a journal of modern society & culture

Was Brexit Inevitable?

In the last few years the balance of power in the world has changed dramatically. Xi Jin Ping has declared that this is the era of China which, he said, “will take global centre stage by 2050”.  Who can dispute that China’s star is rising, while the West is in decline? It is not only that its economy is growing at a rate of 6 or more per cent per annum, faster than Europe or the US, and that China is making impressive progress in technological innovation.

A dangerous tide of chauvinist, intolerant and divisive populism is sweeping through Europe and America. The reputation of American democracy has been shattered by the election of Trump. A poll by Pew found that people in many countries, including Indonesia, Germany and Canada, have more trust in China’s leadership than in America’s.  Europe’s influence in the world has also been substantially weakened by the expected departure of Britain,  one of its three most important members. The Brexit vote could not have come at a more dangerous time for Western liberal democracy.

Britain has not proved immune to the dangers of nationalist populism. When, in the face of protests from ardent Brexit supporters, a court ruled that Parliament should have the fina say on the result of negotiations with the EU after the referendumt vote, the Daily Mail, our most influential daily paper, denounced the judges as “enemies of the people”! It was an outburst reeking of fascism. Only after widespread expressions of outrage from libertarians did the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice show any inkling of concern.   Even then, while they reassured us that they respected the independence of judges, they uttered not a word of criticism of the Mail’s attack on a fundamental principle of democracy. The Mail, unchastened and unrestrained, has since accused those like Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who expressed only moderate support for Brexit, of treason!

It has also undermined Britain’s own liberal democracy. We have become a country less tolerant of immigrants.  People are no longer ashamed to display xenophobia in public. Until the vote for Brexit, our history, like that of the United States, was one of democracy based on the political philosophy of John Locke, who believed the wishes of the majority must be subject to checks and balances, to the rule of law and to the rights of the individual and of minorities.  With scarcely a murmur of dissent, our Members of Parliament have now adopted Rousseau’s doctrine that the will of the majority must always prevail. They have decided that they must act as delegates and not, as the philosopher Edmund Burke insisted, as representatives who take into account public opinion and the evidence and arguments, and then exercise their own judgment.

History shows that, ever since the days of the Committee of Public Safety and Robespierre, who used to inflict nightly readings from Rousseau’s works on the daughters of the landlord in whose house he lodged, Rousseau’s disciples have mostly been populist autocrats and dictators.  Mussolini loved referendums.  Hitler and Stalin invoked the “will of the people” to justify their suppression of human rights.  Recently President Erdogan has used a referendum in Turkey to increase his autocratic powers and extend his rule.  It is not generally known outside Germany that, in the light of their experience with Hitler, Germans adopted a post-war Constitution which prohibits the use of the referendum by the Federal government except in the case of boundary changes between the Lander. How wise they were!

The Brexit referendum has also illustrated how unsuitable a referendum is as an instrument for making complicated decisions. It is quite simple, we were endlessly told by Mrs May: “Brexit means Brexit.”  This reminds one of HL Mencken’s dictum: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”  In fact, Brexit meant different things to its various supporters. To most it meant “winning back control, especially of immigration: “We want our country back”.  An influential last minute scare told them that millions of Turks were poised to flood into Britain, since Turkey, according to Boris Johnson, a leading Brexiteer (and until recently our Foreign Secretary), was about to join the EU. No diplomat regarded this as the remotest possibility!  Most influential of all were prominent advertisements which declared that we could save £350 million a week to spend on the National Health Service, whereas the government now admits we will have to pay at least £40 billion to the EU as the cost of divorce.  Leavers were also promised, and many still believe, that as soon as we are free from the EU Customs Union Brexit will mean a more prosperous Britain created by a glorious bonanza of free trade agreements with the rest of the world – no doubt with the help of Trump and his policy of “America first.”

So can nothing relieve the Brexit gloom and must democrats throughout the world reluctantly accept that Britain’s self-inflicted harm is irreversible? In fact there are grounds for hope.

First, the negotiations for a unique “deep and special relationship with the EU”  that Mrs May hopes to achieve, are likely to fail, leaving Britain with a disastrous No Deal. There is a real problem with securing a deal in time. EU law specifies a limit of two years for any country to negotiate its exit. Since Britain gave notice in March 2017 of its intention to leave, this means exit by March 2019. In practice the time limit is even stricter, as the European Parliament must ratify the deal.  This means that at the very least the principles of the deal must be agreed by October 2018, certainly by November at the latest.  But so far negotiations have made virtually no progress on the controversial items. The timetable now  looks well-nigh impossible.

Ministers assured us that a good deal for Britain would present no difficulty because we were in a strong bargaining position.  The 27, they argued, have a big trade surplus in their trade with us and therefore have more to lose from No Deal than we have. It was a ludicrously complacent view.  The 27 ‘s exports to us are less than 5 per cent of their total exports; ours to them are 44 per cent of ours.  We have far more to lose from No Deal than they have.  More important, we have to argue against the clock while the 27 are under no time constraint, which puts us in a weak bargaining position.

The government has now conceded that there is a time problem and has secured a “transition period” of two years after March 2019, to settle outstanding details and allow business time to adapt.  But transition to what?  The Cabinet has not yet agreed the final destination.  Mrs May described the period as one of implementation.  But what is there to implement if there is no deal? During the transition after we leave, as non-EU members we will of course no longer have a say in influencing EU laws and regulations. We will become rule-takers and not rule-makers, hardly a strong bargaining position during a period when important details would still have to be negotiated.

The government’s weakness in the negotiations has been that the Conservative party seems irreconcilably split.  Brexit fundamentalists, a very powerful group, simply want to leave. They hate the EU and envisage a Britain freed from the shackles of Europe that will prosper in an imaginary world of splendid national isolation. No problem for them about payments for past obligations as the legal price of divorce, no need for agreements about special access to the Single Market or membership of the Customs Union and no further role of any kind for the European Court of Justice. They have no worries about new tariff and non-tariff barriers and new bureaucratic obstacles at borders for exporters and importers if we are outside the Customs Union, losing its huge advantages for trade in by far our biggest market, and having to comply instead with the more constrictive rules and higher tariffs of the World Trade Organisation. Extreme Brexiteers also dislike the transition agreement because while it is in force the government say we would hope to continue as members of the Single Market and Customs Union and be subject to the ECJ’s jurisdiction. They further argue that a “transition” might be infinitely prolonged and prove a backdoor way to remain in the EU.

Most of the Cabinet and moderate, more pro-EU Conservatives accept that we will leave the Single Market and Customs Union, but argue for a ”soft” Brexit, a trade deal with a new kind of Customs Union and with maximum access to the Single Market,  even if we are no longer full members.   They realise that No Deal would be like “falling off a cliff”.  However, the highly restrictive timetable, the weakness of a government with no overall majority, and above all the fact that all the proposals they have made so far were designed to reconcile the party’s internal differences rather than provide the basis of a possible settlement acceptable to both sides, have made its task of securing a soft Brexit almost impossible and No Deal an ever more likely outcome.

What happens next if there is No Deal? Perhaps surprisingly it may lead to No Brexit! The government has solemnly pledged that Parliament will have a meaningful vote before we leave.  It seems clear that there is no majority for No Deal in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Simply to offer the choice to accept or reject No Deal with no alternative is not a meaningful vote.  The Government is unlikely to seek a general election, which it would be unlikely to win since the chaos of No Deal will be viewed as due to its own incompetence.  Polls show that even most Conservatives blame their own government rather than Brussels for the lack of progress in the negotiations. It would also be inconceivable for a Conservative government to decide that Parliament itself could override the people’s previous vote.  The only real choice will be to let the people decide between No Deal or Remain in a new referendum.  Indeed support for a new referendum is growing steadily. It would not be a re-run of the last. The facts have changed. This time people would know what Brexit actually means.

What would be the chances of a different result? Polls show that opinion is beginning to shift. Talk of No Deal is beginning to have an effect. As the prospect becomes more real, the pound is likely to fall further, and already inflation has risen to 3 per cent because of its drop in value while wages have stagnated. Companies are beginning to speak out about the cost of Brexit, especially those like the car industry which depend on integrated supply chains and will face costly delays at border check points, as well as new tariff and non-tariff barriers. They have expressed fears that they may have to abandon manufacture in Britain altogether as it will no longer be profitable.

Our economy is already fragile, with the slowest growth rate among G7 countries, and even this slow growth depends on unsustainable levels of household debt and is forecast to slow down further if we leave. Our productivity compares poorly with that of Germany, France, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.  More bad Brexit news is in the pipeline.

People did not vote to become poorer.  Would even passionate Leavers remain impervious if Brexit imperils their jobs and impoverishes their families?  Perhaps Brexit is not inevitable after all.