We don't need to talk about Brexit (apparently)

October 30, 2019

It’s October 2019, more than 3 years after the EU referendum and the UK still hasn’t managed to sort out the mess it’s got itself into.  I’ve been on yet another possibly futile Anti-Brexit March (see photo).  Understandably, almost everyone is sick of the whole thing – and there are many calls to just “get it over with”, no matter how it’s resolved.  But I’m going to do a blog post about it anyway.  

Why?  Because it matters how Brexit is resolved.  Unlike electing a government for a 5 year term, where you can always throw them out at the next election, Brexit will permanently change the UK’s relationship with its nearest neighbours.  So yes, I’m afraid we do need to talk about it.  And there’s a reason why supporters of the proposed deal are adopting the “let’s just get it done” (and let’s not talk about it) mantra;  it’s because they don’t want people to notice the massive gulf between what was promised in the referendum and what is now in prospect.  

Promises, promises

Here’s one of those promises:

How does that stand up now?  Well, the deal now on the table merely offers a free trade agreement, similar to Canada’s;  this falls well short of the level of access you get from being in the Single Market, so it’s hard to see how it could be described as “better” than the current position in economic terms.  It will, however, make the UK a genuinely fascinating case study for economics textbooks about what happens when you re-erect trade barriers that you had previously dismantled. 

This is all a far cry from what was promised in the referendum, where people were given the clear impression that leaving would be a carefully considered process, with cross-party involvement – not one which would make them guinea pigs in some ill thought-out economic experiment:

Vote Leave also said:  "Given the importance of securing a good deal in the national interest and the cross-party nature of the Leave campaign, we believe the Government should invite figures from other parties, business, the law and civil society to join the negotiating team."  

Nothing could be further from the reality of how Brexit has been handled.  Article 50 was triggered before even the outline of a deal had been agreed with the EU.  Vote Leave did not have a viable plan for how to leave the EU (politically, as pointed out here, that was a clever decision – but it’s been a disaster for the country).  Nor has there been any genuine attempt to build cross party support for how we should leave the EU.  On the contrary, both the main parties have put their own narrow political interests ahead of the national interest.  And government has been extraordinarily secretive about Brexit matters, rarely publishing policy papers or carrying out formal public consultations and frequently refusing to share key information with Parliament (giving the lie to Vote Leave’s mantra that Brexit would allow UK citizens to have more of a say and “take back control”). 

An inevitable car crash?

Was all this unavoidable?  I don’t think so.  Some Leavers had given careful thought to the difficulties of leaving the EU and had come up with a workable plan – but sadly, hardcore eurosceptics had somehow convinced themselves that it would all be dead easy and there would be no losers in the process, so who needs detailed plans?  Working cross-party would have been difficult but would surely have been better than the entrenched polarisation which we now face, after 3 years of bitter recriminations.  It could have been assisted by a citizens assembly-type process, like the one that the Republic of Ireland used for its controversial referendum on abortion.  Interestingly, academics who ran one after the referendum found that it indicated support for a Brexit at the softer end of the spectrum (i.e not the type of Brexit we are looking at based on the current deal).

The need for informed consent

If the Brexit process had been conducted more in line with the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum, I could have lived with it – even though my strong preference would be to stay in the EU.  But as things stand, I don’t see how there is informed consent to what is now being proposed – because it is miles away from what people were promised.

No doubt those in power will be hoping that they can shift the focus away from Brexit onto other issues and that, by the time the effects of the deal are felt, people will have forgotten those promises.  But Brexit is a major change which will inevitably absorb an awful lot of government time and energy;  people who yearn for it to be “over” and to “move on” are going to be disappointed.   It is not somehow going to disappear from the news – it will continue to dominate UK politics for years to come, leaving limited bandwidth to address other issues.

And when people who voted Leave discover what it actually means, I suspect many are also going to feel deceived.  Their faith in “the system” has already been badly shaken by the financial crisis.  How will they react when they discover that the reality of Brexit is a long way from the land of milk and honey that was originally promised?

I don’t relish the prospect of a second referendum, as the first one has amply demonstrated just how imperfect a mechanism such votes are – and just how divisive they can be.  Media coverage of the issues was awful (see this post) and I have little confidence that it has improved since.  But given where we are, I struggle to see another way to be able to say that an attempt was made to obtain informed consent.  

A general election isn't the answer

Instead we are now facing a general election. The trouble with that is that other issues will be in play besides Brexit (e.g. the “qualities” of party leaders, other aspects of domestic policy etc) – in fact, I would not be surprised if there is a concerted attempt to move the debate off Brexit because people are so fed up with it.  But because of all that, it will not provide the debate we really need on how far the proposed deal is actually in line with what people were promised when they first voted to leave the EU. 

The huge irony of it all is that Leavers often complained that we entered the EU on the premise that it was primarily an economic arrangement – but it had morphed over time into something that was more political, without people ever really consenting to that.  I have some sympathy with that view.  They are now in danger of repeating that failure to obtain consent when it comes to how we leave the EU, further undermining trust in politicians.

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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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