It’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve been here before. But what are we getting Brexit done for?


First published in May 2020.


I’ve been in several PhD vivas these past weeks, as examiner and supervisor, and there’s been a common thread to the discussions, namely that you’ll never get the opportunity again to spend so long with a subject in so much detail.

Of course, that’s because other people haven’t chosen to study Brexit negotiations.

This week’s torrent of text from the British government marks a new step in the process, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve been here before. And that it didn’t go that well then, either.

You can read some thoughts in this thread, but I’d like to expand on the underlying persistent weakness of the British government, to whit its lack of decision about what it’s trying to achieve by all this.

Yes, we know that everyone got caught on the hop by the referendum result in 2016, but that is now nearly four years – and two general elections – ago. Even the excuse/reason that most of that period has seen a lack of robust Parliamentary majority to allow for a project to be pursued is now gone: are we really any further on from December last year in that respect?

To make the point again, if you don’t know what your objective is, then it’s very hard/impossible to achieve it, or to know whether what you have (or might have) is suitable. Yes, other people want other things and might limit how much of what you want you can practically get, but none of that matters if you can’t even have a vision of what that might be.

If you want to be generous, then this is just more of the same for British European policy – regardless of EU membership, the UK has long struggled to work out what it’s doing, even as it does some things very well. Holding the ring is possibly the best spin to put on this, but in an era of major systemic upheaval, that looks ever more difficult.

And because we’re in a situation where relations with the EU are negotiated, rather than imposed, this leaves the EU in a difficult position too. Hard to negotiate with a partner that doesn’t know what it wants, but has some strong views on what it doesn’t want. Yes, positions could (and might yet still) be pushed, but that’s not the basis of a lasting and stable relationship.

The oddity, as I’ve noted before, is that the government’s focus seems to be much more procedural than substantive. The priority of ‘getting Brexit done’ is temporal. That makes sense if the agenda is one of trying to rebuild trust in politicians’ commitments, but that can only ever be part of the picture.

Once you establish that a deadline is a deadline and that you mean what you say, then people will focus much more on what you say and make decisions about whether they want that at all. So if your ambition is to stay in power – and that seems to be a big thing for the current inhabitants of Number 10 – then giving people things they want (or helping them avoid things they would dislike) might become rather important.

Maybe this is where we get to a question of whether Johnson and his advisors think that they can sell anything, so this isn’t a problem. But that just brings us back to the question of what is it that’s being sought here? A sole pursuit of power for power’s sake is one thing, but it’s neither good for democracy nor for society more generally.

Not long after the referendum I noted that at some point someone would be in a position to impose a meaning on the vote – what it was “all about”. My concern then was that this someone would be interested in pursuing a more radically populist agenda, with all that implies for our democratic system.

Boris Johnson is not that person, but it still serves to ask what are we getting Brexit done for?

To ask that question is not to challenge the referendum, but it is to question whether the society we want to live in can be best achieved by doing things this way.🔷


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[This piece was originally published in the blog of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey and re-published in PMP Magazine on 22 May 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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