Thoughts on Brexit — 5 Jan 2019

I’ve had a few friends ask me where I thought things were heading with Brexit. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me that I’ve given the subject a lot of thought over the past three years, and attempted to make sense of it. I must admit I’ve found the whole process genuinely traumatic to observe (and I know I’ve got far less to worry about than a number of friends whose futures are genuinely on the line). So, as a form of therapy, and in case any of my friends find it of interest, here are my thoughts.

Please note, these are my personal thoughts, written for my own benefit and for the interest of my friends. So, if you don’t know me and don’t like what I’ve written, I’d suggest you stop reading this — there’s plenty of more interesting content on the internet. Also, I don’t pretend to know everything about UK politics or the EU, so I’m sure I’ve got some things wrong (and my predictions will invariably prove false).

Firstly, I don’t think we can think about Brexit without talking about the period from 1980–2015, which set the scene for the referendum result. This (and I’m focussing on the UK, but I’m sure it applies to many other countries) was a period of massive change in almost every aspect of life, most notably due to technology, globalisation, and greater emphasis on economic freedom. I don’t believe these are fundamentally a bad thing (though I can point to many changes that we should regret). But I can see that for many people things felt out of control and less fair, and inequality of opportunity grew, probably to a greater extent than did inequality of wealth. Of particular relevance to the topic of Brexit was the growing number of multinational organisations and companies outside our direct control. In most cases I believe these organisations and companies have benefitted us, and our government should have done more to ensure everyone shared in those benefits. Where a change was inevitably going to hurt some (especially those worst off), the government should have done a better job of taking that into account, rather than just blaming outside forces. I believe that much of the feeling of powerless held by many, and the sense that the system was rigged, is due to decisions by governments during this period.

Secondly, I turn to the Brexit campaign itself and the vote. My biggest objection to this was David Cameron’s ‘bait and switch’, getting parliament to approve an advisory referendum, and then turning it into a solemn promise. This was probably just misplaced confidence on his part, but it should have been stopped at the time. Had it been intended as more than advisory, the government should have been required to clarify in detail what leave entailed, rather than letting multiple groups provide conflicting cases without any accountability. In light of ridiculously optimistic (at least in hindsight) promises, I’m not surprised so many people voted that they would like to leave the EU (indeed, I was no fan of the status quo). But then it seems a stretch to imply from that vote that they would incur any cost to leave. I do admit to being upset that more leave voters and abstainers didn’t foresee the chaos and hurt that would arise from a leave vote, but given my own failure to predict just how bad it would be, it seems unfair to blame them.

Next, I consider the period from the referendum result until now. Firstly, despite not being a natural fan of Theresa May (particularly over her attitude to immigrants while in the Home Office), I struggle to see how she could have done a much better job in the awful position she has found herself. I believe she should have made some unilateral commitments to help Europeans already here feel more secure, but that has never been her style. More than that, however, I wish she had been able to speak honestly to the British people, and to determine if there was a way to leave that would actually fulfil their wishes. Unfortunately I suspect she believed that would have led to her ousting and a much worse outcome, and I’m not entirely convinced she would have been wrong.

I have several other regrets with how things have gone over this period. First has been the further rise of tribalism, in particular the level of ridiculousness of some of the things that Brexit-supporting MPs have got away with saying, because their audience like to hear it, and anyone who disagrees can be ignored as ‘remoaners’. Similarly, the fighting within the Labour party over the appropriate response to Brexit is disappointing, and gives me the feeling that its leader is happy to let the country suffer, rather than provide competent opposition. And I worry about the increased level of racism and general nastiness in society. I don’t have answers, though I will try to keep remembering that the people on the other side of any argument are still people.

Next, I turn to the immediate future (I write this a week before May’s deal is voted on by parliament). May clearly believes that her deal is better than no deal or remaining, and is hoping that enough MPs come round to that belief before the vote, and while it is possible, I don’t think they will (I’m giving it a generous 40% likelihood). However, assuming it fails, then what? Firstly, I don’t think Corbyn would win a no-confidence vote against the government. Secondly, I don’t believe either May would choose, or a majority in parliament would support, a no-deal Brexit, so I don’t see the government letting that happen by accident. But I could be wrong, and if May wanted to let no deal happen, it might be difficult for parliament to start it (especially without a stronger Labour position). So, I believe it would come do a series of votes amongst MPs, to find the one that could command a majority: either May’s deal, no-deal, or an extension followed by a referendum which included remain and other concrete options. I suppose MPs could vote to retract article 50 without holding a second referendum, but I can’t see them doing this. As for what the referendum was, I would be happy with any of: a) remain or no-deal, b) remain or May’s deal, c) remain, May’s deal, or no-deal, however in this last case I would want ranked vote. The extension would definitely be needed to put on a referendum, and I expect the EU would allow the extension (they’d prefer it to us retracting article 50 and then re-triggering it). As for the outcome of a second referendum, my guess is that a majority would vote for remain, but I wouldn’t want anyone to take it for granted.

In the longer term, I don’t know where this leaves us. My biggest fear is a no-deal, which hurts the most vulnerable. The idea that blitz spirit would carry us through, and even bring us together again, makes no sense when we realise that a significant section of the population had actively chosen this outcome, against the wishes of half the country. I’m not suggesting we would all die, but I believe the social implications of leaving with no-deal would be worse than the economic implications (which would be bad). May’s deal would disappoint everyone, which could be seen as an advantage — I’m not so sure. I don’t love the optics of a second referendum, but the previous one was so flawed and gave no indication that a majority want no-deal or May’s deal, so I do believe it would be the best outcome (so long as we learn the lessons from the last one, especially around having concrete options and accountability).

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Fascinated by what makes societies and markets work. Undertaking a PhD in sustainable energy at UCL.

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