It may sound very strange for a Remainer to say that I think hard Brexit has become necessary. But that’s where I think we might now be.
Despite a terrible, shambolic set of negotiations so far by Theresa May and her cohorts; despite forecasts of economic doom, particularly for the North East and the Midlands, for all possible Brexit scenarios; in spite of everything, public opinion has not really moved on Brexit. We’re about 50-50 on the subject as a nation, still. If there was another referendum on EU membership for some reason, it could go any which way, and I certainly wouldn’t bank on a vote for Remain, not by a long shot.
Like many Remainers in the wake of the June 2016 vote, I drifted towards the idea that a soft Brexit was the best option from where we found ourselves post-referendum. That staying in the Single Market if we could, but at the very least the Customs Union was the best plan. I’m far less sure of that now. The Brexiteers do have a point when they say that being in the Customs Union would reduce Britain to being a vassal state – all rule taking and no rule making. I realise the logical answer to all this is just staying in the EU where we can have a say in the rules, but that’s not the point. Recall that pre-referendum Remainers were saying that being in the SM and/or CU without being in the EU was the “worst of all possible worlds”? There’s still something in that.
But my biggest fear about a soft Brexit is that it won’t solve anything. We’ll be in a worse state than we are now, that’s almost certain – but the Remainers will say it is because we left the EU, and the Brexiteers will say it’s because we didn’t leave the EU nearly enough. The culture war around this will almost certainly deepen.
A hard Brexit will at the very least result in a definitive answer to the cultural war in a way that nothing else can. I happen to think a hard Brexit will be a total disaster, probably much worse than the very worst forecasts of it suggest. Given that, some of you might say, “well that’s easy for you to say given you live in London which will be least affected. What about people in the North East and the Midlands?” To which I would retort that the North East and the Midlands voted for Brexit. Yes, I know they almost certainly did so unwittingly against their own economic interests, but democracy isn’t “get what you vote for, unless you’re wrong and then we’ll fudge it for you from there”. I’m sorry that those areas will suffer, but such is the price of democracy.
If it’s a total disaster, we’ll be back in the EU in probably five years or less. If it goes all right, then at least economically speaking we Remainers were wrong. Either way, the cultural rift that’s getting nasty in Britain can start to heal. Remainers want that rift to close without having to go through the pain; to undo the referendum result without undoing democracy. Sadly, I no longer think that’s possible.
If you are shaking your head at me right now, consider the political terrain as it stands. We have a prime minister who, whatever her preference for soft Brexit, and her actions speak to that to a large degree, she is being held to ransom by the hard Brexiteers in her party. If she doesn’t deliver what they want, they will install someone who will. The room for fudging on this is also nearly at an end. We have a leader of the opposition who is commited to hard Brexit himself, and proved this is so by both his words and his actions. The Lib Dems, the only nationwide party opposed to Brexit, is languishing below double digit figures in the polls because it is obsessed with electoral reform and weed and is putting all of its energy into winning back a left-wing crowd that will never return. Unless there is a massive rupture within both of the two major parties, a coming together of Remainers to halt the process, then I don’t see how Brexit can be avoided. Maybe that will happen – if so, great. But given the price of doing so is very high for the participants, I still very much doubt it will. In that case, again, perhaps we need to face up to the idea that hard Brexit has, tragically, become necessary.
Derek Payne says
‘If it’s a total disaster, we’ll be back in the EU in probably five years or less.’
I’d love to believe this but I can’t. It’s probably in the nature of the British people to come to terms with their gradual, even imperceptible, managed decline. Like the anecdotal story of the frog put in a pan of cold water that’s gently heated, we’ll just go quietly.
There is a certain logic in what you are saying. People should not be protected from what they have voted for. You might let Gove, Johnson and Mogg have their hard Brexit. You might let them explain to the population why the NHS is collapsing rather than being £350 million a week better off.
Agree 100% with this. A second referendum would at best achieve a 52/48 result which would perhaps be enough to keep us in the EU but insufficient for the europhobes to stand down leading to perhaps a third referendum once someone like Rees-Mogg took over.
To borrow a saying from the Brexiteers, let’s hold their feet to the fire and see if they can deliver on their promises of a profitable post-Brexit era. I’m quite sceptical about it but at least the areas likely to be most negatively affected can be said to have voted for their decline.
If I were a betting man I would bet that Brexit would lose, if only because they would never be able to get away with the same lack of scrutiny again. Even so I doubt that the margin would be that decisive.
I am not very optimistic that the country would easily return to the EU. I think that many other states would be very cautious. I suspect that rejoining would take longer than leaving
Nick’s article is right that an over the cliff Brexit would trigger a backlash and an exacerbated generational divide, but I cannot see how this can happen. Such a Brexit would have to rip up the Good Friday Agreement, which incidentally was passed by two referendums: 94% in Ireland and 71% in NI and is embedded in the constitutions of the UK and Ireland as well as underpinned by the ECHR and the UN.
In one sense anything is possible; in theory, the government could declare war. Erecting a border between NI and GB is a bit more possible, but a stagnant Brexit limbo looks a more likely outcome, with something for everyone to detest.
Laurence Cox says
If you think that a hard Brexit will have us begging to re-enter the EU in five years time, then you haven’t thought through the consequences. Assume that we leave in March 2019 with no deal. Various things will happen but they won’t happen all at once. First, the major car-manufacturers will start to move abroad, but they won’t be able to do that at the drop of a hat; it will probably take five years while they run down production of existing models here and ramp up production of new models in the EU. The banks will be able to move more quickly, I suspect within three months. The UK will face a financial crisis as the £ falls and inflation rises, forcing the BoE to put up interest rates and triggering a recession. We may well get a new bout of austrity from the Tories.
What now happens depends on the Tories. Even if they have defenestrated Theresa May and elected a new Right-Wing leader (call him Boris) they won’t want another election unless they know that they can win an overall majority, so we may not get another election until May 2022. With the DUP not wanting Corbyn either, it is difficult to see a vote of no-confidence passing. I can foresee something rather like the fag-end of the Major Government, in office but not in power.
If there is a good lead for Labour in 2022, then I expect Prime Minister Corbyn, who is just as eurosceptic as the Tories and will have no desire to re-enter the EU. In any case he will have to deal with the fall-out of hard Brexit. So 2027 is the earliest that I can see a pro-EU government being elected, and that will depend either on the Tories realising their mistake and ditching Boris (or Rees-Mogg if Boris has been ditched after his failure in 2022) and bringing in a new centrist leader – think of David Cameron replacing Michael Howard – or on Corbyn’s successor (since he surely will not still be PM in 2027) doing a U-turn which would please the Party members. Even so I could not see re-entry negotiations being completed in less than 2-3 years, which would take us up to 2030.
The one change that could be made quite quickly would be for the UK to rejoin the EEA as a non-EU, non-EFTA member; as long as it accepts the authority of either the ECJ or the EFTA Court, it could be outside the EU while limiting the economic damage. However this soft Brexit would not be acceptable to the hard-line Tories and it is not clear if Corbyn would want it. My assumption is that he will promise anything to get power, but whether he delivers on his promises is another matter. He may see the destruction of the City of London as a desirable outcome of his democratic socialist aims.
Paul W says
I predict that after March 2019, or thereabouts, membership of the EU will become a dead political issue for at least 20 years. True, there will always be advocates of EU membership, just as Michael Heseltine apparently still advocates eventual membership of the Euro. Not many other people do. And no doubt the Liberal Democrats, (or a successor party), will be clamouring for re-admission to the EU, which, of course, will not be standing still in the meantime. But as with electoral reform and weed liberalisation, I doubt anyone will be able to agree on either the terms or the timing for such a radical change of policy direction – that of reviving the UK’s membership of a changed EU – and so soon after the last one. And I predict that the two big parties will not be listening anyway. They will be far too preoccupied with adjusting to, and taking advantage of the freedom of policy action provided by the new status quo of Brexit.
Caron Lindsay says
“because it is obsessed with electoral reform and weed”
That is unfair given that most of our pronouncements have been on issues like inequality and housing as well as Brexit which happens to be where the heart of the party lies.
Matt (bristol) says
There is something very dangerous in the politics of ‘let the apocalypse happen because then people will realise I was right’. Just like Labour councils diligently applying Tory cuts to prove how awful the Tories are, it’s logical but cruel, and ultimately it’s a gamble that could easily be sabotaged and hijacked by the far-right.