Letter from London

Can Britain Fix Brexit?

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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May be a deal

THE BREXIT REFERENDUM victory was narrow (52 per cent for ‘Leave’ versus 48 per cent for ‘Remain’), but the British decided to get up and go, to liberate themselves from the bondage of Brussels, and to take back control of their money, laws and borders. Leaving the European Union (EU) was going to be easy, or so we were told. It was meant to be like throwing a switch.

But that was over two years ago, and what has resulted has not been freedom and celebration, but division, recrimination and chaos. Our politics has ceased to work in a way we understand. No one knows what is about to happen. We are stuck.

There is a crucial vote scheduled for December 11th, when Prime Minister Theresa May will put her painfully negotiated withdrawal agreement before the House of Commons, in the much anticipated ‘meaningful’ vote. But the package is a compromise, and has offended Leavers and Remainers alike. What the ‘meaningful’ vote is going to mean is not clear either, though the likeliest result is a new prime minister rather than a new era of freedom and independence from EU domination. It is all a mess.

The public is bemused and cannot understand why we do not simply ‘get on with it’, while our politicians prove incapable of resolving the relevant issues, or of giving a good account of why they cannot. Nothing has been simplified; things just seem to get more and more complicated. Instead of the threatened tide of Turkish immigrants, we have been swamped by a tidal wave of jargon, acronyms and obscure buzzwords—‘EEA’, ‘max fac’, ‘Canada plus plus’, ‘backstop’, ‘vassal state’....

So, what is the problem? Why, after nearly two-and-a-half years, has the people’s decision not been implemented?

The British government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty two years ago, so we are due to leave the EU on March 29th, 2019, but this deadline has lived up to its name and is now dead, because an extension has been agreed on to move the operative date of withdrawal to December 2020, to allow more time for all parties to prepare. Rumour has it that this date will soon be postponed as well, to allow an even longer period of adjustment and/or negotiation, as yet unspecified.

People are losing the ability to follow the details, and patience is wearing thin. What is so complicated? Why is it all taking so long?

The reasons cover at least eight levels.

First up is elite reluctance. David Cameron, a staunch Remainer, resigned after the referendum to be replaced by another Remainer, Theresa May. As a peace gesture, she granted senior positions to prominent Leavers: Boris Johnson became foreign secretary, and David Davis was put in charge of the withdrawal negotiations. This, however, was not enough to allay the fears of dedicated Eurosceptics, who always suspected that May—aka Theresa the Appeaser—and her chancellor, Philip Hammond, another Remainer, would deliver something like ‘Brexit in name only’. They believed that she would favour the mildest form of separation, and they were probably right.

Such fears have only been compounded by the fact that Johnson, Davis and his successor as chief Brexit negotiator, Dominic Raab, have all resigned in disgust over the way things have been going. May is now commonly called ‘a traitor’ by Leavers on the internet.

Economic interests have clearly dominated May’s outlook. She declared early on that “no one had voted to be poorer”. This looked like concern for ordinary working people, a majority of whom voted to leave, and would certainly be hit hardest by any post-Brexit economic downturn. Big business was unanimously pro-Remain, and didn’t want to be made poorer either, so strenuous attempts have been made to protect the British economy by trying to reproduce the EU’s ‘frictionless’ trade with 27 other European countries. The results have looked suspiciously like remaining, but with less say in rulemaking.

Leading Leavers constantly promised through the referendum campaign that Britain could quit all the political institutions of the EU while retaining, by hard negotiation, the benefits of free trade. But the EU is committed to making membership of the club worth having. Leaving, therefore, will come at a price; costs will inevitably be added to conducting business with all our nearest neighbours. This has softened the UK’s negotiating position to a degree that Leavers find intolerable. A cabal of ministers, civil servants and bankers is suspected.

Theresa May is now widely admired for her persistence and tenacity, though these qualities can also be seen as stubbornness and lack of political subtlety. Above all, she seems pathologically unable to delegate

LEVEL TWO: COMPLACENCY. Prominent Leavers have behaved like chess players who only look at their own pieces. They have constantly talked down the problems of dealing with a powerful body like the EU, which has a reputation as a hard negotiator. Leavers consistently ignore the circumstance that 66 million Britons are vastly outnumbered by 450 million EU citizens. Yes, we have a trade deficit with them, which would make it painful for them to lose our trade. But if we lost all of their trade, we would be more damaged as a single country than any of the other 27 member countries would be damaged by the loss of our trade. The percentages are very different. The UK does 45 per cent of its overseas trade with the EU; no single EU country’s trade with us approaches anything like that figure. It will hurt us more than it will hurt them, and this truth has never been acknowledged by the Leavers.

Liam Fox, international trade secretary and committed Brexiteer, declared last summer that a free-trade deal with the EU would be “the easiest in human history” to negotiate. That kind of blithe optimism seems unforgivably out of place now. Brexit was never going to be a win-win thing: it was always going to be lose-lose.

Thirdly, Brexit involves inescapable complexities, often compared to taking eggs back out of an omelette. After 40-odd years spent evolving common institutions, the idea of simply walking away was never a realistic option. To simplify it, the negotiations have been divided into two sequential parts: a withdrawal agreement, then a separate trade deal. It is a grim reality, but as yet we are not even through the first of these steps. All that is being discussed at the moment is the terms of the ‘divorce’. So, as yet, nobody actually knows what the shape of the eventual relationship will be. The great aspiration is an all-encompassing free-trade deal, but that cannot be secured until the details of the separation are specified. This has proved much more difficult than was expected.

Most testing has been dealing with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—the only land border between the UK and an EU country. Different rules might have to be enforced on either side of it if a trade deal is not agreed post-Brexit, which risks creating a ‘hard’ border in Ireland, in contravention of the 1998 Belfast ‘Good Friday’ peace agreement, which effectively brought an end to ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

This is a complicated and highly sensitive issue which would require a long dissertation on Irish history to explain. That is, unless you are a Eurosceptic, in which case you would say that the Irish border is not a problem at all, and it is a fake issue concocted by Brussels as a lever to bully the bulldog British negotiators.

The UK has weak leadership in both parties. Jeremy Corbyn is silent or elusive, Theresa May is stubborn but living on borrowed time

Either way, the existence of the Irish border question has necessitated the inclusion of special provisions, known as ‘the backstop’: the creation of a temporary EU-UK customs union with regulatory harmonisation, designed to ‘de-dramatise’ the Irish border issue. One of the fiercest bones of current contention is that this backstop is not time-limited; if it were, it would need a backstop to the backstop. This has enraged the Leavers, and fierce debate is still continuing about the terms of this small codicil within the wider agreement, because it threatens to keep the UK in a permanent and disadvantageous form of ‘vassalage’

Fourthly, we are in a real tangle of constitutional authority, caught between the direct democracy of a referendum and the representative democracy of our parliament. Who speaks for Britain? By serial mismanagement, politicians have landed us in a position where it is considered impossible to undo the result of an advisory referendum, even though we can throw out governments, overturn Acts of parliament and even change our monarch. The exaggerated respect given to the vote of June 23rd, 2016, is an affront to the way we usually do things, and not surprisingly it has landed us in a royal pickle.

Trying to solve this by holding a second referendum, referred to by its advocates as a ‘People’s Vote’, risks opening a never-ending series of mass consultations. Best of three, anyone?

So, can we rely on politics? No, and here is the fifth layer. Since the 1950s, the issue of ‘being in Europe’ has sat awkwardly within our traditional party system, and has always been a party splitter rather than a vote winner.

The Conservatives have suffered the worst from divisions over Europe, which have seen off the last three Tory prime ministers. Clearly, agreements which compromise sovereign autonomy would be sensitive for a nationalistic party, though corporate-friendly Tories have always had a degree of enthusiasm for European cooperation. But the small-state, petty-bourgeois elements of the party have always been strongly Eurosceptic. Their wing of the party has gained enormous strength since the 1990s, when it was considered slightly lunatic. The leaders of this faction have been unable to restrain their glee at finding themselves in a national majority after the 2016 vote. They can now cast off the lunacy tag, and wrap themselves not just in the flag but in the satisfied glow of democratic approval. They represent the 94 per cent of businesses that do not export to the EU yet have to follow its rules.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has deep divisions too. Its left wing has always been opposed to European institutions because of their lack of democratic accountability, and the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is of the same mind. A number of current EU directives would also prevent a Corbyn-led government from implementing some of his chosen policies, including massive programmes of renationalisation, and he has consistently refused to show any enthusiasm for remaining. The party’s Europhiles believe this significantly undermined the Remain campaign.

The vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party are Remainers, but about one third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, so Europhile members of parliament (MPs) often found themselves out of step with their constituents, especially in the north, where industrial decline has left many communities without work and the Leave vote was strong. Free movement, one of the EU’s four ‘basic freedoms’ didn’t feel like freedom to them. This leaves the party awkwardly poised, and split at its head and roots.

The referendum was a binary choice with only one simple option: to remain, or not. No details about leaving were specified. Nor has any consensus emerged since among Leavers

In sum, there is no clear way ahead via party politics, which means that the general election which Labour is clamouring for would solve little or nothing at all.

Then, for a sixth layer, we have central paralysis. Theresa May leads a minority Conservative government that depends on a tiny Northern Irish party for its parliamentary majority. This lends the views of the 10-member Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—the most religious and narrowly traditional party in all British politics—an unaccustomed salience in Westminster affairs.

The DUP is not in government in Northern Ireland—the Executive there is currently suspended—and the party is vehemently pro-Brexit, unlike the province, which voted to remain. And the DUP is so passionately Unionist that it has now suspended its support for the May government over the backstop provisions, which it feels are insufficiently protective of the province’s long-term future within the UK. Here is the mouse that roared. O tempora, o mores!

At number seven we have a double factor: a plurality of options coupled with a paucity of consensus. Several countries, including Turkey, Switzerland and Norway, have partial, bespoke relationships with the EU. There are also a number of other European institutions to which the UK could belong, such as the European Economic Area (EEA), and the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), which have privileged access to the EU based on distinctions between a customs union (unified tariffs) and a single market (unified standards).

Theresa May once famously declared that “Brexit means Brexit”, which completely ignored this dense undergrowth of options, though it might get her a medal for services to tautology when she retires. The referendum was a binary choice, with only one simple option—to remain, or not. No details about leaving were specified. Nor has any consensus emerged since among Leavers. Definitively deciding upon the most economically beneficial and politically acceptable arrangement continues to prove elusive.

Finally, at level eight, we have weak leadership, in both parties. Corbyn is silent or elusive, May is stubborn but living on borrowed time.

Tory Eurosceptics are convinced that stronger leadership— that is, shouting louder at foreigners—will get them a better deal. Experience of doing this on holiday may be unduly influencing this belief. But there is no reason to believe that Brussels would move an inch further to accommodate British interests if any other leader appeared at the table, either Tory or Labour. A change of personnel would be no more helpful than changing the Punch and Judy show on the Titanic.

Nevertheless, some Conservatives are determined to topple May, though the long-threatened coup has yet to be launched. This is tacit acknowledgement that there is no obvious replacement, and that removing her risks further bloodletting within the party, and paralysing the political system for roughly three months while a new leader is chosen.

Theresa May is now widely admired for her persistence and tenacity, though these qualities can also be seen as stubbornness and lack of political subtlety. Above all, she seems pathologically unable to delegate. Currently, she is personally trying to drum up support for her withdrawal agreement, not in the tea rooms of Westminster, but in the scattered provinces of the UK, hoping to reach over the heads of her MPs to a public tired of the endless cavilling and political slapstick. Many commentators believe she is preparing for a second Commons vote on her proposals, having reluctantly accepted that the first vote, due next week, is already lost. It only takes seven defectors to defeat the government, and at least 80 Tory rebels are expected to vote against her.

Two years ago, she declared that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, but time seems to have moved on. The one thing that MPs currently seem agreed upon is that no deal is the worst possible outcome, and May now seems to be saying that her deal, bad as it might be, is better than no deal.

So, there is no prospect of rapid progress, clear decisions, strong government, far-sighted leadership or any kind of unanimity over an issue that was always fundamentally polarising.

And still the question remains: where do we go from here? No one knows. Another referendum, a new prime minister, renegotiations, a ‘disorderly’ Brexit with no deal? Political pundits are in overdrive, trying to game out all the possible scenarios. Resignations from the cabinet continue, and it is only the scale of May’s defeat in the Commons that is in doubt.

A ‘half in-half out’ solution, something like the Norway option, is gaining support, while others are still hoping for a second referendum. But unless that second vote is decisively in favour of Remain—and Remain is only slightly ahead in current polling—we will be no better off. Overturning the 2016 vote by a close margin would only deliver yet another painful blow to our democracy, which is already bruised on all its weak points. And another vote to leave would solve none of the eight problems above. We would merely have retreated two years.

It is all a terrible, terrible mess.