The Brexit fiasco shows how Britian is being let down by its political class

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.

9 thoughts on “The Brexit fiasco shows how Britian is being let down by its political class”

  1. There’s been lots of articles along similar lines recently. I can’t help thinking that they all boil down to the same thing. Authors are always Remainers who are saying, in effect, to the Leavers:

    “Look, I told you that voting to leave the EU was a dumb idea. You lot just didn’t appreciate how complex and difficult the process was going to be. After March 2019 we won’t even be able to fly from London to Paris and we won’t even be able to buy a bottle of Guinness as a consolation.

    We’re all doomed!

    PS Don’t you think it might be a good idea to stay in after all?”

    It’s early days yet. My expectation is that these negotiations will be like any other. They’ll appear to be deadlocked until right until the last moment then the real position of both sides will be revealed.

    I don’t expect that to be too good for the UK BTW. Yanis Varoufakis will probably turn out to be right about the approach taken by the EU. The EU that most progressives in the UK somehow have fallen in love with is a spiteful nasty right-wing organisation. Staying in a relationship with an abusive partner to avoid any possible retaliation is never a good idea.

    I’d prefer a Brexit for good leftist reasons but we’ve got the one we have so lets just wait and see what happens.

    1. Well I’m trying to rise above that a bit Peter. Yes a lot of Remainers are shouting “told you so!” The Leavers are behaving just as badly, blaming any problems on the EU and presenting this as evidence of an “abusive relationship” that we are best out of, in your words. Amid this din too little is being done to work out how to manage a sensible Brexit process, with the result that whole thing will be poisonous. My point is that the car crash is not inevitable, and that hard Brexit should be viable – but we need to go about it in the right way.

      You could be right that at the last minute a deal (involving the almost inevitable phased withdrawal) will be flourished – and that this is just the way these things work. That is what I thought was going one. But I am becoming less sure of this. The problem is that even that compromise is complex enough, and I’m not convinced enough is being done to prepare the ground. I think you are too sanguine. And anyway, deal or no deal, people should be thinking harder about what we want to do once we’re out.

      YV is a clever man, and often worth listening to. But he also talks quite a bit of self-justificatory nonsense in order to cover up his own diplomatic failures – so I take a lot of what he has to say with a pinch of salt. At least he thinks that the EU should be fixed from the inside, and that Britain should have voted to stay in.

      And my critique of our leaders applies just as much to the Remainers as it does to the Leavers. Of course now that we are leaving, they will develop the ide that the whole enterprise was wonderful, and that all Britain’s problems stem from Brexit. The mirror image of the Leavers. Too few people from either side are being constructive.

  2. All these issues are negotiable if there’s goodwill on both sides. An extension of the two years could be acceptable to both sides if there were. But there’s the problem. I don’t think we can expect any from the EU. So much as I’d prefer Jeremy Corbyn to be handling the negotiations, I don’t know if it would make that much difference even if he had a large enough majority to counter the Blairite right who’d probably split from the Labour Party over the issue.

    The EU will be determined to make an example of the UK for having the temerity to vote for Brexit. I’m sure Yanis Varoufakis, regardless of any shortcomings he might have, is quite right about that.

    Your analysis, and most others too, is far too centred on what’s recently happened in the UK. If you look at previous splits , like when the Southern States of America ceded from the North, for example, we have to look at what was happening there too. The split of the Irish Republic in the 20’s would be another example. From a historical perspective we need to understand both sides.

    There’s really only Germany and Holland (the two big surplus countries) doing OK at the moment in the EZ. That’s hardly ever mentioned. France has just about cleared out its entire political establishment and filled the Parliament with newbies in an attempt to convince the voters that something is being done. This may have bought a little time but what’s going to happen after a couple of years when nothing much has changed there? Or if there a Margaret Thatcher style attack on the social contract built up over the years which is supposed to make the EU acceptable to progressive opinion?

    1. No I agree that my analysis focuses on issues in the UK, and we need to look wider understand the dynamics of the whole thing. But the British breakaway is quite unlike other historical ones, because no clear majority of the seceding nation supported it, and those that did were on the basis of campaign promises that the whole thing would be costless, and that the other side were exaggerating hopelessly. That means there may be less tolerance for any economic disruption in the transition, and that the anger of most may be directed at Brexiteer politicians rather than the EU itself. Which is why it behoves on Brexiteers to be a bit more constructive. They shouldn’t expect people who have staked so much on a Remain position to come to their rescue – at least not without a serious attempt at reconciliation. This isn’t a question of who is right or wrong, it is a question of political dynamics.

      And I wouldn’t underestimate the resilience of the EU and the EZ. I share at least some of your scepticism, but the decisive moment in the French election came in the last week when the penny dropped on a lot of conservative voters that their personal wealth would be badly damaged if France dropped out of the Euro. And if Macron really can push through labour market reforms, he may be able to turn France’s economy around just as Schroder did for Germany in the early 2000s. And if wage inflation gets going in Germany, which it might well, the economic dynamics could change too. The EZ is no so much a disaster (except for patently fraudulent economies like Greece’s) as a mire of mediocrity. People fear that it could get worse. If you look at employment levels and GDP per head, rather than total GDP and official unemployment, the EZ is not so dissimilar from the US, according the Economist. Not that that is a gold standard.

  3. Matthew,

    ” But the British breakaway is quite unlike other historical ones, because no clear majority of the seceding nation supported it, and those that did were on the basis of campaign promises that the whole thing would be costless,”

    I’m not sure there has ever been that clear majority. The colonists in the USA were pretty much evenly split when it came to fighting the War of Independence. The fighting was between a minority who were keen enough to take up arms and the Crown with the rest of the population forced to choose which side they were on. Many would have just chosen the side they thought would win. Many got it wrong and had to flee to Canada. The same story in Ireland too.

    Brexit wasn’t quite a war but passions have run deep and many have lost friends and had strained relationships with family as a result. I think you’d be hard pressed to find people who were genuinely duped by any promises on campaign buses etc. The opinion in my local tends to be about 70% for out and they are all, the 30% too , as cynical as they come about politicians. They don’t believe any of them! They’d just laugh if you asked them about that £375 million figure or whatever it was. Although having said that they were all genuinely complimentary about Jeremy Corbyn after his win even if they’d voted Tory.

    There was project fear on the Remain side too. What was that about rising interest rates and rising taxes to pay for Brexit?

    I think you need to spend more time away from the London Bubble. It’s quite obvious that the consensus of opinion there isn’t the consensus of opinion in the wider country. Nearly all the commentariat have recently made the mistake of thinking it was. The UK is not just London or even London and the larger cities.

    1. Good point about the American Revolution – though in that case I think the revolutionaries took control of the political levers of power in a way the Brexiteers haven’t – the battle goes on. And we don’t have a Canada to escape to. But you are right that I’m in a bit of a remain bubble. My FB feed is crammed full of angry and irrelevant stories about how awful it all is. I try to discount it – but your point that a lot of Leave voters don’t have high expectations of the process is well made. Ironically if any part of the country ends up smelling of roses after the break, it will be London and the South East – though property prices might take a bit of a hit, that’s cloud with a very silver lining. We’ll see.

      And yes the Remain campaign was pretty awful. The “emergency budget” was not just nonsense, it annoyed many more waverers into voting Leave than it ever could scared in voting Remain. Still many of the other predictions of gloom are slowing turning out to have more substance. And troubles could be blamed more on inept execution rather than making a bad choice in the first place – with some justice too. That would be bad news for the Tories.

  4. “………the penny dropped on a lot of conservative voters that their personal wealth would be badly damaged if France dropped out of the Euro. ”

    This comment illustrates a key fundamental difficulty with Economics. No doubt wealthy people everywhere would emphasise the “store of wealth” aspect to their own currency. So anyone holding lots of dollars, pounds, or euros would probably like those to be put on a gold standard to protect their value. Or failing that they’d want a very strict fiscal regime to be imposed to ensure that there was no inflation. Even deflation wouldn’t be a problem.

    So how does this fit in with this remark”

    “France’s leaders are educated in elite institutions …….they prefer authenticity…………..”

    Just what “authenticity” are the wealthy French preferring here? The authenticity of a type of Economics which places the maintenance of the value of their monetary holdings above all else? Or the authenticity of a different type of Economics which aims to ensure that the French economy is working much closer to its full potential than it is at the moment? An economy that works in the interests of the many rather than the few? To borrow a phrase of my own party!

    If there’s no authenticity in politics then there probably can’t be in Economics either. The ‘elite institutions’ can probably be relied upon to teach Physics or Chemistry impartially but not Economics. We end up with an Economics for the elite and wealthy. It may be authentic to them but it isn’t to everyone else.

    1. My comment on authenticity was directed at the Americans, not the French. It’s in a completely separate sentence. If the French had preferred authenticity, I don’t think they’d have gone for Macron. In the end, my belief is that the wealthier conservatives who were veering towards Marine Le Pen in the end preferred the clever elitist, or stayed at home.

      But you do highlight a problem with politics (I would say rather than economics), in the question of how you balance different people’s interests. In France’s case it is not the many vs the few – it is the many versus the many. Most people are doing OK in France – in relatively secure jobs and so on. But there is a large minority who aren’t – unemployed or in insecure jobs. I think the question of labour market reform is more important than macroeconomic demand management – I don’t think stoking up demand would do anything more increase the number of insecure jobs, or perhaps increase the pay rates of those that are already doing OK. But I think the French elite are right about one thing – that managing the single currency is about making political choices politically, rather than sticking to rigid rules, as the Germans believe. Where the Germans are right is the troubled Eurozone economies (most of them, as you have pointed out) the troubles are in large measure a reflection of bad economic management locally. The big question is whether Macron is able to deliver a workable compromise between the French and German positions.

      Well I’m not expecting you to agree. But the main point about the article isn’t to argue that point (I will come to that in another post), but to suggest that Macron and other French elite politicians have a better grasp of the problems and trade-offs in running a complex modern economy than their British opposite numbers. I am less sure about the Germans though – even if they are more technically minded than the British.

  5. @Matthew,

    Yes, sorry I’d misread that.

    But I’m sure the French themselves would say they prefer authenticity. Everyone would. But I’d still ask the question if there such a thing as Economic “authenticity”. Maybe there is in a time of war when everyone agrees that the only thing which matters is to produce as many armaments as possible, but what about the rest of the time?

    There’s some debate over the extent to which Economics can be regarded as a science but, even so, there is an enormous disagreement between the various schools. There’s no other academic subject to compare in either Arts or Science. They can’t even agree what money is! That’s like Chemists not agreeing on how atoms and molecules combine. That has to be the result of significant political forces seeking to mould the Economics profession to their own liking.

    I understand what you are saying about Macron. I’m sure he wouldn’t have become President had he lacked the ability to understand the problems of the French economy. He’s smart enough to know that many of economic problems in the EU generally are caused by Germany’s surplus. He’ll be smart enough to understand that not everyone can run a surplus in the EU and that the Germans aren’t going to voluntarily budge on that.

    But maybe the French can improve their own position and pinch some of Germany’s surplus by becoming more efficient than the Germans. He’ll be aiming at cutting workers pay and conditions to do that. It won’t solve anything for the EU generally but it would, if he succeeds, export France’s problems to somewhere else in the EU. He won’t have an easy ride though.

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