Yesterday, I put out the following tweet:
Brexit was based on four assumptions: 1. It would cause the EU to collapse. 2. We’d get all the benefits of the SM without having to follow the rules. 3. We’d get a great trade deal with the US. 4. There would be a painless solution to the NI problem. None of these happened.
A reaction from a lot of Brexiteers to this tweet has been: that’s not why I voted for Brexit. Another reaction which goes further than that is: no one thought Brexit would bring those four things to fruition, what are you talking about? To be clear, I never meant to infer that your average Leave voter in Boston or Clacton or anywhere in Britain really thought of those four things when they went to the ballot box in June 2016. What I meant was, those four assumptions underpinned the intellectual project that was leaving the European Union, back when no really cared much about such thing happening or not pre-2015 apart from a committed band of Brexiteers.
For I can recall a time when talking about the UK’s relationship with the European Union was a minority interest, something only for super nerds to get involved with. I organised panel events at Labour and Tory conferences on the subject, inviting both hardcore Leavers and Remainers, and was almost always underwhelmed by the level of interest. For Remainers, ie most people at the time, you either didn’t really care whether we were in or out – you might have preferred to stay in as it was the status quo, but you didn’t actually spend any time thinking about it – or even if you thought being a member of the EU was really important, you didn’t take seriously the idea that we would ever actually leave.
If you were a Leaver, you either sort of wanted to leave but didn’t care that much about it, or you really did want to leave the European Union but figured it would never actually happen. That is, unless you were part of the hardcore Leave set, ie Nigel Farage and his UKIP followers or part of the Eurosceptic cult within the Conservative party. These people had a plan and were sure that we would leave the EU – and sooner than everyone thought. Back then, these people talked in practical, scientific terms about leaving the EU – all the slogans came later, in the run in to the referendum itself. They didn’t even talk about immigration much at the time.
What they did talk about, a lot, was the EU’s imminent collapse in the face of Brexit. This was perhaps the most vital assumption made by the band of Brexiteers who fought to make Brexit a reality. The bloc wasn’t destined to last and just needed a catalyst to break it apart. Brexit would be perfect. Once the UK voted to leave the EU, the tensions between France and Germany, east and west Europe, north and south Europe, would become unbearable. In negotiating a post-Brexit relationship with the UK, the EU would never hold together. Brexit would start an exodus of nations fleeing the EU, with the UK at the centre of new trading vanguard.
In addition to the EU stuff I hosted between 2010 and 2016, I attended a lot of Eurosceptic events as well. The notion that Brexit would kill the EU off was perhaps the biggest idea that was tossed about. And I can understand why – it remains crucial to Brexit’s ultimate success or failure as a project. For the UK to be outside of a trading bloc it is 22 miles away from and for that trading bloc to continue to function and indeed, grow more commercially powerful, would be deeply silly. They all knew this and that’s why “Brexit will kill the EU” remains to this day so central to the whole thing, at least in spirit. It’s important enough for the Daily Express to run several articles a week on the subject to this day.
Again, I am not saying that people in Burnley voted for Brexit in 2016 because they were convinced it would destroy the EU. They almost certainly had all sorts of reasons for voting Leave. What I’m saying is, those who directly fought to make the referendum happen – and by extension, for Brexit to happen – were powered greatly by this idea.
Back to the original Brexiteer concept of Brexit: once the EU started to fracture, the UK would pick off trade deals with former member states themselves. This would add to the pressure on the crumbling EU, causing it to fracture further. The single market would have to change to adjust to this new post-Brexit reality. As a result, the UK would get all of the benefits of being in the single market without any of the perceived downsides, such as freedom of movement.
Once outside the grip of the EU, the UK could then fulfil its manifest destiny: to get a trade deal with the US like no other ever in the history of America as a trading nation. Its benefits would blow being part of the single market out of the water. It would also lead to other trade deals in the UK’s interests, as the UK-US nexus became to new centre of the western world.
Finally, in the face of all of this, the EU would be in no position to make any demands in terms of how Northern Ireland was dealt with. The UK would hold all the cards here.
None of these things happened in the wake of Brexit. The EU stayed united throughout the negotiating period, forcing Boris Johnson in the end to settle on a very poor set of terms. Northern Ireland is separated from Great Britain via a customs border. There is a great deal of trade friction between the UK and the EU. There is no US trade deal anywhere in sight. And because of all that, those who were at the centre of pushing to get Britain to leave the EU from 2005-2015 will run a mile from my assertion that these assumptions were the heart of their project all that time. Why wouldn’t they? They are under no pressure to admit that this is what they were so sure would happen once we voted to leave the EU and since none of it came true, they are at liberty to change the story. But I was there and heard it all. These assumptions don’t have anything to do with the Brexit project any longer because they didn’t ultimately take place as they predicted. But they were the core of the idea behind leaving in the first place to those who cared about it when no one else did – and without which, Brexit would never have happened.
While I’m here, I’ve got a new book coming out in the autumn entitled The Patient. It’s about a woman who goes into the hospital to give birth to her child, being two weeks overdue….and ends up staying in the hospital for a year, still pregnant the whole time. If you want to find out more, here’s where you can have a better look.