Decision Impossible: Why Brexit Will Fail, part 2

Yesterday, in part 1, Richard looked at the issue of trust. Today, his attention turns to the internal contradictions of Brexit…

Brexit is going to fail. We know that.

That doesn’t mean that the Quitter side isn’t going to be able to take Britain out of the EU. Although the internal contradictions have been a big part of what has kept us in – and way past first Mrs May’s leaving date and now Boris Johnson’s leaving date, both of which were set in stone, both of which went past without us leaving – we have to face the possibility that if the Tories win, or possibly even if Labour win the 2019 General Election, we will finally leave the EU, either in January 2020 or later.

But we can be sure that the promises made by the supporters of Leave and the Vote Leave campaign will not, cannot be fulfilled.

Because to govern is to choose, but the heart of Brexit is a refusal to make the difficult choices over what Brexit Britain wants.

Some three-and-a-half years after the Referendum campaign there is still no clear consensus on what Brexit actually means. The fatuous slogans “Brexit Means Brexit” and “Get Brexit Done” cover up this key indecision at the heart of Britain’s government and the Leave movement itself.

While there are almost as many Brexits are there were voters, with Vote Leave’s Cambridge-Analytica-driven campaign customising a Brexit to virtually each voter, it’s clear that among them are three big strands:

  • First, the Faragist “no immigrants” Brexit.
  • Second, the sovereignty-first “take back control of our laws” Brexit.
  • And third, the deregulate everything economy Brexit (often linked with the “no deal” or “World Trade Organisation Terms” brands, although those things do not necessarily lead to deregulation).

It ought to be obvious at a glance that these three are all incompatible. We cannot deregulate and at the same time highly regulate our migration. We cannot take charge of our own laws and at the same time sign away sovereignty to the WTO or to Trump in a UK-US free trade deal.

To avoid this contradiction, government and Leave spokespeople pick one and pretend all Brexit is about their one. The media complicity in this, by setting any “debate” between Remain and one-at-a-time versions of Brexit, has left Remainers struggling to land consistent blows when fighting this many-headed hydra of a Brexit.

But this has also meant never requiring the Leavers/government (now indistinguishable) to resolve the internal “which Brexit do you mean” argument, which is the root of the dither and indecision that has kept us in. Boris Johnson personally, and his faction, are far more to blame for this than “neutral” Labour or pro-Remain Liberal politicians.

To be clear, all the different Brexits lead to a worse economy.

Farage’s xenophobic pipedream of stopping immigration is the most obviously immediately damaging. Britain has near full employment and needs both high-skilled and low-skilled people to fill jobs that make our economy grow. Brexit – and the Tories cack-handed hostile environment efforts to cut immigration to the tens of thousands – has already damaged the NHS, agriculture, industry and tourism.

The false patriotism of “sovereignty” was championed by out-of-favour scoundrels like David Davis.

The term “Sovereignty” is originally French, meaning that one person (the King, hence Sovereign) maintains the law by being above it. I do not think many people who champion sovereignty really meant that, or even understood it. Theresa May’s formulation was about “making our own laws”, as though being part of the bodies that decided together the laws for the EU we were somehow not making our own laws.

Making our own laws different to other countries weakens our ability to trade. Exporters will have to operate to dual (or many) standards. Importers might prefer not to bother, or will charge more for the extra trouble. The wheels of commerce grind just that bit more slowly.

People decrying the EU as an exercise in red tape forget that it was replacing twenty-eight exercises in red tape.

Far from sovereignty setting our rules “above” others, they are actually diminished. By not sharing the making of the rules, we end up having to argue under rules set by our opponents when it comes to negotiating trade deals, and we will get poorer deals as a result.

Sharing our sovereignty with the EU made us big players on the World scene. China, India, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation all listened to us; now they do not. Our power is diminished by Brexit. Now, we have fewer allies.

What’s more, We had a reputation for stability and wise counsel, that gave us “soft power”, now beyond our reach. To the rest of the World, Brexit looks foolish, and makes Britain look like fools. And the hostile, indeed petulant way the government conducted Britain’s side of the negotiations, has made us look horrible and stupid. Our reputation is gone and we are weaker because of Brexit.

Faced with every road leading to ruin, the government prefers to make no decision at all. Adding to the uncertainty that has slashed investment and confidence, and repelling EU citizens who are currently a vital part of our working population.

My suspicion is that Johnson just doesn’t care, because personal aggrandisement rather than actual policy is driving his own agenda.

However, his government has some kind of direction, and it is probably the Redwood/Rees-Mogg fantasy of a neo-Thatcherite new economic miracle. The phrase we usually hear associated with this is creating a “Singapore-on-Thames”.

But since that is the most wilfully ignorant of the lot, it’s going to need a whole essay of its own.

To be continued…

[In Part 3: Brexit is based on a false premise; the real economic miracle is people]

* Richard Flowers has been a Party member for 20 years. He’s campaigned in many an election, stood as a local councillor, and Parliamentary candidate, was Chair of Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats, and in 2020 will be Liberal Democrat candidate for the Greater London Assembly constituency of City and East. Thanks to Liberal Democrats in government, he is married to his husband Alex Wilcock. He also helps Millennium Elephant to write his Very Fluffy Diary.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Mark Seaman 28th Nov '19 - 9:10pm

    ‘Britain has near full employment’ !?! Please head back to planet Earth! There is substantial under-employment and many zero hours contracts, but as that is partly a result of economic migration, I guess you will ignore that 🙁

  • Yousuf Farah 28th Nov '19 - 10:47pm

    Thank you Richard Flowers for making these articles, however much the Revoke policy has screwed us over in this election campaign, you are making a very profound and true case that we were right to come up with it in the first place, and then stand by it, however unpopular it is. I think, as time goes by, and the full consequences of Brexit manifest themselves to everyone, people will look back and realise that we were right, and that we were putting the national interest first unlike others.

  • Stephen Booth 29th Nov '19 - 5:13pm

    It’s the sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ arguments that looks so crass. Every time we we sign a trade deal or a treaty we lose a little sovereignty. We had to go to the aid of France and Poland in 1939 and so on. Just take a trip to:

  • A good response to “let’s take back control of our laws” is that we already make the laws that other people follow. Britain was a principal architect of European law, and had a leading role in the EU. Problem is that nobody has articulated the huge benefits of EU membership, despite this info being readily available. Actually with both the government and the opposition leadership being in favour of Brexit, plus most of the national press, it is really surprising that Remainers have advanced as far as they have.

  • Nigel Jones 29th Nov '19 - 8:06pm

    Richard is right to say that on the economy and business we can never be completely sovereign if we wish to trade significantly with other countries. Yet we are sovereign even within the EU for most of our laws, because we make our own decisions on Defense, Health, Education, Welfare, Criminal Justice, Policing, Local Government, Transport etc.. and even most things on taxation and budgetting.
    Again, only around 0.7% of the tax we individuals pay goes to the EU; so 99.3% is used by our own government.

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