Brexit means…Keeping mum

Brexit means Brexit… The oft repeated mantra has become as synonymous with Theresa May as Major’s “Back to Basics”, Blair’s “Education, Education, Education” and Cameron’s “Compassionate Conservatism”. Like those, the phrase has become something of a joke – not helped by the assonance of the words “Brexit” and “Breakfast”, and the trap this has provided to ministers and commentators alike. So far, so funny, so harmless. Well, not harmless, but there is a world of difference between soundbites and actual policy. Originally “Brexit means Brexit” seemed designed to simultaneously pander to those who want a hard Brexit, whilst leaving the government leeway to work out what to do.

Of course, the official explanation of a lack of policy is that we cannot “reveal our hand” in advance of negotiations. There can be no escaping the whiff of sophistry about this answer – particularly when you consider the conflicting signals from the various departments charged with coming up with some form of coherent plan for those negotiations, preferably before Article 50 itself is triggered. It is patently obvious that no such plan yet exists, and all the while the clock is ticking towards the government’s self-imposed deadline.

If taken at face value, then May’s approach shows a shocking disregard for parliament, and the people. Her original desire to exercise Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50 was but a symptom of a wish to retain control over every aspect of Brexit. I doubt those who voted to “Take Back Control” meant “take back control and hand it to the whoever is selected to lead the Tory party to do with as they wish”. Nonetheless in a few short months we have gone from having a government elected on a manifesto in which they said “yes to the Single Market” to a situation where the new Prime Minister will not now categorically repeat that affirmation.

This desire for control was evident in the advent of “Red, White and Blue” Brexit. Back me, or be unpatriotic was the message. Brexit is British: if you don’t get behind it, then your loyalty and even national identity is suspect. Get with the programme or get out… I exaggerate, but there is a serious point here: Brexit has given licence to those whose idea of Britishness is ethnic rather than civic to voice their opinions in ever louder and more aggressive ways. The tone from May, and from elements of the press, add fuel to the fire. It’s all very well to call for unity, but you need to act like you want it.

It is impossible to shake the suspicion is that the government, or parts of it, is intent on withdrawing from the single market whatever their public pronouncements, or lack of them, say. Certainly, having already gained the upper hand once, Tory eurosceptics will now press for “Maximum Brexit”. In building their coalition of support the Leave campaigns deliberately obfuscated on whether we would (or could) remain a member after a Leave vote. Now most of the leading campaigners tell us that Brexit means complete extraction not just from the EU but from all its institutions.

So, we have three possible, and overlapping, reasons for the government’s silence on their vision for the future: 1) a lack of a plan for the negotiations, 2) a certain control freakery, driven by May and 3) an unwillingness to admit that leaving the single market is an aim of at least some of our leaders, if not the settled goal of the government as a whole.

But is there a fourth reason?

Traditionally uncertainty has been the enemy of the markets – and this was evident as the currency markets tumbled following May’s refusal to admit that her aspirations to control migrant numbers would inevitably mean a hard Brexit settlement. But it was more than this, it was a window on what will happen if, or when, it becomes clear that we are leaving the single market. May can ill afford a further sustained devaluation of the currency, the attendant monetary and fiscal measures that would accompany this, or the potential backlash that the resultant cost of living might bring against her and the road she has embarked on.

Perhaps uncertainty is better than certainty, if the latter is suitably grave. Perhaps that’s why, for now, mum’s the word when it comes to Brexit plans.

* Andrew Brown is a Deputy Leader of the Lib Dem Group on Bristol City Council, and was parliamentary candidate for Bristol South in 2019.

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  • Little Jackie Paper 11th Jan '17 - 10:03am

    ‘Brexit has given licence to those whose idea of Britishness is ethnic rather than civic to voice their opinions in ever louder and more aggressive ways.’

    So what? Are people not allowed to hold such views. Similar views are held around the EU.

    I somehow doubt that you’d have a problem with people taking a 52:48 REMAIN vote as a license to demand a hard remain and sign up to the Euro, Schengen, open-ended refugee quotas etc.

    A lot of people, including I suspect a large number of remain voters, do not like the political construct that is the EU, no more no less. If you are intent on conflating that with other motives then that’s your look-out. To me it is simply a recipe for howling across the divide.

    It is no different to lazily characterising all those who voted remain as uber-corporate lovers of big business interests.

    If you want a debate about the best form of Brexit then that is a fine and good thing. If you want to say that this is all about so-called, ‘ethnic nationalism,’ then you’ll get the debate you deserve.

  • I do wish we could hear about other policies in addition to Brexit. One trick pony and all that.

  • nigel hunter 11th Jan '17 - 10:27am

    I agree, it is about time we talked about OUR policies and jumped forward to the future of the country in or out of the EU. By plodding on with Brexit we are indeed a one track pony. It is definately time to point out our future plans for Government.

  • So it is evil to regard Britishness in terms of culture, language and traditions?

  • @david raw. What a blessed relief this morning to turn on the news and hear a Lib Dem spokesman talking about the NHS.

  • Peter,
    No, the post isn’t saying that. However, I do think there is a element within remain, especially on the left, that sees traditional ideas of Britain as indicative of a problematic non-culture and a non identity at best and as form of tyranny if acknowledged in a political sense. It’s the fault line identity politics. The big tribe is not really supposed to have an identity. The other problem is that it fixes identity which can act as a block against change within minority identities.

  • Alan Depauw 11th Jan '17 - 2:51pm

    To those who complain that LibDems always go on about Brexit, well, just look at the articles in LDV. Most are about a wealth of other subjects; including Millwall football club!

    But Brexit remains the most important issue of our time. Its outcome will impact almost everything else, including NHS funding.

    The debate is now at the stage of asking what kind of Brexit we will have. During the referendum, everything was promised. Should the decision over selecting which bits of which promises be left entirely with the government; one which has no mandate to choose any?

    Short of returning to the country, the only authority that can provide a mandate is Parliament. The government’s preferred version of Brexit must therefore be put to the vote. Only if it is approved can Article 50 be invoked.

    If, during the negotiations, it becomes apparent that the mandate cannot be achieved, then whatever compromise has been arrived should be put to a new referendum.

  • Since some of you want to talk about Brexit and some of you want to talk about the NHS, here is a fun fact courtesy of the BBC which covers both subjects. There are approximately 70,000 British pensioners using the Spanish health system but only 81 Spanish pensioners registered with the NHS. Across the entire EEA, there are approximately 145,000 British pensioners registered outside the UK but only 4,000 EEA pensioners registered with the NHS. If the UK leaves the EEA in a hard Brexit, the reciprocal agreement covering these British immigrants to the EEA would need to be renegotiated and the EU would be in a strong position to demand a much higher price in exchange for any deal.

  • David Evershed 11th Jan '17 - 5:41pm

    The British negotiating position on Brexit will have to respond to the EU negotiating position.

    So it not possible to say in advance what position the British will take and indeed it will change as negotiations take place.

  • It would perhaps be a better argument to look at overall numbers of citizens accessing the various health systems, and the figures are fairly clear that there are more citizens from the rest of the E.U. residing in this country than there are citizens of the U.K. residing in the rest of the E.U. In particular those from Eastern European countries place a disproportionate impact on the N.H.S. as they often arrive with poor health conditions, a particular example is chronic T.B. which is on the rise in this country, especially in areas with high levels of immigration from Eastern European countries. Also the immigrant population tends to have a higher childbirth rate than that of the indigenous population.

  • @David Evershed – “So it not possible to say in advance what position the British will take”

    It is perfectly possible to say in advance what positions our government will take. If we take no positions in particular areas, the EU will assume we have no interest in negotiating in those areas and we will end up with an absolutely minimalist deal. They are not going to start at the EU Treaties and engage in a Dutch auction where they keep subtracting parts of it until we end up with a “red, white & blue” deal.

  • @Tynan – As the press release below shows, the official figures show that it is non-EU countries that account for the overwhelming majority of TB cases here, not EU ones.

  • However, within E.U. countries multi resistant T.B. which is very difficult to treat, is a particular issue in Eastern Europe, we could trade links but anything along the lines of T.B. In Eastern Europe will bring up a range of medical references. I don’t suggest it is not present in other populations but in the city in which I work it is the high levels of Eastern European immigration that has led to the treatment and control of the disease to be a top priority for the public health board, and our local health board is not the only one facing this issue.

  • David lowrence 12th Jan '17 - 8:45am

    With reference to the drain on NHS resources by Eastern Europeans with poor health. The oft quoted mantra “take back control ” has a riposte in that right to remain is dependent upon employment. But our government inexplicably refuses to implement this. I wonder if it is to control a pool of scapegoats.

  • Re, The Red, White & Blue Brexit:
    “Oh no, not more ‘Patriotic Correctness'” is my riposte to anyone claiming I’m not patriotic (wanting to stay in the single market).
    To many Leavers I’m not “Patriotically Correct”, and I’m happy for my patriotism to be defined by me, and not them.

  • The problem with your theory is that Theresa May is incapable of delivering certainty, because it is not in her power to determine what kind of Brexit agreement we get. That is up to the EU, and we’ll have to accept what they offer or leave with no deal at all.

    So I find it baffling that those who argue day after day that they just want to know what’s going to happen continually hector Theresa May, but don’t ask the opinion of anybody from the EU.

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