrassing to be in a situation where such delusion has not just persisted but now occupies central stage in British politics, so that it falls to those abroad to state the obvious. But such is the pass to which the Brexit ‘patriots’ have brought our country.

There is little sign that this is making inroads amongst the cheerleaders for Brexit. Barnier’s 2017 speech was said to have “dashed the hopes” of something better than a free trade deal when the something better – single market membership – is what Britain had ruled out. Nothing has changed since. The rabidly pro-Brexit Daily Express characterised von der Leyen’s comments as having “THREATENED” the UK, describing her as having “lashed out” at the Prime Minister in her speech. Similarly, responding to the recent report of Barnier saying that the UK would have to adhere closely to EU rules to get a good trade deal, Ruth Lea – a leading member of Patrick Minford’s erstwhile Economists for Brexit group – tweeted that this was “yet more bluster” rather than a statement of the obvious.

Having to take what you are given

Yet for all their media and social media outrage, the Brexit foot soldiers have not noticed that their government has quietly abandoned any idea that a trade deal can yield ‘exactly the same benefits’ as the single market or preserve ‘frictionless trade’. The Brexiter dream of a British exceptionalism, summed up as ‘having your cake and eating it’, has ended. Britain will accept what’s left after everything it has ruled out with its own red lines has been taken away. At the moment, as regards trade with the EU, that looks as if it’s going to mean, at best, a possible zero tariffs, zero quotas deal for goods trade.

“Britain will accept what’s left after everything it has ruled out with its own red lines has been taken away.”

This falls a very long way short of single market membership, of course, or of the Vote Leave assurance of membership of a supposed “free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey”, and even a long way short of Canada +++ that Brexiters used to speak of so breathlessly. Ironically, it is, in a certain way, consistent with the Brexiter idea that the EU would want a deal because of the UK’s trade deficit – but that deficit is in goods trade only, and so such a minimal deal would be a more beneficial one for, yes, German car makers and such like exporting to the UK than it would for the smaller volumes of goods the UK exports to the EU.

Such an approach reflects the longstanding failure of Brexiters to understand the difference between a free trade area and a single market, nested within which is a myopic and outdated focus on tariffs on goods. Thus what is in prospect does little or nothing for services, where the UK currently has a trade surplus with the EU, little for international supply chains in manufacturing, and nothing for all the non-tariff and regulatory barriers to both goods and services trade.

If a report in last week’s Financial Times is correct, the government is minded to regard the clamorous objections of, for example, the auto, aerospace and pharmaceutical sectors – all of which rely on international supply chains and regulatory harmonization – as the noise of declining industries and, by implication, sees these as sacrificial in order to get a quick deal done. Certainly it seems to be accepted by both sides that passporting for financial services will end, possibly to be replaced with inferior ‘equivalence’ regimes.

So a deal will perhaps, even probably, be done. But so what? Anyone can do a bad deal in which they take what they are given because they’ve made anything better impossible. Far from having your cake and eating it, you get a cake with all the icing and chocolate stripped off, and what you eat is plain and stale sponge.

Pretending a bad deal was what you wanted

On any rational basis, this is insane economics. And it is not true to say that the Brexit vote was nothing to do with economics and was not why leave voters chose to leave. For, if that was so, the Brexiters would not have put such ferocity into repudiating Project Fear, and such energy into claims of how good future trade terms would be. Rather, we have a government knowingly pursuing a policy that will be economically damaging, but hoping that the electorate will, as per my previous piece, forget that the damage was due to Brexit and forget the promises made about how things would be. But this, then, sets up an interesting paradox, which will be very important in the coming years.

To sustain their position, Brexiters will have to pretend that a minimal trade deal is, actually, a comprehensive trade deal, exactly as promised. Yet, in that case, they will have to drop the claim that the EU have been punitive or have out-negotiated the UK. Indeed, that is precisely the move that Johnson pulled off with his Withdrawal Agreement, and it might be fairly easy to do as regards a trade deal, since few people understand what that really means, and may well believe that getting ‘zero tariffs’ is a great British victory rather than the minimal outcome ‘threatened’ by the EU.

So this, too, is what taking back control looks like – a shabby con trick in which the mug punter is promised a shiny new roadster and given a rusty old banger. And there is something peculiarly English (I use this word deliberately) in the idea that the punter thus conned will drive off saying ‘better not make a scene and, anyway, it could be worse’. Politically, much depends on whether that is indeed what happens, or whether the electorate recall what they were promised and, if so, who they blame for not delivering it.

Learning your place in the world

If trade negotiations with the EU are already shaping up to give Britain what it has unwittingly chosen, it is also already beginning to be clear that the rest of the world is adjusting to the new reality of post-Brexit Britain. An excoriating article in The Times of India mocks the decline of British ‘soft power’. Meanwhile, it was reported that Australia has turned down a UK proposal to end the use of work visas as part of a future trade deal because it “could cause an exodus of highly trained workers to the UK and an influx of unskilled British workers to Sydney and Melbourne”. Apparently, they prefer an ‘Aussie-style immigration system’.

These are just two small examples from this week, but they are indicative of the emerging direction of travel. Having initially been bemused by the Referendum result, and then confused by the political crisis that followed, the election result has now cemented the new reality of Britain’s place in the eyes of the world – a diminished figure, being taught daily that it just isn’t important enough or powerful enough to exert much “control” over anything.

There is nothing shameful in that – it is true of all countries bar, perhaps, superpowers. But other countries accept that and address it precisely though the formation of blocs and alliances that allow them to live more comfortably and easily in the world. What is embarrassing is the hubristic refusal to understand that, and to enact a Vainglorious Revolution that forces us to live with less comfort and ease in the world. That is compounded by having a Prime Minister who not only embodies such hubris but who is also widely seen as untrustworthy and unserious, but Brexit would make it so in any case.

Events in the Middle East last week underscore this, as indeed have some other recent international crises. It’s important not to over-state this, because even without Brexit the Trump presidency would represent a major challenge for British diplomacy. One key part of the post-imperial role that Britain found – more by chance than choice, perhaps – was as the Transatlantic Bridge between the US and the EU. Trump was always going to strain that bridge at one end. But completely uprooting the pier at the EU end has made that even more unstable. The UK is now uncomfortably adrift, with many of its key strategic priorities (such as the Iran nuclear deal) bound up with the EU whilst being in abject desperation for a politically symbolic (though economically relatively trivial) trade deal with the US.

The haplessness of that situation is shown by reported pressure from Brexiters within cabinet to pursue trade talks in parallel with both the EU and the US – a deferral, rather than an understanding, of the choices to be made. It is also a peculiarly unrealistic idea even in its own terms: if no deal, or a limited deal, is done with the EU there will be an immediate deterioration in terms of trade at the end of the year, which is not true as regards a US deal and, anyway, a US deal of any sort in Trump’s election year is highly unlikely.

So in an economically regionalised world, the UK has decided to have no region. In a politically multi-polar world, it is caught between poles. That is as evident in relation to dealing with Russian nationalism as it is to standing up to China over Hong Kong or addressing the endless saga of the Chagos Islands. Again, these would pose severe challenges without Brexit, but are made more difficult by the loss of the economic and diplomatic muscle that EU membership brings and the addition of pressures to create new trading relationships outside the EU. Indeed, in this sense, the economic and geo-political aspects of Brexit are inseparable.

“In an economically regionalised world, the UK has decided to have no region. In a politically multi-polar world, it is caught between poles.”

Thus we are at the very beginning of paying the huge price not so much for pursuing a poor strategy – and many of the issues alluded to are problematic and contentious in their own right and might, usefully, have been up for reconsideration – but for having, with Brexit, abandoned strategy altogether. So taking back control in this context means simply drifting, rudderless, ignoring – perhaps not even being aware of – the consequences and choices of Brexit.

Having Brexit defined for you

From the outset of this column I’ve been arguing – like many, many others – that the core problem with the Brexit Referendum was that it was a vote against something, EU membership, without being a vote for anything that had been defined. That has been the underlying truth in all the years that have followed. But, now, something is beginning to change. For with the ineluctable passage of events the meaning of Brexit is, gradually, starting to be defined.

But that definition is not being decided primarily by internal British political debate about what kind of country we want to be and what a post-Brexit economic and geo-political strategy would look like. Every opportunity to do that – during the Referendum campaign, as a post-referendum consensus-building process, or in the 2017 or 2019 General Elections – has been squandered. And Johnson’s ‘just get it done’ approach to Brexit compounds that error, making a virtue of the refusal to take the time and create the process to plan it. Not so much oven-ready as half-baked.

So instead, as we come within weeks of leaving the EU, Brexit is being defined for us by others whether in the EU or beyond. We don’t know what it will end up looking like – except for being economically poorer, politically weaker, and culturally meaner – and we won’t have very much say in it, although domestic choices can make it more or less bad. In ‘taking back control’ we have, in some fundamental way, lost control of our future. Over and over again we refused, collectively, to get real. Now we’re going to be made to do so.🔷


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[This piece was originally published on the Brexit Blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 14 January 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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THE AUTHOR

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