Who’s really letting Brexit down?

I’m going to apologise in advance for the length of this post, but it’s worth deconstructing this article in some detail. I’m writing about an article written by a Professor of Organisation Studies at the University of London. It’s somewhat instructive because it encapsuates how Remainers are currently thinking, and arguing.

I reproduce the article, by Christopher Grey, in full here in quotes – together with responses throughout.

During the Referendum, Brexiters offered a political message which took a traditional and familiar form: if you vote for us then various (supposedly) good consequences will follow.

Response: That’s not necessarily unfair in and of itself, but Remainers offered a political message in equally familiar form: if you don’t vote for us, then various (supposedly) disastrous consequences will follow.

It is easy to imagine what they would be saying now if any of these were evident; if companies were announcing new investments because of (not despite) Brexit; if foreign direct investment were booming in anticipation of Brexit, rather than tanking; if countries, especially Commonwealth countries, were champing at the bit to make new trade deals with Britain; if ‘German car companies’ had ‘within minutes of the vote’ to leave demanded a fantastic ‘cake and eat it’ deal and if the EU had rolled over to give it; if the Irish border was unaffected, as Brexiters had claimed it would be; or, even, if the negotiations were proceeding as smoothly and easily as they had promised.

Response: This is a rather negative perspective. Compare the Treasury projections with reality: we were told by Remain that by now, we’d have 500,000-820,000 job losses. Actually there are a record number of people in employment. We were told that GDP would fall; it has consistently risen. We were told that house prices would fall; they’ve consistently risen. Claims of the end of Western political civilisation as we know it, or threats of World War 3,  have been proven – as should have been evident at the time – to be arrant nonsense.

But of course none of those things has happened and so, since winning the Referendum, the Brexiters’ message has changed in a very fundamental way. The new message takes several but each has the same dialectical structure: to decouple the vote to leave the EU from the consequences of leaving the EU.

Response: But of course, none of the Remain predictions has happened and so, since losing the Referendum, the Remainers’ message has changed in a very fundamental way. The new message takes various forms, but each suggest that the Brexit vote should be overturned.

It’s too late now

The first, and simplest, form is that the vote has now been held and so we must just live with the consequences. In that narrative, all debate and discussion ended with the Referendum. Remainers must get over it, leavers must be happy whatever happens. It’s a position exemplified by a recent tweet from the pro-Brexit journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer in response to being sent data about foreign direct investment since Brexit: “Mate, I really don’t care. This question was asked and answered two years ago. Move on with your life”.

Response: This is a total misrepresentation. My position (and, incidentally, the position of many Remainers who now accept the referendum result) is that the Brexit vote was the once-in-a-lifetime decision which Cameron and others said it was. Debate and discussion should continue, but it should now focus around a different question: Whether you like or dislike the referendum result, how can we best make it work for the UK?

Simple as it is, it’s also naïve. Politics doesn’t work like that, as Brexiters should appreciate not least since on the night before the 2016 Referendum Nigel Farage declared otherwise and, on the night after the 1975 Referendum, so did Enoch Powell. In this if in nothing else Enoch, to coin a nasty little phrase, was right.

Response: Trying to associate Brexit with Enoch Powell through ‘guilt by association’: a clever technique of divide and conquer. But it’s also misleading: the notion that an issue isn’t dead, as in 1975, and that it will be fought in future, is very different from refusing to accept a referendum result and agitating against it from the first few days.

Not only does politics not work like that in general, but it especially does not work like that in this case because, much as Brexiters dislike it, winning the vote was just the first and easiest part of a process which, in one way or another, will last for years. Hence they make a second claim.

Response: It is indeed a process; Remainers should be participating in that process rather than trying to undermine it.

It’s not up to us

The second version is a denial of responsibility, with the central idea being that leave voters and their leaders have done their part simply by delivering the vote to leave. It is up to the politicians and the experts to now make it happen. This, too, is misguided. As I have written elsewhere, their victory was in many ways a disaster for Brexiters in that it meant that they are now responsible for whatever happens. Not just responsible, but uniquely responsible. They were warned over and over again of the consequences and insisted that these warnings were not just wrong but malevolent, self-interested fearmongering. So, now, they and they alone, own the consequences. Remainers have absolutely no responsibility to try to ‘make Brexit work’ or to ‘get behind Brexit’ (whatever those things would mean in practice).

Response: If Leavers were actually in power, responsible for delivering Brexit, then there might be a point here. But they’re not – now, Leavers are being expected to carry the can for every mistake made by a Prime Minister who supported Remain, who replaced a Prime Minister who supported Remain. The Leader of the Opposition supported Remain, as did the Leaders of the third and fourth parties at Westminster. It’s Remainers who are delivering Brexit.

Why claim Remainers have no responsibility? Every Remainer who said during the referendum campaign that they’d accept the result should be accepting the result. David Cameron said that if the British people wanted Brexit, then we’d have Brexit.

From Prime Minister’s Questions – “If the British people vote to leave the European Union, will the Prime Minister resign, yes or no?”

David Cameron – “No.”

Pretty clear that he was going to stay on to deliver Brexit, but he didn’t. Instead, he plunged the Conservative Party into chaos.

It hasn’t been done properly

That denial of responsibility feeds into the third emerging Brexiter narrative. It is that there was nothing wrong with the decision, but that the way it is being delivered by the government is what is causing the problems.

Response: Instead, Professor Grey prefers the alternate suggestion that Leavers must be responsible for a Remain-led government’s delivery.

This is evident in, for example, Daniel Hannan’s recent attempt to deflect blame for the policy he advocated for so many decades. It has many variants, from the outright mad (‘we should just have walked away the day after’) to the more sophisticated complaints about specific decisions, such as the timing of the Article 50 notification. It is fair comment that the government have approached Brexit in an inept way, making what the respected (and by no means anti-) Brexit commentator David Allen Green of the Financial Times has called numerous ‘unforced errors’.

Response: At last, some common ground – the government have approached Brexit in an inept way.

Nevertheless, there are two obvious objections. First, that no one – not least the Leave campaigners – has ever specified a way of undertaking Brexit which does not damage the UK, whether economically, politically or strategically.

Response: This redefines ‘which does not damage the UK’. If I gain £10 but lose £4, then overall I’ve gained £6. What we should be looking at is the net impact of Brexit; maximising positives and minimising negatives. There’s a current focus on trying to replicate achievements.

Second, that every mis-step the government have made has been as a result of pressure from, and has been cheered on by, the Brexit Ultras. That includes the dogmatic ‘red lines’ laid down by the government, the premature triggering of Article 50, and, for that matter, the subsequent calling of a General Election to ‘crush the saboteurs’.

Response: This is nonsense. Notice the author’s logical fallacy of ‘poisoning the wells’, labelling those who disagree as ‘Brexit Ultras’, which serves only to mask the problems with his argument.

The Remain government failed to prepare for Brexit pre-referendum, arrogantly assuming there would be a Remain vote. Then, on June 24th, the Prime Minister resigned. The new Prime Minister failed to devote sufficient resources to Brexit. The United Kingdom, on triggering Article 50, accepted the EU’s uncoupling of the financial settlement from any trade deal. It accepted the EU’s definition of ‘sincere co-operation’ without demur. It conceded from the outset partnerships in all of the UK’s areas of strength, without seeking anything in return from the EU’s. None of these blunders were supported by most Leave campaigners.

This narrative is a familiar one in business, where any and every failed management fad is defended by its advocates on the grounds that all would have been well but for ‘inadequate implementation’. It’s equally familiar in far Left politics, where each failed attempt to implement communism is explained away by saying that it wasn’t ‘proper’ communism.

But in this case it goes further, and links back to the second narrative, in that Brexiters continue to claim victimhood at the hands of the elite, refusing to accept that having won the Referendum and having a government now pursuing what they voted for, they are the elite, and they are the ones implementing Brexit.

Response: If the original premise were true, this would be fair comment. But it wasn’t, so it isn’t.

A fair criticism of Communism though…but see what the author’s doing? Having compared Brexiteers to Enoch Powell, he’s now turned to comparing them to Communists. A subtle way, perhaps, of trying to imply that those who disagree with him must be extremists? 

It’s the Remainers’ fault

The fourth excuse is that all would have been well but for Remainers who are accused, variously, of sabotage, treachery and of talking Brexit down. Often, it’s a variant of the paranoid idea about the elite – meaning the Civil Service, Judiciary, BBC, CBI, IoD, House of Lords but not, mysteriously, the ex-public schoolboys, millionaires and hedge funds that support Brexit. Sometimes it’s the entire 48% of voters who didn’t back Brexit.

Response: There’s a certain chip on the shoulder here. Interesting, isn’t it, that Remain was supported – financially – by top bankers and the political establishment. The millionaires who supported Brexit? Sure, you can mention them all you want – but what about the billionaires who backed Remain? Everyone from Richard Branson to George Soros, from Goldman Sachs to Citigroup or JP Morgan. If you don’t like language such as ‘sabotage’ then fair enough, but in certain situations it’s fair – for example:

1. British Remainers voting against the UK position and in favour of the EU’s, in the European Parliament.

2. Those who constantly talk down Britain’s prospects of negotiating any movement from the European Union, and say that either publicly or to the European Union’s institutions themselves. That hardly makes it more likely to gain concessions in negotiation.

There are daily examples of this claim, but taking just one, that of Leave means Leave co-Chair John Longworth in August 2017, is instructive. The usual suspects are named, in this case for their “pretence” that Britain must pay a “divorce bill” (i.e. settle its outstanding commitments to the EU). But, of course, it wasn’t a Remainer pretence, and four months later the payment was agreed.

Response: The ‘divorce bill’ lacked legal basis. The UK could legally (but not morally) have walked away without paying a penny. The UK made substantial concessions; I don’t necessarily oppose the making of concessions when something tangible is obtained in return. The concern was that the payment was agreed without equivalent concessions on the other side. I gave evidence to a House of Lords Select Committee on this in some detail.

The more general issue is that, if Brexit were the self-evidently great idea its proponents claim, it would hardly matter what Remainers did or said. For that matter, within minutes of the vote, before Remainers had had time to engage in any of their nefarious sabotage, Sterling suffered a catastrophic collapse (which in any other circumstances would have led to a political crisis) as the currency markets priced in their prediction of what Brexit would mean.

Response: Before the referendum I predicted the drop in sterling, and also its subsequent recovery. Interestingly that recovery is ignored in the article. I also predicted that this would have a positive impact on manufacturing.

But this article does something else: it moves the goalposts from ‘on balance, Brexit is a good idea’, the referendum outcome, to ‘Brexit is so self-evidently obvious from every possible angle that there is nothing to debate’. Having done so, it expects every Leaver to defend the latter. It’s a nice bait-and-switch, but the same tactics could be applied – with devastating effect – to Remain.

It’s the EU’s fault

The fifth narrative is possibly the most dominant of the post-Referendum excuses made by Brexiters. It is that the problem was not with the decision to leave, and not solely (or even primarily) with the British government or with Remainers, but with the EU who have decided to ‘punish’ Britain for leaving. Such claims are invariably nonsense since they ascribe to the EU the consequences of having left the EU (and, in this sense, are another denial of responsibility). To take just the most current of numerous examples, Brexiters claim that the border controls, especially in Ireland, are something being threatened by the EU rather than being ineluctable, legal consequences of leaving the single market and any customs union.

Response: There is objectively an element of this; I’ve seen it for myself. I sat in the Conference of Presidents meeting, with the leaders of the big political groups from the European Parliament, on the morning of June 24th. The hostility towards the UK for daring to vote Leave was palpable. They were crowing about the drop in sterling, delighting in that temporary blip. The ‘punishment’ narrative has something to it, because there is a fear amongst EU members that a successful Brexit could lead to other countries following suit, but actually I don’t think that’s the main issue. The bigger issue is that the UK’s negotiation has been pathetically poor. That’s the feedback I get from the EU side of negotiations: they expected the UK to be far more professional than they are.

There are many things that could be said about this punishment narrative (see here), but the core difficulty with it for Brexiters is that they repeatedly promised that Britain held ‘all the cards’ and that ‘the EU needs us far more than we need them’. If that was right, then no punishment would have been possible. If it was wrong, then the vote did indeed have consequences embedded within it, consequences which were concealed from voters by the Leave campaign.

Response: Leave campaigners rather expected the government would play the cards that it holds, rather than discarding them. The concern about ‘punishment’ is that the EU is acting not in accordance with its own self-interest, out of protectionist fears.

Did Leave underestimated the negativity from the EU side? Possibly – and that’s the closest thing to fair criticism in this article so far. But if Leave did underestimate that, then two things follow:

1. The EU is, unexpectedly, ignoring Article 8 of the TFEU which requires them to use a spirit of neighbourliness and co-operation.

2. A Union which seeks to punish those who leave is more akin to a protectionist racket; such a punishment would actually be an argument for getting out of there.

It’s not about practical consequences, it’s about philosophical principles

Alongside these five narratives – and perhaps in recognition of their paucity – some Brexiters run a sixth. Here, the attempt is to claim that those who voted leave did so on the basis of a commitment to ‘sovereignty’ in the abstract. So consequences don’t matter, since this was a purely philosophical vote. I can (just about) imagine that this might be true for a few leave voters, though I would argue that they are wrong, but it clearly wasn’t what was proposed to the British people by the Leave campaign, which instead made arguments about immigration and NHS funding, and made claims that leaving would be easy precisely because they knew that if voters thought otherwise then would be disadvantageous to their cause. A pure sovereignty argument would not have needed to make such claims.

Response: Sovereignty was one factor in the Brexit vote. Negotiating our own trade deals with third countries was another; immigration was another; regaining control of the membership fee was another; ending the jurisdiction of EU courts was still another.

I don’t think anyone reasonably expected there would be no bumps in the road, but it’s somewhat disingenuous to attack Leave’s honesty here whilst Remain’s doom-and-gloom ‘Project Fear’ took negative campaigning to a new level never before seen in British politics.

As the practical consequences of leaving the EU mount up, and can no longer be dismissed as Project Fear, what Brexiters are trying to do is to counter the argument that ‘no one voted to be poorer’. This is the real meaning of the claim that the vote was about the principle of sovereignty and not practical consequences since, of course, if it was about principles it can be claimed that leave voters accepted that it meant they would get poorer. And it’s probably true that some did. But it certainly isn’t true of the majority of leave voters, even as regards immigration. Yet not only do Brexiters deny this, but some even claim that impoverishment and hardship will be desirable, in some way creating a national renewal by returning to the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But, again, there are good reasons why this was not put on the side of the Leave campaign bus: almost no one would have voted for it.

Response: See above; the practical consequences have so far actually been the reverse of the Remain predictions. Therefore, we’ve been offered new predictions which we’re also expected to treat as gospel.

Personally, I’ve always expected there’d be a certain ‘adjustment period’ – that the full benefits of Brexit would take a couple of years longer to be fully realised.

But this notion that Brexit will leave everyone poorer, overall, is based upon further Treasury projections. The problem? That previous Treasury projections predicted economic chaos by now which hasn’t happened. The same methodology will doubtless lead to the same errors. Such projections risk becoming ‘the boy who cried wolf’.

Why does this matter?

Precisely because the vote to leave the EU was the beginning of a process – the process of Brexit – rather than the end of something, the way that Brexiters are now attempting to decouple the vote from its consequences is crucial.

Response: It was indeed the beginning of a process, a process which should (see above) be approached in good faith.

Brexiters are trying to use the Referendum vote, close as it was, to mandate as the ‘Will of the People’ anything that they say it means. This is most obviously true in terms of the ‘Global Britain’ agenda of free trade deals around the world. There is much that could be said about that (how does exiting the FTAs that the EU has help it? how does leaving the single market help it?) but, those things aside, how does the Referendum mandate it? For, given that in some, perhaps large, part it was a nativist and protectionist vote it mandates the precise opposite.

Response: Leave were consistently clear about this throughout the referendum campaign. The argument ‘how does exiting existing FTAs to negotiate our own bespoke ones instead help the UK’ was a standard Remain argument during the referendum. The mandate here is clear; it’s sophistry to suggest otherwise.

In this sense, there is a massive political fraud underway at the moment, and, actually, it isn’t remain voters who are primarily its victims but leave voters. They are being told that their concerns about immigration and globalization are going to be ignored. I happen to think that their concerns about immigration were misplaced and their concerns about globalization irrelevant to the Brexit debate. But I am not so dishonest as to pretend that the vote was not about those things, whereas many Brexiters are.

Response: The vote was certainly, for many voters, about immigration. Globalisation, though? As a Leave campaigner, I don’t think I uttered that word once during the campaign – and I don’t recall others doing so.

Thus the day after the Referendum Daniel Hannan said that the Leave campaign “never said there was going to be some radical decline” in immigration, and last March David Davis said that immigration might even rise. Both pretend that all that matters to voters is that Britain decides its own immigration policy – that all they care about is ‘sovereignty’ – rather than actual numbers. As for globalization and free trade, it’s notable that just about every Brexiter now talks as if having an independent trade policy were the main rationale of Brexit. That was mentioned during the Referendum, but it certainly wasn’t presented as the central argument for Brexit – whereas immigration was – and it certainly wasn’t explained that such a trade policy will entail the relaxation of immigration controls.

Response: Hannan and Davis have been quoted out of context here; the criticism of their comments is justifiable to an extent but overblown. The independent trade policy was a key plank of the referendum campaign, but not the only one.

That is only one aspect of the even greater dishonesty of Brexiters. What they are really trying to argue is that the vote mandates them to do anything they want. That is an even bigger, and even more dubious, proposition than that the Referendum vote set in stone the ‘will of the people’ with respect to EU membership. Precisely because leaving the EU has such far-reaching ramifications not just for economics but for geo-politics, it can be claimed that anything done post-Brexit is mandated by the Referendum result.

So this is where Brexiters are now. All the pre-Referendum swagger has gone, all the promises made have evaporated. In their place are a series of absurd and indefensible arguments. But it is important to understand that these arguments, even if they are often run together, contain two fundamentally different claims. One is that whatever happens now is not the fault of Brexiters. The other is that Brexiters have been given a blank cheque to do whatever they now want to do. These claims are linked in that both treat 23 June 2016 as a frozen moment, denoting either the end of their responsibility for the consequences or the beginning of their freedom to define the consequences. Whilst different, they are linked in their boundless dishonesty, since neither claim was entertained, let alone endorsed, by the Referendum.

Response: a) Leavers aren’t arguing that they can do ‘anything they want’. This is creating a straw man.

b) If the 2016 referendum had existed in a vacuum, arguing against a set-in-stone ‘will of the people’ might make sense. But there has been a General Election since the Brexit referendum; these issues were debated. The Conservatives and (in effect) Labour proposed leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. There is now an additional democratic mandate for Brexit.

c) Even if this were really a concern, what would the appropriate recourse be? Not a referendum to attempt to overturn the referendum result, surely: that’s the one certainty in this, how people voted in 2016. A referendum, say, between a deal-Brexit and a no-deal Brexit might help to clarify matters – but that’s not what the Remainers are arguing for. They accuse Leavers of wanting a blank cheque, but they don’t propose writing in the cheque; they propose tearing it up altogether.

But they are also linked in another – probably more important – way. They are profoundly unrealistic. For politics did not stop on 23 June 2016. On the contrary, it began a period of political dislocation that will last for many years, perhaps decades, to come. Brexiters seemed to imagine that by winning the vote that would be an end to it. It’s already obvious that this is not so. If Brexit does go ahead, the Brexiters will, rightly, be held responsible for every consequence that flows from it. That is the significance of the narratives they are already putting forward to deny that the vote had consequences: it’s not simply that they don’t want to take the blame, it’s that they don’t want to take the responsibility.

Response: Why is it obvious that this is not so? Because people like the author of this article are not prepared to accept the referendum result. It’s unprecedented really in British politics: nobody is still suggesting AV, after it was defeated in a referendum – electoral reform may be on the table in general, and rightly so, but not AV. After the 1975 referendum, nobody tried to sabotage the Common Market – but they did campaign against further treaties which went beyond what was agreed in that referendum. Extra powers for Scotland and Wales were approved in referendums; both sides accepted the result. Even the Scottish independence referendum led to the SNP taking independence off the table for a while.

The ultimate truth about Brexit is that through a series of accidents a protest movement with wholly unrealistic and disastrous policies unexpectedly and unwillingly became a government set upon delivering them. The Brexiters are now running away from the consequences as fast as they can. The tragedy for our country is that, in one way or another, we are stuck with having to deal with them.

Response: Once again, we have this suggestion that the government is somehow run by hardline Leavers. It is not: the Prime Minister and Chancellor are both Remainers. Until the other week, so was the Home Secretary. Only one of the four great offices of State has been consistently been held by a Leaver. The suggestion of a government run by hardline Leavers doesn’t become true just because the article’s author repeats it over and over again.