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The Brexit delusion: why a utopian project was always doomed to failure

After the Leave vote, there were never any attractive or comfortable options for the UK.

Until the UK embarked on Brexit, no major country had ever sought to leave a trade bloc. Britain’s torturous attempt to do so is evidence of why. Two and a half years have passed since the 2016 EU referendum, and only two months remain before the UK’s scheduled departure, but parliament is resolved to be irresolute. Theresa May hoped that her withdrawal agreement would appeal to Remainers and Leavers as a tolerable compromise. Instead, it repelled both. Most Remainers disdained it because it was Brexit, Leavers because it was insufficiently “hard”. Having deployed patronage with promiscuous abandon – a knighthood for John Redwood MP, Privy Council membership for Edward Leigh MP – the Prime Minister lost with dishonour.

There are now no attractive or comfortable options for the UK: it could revoke Article 50 (which would entail overturning a democratic vote), it could stage a second referendum (which would inflame divisions and further undermine parliamentary sovereignty), it could seek a Norway-style deal (which would render it a rule-taker, rather than a rule-maker, and keep free movement), it could leave with no deal (an act of economic self-harm), or it could accept May’s unwanted orphan by means of another parliamentary vote. What no longer exists is the supposed status quo. The spectre of the 2016 Leave vote will haunt any decision to remain in the EU.

This was not the outcome predicted by Tory Brexiteers. In July 2017, Boris Johnson declared: “There is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal.” As recently as 20 July 2017, Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, predicted that a new British trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” (the UK has yet to begin trade negotiations).

The question that will detain historians – and that some MPs believe a Chilcot-style inquiry will interrogate – is whether the UK’s humiliation was inevitable or the result of avoidable errors. In short, was Brexit doomed because it was Brexit, or because the wrong version was pursued?

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For the UK, the Leave vote was a constitutionally subversive event. Britain had previously held national referendums (on European Economic Community membership in 1975 and on the Alternative Vote in 2011) but never before had one rejected, rather than affirmed, the status quo.

In 1945, after Winston Churchill proposed staging a public vote on the extension of the wartime coalition, his then deputy, Clement Attlee, replied: “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions.” As Attlee feared, this mechanism has now collided with the UK’s delicate, unwritten constitution. For decades, Eurosceptics revered Britain’s sovereign parliament, its independent judiciary and its neutral civil service. But the Brexit vote established an alternative centre of power: the people.

When May claimed in a draft version of her speech on 14 January that the 1997 referendum vote in favour of the creation of a Welsh Assembly “was accepted by both sides”, she unwittingly revealed how history is being rewritten for the Brexit era (as for other national revolutions). May herself  voted against the assembly’s creation in parliament after the referendum, and the Conservatives pledged in 2005 to stage a referendum on whether or not to abolish it.

The novelty and closeness of the 2016 referendum result – 52 to 48 – meant that any prime minister was destined to struggle to unite the country and parliament. Remainers could reasonably contend that Leavers would have challenged the outcome if they had lost so narrowly. In advance of the referendum result, Nigel Farage warned that a 52-48 Remain victory would be “unfinished business by a long way”. David Davis declared in 2012: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”

But rather than seeking to bridge such divides, May exacerbated them. Her refusal, for instance, unilaterally to guarantee EU citizens’ rights, first as home secretary and then as prime minister, reinforced perceptions of Brexit as a nativist project. By the time May capitulated on the issue in September 2018, the concession was largely worthless (though in line with her ambitions, EU net migration has been reduced from 189,000 a year to 74,000, the lowest level since 2012.)

May’s other defining choices – to trigger Article 50 in March 2017 and to stage an early general election – have aged similarly badly. The former was activated before the cabinet had agreed a negotiating position, as the former Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott complained when I interviewed him last year, and the latter deprived May of her parliamentary majority and authority.

The Prime Minister was not wrong to crave a stronger mandate. The slight majority of 12 seats she inherited from David Cameron was always vulnerable. Had May not called an election, she would now be facing a contest in May 2020 with the UK’s fate potentially unresolved. The mistake, then, was not to call an election but to fight the campaign so poorly.

It is wishful thinking, however, to believe that a more judicious leader could have avoided the trap that has ensnared May: the Irish Question. The Prime Minister, ironically, was one of the few senior politicians to speak about this during the referendum campaign. It was “inconceivable”, she warned, “that a vote for Brexit would not have a negative impact on the north-south border”. The logic that May used then has been remorselessly deployed against her by the EU and Remainers. She would later insist that the UK could both leave the customs union – in order to sign trade deals with other countries – and avoid a hard Irish border. The EU27, however, maintained that she had to choose and accept an indefinite “backstop” – continued UK membership of a customs union.

British attempts to “divide and rule” European member states proved futile: Dublin enjoyed uncomplicated solidarity from the EU27. The ire that Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg now direct at Ireland is born of the realisation that the EU can amplify national sovereignty, rather than merely diminish it (as during its immiseration of Greece during the eurozone crisis).

As the UK’s former EU ambassador Ivan Rogers observed in a recent speech: “This may be the first Anglo-Irish negotiation in history where the greater leverage is not on London’s side of the table.” The Brexiteers’ warning that the UK would be reduced to a “colony” or a “vassal state” by May’s deal reflects an imperial world-view: one must conquer or be conquered.

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For decades, the European Question has been the most combustible in British politics. Almost all prime ministers have dreamed of “settling” it – all have fallen short. “It means that 14 years of national argument are over,” Harold Wilson declared after the 1975 Remain vote. A mere six years later, Labour was advocating withdrawal from the European Economic Community (a proximate cause of the Social Democratic Party’s creation).

Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her own party on the grounds that she was insufficiently pro-European; her successor, John Major, was harried by his on the grounds that he was insufficiently anti-European. The former, who signed the 1986 Single European Act, the greatest individual transfer of British sovereignty, is now lionised by Brexiteers; the latter, who skilfully negotiated UK opt-outs from the euro and the social chapter, is demonised.

Tony Blair aspired to put the UK “at the heart of Europe” by joining the single currency, only to be thwarted by his chancellor, Gordon Brown. A promised referendum on the EU establishing a constitution was cancelled following the French and Dutch No votes (an advance warning to the UK’s political establishment).

David Cameron, who told his party in 2006 to stop “banging on about Europe”, became the first prime minister since Wilson to hold a European referendum. “I have to do this. It is a party management issue,” he told Nick Clegg in advance of his announcement. This has become the standard line from Cameron’s court and some Brexiteers (“I had a Bunsen burner stuck up my arse,” the former prime minister inelegantly told dinner guests recently).

One of those who disagrees is Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director. “The idea there was an irresistible force for a referendum is pushed by [Nigel] Farage’s and Cameron’s supporters,” he wrote on his blog last year. “They are both wrong. The country supported one but without any passion outside the small fraction who had long been passionate about it. Most Tory MPs did not want it… Those MPs who did could mostly have been bought off or distracted in other ways – a mix of some policy, gongs, bribes, and so on in the usual fashion.”

May has tried and failed to buy off Tory MPs. Having previously insisted that “no deal is better than a bad deal” – just as Cameron long inveighed against Brussels – she has proved incapable of persuading her side to endorse the reverse position.

Yet even if a withdrawal deal should eventually pass, this will not provide the national “closure” for which some yearn. Britain will immediately commence new trade negotiations with the EU in which the stakes are higher but its leverage weaker. For much of the next decade, MPs will be absorbed by the task of forging a new relationship. Brexit, then, is not the end of the UK’s fraught entanglement with Europe, but merely a new beginning.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain