More than a year has passed since the shocking result of Britain’s referendum on leaving the EU. Pessimism about a very messy break is growing. This is typified by this article by Gideon Rachman in this week’s FT, which suggests that whatever happens there will be humiliation for Britain. Are we really in such a mess?
Mr Rachman suggests three forms of humiliation. One is that Britain is forced into a deal by which it subscribes to most of the substantive terms of membership (including cash contributions and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice) in order to stave off severe economic disruption. This is sometimes called Soft Brexit. A second is that Britain drops out of the EU without a complete deal, and is subject years of confusion and disruption, resulting, inter alia, in economic hardship. The third is that exit does not happen at all, and Britain crawls back in, its attempt at exit having failed, like the German Fleet returning to port after the Battle of Jutland.
This analysis is based on a simple idea. There is just not enough time before the exit becomes legal, on 29 March 2019, in order to arrange alternative structures outside the EU Single Market or Customs Union. And that such a failure would result in chaos from air travel to the manufacture of Guinness (brewed in Dublin, bottled in Belfast). There may elegant solutions to each of the problems thrown up, but we simply don’t have the time and resources to decide what is best, and still less to put in place any of the new infrastructure required.
One reaction is simply anger: to blame the shadowy EU powers for creating such an unreasonably short departure window. And yet a longer interval would not have been acceptable to the Brexiteers. Some chafe that two years is too long. The interval is a reflection of the politics; it is up to ingenuity and negotiation to find solutions to the problems it throws up. The puzzle is why that does not seem to be happening.
And it really isn’t very hard to see what that solution is. It is a phased withdrawal, whereby full membership expires on the treaty date, but other aspects of membership do not. In particular that means prolonging the single market membership (including financial contributions) well beyond that date – three to five years, say. Single market membership along the lines of Norway should be a relatively simple thing to put in place, because it leaves so much of the existing apparatus intact. It is a soft Brexit followed by a properly thought through and prepared hard Brexit. It is a much less risky enterprise. It is also more democratic. Membership of the EU is a very complex thing, and a simple referendum result does not tell you what people actually want; indeed, how could people know? A prolonged period over which the details are discussed and subject to the normal democratic process is much better than being railroaded into a solution advocated by some faction of the ruling political elite. Deliberation is a critical element of the democratic process – and we saw precious little of that in the run-up to the referendum.
I have suspected that this, an orderly phased withdrawal, is what Theresa May’s government has been planning all along. But recent statements by members of the government have shaken my faith in this. They have been ruling out being part of the single market after 29 March 2019 – on the grounds that there would be a big backlash from the Brexit supporting public if they did. This is unconvincing until you substitute “Tory MPs” for “the public”. The public shows signs of weariness over Brexit, and most would surely accept a well-argued case for a transition. But many Tory MPs are Eurosceptic to the point of insanity. Maybe it’s all tactics and those government spokespeople plan to unveil more realistic transitional plans later.
And a properly prepared hard Brexit may not be quite the nightmare many Remain supporters think it would be. Modern technology and fresh thinking could provide innovative solutions to many of the logistical problems involved – not least for trade and immigration. The country could move to some form of associate status with the EU (perhaps alongside Ukraine and even Turkey?) to provide a framework for political cooperation. But there is no sign of any such coherent vision being put together by our political leaders. Instead the Conservative government has what the Auditor General, Amyas Morse, has called a chocolate orange strategy – something that falls apart on contact. Meanwhile Labour are content to play a game of obstruction, with no attempt to create an alternative vision; for them the prospect of seizing the levers of power amid the chaos trumps all other considerations. The country doesn’t just lack time – it lacks the leadership.
The truth is that the country is being let down by the poor quality of its governing class, who can’t work complex problems through. That is how we got into this mess in the first place: a referendum on EU membership simply to settle an internal party feud was a terrible idea. If the government had been clear in its wish to leave, and presented a prospectus for departure (as the Scottish government did on the independence referendum in 2014), that would have been an entirely different matter. And now the politicians seem incapable of getting us out. The joke that the British are behaving like the family cat, which mews like mad to be let out into the garden, only to simply sit on the threshold when the door is opened, remains as funny now as it was last year.
Why are we being let down? One argument runs that it is a recent thing. Politics no longer attracts big beasts with worldly experience – and instead is dominated by shallow types who have devoted themselves to a political career from their early 20s. This idea was developed by the columnist Peter Oborne in his book The Triumph of the Political Class. A less familiar argument is made by the FT’s John Gapper, which is that it has always been this way. Britain’s ruling class has long favoured dilletantes with humanities degrees, who shy away from technicalities and details, and instead make clever debating points, like barristers who will move on to another case tomorrow (and many of them are barristers…). He quotes a lecture in 1959 by the novellist and scientist CP Snow. This rings true. The most obvious example is Boris Johnson, the country’s embarassing Foreign Secretary – but it applies just as much to David Cameron and Michael Gove. It applies less obviously to Mrs May or the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But there is a worrying narrowness to Mrs May – exemplified by an obsession with the ECJ and an evidently weak grasp of economics. Mr Corbyn’s lack of patience with detail is legendary – though he may have improved a bit recently.
This is in stark contrast to the way most other countries do it. France’s leaders are educated in elite institutions that prize deep analysis; Germans value technical expertise; Russians admire chess players; the Chinese like to be led by engineers. And so on, with the important exception of the United States – but even they do not fall for clever dilletantes like Mr Johnson – they prefer authenticity to the superficial cleverness so beloved by the British. And it was not always that way in Britain. Gladstone, the great British 19th Century prime minister, started his ministerial career sorting out railway timetables, and sealed his reputation overhauling the country’s tax system in minute detail.
How we could do with a Gladstone now. Alas national humiliation is the price we will pay or picking such weak leaders as we now have.