Transitions are always hard. Honest Brexiteers always knew that about the UK’s exit from the European Union. So it isn’t surprising that pessimism about Brexit is fashionable in the metropolitan classes. Until recently I had dismissed it as just chatter: Brexit has its own momentum. Now I am not so sure.
Recently the focus on Brexit has been about a transitional deal – part of a phased exit from the union. This is an entirely sensible idea, and, this blog has argued from the beginning, practically inevitable. The EU is a massively complex thing, and 45 years of acquired institutional integration takes a lot of unpicking. Surely it is sensible to do so at a measured pace with democratic consultation along the way? But there is something strange about all this talk. Nobody is talking about what happens after the transition. Salespeople for airline flights are urged to sell the beach, not the flight itself. And yet Brexiteers have stopped selling the beach. Instead they keep talking about the past – the referendum and its supposedly decisive mandate: selling the airport after you’ve already been through it.
This is the latest sign of insecurity amongst the advocates of Brexit. The fact that they were arguing for so long against the idea of a transition period was an early sign. Now they reserve their passion for keeping the transition period short – and the need to avoid having a general election in the middle of it. The trouble is that a transitional arrangement looks too comfortable a place to inhabit; we might never work up the courage for that next brave step. As Janan Ganesh points out in today’s FT, a country that cannot face down enough nimbys to expand Heathrow airport stands little chance of doing the brave things needed to make Brexit happen. “Leave now at the risk of economic chaos or leave late at the risk of never leaving. It is the Eurosceptic dilemma,” he writes.
The truth is that the various optimistic visions of Brexit are wilting. There was never consensus amongst Brexiteers amongst them anyway. In particular the Prime Minister’s idea of the oxymoronic “Global Britain” is collapsing. The emerging dispute between Britain and Canada and the USA over the aircraft producer Bombardier shows just how difficult that vision actually is. Just after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that he wanted to leave the European Single Market because of its state aid rules, Boeing is trying to close Bombardier’s factory in Northern Ireland on the grounds of excessive state aid. Boeing’s case is a weak one, but it is a big company in a big country, and such companies have no ethical compunction about bullying. They simply want to squash a potential future competitor by using principles designed to foster competition rather than suffocate it. The American government is happy enough to play along. The mechanisms of the World Trade Organisation (another transnational limit on sovereignty) look inadequate. Anybody who thinks that India or China will be any easier to deal with (or indeed the EU from outside) is not living in the world as it is. Small powers need a transnational order to thrive. But transnational order is going out of fashion amongst the world’s great powers.
Still, there are other visions for a post-Brexit Britain. They are of a more self-sufficient Britain. More complex manufacturing, such as the motor industry and aerospace, look doomed in the long-term outside the Single Market. But these are becoming less important to the whole economy. Modern technology is making smaller scale manufacturing easier. And the information economy is less bounded by the constraints of old-fashioned borders. A new meme on the political left (Jonathan Freedland in the weekend Guardian, repeated by Nick Clegg in today’s FT), that you can’t banish austerity outside the Single Market looks like nonsense to me. In the long term anyway. Britons might need to adjust their appetites on goods that are typically imported: cars and fossil fuels, for example, and things like foreign travel. But health care, social care, education, housing and employment support don’t require a major trading economy to support them, even if they need to be adjusted around the edges a bit. Except, of course, that “austerity” is code for any kind of disruptive change. Full Brexit will mean more disruption. But few politicians seem up for selling that to the British public.
And so we drift into a political stalemate. The country remains locked in a 50-50 split as to whether Brexit is right or wrong. The forces of remain look in no shape to launch a counterattack, and are content to obfuscate and delay. They have always been averse to selling the beach anyway. I cannot see that formal Brexit can be stopped. The purgatory of half-in and half-out seems a fitting verdict on a failing political system.